There is a saying, even a song, about my hometown: “Barcelona has power” or “Barcelona tiene poder” in Spanish — meaning, Barcelona is a city that is strong because its people are strong.
Every time I try to remember Las Ramblas, the famous mile-long pedestrian street that lies at the center of the Spanish city of Barcelona, my mind can’t quite conjure a clear picture of the place that I have walked through a thousand times. I should be able to, after all. I am a Barcelona native who has just returned home to Long Island after some time away in Spain. Instead, my brain is assaulted by the pictures and videos of the horrible and painful terrorist attack there last Thursday where at least 15 people from several different countries were killed and more than 100 wounded when a van mowed down pedestrians for almost half a mile.
The blood, the chaos, the bodies, the screams, the deserted streets, the police and paramedics, the flying newspapers, the fallen strollers…these are the images that are seared in my retinas and have been, at least for now, superimposed on my memories.
The iconic spot where millions of people from all around the world gather to grab some quick, overpriced tapas, smoke a cigarette at one of the many cafes’ terraces, where fans celebrate the triumphs of Barcelona’s soccer team, where friends and lovers meet at the Fountain of Canaletas, where you can catch the train, the subway, the bus, where you can feed the doves, buy some flowers, listen to some street music, promenade while admiring the architecture or the living statues, the place that for me seems immutable to time, the perennial, quintessential Barcelona destination, home of tourists and locals alike, that place… has forever changed in my mind.
Will it always be like this? This feeling of something sacred and pure that has been stolen, violated, altered? This rage and impotence, this broken moment in time? Is that the feeling of millions of people around the world that have experienced an attack in their cities, in the middle of the most mundane of places and the most ordinary of days?
I thank God my family and friends are well and safe. It turns out fate, as cruel and capricious as it can be, had my family at the exact spot where the attacks happened an hour before that van crashed into unsuspecting tourists. But, and this is where my eternal gratitude stems from, my family decided not to stay there, instead leaving the area to visit some other family members. I don’t know what could have happened and I choose not to go down that road, but for so many others that fraction of a second, those few extra steps were in essence the difference between life and death, relief or pain. It is inevitable to think of the fragility and vulnerability of our common humanity in the face of so much loss and horror and in such a short amount of time.
I know too that Las Ramblas is no stranger to death and pain, even if I am too young to remember. As with any other European city, Barcelona has a long history of war and violence, reconstruction and gilded eras. Even terrorism. But. Like so many other cities and places that have been attacked in the past few years in this new wave of urban terrorism— Madrid, New York, Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, Quetta, Damascus, Manchester, the list is too long — Barcelona’s people are united. Although grieving, they will overcome and live again and Barcelona will continue to be the cosmopolitan city full of people from all around the world. Already, within hours of the tragedy, the trail of horror marked by the van was covered in flowers, candles and notes. Within days, several vigils and marches for peace had taken place. Another march, this time with government representatives and several other dignitaries will take place this coming Saturday.
In the meantime, the cafes have reopened and the tourists continue strolling up and down Las Ramblas. Law enforcement has inevitably increased — the new reality in these dangerous times. However, there is no greater testament to the resilience of Barcelona’s people than to go back to normal life, business as usual. No greater triumph than to keep on living.
And although it is hard for me to be so far away from my loved ones and to see Spain in so much pain, I have experienced an outpouring of love and support from my friends here on the East End that has buoyed my spirit and eased the grief. This other home of mine, so far away from Barcelona, but so similar too because of the diversity of its people, has reminded me of one common truth that transcends nationalities and unites us all: love is universal and hate will not win.