American Ignorance: How Much do Americans Know about Spain?

How much does your average American know about Spain?

Probably very little.

Are Americans all ignorant? Well, that’s a longer story, which I’ll tell here.

Let me speak from personal experience…

I’ve been here for 12 years now. And a lot of people tend to ask me why I chose to come to Spain and what I knew about it before I arrived.

Why is a long story, which I tell here.

What I knew is much shorter, because I always have to admit, somewhat apologetically, that I knew absolutely nothing.

Yes, I moved halfway around the world without having any real idea of what to expect. I didn’t even really have an opinion or a mental image of Spain.

I had spent about a week here, travelling from city to city, and I liked the feel of it.

That was enough.

Also, I was young, stupid and idealistic, and moving to Spain was just one of a long series of bad ideas I had in my teens and early twenties – a bad idea that actually turned out surprisingly well, in retrospect.

Anyway, how much do you really need to know about a country in order to catch a plane?

You learn much more spending a couple of weeks somewhere than you ever would reading books or travel blogs. (This was 2004, so we didn’t even have travel blogs. I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and called it a day.)

Of course, I did learn some Spanish before coming. Which was an adventure in itself.

Wanna know about American ignorance? Read on…

Perro Pepe and elementary school ignorance

I remember quite clearly that my first introduction to the concept of Spain was in elementary school Spanish class.

It was during the Barcelona Olympics.

I guess that was 1992, so I was about nine at the time. Our teacher showed where Spain was on a world map – tiny speck south of England, basically – then briefly explained that in Spain they spoke Spanish and that it had 50 states just like the US.

Then she went right back to teaching us useless vocabulary like hipopótamo, jirafa, and elefante. 

That was it! No Spanish history, nothing.

(And I guess I should mention that I didn’t believe the 50 states thing at all. How were they gonna fit 50 states into such a small country? Turns out I was wrong. They actually do have 50 provinces, which is basically the same thing.)

how much do americans know about Spain?
Spain: It isn’t just part of Mexico anymore! This is the City Hall (I think) in A Coruña, Galicia.

Anyway, I hated learning Spanish back then because even in my little pre-adolescent brain it was clear that knowing the names of a few African animals in a foreign language was a waste of time.

The teacher didn’t even teach us how to talk about anything we might find in Arizona, like rattlesnakes or teddybear cholla. It was all so abstract and impractical.

(Incidentally, if you think you’re having a bad day, try riding your bike into a teddybear cholla and then spending the rest of the afternoon pulling spines out of your arms and legs with a pair of pliers. You don’t know anything about having a bad day till you’ve done that.)

In any case…

When we weren’t learning how to say hipopótamo and jirafa, we were watching low-budget videos of a fat guy in a dog costume – Perro Pepe – who would teach kids Spanish vocabulary.

You can watch Perro Pepe on youtube, it’s pretty absurd, and probably has more to do with life in LA or Miami than in any actual Spanish-speaking country.

It’s fun, though. Now.

Moving on…

My knowledge about Spain grows very little in the coming years…

In high school, when we learned the history of exploration and the colonization of America, there must have been some mention of Spain, but mostly the teachers talked about what was going on in the Americas or on the high seas.

The names of the Spanish conquistadors, the Armada, all that.

As far as I can remember, Spain as an actual country in Europe, with its own history and culture, was not really a part of the picture.

In high school Spanish class, I remember doing an activity that involved picking out some of the words in Mecano’s classic song Maquillatewhich was a truly awful experience.

Even today I can’t get more than 10 seconds into a Mecano song without wanting to vomit.

Sorry, Mecano.

Sorry, Spanish culture.

famous spanish people penelope cruz and javier bardem
Here’s some Spanish culture for you: the movie Jamón, Jamón. It’s brilliantly ridiculous, and you should definitely watch it.

If the teacher told us anything about Spanish life, history or geography, I obviously wasn’t listening.

I guess I was too busy having hormonal fantasies about getting the fuck out of Arizona and moving to Seattle to become a famous grunge musician, at which point I would be rich, popular, sexually active and totally miserable – a massive improvement over being broke, unpopular, a virgin, and totally miserable.

So, in one way or another, between the Barcelona Olympics and university, I managed to spend 10 years without giving any serious thought to Spain.

Where’s that damn vaseline?

At university, I had a real madrileño teaching me Spanish for a semester. Our homework was usually to go to the video library and watch early Almodovar films.

If you haven’t seen any early Almodovar, well, that’s your loss!

Let’s just say that I remember one film had a gay sex scene with a very young Antonio Banderas (there was some comic relief when his lover has to search around for a tub of vaseline, if I recall correctly), and another film in which one of the characters was a bullfighter.

It ended kind of badly when the two main characters committed suicide in the middle of lovemaking.

Some weird sex and death fetish. Don’t ask.

Almodovar was, perhaps, the worst possible introduction to modern Spanish lifestyles – the films were so obviously surrealistic that all I learned about Madrid or Spain was that a lot of people lived in red brick buildings.


As for the bullfighting, well, I took that as a symbol. I never expected to come over and find that people actually did it.

(The red-brick building thing wasn’t an exaggeration either.)

So here’s the mystery…

How is it possible that I managed to graduate high school and even do “some college” and end up knowing virtually nothing about Spain?

I’m not quite sure! All I can say is that what I remember of my experience in the American educational system is that we mostly focused on ourselves.

The existence of other countries outside the US was an incidental and largely irrelevant fact, and the majority of Arizonians seemed to think that  people in other countries were living barefoot and hungry in little mud huts, or were doing everything they could to emigrate to America for a better life.

It was “common knowledge” when I was growing up that everybody else in the world spent most of their time wishing that they had been born in America…

How was I to know any better?

You can call me ignorant, but the fact is, I think my level of ignorance was completely normal.

Does the average American know anything about Spain?

Probably not.

Does he know anything about any other country?

Not really.

Apparently, How I Met Your Mother did a recent episode in which Ted, as a teenager, travels around Spain. In the course of his travels, he runs into a mariachi band and dances a tango. So obviously, Hollywood isn’t helping to educate anybody.

(Mariachis are Mexican, and tango is Argentinian. Neither of those cultural trends have anything to do with Spain, the country in Europe.)

Check out this screen capture of what I get when I put “Is Spain…” into google for some sort of idea of what people want to know…

how much do americans know about spain?

Yes, there does seem to be quite a bit of confusion about whether Spain is part of Europe or part of Mexico. Vaya.

So how much do I know about Spain now?

After more than a decade living in Madrid, I now know a lot more about Spanish life.

I’ve read some history books, watched some films, learned how to cook some awesome Spanish food.

I’ve read some Cervantes in Spanish, learned some profanity, and travelled around as much as I have been able. Mostly, I’ve just talked to a lot of people.

But I’m far from being “really Spanish” – whatever that means!

And Spanish people will get offended, even now, if I can’t locate their hometown on a map.

These are often the same people who think that Arizona is somewhere in the Midwest, or that the Grand Canyon is in Colorado, or that I’m an asshole for not considering Puerto Rico to be a state.

“You Americans are all so ignorant!” they’ll say. “You don’t even know your own geography, even the most obvious things like the fact that you have 52 states!”

It’s a bit frustrating, but I guess I understand where they’re coming from. Spaniards have spent their whole lives watching American TV and movies, and they at least imagine that they know a lot about the US.

And they think we should probably know an equal amount about them.

Well, sorry Spain. We don’t.

In any case, Spain has a lot of wonderful things, a lot of beautiful places, a lot of history, and a lot of interesting stories to tell.

Check out my viral article 32 reasons why I love Spain for something about that… I love the shit outta this country (if you’ll pardon my French).

Anyway, I’m going to continue writing about Spanish life and some of the cool people, places and foods we have over here.

I hope you all enjoy it!

Ignorantly yours,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Is there anything you’d like to see me write about? Have any comments on my ignorance? Want to give me money? Let me know, right here. Love ya!

P.P.S. See also: Who are some famous Spanish people?

P.P.P.S. Since I wrote this article, some people have pointed out that Spain actually played a large role in US independence – something I was not previously aware of. Anyway, apparently Spain funded the Battle of Yorktown and helped out in some other ways. Check this wikipedia page for more about that. And thanks as always to those who take the time to fill me in on things I don’t know about.


How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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