Tina Parayre: “In the 1960s, the Institut d’Estudis Nord-americans was a little democracy within a dictatorship”
By Marc Amat
Tina Parayre is the former vice-chair of the Students’ Committee of the IEN and worked for nearly 20 years directing the Department of Volunteers at Sant Joan de Déu Hospital. With her restless and energetic spirit, she first set foot in the IEN in the 60s, looking for a way to connect with American culture. She found it. Thanks to her being at the Institut, she was able to apply for a scholarship from the prestigious American newspaper, the Herald Tribune, that brought her to the United States in the middle of the 60s to spend 4 months together with 40 young men and women from around the world. She explains that her time in the IEN changed the way she looked at life.
Your connection to the United States began in a Barcelona where they still spoke very little English.
When I was little, my father had a vision of what would come. At that time, in the 50s, France was the language of cultured people in Europe. However, he saw clearly that the language that would open more doors for me was English, and decided to enroll me in the Marymount International School that was in Barcelona at the time. When I first went in, I did not really speak a word of English and I had a very imprecise view of what the United States was. I really had to work hard. There were teachers at the school that could even understand Spanish. The linguistic immersion was absolute, but I also dived deep into a world that until that time was unknown to me: the culture of America. I learned that there was something beyond the borders of Spain. We followed the news from the United States, celebrated the typical traditions of the country, and they taught us the values that characterized American society. Suddenly, right there in the middle of Barcelona, I began to notice that the United States was my home too.
When was the first time you heard someone talk about the Institut d’Estudis Nord-americans (IEN)?
It was a few years later, when I changed schools because the high school degree offered by Marymount International School was not accepted in Spain. However, at the new school I was missing that contact with the culture of the United States. It was then that I discovered the IEN. To get in, I signed up for an English course, even though my English then was nearly native. I remember that I was the only one who signed up each year, just to be able to be a member. There I was able to reconnect with the United States. Just going into the building you would notice it had a different smell. I always imagined that the country would smell like that.
You did not go to class, but you did take part in many of the activities that were organized by the IEN. What was the Institut like in the 60s?
It was not just a place where people went to learn English. It was, above all, a place to meet people. You made friends, organized parties, you could spend afternoons in the cafe where they sold American products… You learned English there, but you also learned about a culture. We were among the few people in Barcelona who would celebrate Halloween or Saint Valentine’s Day each year. However, the most wonderful thing was that the IEN fused American and Catalan culture together. We also celebrated Sant Jordi. No one was asking you to give up anything.
For many years, you were parts of the Students’ Committee of the IEN.
I always sign up for everything. So, I already had a lot of initiative and I loved organizing things. When I discovered the Students’ Committee, I signed up right away for all the activities they did. They were ideal for practicing English and continue my discovery of American culture. We went on hikes, had lunches, took cultural excursions… We even had a theatrical company! As time passed, I was me who ended up taking charge and promoting all these different kinds of activities.
There was a dictatorship in Spain. Who did the IEN fit in?
The IEN gave Barcelona and its inhabitants the chance to know different cultures at a time when living in a different way was very difficult in Spain. In fact, it brought many surprising things to the city. For instance, we, the members of the Students’ Committee, voted. We published pamphlets with slogans, carried out political events, discussed the program… Without even noticing it, we were a little democracy in the middle of a regime that was still a dictatorship. At that time, that was highly unusual in Spain. Thanks to those votes, I was able to become the vice-chair of the Students’ Committee and to be a member for two terms.
But then in 1967, your life took a turn.
Yes, and the IEN had a lot to do with that. One day, the Institut proposed that I apply for a scholarship provided by the prestigious American newspaper, the Herald Tribune. They were looking for a young person from Spain to go and represent their country in the United States for a four month period. They thought I would be a good fit there. I applied, I passed all the tests, and they gave me the scholarship. I was exceedingly pleased. At home they were not so pleased because I was only 17 years old, but they did understand that it was a great opportunity for me. I was finally going to be able to lay foot on the United States for the first time. This scholarship is one of the most wonderful things that have happened to me in my entire life. It allowed me to live together with more than 40 young men and women from 40 different countries from all over the world. At that time, it was inconceivable. I still have many friends that I made during that experience. I learned how to look at life in another way.
Was the USA like you had imagined it?
The country fit the image I had of it perfectly. It was a place full of innovations: color televisions, the latest home appliances, super modern cars… It was like living inside a movie. For those four months, I lived with a working-class American family, but they have a lovely home, two cars, a garden… It was another world. There, the society was very different. For example, I was very surprised that, on the weekends, the students at the high school would take care of the gardens of their neighbors in exchange for money. It wasn’t off the books. They paid taxes! They had another way of working. In the United States, even today, there is great patriotism. There are people from many different nationalities, who preserve their traditions, but who feel that the United States is a country that they have built together. Nevertheless, while it is true, they had plenty of instruction regarding their internal geography and politics, they knew nothing of what life was in other countries, such as Spain. Of course, many had been to Barcelona and everybody knew it. They especially appreciated the weather, the food, and the culture. Barça and Gaudí have brought the city to the world.
How do you see the IEN today?
Times have changed a lot. Today, the IEN has the chance to be a bridge between Catalan and Spanish culture and American culture. When I become a member, the political, economic, and social context of Spain was complicated. In fact, we could learn things from the United States. Today, the world is different. Now, we too have something to show the United States. The IEN has to keep working to strengthen the cultural connection between the two cultures, who have not yet fully gotten to know one another.