About M. Àngels Cabré

Writer. Director of the Cultural Observatory of Gender

The Barcelonas of Aurora Bertrana

The years of the Spanish Republic were a golden age for Aurora Bertrana, not only from a literary point of view but also for her public activism.

Picture of Bertrana on her return from Polynesia in the early 1930s.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of writer Aurora Bertrana (Girona, 29 October 1892 – Berga, 3 September 1974), a good reason to look back at the woman and her work, both of which have been largely neglected. Those of us who studied books by her father, Prudenci Bertrana, at school never heard her name mentioned.

She was a much-celebrated author during the years of the Spanish Republic, largely because of her travel books. But when she returned from exile in Switzerland years later, a new more troubled phase of her life began. Her rebelliousness and her free spirit did not sit well with the Spain of that time, which was visibly going backwards. She had been educated and found success in Barcelona, and now she was returning as a member of the losing side. Because Barcelona was where she developed her literary career, we can now look back at her work in the context of this ever-shifting city, shaken by the vicissitudes of history.

A girl from Girona in Noucentista Barcelona

Although literature was always her great passion, Aurora Bertrana had musical leanings from a very early age. But Girona soon felt too small to her: “My parents had decided to send me to Barcelona twice a week to take cello lessons and to practice with an orchestra”, we read in her Memòries fins al 1935 (Memoires up to 1935). And as a teenager, she arrived at the Acadèmia Ainaud on Gran Via.

Straddled between the World Fair of 1888 and the International Exposition of 1929, the artistic movement known as Noucentisme was trying to Europeanise Catalonia through common sense, while Modernisme was attempting to individualise it through whimsy. The writer and feminist Carme Karr — friend of the family, Editor of the magazine Feminal and the woman behind several feminist projects — advised her to move to Barcelona and stay at her home for a while, where she was welcomed as a daughter and met notable figures from the arts world, including women like writer Dolors Monserdà and painter Lluïsa Vidal. The young Bertrana was admitted to the Municipal Music School, then run by the composer and conductor Antoni Nicolau and located in the Castell dels Tres Dragons in Parc de la Ciutadella. She was a girl from the provinces who drank in everything she could in a city that was in a process of transformation and a hive of cultural activity.

Later on, her father’s work brought the whole family to Barcelona. They found a flat in the Barri Gòtic, with views of the convent of Santa Clara, where they all lived together. The family was never financially comfortable, and when poverty tightened its grip Aurora’s life took a tumble in the blink of an eye: “We held a brief family meeting and the motion was passed unanimously. That was how I went from being a future concert cellist, a future (great) composer or professor, to being a simple cellist in a women’s trio.”

She studied the cello in Girona, with Tomàs Sobrequés, before moving to Barcelona.

Aurora Bertrana played in the mornings, in a not-so-elegant café on the Rambla de Santa Mònica, and lived alone in a flat in Plaça del Rei. The setting for this new phase in her life was the bohemian Barcelona of the “roaring twenties”. It was then that she started to take an interest in the condition of women and joined the teaching staff of the Women’s Cultural Institute and Public Library, set up by educator Francesca Bonnemaison. She then departed to Geneva to study the Dalcroze Method. She returned as the wife of a Swiss man, Monsieur Choffat, the name by which she always called him.

Long live the Republic!

Aurora Bertrana in Tahiti, where she lived between 1926 and 1929, and where she began her literary career by publishing several very successful travelogues.

Aurora Bertrana and her husband lived in French Polynesia from 1926 to 1929. From that remote corner of the world, she sent travel chronicles to the press, and captivated her readers. Her literary vocation had finally started to blossom. The resulting book, Paradisos oceànics (Oceanic Paradises) was published in 1930 to great success. Following this period, the couple returned to Barcelona and went to live in a solitary old house in Montcada and, later, in a grand apartment on Diagonal.

It was during those years that Aurora Bertrana was at her most radiant, on both a personal and a literary level. She was part of the writers and journalists scene, along with Irene Polo, Rosa Maria Arquimbau, Anna Murià and even Mercè Rodoreda. She was commissioned to write articles, asked to give lectures and was made Chairwoman of Barcelona’s Lyceum Club, an association of women with an interest in culture and the arts, set up in the image of its more famous namesake in Madrid. Her inner feminist came out to society and she proved her political engagement by standing as a candidate for Esquerra Republicana in the 1933 elections, but was not elected. Barcelona was at that time a launch pad for the feminist cause. Women had never achieved such heights of freedom of movement.

In 1934 she published a book of short stories on exotic themes, Peikea, princesa caníbal (Peikea, the Cannibal Princess). The title character has a love affair with a white man and in the relationship it is she, not he, who calls the shots. It is an expression of Bertrana’s role as a spokesperson for women who set their own path. 1935 saw the publication of L’illa perduda (The Lost Island), a young adult novel written in partnership with Prudenci Bertrana. In 1936 her fourth successful book came out, El Marroc sensual i fanàtic (Sensual, Fanatical Morocco), the result of another voyage. In the words of Neus Real, who has studied her work in depth: “Thanks to the press and her books, Aurora Bertrana became one of the most prestigious female voices in leftist circles”.

The aerial bombings of 1938 caught her at home in her flat on Diagonal. The windows shattered and the iron railings of a balcony were ripped out and thrown against the wall of the study, which she had left just a moment before. The only thing for it was to leave the country. In June 1938 Aurora Bertrana, alone, left “a Barcelona in ruins, starving, bombarded and filthy”. Behind her she leaves applause and prestige. Bitter experiences and a decade of nostalgia lay in store for her in Switzerland.

The sad, dark days of post-Civil War Barcelona

Joan Manuel Serrat and Emma Cohen, stars of the film La llarga agonia dels peixos fora de l’aigua, directed by Francesc Rovira-Beleta and based on the novel Vent de grop.

It is highly symbolic that in her memoires Bertrana leaves no trace of her experiences on returning to Catalonia, to the hypocritical Spain of General Franco. Her written testimony pauses in early 1949, when she returns to the sixth floor flat at number 4, Carrer de Llúria where she would live with her mother and aunt, her father now dead. “These last years, I have not lived. It is hard to explain. These are years without any adventure, muffled years, grey years. I have only lived in my writing”, she tells us. This writing, because of the impossibility of having a normal literary career, took on a variety of somewhat erratic registers: Entre dos silencis (Between Two Moments of Silence) and Tres presoners (Three Prisoners) recorded the wounds inflicted by the Second World War; Ariatea has exotic themes, while Fracàs (Failure) reflects societal themes; more sentimental in nature was Vent de grop (Stormcloud), which also found commercial success and was made into a film. Her memoires, 1,000 pages long, gave the perfect closure to her writing.

In 1974, when Bertrana passed away, nobody remembered the teenager who wandered through the Parc de la Ciutadella each morning, carrying her cello, nor the young woman who walked up La Rambla late at night, nor the lady whose literary successes during the time of the Republic became a milestone in women’s social and cultural history. And that is worth remembering.

The Barcelona of women

Photo: Pepe Encinas.
A mother with her child in front of panels advertising women’s fashion in the display window of a large shopping centre on Avinguda Diagonal.

If participation means contributing to the development of a city and not to its planned obsolescence, then the participation of women is still sorely lacking.

Today, Barcelona is predominantly female (about 850,000 women verses 750,000 men), with most women between twenty-five and sixty-five years of age. And for the first time in history, it is a city led by a female mayor, a woman of my generation no less. A symbolic change that will supposedly bring about others, although apparently of a lesser magnitude than in previous times.

In the Barcelona of the 1930s, the time of trams and hats, María Luz Morales was the only woman journalist in the newsroom of La Vanguardia. Then, right in the middle of the Civil War, at the request of the Workers’ Committee, she took the reins and became the first female editor of a national newspaper. Since then, women have progressively gone on to occupy high-profile positions in Barcelona, albeit in fits and starts.

I say in fits and starts because in the not-so-distant year of 1986 not a single woman appeared in the famous photo in Lausanne when Barcelona was named host city of the Olympic Games, an event which changed our image and opened the door to the tourist boom that is now so difficult to manage. Similarly, during the Games, women were very few and far between in many photos of the celebrations and opening ceremony, presided over by the then mayor Pasqual Maragall. It should also be remembered that fewer than 30% of the athletes were women. Like a phoenix, Barcelona rose from the ashes of the period of Spain’s transition to democracy and headed towards the 21st century without women figuring very prominently. And today, does the female majority and the symbolic break with the longstanding androcentric tradition regarding the office of mayor even matter?

During the almost quarter of a century since the iconic year of 1992, we have been exposed to a remarkable dose of what is traditionally known as the “fantasy of equality”. Female Barcelonians, whether natives or adopted (according to the Catalan Institute of Statistics, about 128,500 are of foreign nationality) tread their way through a city where parking is a feat, cyclists are everywhere, but with no kind of control, the tiled pavements of Avinguda Diagonal kill your feet and the city centre smells more and more of fried food. When in the 1970s my uncle from Madrid relocated to Barcelona, it was almost impossible to find a bar in which to have a coffee, while in Madrid they were everywhere. Nowadays in Barcelona there are three or four on every block. And what is more, in tourist areas, girls who are generally soft on the eyes beckon visitors to enter local establishments as if they were peep shows.

A Barcelona full of bars and terraces and filled with both young and mature women. But what do these mothers and daughters who make up the majority of the population actually do? The reality is that they are very under-represented in the local media, and they are also highly under-represented when it comes to the distribution of power. An exception to this latter rule might be the striking case of the Parliament of Catalonia, where 40% of its membership is female, compared to 1979 when women only accounted for 6%.

Given the number of clothing stores per square metre, one might think that about a million women spend their days replenishing their wardrobes or – in view of the large number of businesses dedicated to the art of appearance enhancement – getting in shape, plucking their eyebrows or tanning from head to toe. My mother assures me that when she was young clothing options were few, and that going to the dressmaker was not uncommon when the occasion called for it. But when I myself was twenty years old the offer was infinitely more limited. In particular, the low-cost option – which has democratised fashion and, alas, enslaved the female population to an extent that women themselves are probably not even aware of – was not so common. Today Barcelona looks like a gigantic outlet store. “Barcelona, the world’s best shop,” proclaimed a campaign whose slogan was associated with a prize intended to boost local commerce. Some people believe that a city like that would be every woman’s dream, and they may consider themselves to be right: provided that they have a univocally patriarchal way of thinking.

It never occurs to those who think this way that there might be Barcelonian women who would prefer that more uplifting endeavours were more evenly distributed – such as writing books, directing films or having a voice within the media. It is true that Barcelona is a major publishing city, but women only make up 18% of literary prize recipients. It is also a powerful media hub, but women only participate as columnists and commentators, and in a proportion of only one in four. It is also a moviemaking city, but women direct fewer than one of every ten films that are produced. These figures were prepared by the Cultural Observatory of Gender and provide a highly reliable partial portrait, a good mirror of what kind of society we are.

Photo: Pepe Encinas.
An immigrant woman cleaning the window of an establishment in Via Augusta.

The deception of consumerism

This mega-store, mega-football and mega-chill out Barcelona where churches are increasingly empty but Messi is God has obeyed to the letter Lampedusa’s rule that “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. The progressive empowerment of women that one would expect of a modern metropolis has been replaced by vulgar consumerism, forcing our women – subjected to the violence of irresponsible advertising – to believe that they are themselves more than ever been before. And that is why, when darkness falls over our neighbourhoods, flocks of butterflies intent on enjoying the “myth of free choice” appear. With their harmonised appearance – miniskirts, long hair and super high heels – they invade the nightspots until the early dawn hours.

Talking of high heels when thinking of prostitution are part and parcel – excuse the synecdoche. I have not found a single official statistic. Not even ABITS, the agency that works to better the situation of women in prostitution and/or who are victims of sexual exploitation, which in some but not all cases is the same thing, seems to have figures. I grew up in the Eixample, and from our balcony I used to sneakily watch the comings and goings of transvestites and transsexuals who sold their bodies in Passatge de Domingo, near the back entrance to the famous old club El Drugstore. From that time, it didn’t take long for the corners of Passeig de Gràcia and La Rambla de Catalunya to become mirror images of Amsterdam’s red-light district. Today, prostitution occupies other more run-down public spaces, as well as other private ones. It is not uncommon to hear the press comment on the huge increase in demand during the Mobile World Congress and other fairs the way one might discuss the price of petrol. Just what we needed: a mega-whorehouse Barcelona emulating the prostitution-rife town of La Jonquera!

It is clear that the “Barcelona of women” has yet to arrive, and that we are still very far from “The Conquered City” that Jordi Borja spoke of. If participation means contributing to the development of a city and not to its planned obsolescence, then the participation of women is still sorely lacking. How is it possible that it has taken a century for a woman to be named director of the Institut del Teatre and that to date only three women have been entrusted to create the posters for the city’s Mercè festival?

There must be something good about the Barcelona of women for it to have avoided succumbing to radical pessimism. And yes, the good news is that globalisation and new migration flows have tinged the city with an enriching multiculturalism that we could have scarcely imagined a few decades ago. Women mainly from Latin American countries work in the service sector, and it is they who tend our shops, walk with our elderly and care for our children. And when domestic workers get together on their days off, one no longer hears talk of Galicia and Zamora, but of Cochabamba. Pity that we are leaving a city with such a sad future to their daughters, who can only look forward to becoming compulsive shoppers or prostitutes, or both at the same time.