About Gerardo Santos


Strengthening ties, a city policy

Living alone does not necessarily mean suffering from that, but over time social networks are weakened or lost, and people feel increasingly excluded and socially isolated. The situation is worse in the case of women, most of them on low pensions. Barcelona addresses the problem of loneliness among elderly people through public and charitable initiatives.

Photo: Dani Codina

Gathering of Vincles (Ties) users at a café terrace on Passeig de Sant Joan. The Ties programme, which caters for more than 560 people, offers the use of a tablet with Internet connection as a tool to combat social isolation.
Photo: Dani Codina

In 2017, there were 1,410,000 women aged over seventy living alone across Spain, compared with 550,900 men in the same age band, according to the “Ongoing Household Survey” of the INE (the National Statistical Institute) published in April. The same survey indicated that 41.3% of women aged over eighty-five lived alone, compared with 21.9% of men.

In Barcelona there are a hundred thousand people aged over seventy who live alone. To cater for them, numerous programmes and projects have been launched to accompany elderly people with problems of loneliness. For its part, Barcelona City Council is drawing up an ageing strategy to integrate and underpin the work performed so far by the community.

Benita Rodrigálvarez is one of those people. At the age of eighty-four, she is the only person living in her home. She has set up her living room in the small hall, where she spends much of the day. Seated on her comfortable, practical sofa, her feet hang close to the ground: all ready to stand up. She has everything to hand. On her right, on a little doily-covered table, the remote controls and two phones with large keypads. She also has her medicines, some antacids and a cutesy little box of chocolates. On her left, a number of old volumes stand on a built-in bookshelf: 18 Years of Spanish Television, Stamps of Spain and the Holy Bible. The bookshelf also houses a calendar and a small almanac, both with the pages torn out to the current day. And opposite Benita and her sofa, the television stands in pride of place: “The telly’s a good friend,” she says. The adverts are on right now. Many of the ads suggest that to be happy you have to consume, produce, travel and discover sensations, be radiant and, above all, surrounded by people.

Montserrat Suriñach graduated in anthropology and teaches geriatric nursing as an associate lecturer at Barcelona University. She also practised as a geriatric nurse for around twenty years. Her opinion is that our society has a taboo about everything that isn’t young and beautiful: “What old age teaches you is that life also has another side. Death, vulnerability, decrepitude and dependence are elements we don’t want to see in our society, and so we turn a blind eye to them,” she believes.

You might be always surrounded by family or friends, or in an old people’s home, and feel lonely. Or be alone, but not feel that loneliness. And so quantifying unwanted solitude is difficult. According to the municipal population register, on 1 January 2016, there were 102,528 people aged over seventy living alone in Barcelona. The 2016 “Public Health Survey” reveals the following figure: 10% of people aged over sixty-five say they do not have anyone to talk to about their personal and family problems as often as they would like.

Such situations, the World Health Organization warns, advance the onset of mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Reclaiming the street

For Benita, after nearly seventy years married to a man who would not let her go out of the house with her female friends, becoming a member of the “Head Down to the Street” programme and meeting her first volunteer, Íñigo, really cheered her up: “I remember the first day we headed outside, and I was in my tank [her wheelchair], and when he hailed the bus and asked for the ramp… My, oh my! I thought I would never get on a bus again in my life”. Every Tuesday, two programme volunteers come to pick her up at home. They help up and down the stairway of the building with a mechanical chair, as there is no lift. It is a small flat on an alleyway in Barcelona’s Born district, near the Triumphal Arch.

Photo: Dani Codina

Benita Rodrigálvarez, a user of the “Head Down to the Street” programme, in her flat near the Triumphal Arch, where she lives completely alone, the age of eighty-four. Being able to head out onto the street and meet the programme volunteers completely changed her life.
Photo: Dani Codina

“Head Down to the Street” was set up in 2009 as an initiative of the Poble-sec Community Organisation Coordinator as part of the neighbourhood plan, because of the problem they uncovered among the older people in the area suffering from reduced mobility, and mostly living in old buildings with no lift. The programme is now funded by the Barcelona City Council Health Department, and has been run by the Red Cross since the City Council and the charity reached an agreement in 2013. “Head Down to the Street” now covers 24 neighbourhoods in the city.

The volunteers take Benita to the Old People’s Day Centre (or “to school”, as she says). Benita loves playing the card game cinquillo and has taught all the other women at the centre the rules, but admits that she has kept the winning strategies (“the tricks of the trade”) to herself. They also go to the bank (she has to turn up every five months to prove she is still alive and continue receiving her pension) or to the hairdressers, and says she is really going grey now. Begoña de Eyto, the coordinator of the “Head Down to the Street” programme comes with us, and tells Benita not to worry, that grey hair is all the fashion these days. Benita cracks up laughing. She says she was born laughing. Later, out in the street, Begoña explains that because Benita is so stubborn, she sometimes goes out on her own without the organisation’s help. When asked how she gets up the sixty stairs back to her flat on her own, Begoña replies that she climbs up on all fours, using her hands.

Life stories shape the feeling of loneliness in the final stage: old age. Benita left her job at a shoe shop on Carrer del Call when she was 14, to look after her mother who fell ill. When she died, a few years later, she got married. She looked after her husband all his life, until in the final years she had to get him out of bed, out of the bath, lift him up off the sofa. And in the end she did her back in.

She doesn’t go to bed until dark: “At night, as I go round closing the windows and turning the lights off, I feel that everything is so sad… and that I’m all alone. But then I think that at least Benita [in other words herself], who has always looked after everyone, now has someone looking after you. It’s a silly little thought, but it gets me by,” and she gives herself a couple of kisses.

Begoña explains that when “Head Down to the Street” learns of a user who is feeling lonely, they make the effort to forge ties, and “make sure the volunteer and user establish an emotional bond”. They have eighty-four people signed up to the programme. As Begoña says, “it might not seem like a lot, but it’s a huge impact on the users

Flowers before bread

Berta Méndez has just turned ninety. She lives alone in a flat on Travessera de les Corts which luckily for her does have a lift. She has had a hip operation, and recently had a fall at home and broke her coccyx: “If it weren’t for Reyes, I wouldn’t leave the house”. Reyes Carles is aged 72 and has lived alone for the last four years, since her husband died. She is a volunteer at the Friends of the Elderly foundation: “I would pay to do it, but hey, it’s free”. For two and a half years now, Reyes has gone every Tuesday to pick Berta up at home: “What you have to do as a companion is be empathetic. Not treat people like they’re children, but respect them and establish bonds of friendship,” Reyes explains.

Photo: Dani Codina

Reyes Carles, a Friends of the Elderly volunteer, with Berta Méndez, who she has been picking up at her home in Les Corts every Tuesday for two and a half years. Reyes also lives alone.
Photo: Dani Codina

Josep de Miguel teaches the Master’s Programme in Social Gerontology at the UB (University of Barcelona) and is the director of Inforesidencias.com, a website that advises families looking for an old people’s home for their relatives: “As a general rule we’re not good at looking after elderly people, maybe because we have never had 18% of the population aged over sixty-five,” Dr de Miguel says. “And so we tend to infantilise them, as those are the only behavioural patterns we associate with caring: looking after children”.

Berta holds on to Reyes’s arm to cross the wide pavement on Travessera de les Corts: “I’m scared of falling,” Berta says. When asked about her relationship with Reyes she continues: “She’s given me a new lease of life. We go for a little walk and tell each other things. She knows all about my two children, my four grandchildren and my four great grandchildren”.

As well as chatting, and searching the neighbourhood shops for the best camphor to treat the shawls she has had since time immemorial, Berta says that what she most enjoys is sitting by the window, on the two cushions that help her to stand up again afterwards, with the television on, watching the people come and go at the Lidl they have just opened opposite: “I see people come out, and I like to imagine what they bought, why and who for”.

Friends of the Elderly offers companionship to nearly a thousand other people, living both at home and in care, throughout Barcelona. “Flowers before bread would be the motto,” says Albert Quiles, the Managing Director of the organisation. “Emphasising the emotional, relational, even spiritual side, to avoid a person’s social demise”.

Political approach

Albert Quiles warns that they are short of data. Specifically to provide tools, Friends of the Elderly set up their Loneliness Observatory a year ago, to mark the organisation’s thirtieth anniversary. “Meetings, conferences and working parties to understand the relationship between loneliness and the different points in a person’s life, poverty, gender and migratory movements, and to understand better how the problem will evolve in the future,” Albert explains.

21% of Barcelona’s population is aged over sixty-five. By 2030, once the children of the baby boom have become the old folk of the baby boom, in Barcelona one in every four people will be more than sixty-five years old, according to city council forecasts.

Given the lack of data to analyse the problem, and the numerous different services and schemes, the council’s social rights department has been devising an ageing strategy over the course of the year: “Our focus is on an intergenerationally complex city in 2030, with gender justice, and that cares for the different stages of life,” says project leader Natàlia Rosetti in summary. “And so we have to integrate all the services and policies that currently exist”. The strategy, which aims to list what is already being done, and define what needs to be strengthened in the short and long term, sets out proposals such as the reorganisation of the remote assistance service to achieve a more personalised relationship, home refurbishment (since lifts cannot be installed in all buildings), or the integration of community and healthcare services.

The feeling of loneliness cuts across all sectors, but the risk factors of social isolation are more connected with class, gender and origin. Natàlia describes the profile they have managed to draw up with the limited data they have available: “Women who live alone, with no family or whose family lives a long way away. And also migrant men and women. They tend to rent rather than own their homes, have a lower income and limited education, which deprives them of the tools to seek out information, and so increases their isolation,” she recounts.

One of the many initiatives that will be needed to help link up the forthcoming ageing strategy is the Radar project. Founded in the neighbourhood of Camp d’en Grassot ten years ago with the aim of bringing the city council’s social services into closer contact with the general public, it has now built up as many as 1,063 users, 78% of whom are women, with 653 of them living alone. Rosa Rubio is the leader of a project that this year, its tenth, will have established a presence in fifty-three neighbourhoods: “Radar is based on citizen engagement and contextual empathy for older people,” he explains. It is the radar network (agents such as neighbourhood bodies, public services and resources, as well as local residents, pharmacies and shopkeepers) that keeps an eye on whether people living alone are all right, if there has been any change in their routines: “The neighbourhood is the smallest unit of action for older people, and so our aim is to create social ties through a personalised response”.

Right now, 1,244 shops, 527 pharmacies and 1,571 local residents belong to the project’s radar network: “When they report, a group of professionals evaluate the medical situation, and others maintain contact with the user,” Rosa explains. And as she points out: “Always the same volunteer, to create and maintain the bond”.

Chatting and sending memes

The youngest of the projects in this regard is known as Vincles (Ties). The pilot scheme ended in March 2018, and it now covers more than 560 people. The initiative won first prize at the Mayors Challenge 2014, a competition funded by the Bloomberg foundation that aims to “encourage cities to develop innovative ideas”.

The aim of the Ties project is to use a tablet with Internet connection as a tool to combat social isolation. By the end of this year they will have staged more than a hundred and fifty workshops to familiarise users with the tablets and the Ties app. The idea is that they relate to one another through a messaging system, and with the social fabric of the city through the social and cultural agenda that the app provides. The monitors suggest activities to the users, and also look for activities where they can accompany them. Sometimes just meeting for a coffee is enough.

Six Ties users meet up one morning in May at a café terrace on Passeig de Sant Joan. Many of them were strangers before they discovered the project. They drink different types of decaf coffee and chat, talk about their lives and their worries, such as one of them who lives on Carrer de València and Castillejos, and another on Provença and Lepant. They say that they don’t know anyone who lives in their buildings, that they are all tourist apartments, and recall that they were born in the house where they still live.

A couple of them have brought their tablets, and take photos of the gathering which they share straight away. They discus with irony and affection the photos of the breakfast that a fellow user uploads religiously every morning, and joke about a somewhat shocking meme showing someone throwing a bouquet of flowers into the crowd at a funeral, with the text: “Who wants to be next?”. They laugh heartily at that one. At the end of the day, they meet up to do what everyone does: to share their troubles and joys, to gossip and socialise. They don’t need much more than just not to be alone.

The Barcelona City Council remote assistance service helped more than ninety thousand people last year, women in 72% of cases. The technical staff equip the homes of elderly people who live alone with a device that connects directly to a switchboard by phone, and also by pressing the red button on a pendant that they have to wear at all times, or simply have to hand. Thanks to the pendant, her “medal”, Berta was able to notify them and they sent an ambulance when she fell and broke her coccyx. Nonetheless, most of the calls they receive at the remote assistance switchboard are not emergencies, but instead start with the words “no, no I haven’t had an accident… I pressed the pendant by mistake…”

A tale of urban warfare

Neoliberal policies have transformed traditional urban spaces for socialising, which have been taken over by mercantilism. Gentrification, far from being neutral, is in fact a process that is defined in terms of class and therefore of conflict.

Photo: Vicente Zambrano

Two juxtaposed Barcelonas: in the background, Diagonal Mar, built in the last years of the 20th century at the same time as other urban and economic development areas like the neighbouring 22@ technology district, and in the foreground the city in the first half of the same century.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

In a chapter called ‘Fizbo’ in the American television series Modern Family –a portrait of family roles in American society, made up as progressive-minded but tightly subjected to order–, the character Phil Dunphy (nuclear family head and real-estate agent), talking directly into the camera, thereby demolishing the fourth wall, says ‘I am brave. Roller coasters? Love ’em. Scary movies? I’ve seen Ghostbusters like 7 times. I regularly drive through neighborhoods that have only recently been gentrified. So yeah I am pretty much not afraid of anything.’ Over and above the obvious element of comedy in his words, the reference to ‘gentrification’ is ideologically significant. Dunphy isn’t afraid of driving (not walking, driving, with the windows of his SUV rolled up) through a still stigmatised area that has only just been gentrified (aburguesada, according to the subtitles provided for the chapter by the Neox channel), which we understand to mean rescued, revitalised, regenerated.

Gentrification is a term derived from the root ‘gentry’ (the social class just below the British nobility). It was first used by the sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to refer to the influx of middle-class households, many of them returning from the suburbs, to inner London working-class neighbourhoods. Gentrification is therefore a process by which a neighbourhood replaces the population inhabiting and using it with another social group, with higher purchasing power, who will inhabit it and use it, bringing about a change in its appearance and in the businesses that sustain the neighbourhood itself. However, this definition sounds very neutral and gentrification, far from being neutral, is in fact a process that is defined in terms of class and therefore of conflict. José Mansilla, an anthropologist and member of the Observatori d’Antropologia del Conflicte Urbà (OACU, Anthropology of Urban Conflict Observatory), says ‘The intention, sometimes by action and sometimes by omission, is that neighbourhoods should change and that they should do so to attract social groups with ever greater purchasing power’.

As far as Phil Dunphy’s interests are concerned, gentrification has positive effects. The same goes for large investors, who make large amounts of money, and even for the new residents, who benefit through identity distinction, as the authors of First we take Manhattan. La destrucción creativa de las ciudades (ed. Catarata, 2016) explain. And I reproduce a quote the authors themselves (Daniel Sorando and Álvaro Arduna) use: ‘One’s residence is a crucial, possibly the crucial identifier of who you are.’ (Savage et al., 2005: 207). Would you like to live in Gràcia or in up-and-coming Sant Antoni? Normal, it’s cool. Are you cool?

Gentrification processes, though, are very costly for the traditional residents. In the best of cases they stay in the neighbourhood, but facing more expensive rental contracts. From 2013 to 2017 the average rent in Barcelona went up by 27%. In some neighbourhoods, more than 60%. If they can’t stay, they leave quietly in what Irene Sabaté, spokesperson for the Sindicat de Llogaters (Tenants’ Union), calls ‘invisible repossessions’. A lot of them moved to the outskirts, but prices have skyrocketed there as well: ‘This is now a metropolitan problem and it affects municipalities like L’Hospitalet de Llobregat’. Because of its proximity to FC Barcelona’s football ground and the arrival of the L9 metro, some of the magazines that point out how fashionable the working-class neighbourhood of Collblanc in L’Hospitalet has become have renamed it ‘Coolblanc’.

In First we take Manhattan. La destrucción creativa de las ciudades, gentrification, this process of creative destruction, is broken down into four stages, namely neglect, stigmatisation, regeneration and mercantilisation: ‘An urban intervention that is usually accompanied by a low-intensity war against the poor’, we read in the book. To follow these four stages, we can look at the example of the Barri Xino/Raval. The neglect begins when a historical neighbourhood like this gets progressively run-down for lack of sufficient upkeep or services on the part of the administration. Some of the resident population gives up and leaves for other neighbourhoods in the city which, while not so cheap, do perhaps have more conveniences to offer. Neglect is followed by stigma, the underclass is demonised, neighbourhoods are reviled as ghettoes and the blame is put on the poor. Empty homes are gradually occupied by social groups of very limited means, who while lacking in income do lead and capitalise on urban struggle to demand better living conditions.

This is the moment (when prices reach rock-bottom) for buying cheaply. Homes still empty from the period of neglect begin to be repopulated by social groups with higher incomes. The ‘regeneration’ begins. This urban investment (which was often public) isn’t used to rehabilitate the most run-down properties and improve the standard of living of their inhabitants (a lift in that 1900 building would have helped people, often women, old people and dependants, the worst affected by gentrification); the money is used to open up the Rambla del Raval (changing the name of the neighbourhood was a good move), or to introduce the Filmoteca or to give the commercial fabric a facelift by opening cupcake shops. All of this eventually pushes up the cost of living in the neighbourhood and the original residents can no longer afford either the increased rent or the price of a loaf of bread (which they can no longer buy at their usual baker’s, but in the pretty cupcake shop or in the latest franchise). Now El Raval is a multiculti place and very ‘in’, where the original residents have to get ‘out’ and the investor who bought cheaply now sells for a fortune.

Starting gentrification is very easy and there’s no need for real-estate speculation to take place. A new metro station or green zone, or simply cheaper rents than in the next neighbourhood can attract new inhabitants with more purchasing power. So is any investment or regeneration potentially the beginning of gentrification? For José Mansilla, it is: ‘Though it doesn’t have to be, so long as the population already living in the area where capital is being invested is protected.’ That calls for longer rental agreements, with measures to protect tenants and more public housing stock.

Without control of rents and public land, the fight by local authorities seems to be reduced to creating intercity networks in support of reversing the situation and demands to government bodies above the local authorities for reforms and new powers. Mansilla, at the OACU, is in no doubt as to how to act: ‘The best way to avoid gentrification is to make sure that people can stay in their home and that they aren’t afraid of being thrown out.’

According to data published by the Plataforma d’Afectats per la Hipoteca (PAH, Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), in Barcelona in the last three years there have been 12,322 evictions, 84% of which directly related to rents. With a public housing stock between 1% and 2%, Barcelona has great difficulty rehousing these residents. The Sindicat de Llogaters is fighting to create awareness as a collective rental subject which, regardless of background, residence and the particular problem, gathers all the struggles and demands of tenants in the city and the metropolitan area.

Irene Sabaté accepts that, although rents go up more in working-class neighbourhoods (where they were lower), gentrification can be clearly seen in the area of the Sant Antoni market, in some parts of Poble-sec, in relation to the changes planned for El Paral·lel, in Esquerra de l’Eixample, with the closure of the Model prison (prices shot up when it was announced), and in Poblenou, as a result of the 22@ technology district and pressure from tourism, as well as the classic case of Ciutat Vella.’ When asked, anthropologist José Mansilla leaves no room for doubt: ‘The whole of Barcelona. The capitalist dynamics of constantly moving values means that the whole city is affected or could be in the short term. This isn’t going to stop…’

Returning to First we take Manhattan, ‘In few processes are the principles of neoliberalism as eloquent as here [in gentrification]’. These policies have been in place in the cities for decades and have transformed spaces for socialising (‘gentrification erodes social life’, says Irene Sabaté), which have been taken over by market practices. It degrades, buys cheaply, invests public money, attracts social groups with more dosh, drives out the poor residents and sells at a high price. Faced with this outlook, there is a resurgence (or a call to a resurgence) of that reviled neighbourhood identity and its unique role as an underclass. Gentrification is as much a global problem as it is a local tale of urban warfare.


Reinventing cinemas

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

It was a Saturday, 29 April 1967, when Roberto Lahuerta Melero went to the cinema for the first time since he’d arrived in Barcelona four years earlier with his family, from Ainzón in Zaragoza. His exhaustive accounts of Barcelona’s cinemas reveal a nostalgic memory filled with infinite gratitude for all the elements of that landscape. A picture that begins in the Turó cinema, where he attended a double feature (La ciudad no es para mí and La carga de la policía montada), but which could apply equally well to a large part of the converted theatres which, as cinemas, provided affordable leisure and cultural settings for the working classes.

Over the following decades, the historical establishments – neighbourhood cinemas and other, classier, first – run downtown cinemas – came up time and again against the challenge of survival: the tastes and habits of the public in matters of entertainment underwent enormous changes and the cinema as a form of leisure or even a lifestyle struggled to adapt to the new facts of life. Throughout this struggle, and over and above the overpowering creeping commercialism, alternative circuits have been established that have allowed new experiences for cinema-lovers while preserving the best of the traditional ones and have even, in some cases, managed to recover the local roots of the old neighbourhood cinemas. We look at this phenomenon through the eyes of some of its main protagonists.


One of Lahuerta Melero’s books – Barcelona tuvo cines de barrio (Editorial Temporae, 2015) – conjures up the old neighbourhood cinemas in terms like these: wooden and/or velvet walls, an elderly lady in the ticket office, uncomfortable, creaking seats, the tap water in the toilets with that taste of chlorine, everyone having their tea or supper among the audience – ‘the pleasure of eating a sandwich and some fruit in between films is something I still miss’ –, loud comments, some wittier than others, about what was being shown, and the vestibules like improvised crèches full of children bored with the grown-ups’ films. Those cinemas were an important sign of identity of Barcelona’s neighbourhoods at a time when, apart from bullfights and football, society had few means of entertainment.

The neighbourhood cinemas worked like second-run cinemas, with double features of films that had already been dropped from the first-run theatres. In those days you could go in at any time, halfway through the film, and wait until it started again to see the bit you’d missed. The large first-run theatres like the Urgell or the Novetats, with seating for more than 2,000 people, had exclusive rights for the province or even for Catalonia. Octavi Martí, Assistant Director of the Filmoteca de Catalunya, remembers that at weekends buses came from all over the country to see West Side Story, for example. Exclusive rights meant that a lot of films stayed for ever in the cinemas, as people always came to see them, which meant that scheduling new releases was blocked.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Octavi Martí, Subdirector of the Filmoteca de Catalunya and curator of the exhibition on show there about the Cercle A.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

The same year that Roberto Lahuerta Melero set foot in the Turó cinema for the first time to see La ciudad no es para mí, Pere Fages and Antonio Kirschner decided to launch an idea they called Cercle A, scheduling art films screened in the original language, in ordinary cinemas. They got in touch with Jaume Figueras, who was working as a publicist for CB Films. ‘They were friends of his and knew he was a very good businessman’, remembers Octavi Martí, who is also curator of the exhibition ‘La quadratura del cercle A’, which is being put on at the Filmoteca de Catalunya until 11 February to mark its 50th birthday.

The three partners made a market study to find the best-placed cinemas. The first one they looked at was the Publi cinema, located in what is now the Bulevard Rosa, which they turned into the first repertory cinema in Spain. Until then it had only screened children’s films and documentaries. They were given the evening programme to run and in 1967 they opened with Ingmar Bergman’s Dreams, which was followed by titles like José María Nunes’s Night of Red Wine and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, their first film in the original language and at the same time their first real success.

From there they went on to screen auteur films at various cinemas whose name – except for the Publi – contained an ‘A’: Alexis, Aquitania, Arcadia, Arkadin, Ars, Atenas, Capsa, Casablanca, Maldà. At the Atenas, British productions with social content; at the Alexis, the most intellectually risky films (it was the smallest); at the Casablancas, films for younger people; at the Ars, double features with one old and one modern film; as for the more bourgeois Arcadia, ‘which was in Carrer Tuset, they put on more Rohmer films about married couples in crisis’ explains Octavi Martí, the curator of the exhibition.

They managed to give each cinema its own identity, so that the spectator could go there without knowing what was on, but confident that whatever it was they would enjoy it. Some time in the 80s they premiered a Chinese film, the first in this country for years. It was called Red Sorghum: ‘Completely unknown and hard to sell, it nevertheless drew 10,000 spectators. That was how much weight the Cercle A fan club carried. It wasn’t bad, it ensured production’, says Martí.

In addition, they innovated in the way they advertised the films, especially thanks to Jaume Figueras’s publicity skills. To get more people to see The Hairdresser’s Husband when it had already been on for a year and a half, they decided to invite the director (Patrice Leconte) and the leading actress (Anna Galiena) and put a barber’s chair in the entrance to the cinema. Anyone buying a ticket for the film got a free shave.

The rise of a new spectator

In this way, the Cercle A made a decisive contribution to the creation in Barcelona of a new film spectator. For Octavi Martí it was, in fact, ‘a spectator’s club with its own way of viewing films. A public that read subtitles quite happily and that understood that the cinema has an intellectual value that places it above pure entertainment’. And who got used to being given a film sheet with information about the film and reviews at a time when there were no film courses in universities or schools.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

The director Ventura Pons in the office of his production company. In 2014 he began his adventure of buying a cinema, the Texas, and giving it a schedule and an identity.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Sitting on one of those sofas where your knees are higher than your hips, Ventura Pons answers questions sometimes with few words, sometimes at length. He lights cigarettes that burn away between his fingers and drinks coffee as though it were water. When we ask him about the launch of his first film – Ocaña, retrato intermitente –, he answers at length: ‘I launched it 40 years ago, in June 1978, a few months after censorship disappeared. We filmed it clandestinely and it was like a snowball that grew when it entered the official selection for the Cannes festival’. It made its debut with the Cercle A. Ocaña bought flowers and they decorated the premiere with Manila shawls. ‘It’s a film that’s as if it were made now, because the message is still current’, says the Barcelona film-maker. And he ends his reminiscences with this sentence: ‘Film fixes things; the theatre doesn’t’.

Not long ago, in 2014, Ventura Pons set off on an adventure consisting in buying a cinema and providing it with a programme and an identity. When he was asked why, at this stage in his career, with his life settled, he ventured into this undertaking, Pons answered in headlines: ‘What led me to reopen the Texas cinemas was my commitment to life. My life is the cinema and the cinema is my life.’ A more prosaic explanation is that when he heard that Ricard Almazán was being laid off as scheduler for the Verdi cinemas after 25 years in the post, Ventura Pons saw the light: ‘I spoke to Almazán, now Captain Texas, and we got down to looking for cinemas’.

The film-maker, playwright and author unaffectedly describes the basic element of his cinematographic offer: ‘We haven’t invented anything, we offer re-releases like the ones there were when I was little, second runs, as they call them. They were good, nice and cheap. Three euros admission. What more can I say? All these things make people come back to the cinema.’ And he stops to point out that although they sell plenty of tickets, ‘unfortunately, the money goes to Montoro [the Treasury Minister]’.

Pons has been directing films and plays and writing books for 40 years. As we speak he seems to be in something of a hurry to end the interview. But when it actually ends, he forgets the time and invites us to take a look around with him in a little room belonging to his production company where he keeps original screenplays with his hand-written notes and crossings out – some by the censor, he tells us – and carefully handwritten yellowing family correspondence.

Pons remembers how the film offer and film consumption has changed in Barcelona society. ‘Until the 70s you could distinguish the films by the producer: Metro, Fox, Warner – he checks them off on his fingers. But nowadays they’re all the same. What’s more, they’ve moved audiences out of the centre of the city with the offer in large shopping centres on the outskirts. “Fast cinema”’.

The proliferation of centres equipped with a holistic offer in entertainment for an afternoon of family consumerism is something that comes largely from the United States. North-American society goes almost everywhere by car, it feels uncomfortable out of doors because it’s colder than here, and it’s quite happy to haunt enclosed, sometimes even underground shopping centres, unlike a Mediterranean society like ours, which prefers to walk about, to get out of doors. That business model began to get established in Barcelona in the 80s and was decisive for understanding the change resulting from the success of multiplexes in film consumption.

Photo: Filmoteca de Catalunya

Members of the public at the screening of Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion, the first film to be shown at the Publi cinema in the original language, in 1967, when the Cercle A took charge of the scheduling and turned it into the first repertory cinema in Spain.
Photo: Filmoteca de Catalunya

Cercle A lasted a few years, until 1992. The reasons it came to an end, according to Octavi Martí, can be found in the very success of the project. ‘Other companies also saw there was money to be made and also started screening films in the original version, but not all of them had good judgement or knew how to sell what they were offering.’ The three people behind Cercle A didn’t own the cinemas, they weren’t that ambitious, and when businessmen who did and were started to do business on their turf they were overwhelmed. ‘They began to steal the names that they had managed to make popular’, says Martí. The commercial circuits, with their hegemonic cultural discourse, once again swallowed up an alternative project with their all-devouring market logic. ‘As a global phenomenon, the humanities have lost a lot of weight in general culture. People no longer feel uncomfortable if they haven’t seen a famous film’, says Octavi Martí from a little office at the Filmoteca de Catalunya. ‘Broadly speaking, curiosity has disappeared.’


Television, video and commercial judgement

The phenomenon of neighbourhood cinemas or second-run theatres isn’t so old, although it no longer exists in the form it took until the 80s. The excitement over adult movie theatres after the dictatorship and the recovery of other films that had been censored cushioned the fall in audiences slightly, but subsequent rapid advances in technology and fashions, the universalisation of television – and home video, which lets you pause the film to go to the toilet…– and, to top it all, the dominance of an industry that gave priority to financial returns over cinematographic quality or the social involvement of what was being shown in cinemas, put an end to those neighbourhood cinemas. With them went the chance to go to a double feature and meet neighbours, friends or classmates, as well as those conversations about the film during the week that used to be so common.

According to 2016 figures from the Observatori de Dades Culturals de Barcelona (Barcelona Cultural Data Observatory), which depends on the Barcelona City Council’s Culture Institute, in Barcelona that year there were 173 cinemas – 20 less than in 2010 –, which were used by more than six million spectators – as opposed to seven and a half million in 2010 – with a box-office turnover of more than 42 million euros – six years before it had been almost 55 million. Every day less people go to the cinema.


Photo: Arianna Giménez

Vestibule of the Phenomena, a cross between a neighbourhood cinema and a large first-run theatre.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

‘Phenomena’, a hybrid experience

Nacho Cerdà, manager of the Phenomena cinema, remembers that it used to be possible to walk around the Barcelona neighbourhoods and ‘classify each cinema as first-run theatres, second-run theatres or repertory theatres. Each one had a different offer and now it seems everything has been homogenised in those shopping centres where practically 100% of the film offer is commercial cinema’.

In the same way as the Cercle A – screening in cinemas without owning any of them –, Nacho Cerdà began organising his Phenomena sessions in December 2010 in different Barcelona cinemas. Recovering great classics that have constituted a cinematographic pop culture in the modern iconic imaginary, they began to gain in popularity until in 2014 he opened his own cinema: ‘Every director’s or film-lover’s wet dream is to open that cinema where you can put on your ideal programme’.

A defender of the single auditorium, where all the audience gets together in the dark for almost two hours to watch the same story on the silver screen, Cerdà doesn’t like spectators having to leave by the emergency exit, for example. He feels they ought to leave by the main entrance again. The cinema experience shouldn’t end until you’re out in the street’, he declares. What is seductive about his project is that people should be able to go to the cinema and socialise, talking, having a drink… in short, taking part in ‘that sort of social event that has gradually been lost in the multiplexes’.

The films screened at Phenomena date from the 30s down to our own day. A mixture, as Cerdà sees it, of two concepts of cinema that at first sight seem antagonistic: the little neighbourhood cinema and the large first-run theatre. Recently Phenomena has been putting on more blockbusters than before. It helps to pay for the minority films, the ones that are ‘the apple of my eye’, as Cerdà confesses: ‘On one hand, films from the 70s that 20 people come to see and, on the other, Star Wars’.

Although it looks to the past, Cerdà doesn’t think his offer feeds on cinema-lovers’ nostalgia. ‘No. I’ve heard that argument a few times and I don’t agree. The cinema is ancient, you might think the act of going to the cinema is nostalgic now, but no. Here we just want to transmit the experience of the silver screen, the velvet, the single auditorium, the red carpet’. Cerdà says he often goes into the auditorium to watch the film just like any other spectator. ‘I love seeing how people react to the collective experience of seeing a film at the cinema and not at home’.

To Cerdà, ‘the survival’ (he laughs as he utters this word, as though to take the drama out of it) ‘of some cinemas, like ours or the Verdi, Girona, Renoir, Texas, and even the Floridablanca, has meant that there are people who still see the cinema in this way, as a philosophy’, and he points out that what distinguishes these cinemas from the multiplexes is, once again, trust. ‘Nowadays it’s not just a question of going to the cinema, people go for other reasons, too. These cinemas have a lot of faithful followers who don’t go just for a specific film, but, in general, just to see what’s on’.

It’s not an easy job. Nacho’s aware of the wear and tear involved in running a cinema. ‘You wouldn’t believe how hard eight well-organised people can work. We have to negotiate with distributors, keep an attractive programme going, see to the public and their needs and, of course, cover the expense of maintaining the premises. I can tell you, if I wanted easy money I’d work at something less complicated’, he says, without a jot of regret for the adventure he set out on three years ago.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Xavier Escrivà, who since 2010 has been directing the Maldà alongside Natàlia Regàs. Escrivà began his long relationship with this cinema in Ciutat Vella as a spectator, when he was an employee at the Galeries Maldà, and later, at the beginning of the 80s, as an usher.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

It’s a tough life at the Maldà

Xavi Escrivà’s got everything ready for the session at ten past three. This time it’s the documentary film Kedi – ‘the Citizen Kane of cat documentaries’, according to the publication IndieWire, as the poster points out. As soon as the screening starts, he’ll start the stopwatch hanging round his neck. After one hour, 16 minutes and 47 seconds, Xavi will know the credits are starting and they’ll last two and half minutes, so that the film screening will end when the stopwatch says one hour, 19 minutes and 14 seconds. ‘Before, with the 35 mm reels, you needed two people working in the cinema, one upstairs changing the reels and one downstairs seeing to the audience’, explains Escrivà, and he gets sidetracked by memories of the two cue dots at the end of a scene on the old films, which let the operator know when to make the change. Nowadays, as the films are delivered to his Maldà cinemas on Blu-ray optical disks or on external hard disks, you don’t need two people for each showing, just Xavi with his Geonaute stopwatch.

As an employee back in the late 70s at the old furniture shop in the Galeries Maldà (in Carrer del Pi), Xavi didn’t miss a single session of Friday cinema when he left work in the shop. At the beginning of the 80s he was offered the job of usher. ‘Great! I’ll see lots of films. And what’s more, free’, he thought. Later the projectionist left and Xavi trained for the necessary qualification to become the supreme commander, the man in charge of the screening, a post he took up in the mid-90s. Later he took the crown and began to take charge of the programmes for the cinemas.

So going to the cinema changed his life. ‘Every Friday, when my friends went to see Bud Spencer and Terence Hill films, I came here to see Visconti, Fellini or Bergman’, remembers Escrivà. ‘My friends were amazed, but the thing is the films they went to see said nothing to me. The other cinema, though, got through to me, even though I didn’t understand it at first’.

Escrivà has worked at running a cinema during the worst years films have been through (and are still going through) in our country. He started when people stopped going to the cinema because they now had a television at home. This was followed by the rise of the multiplexes, the ageing of the audiences that still went to first-run theatres (or neighbourhood cinemas, like his), the decline of the independent film circuit, gentrification of neighbourhoods like Ciutat Vella, where the Maldà is, with the subsequent loss of the younger residents, and, more recently, the crisis of 2008 and the increase in VAT on cinemas to 21% (like luxury articles), which was the final blow for small cinemas like his. Even so, the Maldà, which opened in 1945, is still alive: ‘The distributors take 50% of the price of a ticket, 21% goes on VAT, and when you add on what we have to pay the SGAE (Society of Authors), we’re up to 75%. The remaining 25% has to cover electricity, taxes, the three of us who work here…’, explains Xavi, as a drop of worry appears on his brow.

The survival of the Maldà is decided each year, after checking the books and making sure the cinema can stay open at least another twelve months. ‘Four years ago, we took a beating in the months of September, October and December, we had enormous losses. Then we launched the campaign ‘Salvem el Maldà’ (Save the Maldà) and issued patron’s cards and other discounts and we came through’, remembers Escrivà.

The problem at the Maldà is to do with the future of its customers. Years ago, its manager says, both young and old people came to the cinema, but now the typical cinema-goer has aged. ‘Eighty percent of our customer profile is made up of women between the ages of 40 and 60. Audiences aren’t being rejuvenated and that’s a problem’. Xavi insists I mention the Maldanins sessions in my article, for parents to take their children to the cinema. The only future for these cinemas is to get the young ones back.

His audience’s loyalty is an encouragement to Xavi. When he describes how he talks to people about the films he plans to put on or the ones they’d like him to put on, his face lights up and his tongue runs away with him. ‘When I switch the projector off and come down from the projection box, we start discussing the film together’. And once again we see trust at work. ‘A lot of people come without knowing what we’re going to screen, but trusting that whatever it is they’ll like it, and that’s very satisfying’, he finishes.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

The Zumzeig cooperative, in the vicinity of Sants station, is at once a cinema and a bistro. Above these lines, the ticket office and the vestibule.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Zumzeig, a cultural and social tool

Scheduling isn’t easy. Anna Brufau is a partner of the Zumzeig cooperative, a cinema and bistrot in the area of Sants station which as well as offering an impeccable selection of auteur cinema, hopes to become a social and cultural tool for the neighbourhood. ‘Our cinema has to work with the industry, but we want to do so in other ways’, Brufau says. This certainly isn’t an easy target, because, as she explains, to be able to screen films in Spain you have to pay on average about 200 euros a film in broadcasting rights and be backed by a distributor who can take on the costs of communication and advertising, as well as subsidising the rest of the regular costs. The fact that you have to pay the amount mentioned means only those people with money and an infrastructure behind them can afford to screen whatever they feel like.

The films Zumzeig schedules run for longer than at other cinemas. ‘Independent cinema needs more time’, says Brufau. ‘A lot of the films we show aren’t backed by a communication campaign and usually succeed through hearsay. So if it takes three months for people to come and see it, we keep it going that long’. This approach clashes head-on with the industry logic of the film screening business, which works like a bulldozer. ‘What the commercial distributors want – barely four or five of the ones operating in Barcelona are independent – is for the public to turn out en masse for their screenings, and if a title doesn’t work in the first ten days, they take it off and that’s it’, says Anna.

Every week about fifteen films are premiered in Spain. Out of these, Brufau says only one or two are of interest for showing at Zumzeig. ‘And then we might find that of these one or two are distributed by a large company, especially if they’ve been presented at an important festival like Cannes. In that case, our cinema may not be of interest to the distributor’. According to Brufau, it’s getting easier to see these films at the festivals than in cinemas.

And festivals are common and are more and more specialised. One of them that collaborates with the Filmoteca de Catalunya and with Zumzeig when it’s held in Barcelona is the CineMigrante. Set up in 2010 in Buenos Aires as a political and cultural space, ‘it arose from the need to demonstrate that the language of film is also nowadays relevant to the phenomenon of migration’, says Martina Bernabai, a member of the project.

CineMigrante, like Zumzeig, sets out to create shared spaces, especially in a historical context ‘in which migrations and their management by the institutions are a challenge to the construction (or rather deconstruction) of new societies’.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Anna Brufau, a member of the cooperative, before the start of a screening.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Specialisation, though, isn’t the key to a project like Zumzeig, which is working to become a sort of cultural centre for the Sants and Hostafrancs neighbourhoods with the same object as CineMigrante: to transcend the cinema and become an instance of cinematographic but also political reflection that makes itself felt. ‘Specialisation goes against the idea of proximity’, says Brufau. ‘Of course, we want people from all over Barcelona to come, but we’re working to weave cooperation networks with other organisations in the neighbourhood, we try to make sure that audiences, art and ideas flow between the associations and, above all, we fight to break down the preconceived notion that these films are difficult to watch for most people in the neighbourhood’.

Working in committees helps. There’s a nuclear group that sees to scheduling and different committees with the time and the tranquillity to work on other important aspects of the project that call for fresh, creative ideas, such as the best way to educate people to combat the snob stigma of independent cinema, or the neighbourhood committee, which is directed at establishing relations with organisations and residents.

This philosophy of ‘neighbourhood construction’ is what the Zumzeig collective have tried to bring to the project in the last year, since they’ve been operating as a cooperative. Its owner, Esteban Bernatas, opened Zumzeig in 2013 and three years later he transferred the rights of use to the present cooperativists and retired to live in Paris. When asked about his models when he opened the cinema, Bernatas mentioned the ‘cultural exception’ that exists in France as compared to Spain. There it’s as though culture was part of a public asset that must be protected from an implacable neo-liberalism’. Brufau, on this point, says ‘We don’t want to be just a cinema; we carry out activities as a cultural centre and we show the films we show not for the financial returns we can get from them, but because we feel a duty to show them’. When asked why he followed the French model when he set up Zumzeig, Bernatas ventures that he may have borrowed from it in the type of schedule chosen, but that the idea of having a bar in the cinema is more like Berlin. ‘Although on second thoughts’ – Bernatas had visited his cinema a few weeks before answering that question – ‘I’d say that Zumzeig now is more Santsenc (from the Sants neighbourhood). A good sign.

So long to the Model prison after 113 years (or one day short thereof)

For 112 years and 364 days, Barcelona’s Model prison took in those whom the social and legal ideals of different regimes had cut off from the collective, from that which is deemed acceptable, from the public sphere. Society, either by submission or inaction, accepts a contract: the state protects us from crime in return for the right firstly to decide what counts as crime and secondly to exercise a legitimate use of force and confinement.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Until 10 January 2017, when the Catalan Government and the City Council signed the agreement to close the prison, nobody had believed this closure would actually happen, despite promises from Barcelona’s last three mayors. The Model prison has since been emptied of its prisoners – the last group left in a Catalan police force armoured van on 8 June. Now, for the residents in this part of the city (Nova Esquerra de l’Eixample), the two city blocks the premises encompass represent both an opportunity and a danger, as they watch to see what sort of restoration will be given to this large chunk of their neighbourhood, following four decades of calls for the prison’s closure in order to make way for amenities, green spaces and schools.


Used for pre-trial detentions – for prisoners without guilty verdicts – the Model prison is among the public institutions best equipped to tell us how the city of Barcelona experienced the 20th century. Its detainees have included people who stole (be it to put food on the table, to feed their addictions or just to satisfy their greed), people who dealt drugs (mostly people dealing in small amounts) and people who were at odds with the regime as regards their ideas and/or the political beliefs they expressed.

Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia – educationalist and founder of the Escuela Moderna – was arrested in Barcelona in August 1909, accused of being one of the instigators of the riots and confrontations commonly known as the Tragic Week. On Saturday 9 October he was tried without due process by court martial in the auditorium of the Model prison, and condemned to death for military rebellion. When facing the firing squad in the Montjuïc cemetery on the morning of 13 October, standing rather than kneeling he shouted his final words “Long live the Escuela Moderna!”

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Bulldozers preparing the ground for the portapacks for the Eixample I school last June on the part of the building demolished in 2015.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

The Eixample I school was inaugurated within the grounds of the old prison last September, coinciding with the start of the academic year. Locals in the Nova Esquerra de l’Eixample neighbourhood, having spent decades calling for the City Council and the Catalan Government to close the prison and open schools, amenities and green spaces in its place, now bring their children to be taught where the founder of the Escuela Moderna was condemned to death.

Jaume Asens is the fourth deputy to the mayoress of Barcelona and heads the council’s Citizens’ Rights, Participation and Transparency department. He invokes the words of Victor Hugo, that “he who opens a school door, closes a prison”. The doors of the Eixample I school are not as heavy as those of the Model prison were. Indeed, they are quite a lot lighter, as are the classrooms as a whole, consisting of huts installed in the part of the prison that was taken down under former mayor Xavier Trias in March 2015, on the corner formed by the streets Entença and Roselló. Diggers moved in at the start of July, and after they were done, a mural was left visible on the wall of the prison: “From the Model prison (1904-2017?) to a model for transformation, culture, cohesion, remembrance and neighbourhoods”.

For the Esquerra de l’Eixample Neighbourhood Association, the 2009 Master Plan for the Transformation of the Model Prison, which was designed in collaboration with neighbours and local businesses, remains valid. It envisages the creation of a primary school, a nursery school, a residence and day centre for senior citizens, an activity centre for young people, a sports centre, underground parking, a healthcare centre, a memorial to democracy and a green space – facilities urgently needed by a neighbourhood with almost nothing in the way of parks or schools.

Up until the opening of the Model prison, the city’s largest prison was one located on Carrer Reina Amàlia, in what is now Plaça de Josep Maria Folch i Torres in the Raval neighbourhood. It was a building that historically had been a convent for Paulist nuns, but was used as a prison as of 1839. In conditions of dire overcrowding and unsegregated yards and corridors, there was a mix of women, youths, children, elderly people, men who had been condemned, people awaiting trial, people who were ill and others about to become ill. The Model prison’s first inmates were the men from the Reina Amàlia prison, which continued to function as a women’s prison in dreadfully insanitary conditions up until the Spanish Civil War.

Photo: AFB

The Model Prison, surrounded by fields and empty plots in June 1904, when it was opened, though still unfinished.
Photo: AFB

However, the idea was that conditions in the new prison would be quite different. The Model prison was thus named because it was to be exemplary for its functional excellence. Building works based on the designs of architects Salvador Vinyals i Sabaté and Josep Domènech i Estapà began in 1887, the year before the Universal Exposition, but the prison was not inaugurated until 9 June 1904, and even then it was still unfinished. It was then surrounded by building plots, cabins and smallholdings, some distance from the Eixample district that at that time went no further than Carrer Balmes and would take another thirty years to reach Sants, making the Model an urban prison, the Barcelona jail.

It was the first Catalan prison to use the cell system, i.e. a space for each prisoner to sleep in individually. Furthermore, the Model prison was designed as a panopticon structure, based on the architectural principles of Jeremy Bentham. This meant that the central watch point gave a comprehensive view throughout all six of the galleries, which extended like the spokes of a wheel from the circular ‘hub’ building.

In comparison with overcrowded jails with shared cells, galley slavery or earlier customs of torture and public suffering, Barcelona’s new Model prison would not have seemed so bad. But the improvements were not arbitrary. The constant surveillance, the isolation, the discipline regarding work, meals and timetables, the control over prisoners’ bodies by the staff and the punishment quantified in terms of years sought not only to mould prisoners physically, but also to change them as individuals. As Michel Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish, “It [the prison] must be the most powerful machinery for imposing a new form on the perverted individual; its mode of action is the constraint of a total education”.

For the first time, Barcelona’s prisoners felt the gaze of constant surveillance resting upon them, while also being alone in their cells, unable to talk to anyone – unless they shouted – for hours on end, in a society that was still used to almost continuous verbal communication.

During the initial years the prisoners’ living conditions were not bad, indeed in many cases they were better than they would have expected in their lives on the outside. The Model prison was designed to house around 850 prisoners. The cells were no more than 9 square metres and were for one person, the prison meals provided enough sustenance for the minimal exertion demanded of prisoners in their isolated state, and illness was relatively infrequent thanks to vaccination campaigns and the work of the infirmary. However, this was a situation that would not last for long.

Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

Prisoners at the mass for the La Mercè festivities in 1946.
Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

A group of protestors demanding an amnesty, on the roof of the prison on 19 July 1977.
Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

Political and social repression

As the city grew up around it, the Model prison received fewer and fewer resources to properly look after the inmates, despite being filled more and more densely with an increasingly diverse population. Not many years after it was opened, the regular prisoners began to see alongside them political prisoners – those seen as capable of destabilising the regimes of the time.

The Model prison thus became a symbol of repression and the people of the city began to associate it with government arrests – which required no more than a police order to incarcerate the person targeted – or with the so-called ‘ley de fugas’ (escapee law), an abhorrent trap where a prisoner would be released and then shot in the back immediately upon exiting the prison, under the allegation they were escaping – you can picture the scene at the main gate. After its initial years of being popularly referred to as ‘the tower’ or ‘the Carrer Entença hotel’, within a decade the prison had become one of the darkest symbols of repression, on a par with Montjuïc Castle and Camp de la Bota from the Franco era.

When Franco’s troops triumphantly entered Barcelona, towards the end of January 1939, the prison was close to being empty. But at nightfall of Thursday 26 January Barcelona was an occupied city and the Model prison was its primary detention facility. A special regime of occupation lasted until 1 August, while the state of war announced by the army – which had been led into insurgency against the legitimate Republic three years previously – carried on until April 1948. For those who were defeated, the night of 26 January 1939 was to last almost forty years.

According to a reconstruction of the official figures made by the authors of Història de la presó Model de Barcelona (History of Barcelona’s Model prison – an extensive book published in 2000 and re-edited just a few months ago), at the end of 1939 there were some 12,745 prisoners in the Model, living in awful conditions. The state of the facilities was disgraceful, the list of diseases affecting prisoners was endless, and political repression was without doubt the main reason behind most of the executions, which totalled 1,618.

The extent of prison overcrowding was a cause of concern for Franco’s government, who came up with a system for reducing sentences through work. Prisoners who were not guilty of violent crimes and demonstrated good behaviour could work on the outside or in the prison’s workshops; in exchange they received a small amount of pay and a reduction in their sentences of one day for every two days worked.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Above, Gabriel Gómez remembers his father Helios’s stay in the Model prison. Helios Gómez was an anarchist illustrator, painter and poet who painted the murals in the so-called Gypsy Chapel, reproduced below for the exhibition ‘La Model ens parla. 113 anys, 13 històries’ (La Model talks to us. 113 years, 13 stories).
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Intellectual redemption

One afternoon in 1948, the driver for the Minister of Employment (José Antonio Girón de Velasco) entered the Arnáiz art gallery in Barcelona. There he found Helios Gómez, a graphic artist and designer, poet, journalist, supporter of civil liberties and anarchist, together with his five-year-old son, Gabriel. “The guy wore riding boots, a grey suit, silver-plated v-shaped buttons and a huge silver hat. He was like an admiral” recalls Gabriel, in the living room of his home, a room decorated with his father’s pictures and prints. The child was awestruck by the driver’s outfit, he was like a character out of a comic.

The driver took his father to see Girón de Velasco, the minister, who tried to convince Helios to work for the regime, without success. Helios Gómez (born in Seville in 1905) had already spent time in the Model in 1930 alongside figures such as Lluís Companys and Àngel Pestaña; he was also in refugee camps in France and Algeria after the Spanish Civil War and had returned to the same prison between 1945 and 1946. Ten years before, in 1936, he had founded the Trade Union of Professional Draughtsmen of Catalonia, which instigated the poster campaign against Franco’s Nationalists during the war. A document his son Gabriel found in an archive in Salamanca almost half a century later described him as a “prominent left-winger, a spreader of ideas”. Given that he refused to work for the regime, he was sent back to the Model prison a few days later.

Gabriel Gómez remembers the day his father went in; as it was the feast day of the Virgin of Mercy, the patron saint of prisoners, children were allowed in to see their fathers. “They didn’t have beds, just a few mattresses”, he recounts. Although the overcrowding of the prison was down on the 13,000 prisoners there in 1940, there were still over 2,505 inmates sharing its unhealthy living conditions, more than three times the amount the architects had envisaged.

Helios Gómez was sick when he left the Model prison in 1954 and died two years later. Gabriel Gómez has researched his father’s life and works extensively, an exercise that began when he saw Helios mentioned in something written by Teresa Pàmies. This led to him a meeting with his father’s fellow inmates, militants from the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). “They received me very warmly and answered everything I asked them about my father, even though they preferred talking to me about the history of this country nobody used to tell.”

Brother Bienvenido Lahoz arrived at the Model prison in 1941. Serving as its priest, he was a member of the Mercedarian Order and enjoyed holding intellectual debates with the political prisoners. Nevertheless, he also tended to give short shrift to arguments that were not to his liking. Knowledgeable of Helios Gómez’s artistic capabilities, Lahoz asked him to paint a chapel in the first cell on the first floor of the Model prison’s fourth gallery, just next to the cells for those condemned to death. The piece he completed in 1950 has at its centre the Virgin of Mercy – the patron saint of prisoners and of Barcelona, the latter title held jointly with Saint Eulalia – holding Jesus as a child, who has a paper pinwheel in his hand. At her feet there is a group of men in chains and on the opposite wall, where the door is, there is a chorus of angels. The authorities of the time would have liked the work even more had the men in chains not been portraits of his colleagues from the POUM, and if the main characters in the scene, including the Virgen, had not all had features characteristic of gypsies – a people Helios Gómez belonged to.

This space, known as the ‘Gypsy Chapel’, was painted over in white in 1998, while Núria de Gispert was in charge of the Catalan Government’s Ministry of Justice. Later, when Montserrat Tura was at the helm of the same department, the cell was closed off. Now, attempting to look in from outside you cannot even get a glimpse through a crack. Gabriel Gómez explains that thanks to help from SOS Monuments he managed to get in touch with the City Council architect to declare the large central inspection room – which connects directly with the chapel cell – as an element to be saved. Deputy Mayor Jaume Asens has provided assurances that the chapel will be protected, “The plan is to remove the paint that’s covering the mural and to preserve it.”

“We want to offer visual accounts of the suffering that occurred in the Model prison. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about that much, but in reality it’s one of our society’s most terrible places”, Jaume adds. In the process of deciding on future uses of the premises, the proposals on the table include one from the local authorities to create a history centre, and there is an idea from Helios Gómez’s son to permanently establish a museum of political art.

A new generation

Beginning in the 1950s, once the United States and the Vatican started opening the regime’s doors to the world, the Franco dictatorship was unable to maintain the harsh levels of repression seen previously. The political prisoners continued to arrive, but what with the reduced sentences for old-timers as well as remissions for good behaviour, the Model prison gradually became less crowded, going from 8,685 inmates in 1941 to 1,832 in 1955, and continuing with a relatively stable population from then onwards. Those who had been imprisoned in the immediate post-war period were replaced by a new generation, chiefly consisting of younger common criminals and, as of the 1970s, members of political groups that opposed Franco.

The dictatorship continued with its efforts to mould the morals of society both inside and outside of prisons. The 1954 reform of the so-called ‘Law on Vagrants and Wrongdoers’ – a law originally created during the Republican presidency of Manuel Azaña in 1933 – expanded the legislation to include homosexuality to the existing crimes of begging, nomadism and prostitution. Later, in 1970, the Law on Vagrants was replaced by the Law on Dangerousness and Social Rehabilitation, which included activities such as dealing or consuming drugs, the sale of pornography, prostitution, pandering and illegal immigration as crimes that could incur prison sentences. And homosexuals did not benefit from the pardon of 25 November 1975 or the amnesties that came in the two years that followed. The Model prison had inmates who were there as a result of their sexual orientation until 1979.

With Franco on his last legs and the new law in force, the authorities began throwing in jail anyone they deemed to be a social or moral risk: political dissidents, people whose sexual and amorous lives were disapproved of, people suffering extreme poverty, gypsies with no fixed abode and, towards the end of the 1970s, people addicted to drugs. It was during the years in which political prisoners lived alongside regular prisoners that the latter group created COPEL (the Prisoners’ Struggle Cooperative) to demand the same amnesty that the political prisoners had received. Their view was that they had been imprisoned under the laws of Franco’s regime and therefore their incarceration was illegal under the new democratic regime. However, they were not successful. There were prison riots and later on, at the end of the 1970s, heroin was to have devastating effects.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Former prisoner Eduardo Borràs talks in this report.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Daniel Rojo describes his stay in the Model Prison in this report.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Accounts from inside

Daniel Rojo was held at the Model between 1981 and 1983, then again between 1984 and 1989, and finally between 1991 and 1993. He has been teetotal for over fifteen years and claims to have kicked eleven addictions, including heroin. Sitting in the entrance of a relatively fancy hotel near Plaça Molina he explains “those days really were bad; almost all the inmates were junkies and almost all of us had HIV”. With methadone treatments not introduced until the 1990s, the prisoners had to be very resourceful to get their hits. “A needle lasted us a month. We would file them down because with so much use they’d get broken or blocked, and so we had to stick wires in.”

When Rojo was first sent to the Model prison he was nineteen, had already robbed dozens of banks and had plenty to show for it. “I showed up in front of the prison officers with a Cartier gold chain with Dalí’s Christ on it and a Rolex Cadete. They told me to leave it all at the entrance, as inside it’d get stolen. I thought that if I left it there, I’d never see it again, but inside at least I could try to defend myself.” All Rojo wanted was to preserve his status.

He recalls how the prison officers were still very militarised. “High green boots, silver hat, stripes (silver for temporary staff, gold for those who were permanent),” Their relationship with the prisoners was not good. “If you treat a prisoner like a dog, he will behave like an animal”, Rojo summarises. He adds that if prisoners are made to go the toilet in a hole from which rats jump up to bite you, this likewise has a negative effect on behaviour.

The demilitarisation began with the new penitentiary law of 1979 and the handover of control to the Catalan Government in 1984, culminating eventually that decade with the introduction of psychologists, doctors of both sexes (as opposed to just male doctors beforehand) and the implementation of face-to-face and conjugal visits. Going into the 1990s, the introduction of methadone finally brought some calm after the Model prison’s most turbulent years. It was in those years that Jaume Asens began visiting the prison as a lawyer working only for legal aid (“for ideological reasons”, he clarifies). Politicians had then been promising and putting off the closure of the prison for quite some time. “Prison is for the poor; the criminal system has selective tendencies”, Asens points out. For the main part, visiting the prison he encountered poor people, sick people and drug addicts.

Even though the Catalan Government became the main competent authority for prisons, many laws are still made in Madrid. In 1995, the BOE (the Official State Gazette) published the new criminal code, the first in Spain’s new democracy. Since then it has been reformed some thirty times, lengthening sentences and adding justifications for sending people to prison, going so far even as ‘a permanently reviewable prison sentence’. According to a report from 2015 by ROSEP (the Network of Prison-Related Social Organisations), it is getting harder to apply alternatives that favour rehabilitation. In 1975 there were 8,440 people being held as prisoners in Spain; in February 2017 there were 60,203. ROSEP’s report concludes that around 60% of Spanish prisoners are imprisoned for crimes of medium-level seriousness (theft, robbery, drug dealing), offences that do not cause a high level of social alarm and would be better dealt with by measures that did not lock the culprits away.

At the turn of the new century Eduardo Borrás was sent to the Model prison, accused of robbery. There he was at times living in a cell with four other people. After a year and a half he was sentenced and transferred to Brians prison. “In the Model prison you quickly get burned out. Some day the prison officers might come into your cell looking for chocolate, and if they didn’t find any they’d strip you naked, as well as completely messing up your cell”, he recalls. Meanwhile Francesc López, who worked as a prison officer there for twelve years, laments the fact there are still some people who could believe the current officers work like those of Franco’s regime.

What is in store

In January this year, a week after the final agreement to close the Model prison was signed, the owner of the building at 151 Carrer Entença began rescinding the residents’ contracts, saying they would not be renewed and putting the flats up for sale online. Since then the residents have got together and have been protesting to the City Council in search of a solution. The owner has been closing the flats up with metal sheeting each time he manages to force a resident out.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Press conference with tenants threatened by speculation in the vicinity of the Model prison. The man with his arm raised is Joan Gómez.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

There is just one resident whose contract is not temporary: Joan Gómez, who is retired, and who takes care of receiving the media on behalf of the residents’ collective in his small living room on the first floor. There on his table he has laid out all the press coverage they have been given, and with clarity and precision he explains their alternatives. “Either the City Council buys the building – which is unlikely as it’s a private owner and not a bank – or we create a housing cooperative to manage the rents.”

While he sees himself as someone with left-wing politics, Joan and his neighbours had never been such a community until the fax messages started arriving telling them to leave. “I’ve been living here since 1981. For years we’ve been calling for the prison to be closed and now that we’ve got there, a load of new problems come up. Off go the prisoners and down come the vultures”, Joan sums up. Jaume Asens is proposing to combat gentrification by building social housing apartments in the part of the Model prison premises that runs along Carrer Nicaragua, where for a time there was talk of creating a hotel. The neighbours’ associations are voicing their support for this, reiterating that there has to be a greater balance between public and private supply.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

A group of residents having their photograph taken outside the entrance to the prison the day before it closed.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

The Model prison was an obsolete facility. Amand Calderó, Director of the Catalan Government’s Penitentiary Services, states that it would have been necessary to spend 25 million euros in order to bring all its areas into line with current prison requirements. As such, an agreement to close it was made with three of the five trade unions (the two who would not sign being UGT and ACAIP). As well as working at the Model prison, Francesc López is also a member of the prison workers’ trade union ACAIP. The Model prison is the only prison in Catalonia where this trade union has majority representation, and the feeling among its members is one of disillusion. “For years they’ve been promising to build a pre-trial detention centre in Zona Franca, but in the end we haven’t been able to choose where we’ll go next”.

López entered in 2005 “with 2,100 inmates” and is certain that the prison could have continued operations until the promised open prison and pre-trial detention centre in Zona Franca were ready. However, the agreement between the City Council and the Catalan Government gives opening dates of 2021 for the open prison and 2025 for the pre-trial detention centre, with construction costs of €35 million and €75 million, respectively. In this agreement, from 2009, the authorities agree to allocate the land in Zona Franca in order to close Barcelona’s two other prisons: the Wad-Ras women’s prison and the Trinitat Vella open prison. Calderó says that the €35 million to build the new open prison have already been ring-fenced. It remains to be seen what can be gained from the land at Trinitat Vella in addition to the €5.5 million the City Council has already paid for the construction of social housing apartments, as the complete lot is yet to be made available.

The issue – which the Director of Penitentiary Services is not overly concerned about – is that if over the course of fifteen years nothing is built in Zona Franca, the City Council recoups the land. Prison officer Francesc López is clear about what he thinks will happen. “If they’ve managed to put all the pre-trial prisoners in Brians 1, that’s where they’ll stay, and at Zona Franca they’ll only build the open prison. They’ll take the women from Wad-Ras to Brians 1, too, as there’s a large women’s section there. That way they’ll save money.”

Covering distances

Prisoners’ families living in Barcelona or its immediate perimeter were the first to feel a negative impact from the change. They are forced to choose between finding a private vehicle to get to the prison, taking a bus from Sants station, or getting a train to Martorell and then a bus from there. In any case, the amount of time and money they have to spend on travel has risen dramatically.

As for the problem of transport for the defendant’s legal representatives, Penitentiary Services signed an agreement with the Bar Association in order to establish a telematic communications system. So far, eight conference rooms have been installed at Brians 1. These are a distant cry from the rooms provided for legal visits that Jaume Asens remembers, “which were significantly worse than what you see in the movies”. The lawyer and the client could make contact visually but not physically, and had to talk through a grille surrounded by the din of other people’s shouting.

The Deputy Mayor has concerns about whether lawyers working for legal aid who live or work in Barcelona are going to make the effort to travel to see their clients. “They’re poorly paid” he claims. “It was clear back in my day that not enough was done to help inmates, especially after the trial.”

Calderó gives his assurances that the closure of the Model will not entail overcrowding problems in the rest of the prisons. In fact, he describes it as an opportunity to reorganise the prison system to scale with the city and country. “We didn’t want to jump off the deep end. When the Model prison was open, Catalan prisons were at 67% of their capacity; once it closed the figure went up to 73%” says Calderó, re-checking his figures on a printout. “The forecast is for Brians 1 to go down from 85% to 71% in September.” At the ACAIP the talk is not so much of the deep end as it is of Russian roulette. “In the [Catalan Government Justice] Department they knew that neither the prisoners nor us employees would be in agreement with the change, and that problems could arise.” In the end there was no strike and tensions did not rise, with the exception of the odd altercation with a prison officer and a young prisoner climbing onto the roof in March.

After so many years, one question to ask is what has the prison done for the city? Has it cut the number of repeat offenders? Has it achieved greater success with prisoner rehabilitation? Things have gone very well for Daniel Rojo since he left the Model prison and he is happy to talk about his time behind bars, although he admits that rehabilitation is very difficult. “When I got out, I had no kind of training whatsoever. I could rob banks, I knew how to do that very well, but not much else. Work, love and family: if you’ve got those three things, everything else in life is easier.” Or perhaps it would be worth discussing social options to obviate the inequality that results from having been to prison and the permanent mark this leaves on people. Eduardo Borrás’ face takes on a sad look as he thinks back upon his time in the Model prison. Sipping on a can of citrus-flavoured water, he recalls how when he was inside he had the urge to send letters of complaint about the prison conditions “as far as the Pope in Rome”, but as soon as he left he simply thought “so long guys”.

Amand Calderó, the Director of Penitentiary Services, claims that seven out of every ten inmates do not reoffend, “but we can’t be content with just that; there’s still a lot of work to do.” At the other end of a telephone line, speaking from his office, Jaume Asens remembers the Model prison as place with people living side by side in an atmosphere that was “hostile, stigmatising, infantilising and preventive of personal autonomy”. And Foucault (in the same work cited earlier) maintains that “prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very type of existence that it imposes on its inmates: whether they are isolated in cells or whether they are given useless work, for which they will find no employment.”

Photo: Arianna Giménez

One of the prison blocks and its cells turned into a gallery for the exhibition ‘La Model ens parla. 113 anys, 13 històries’, which can be visited as part of the open doors event that goes on until November.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Selfies in the cells

Although he had never entered the Model prison, Francesc remembers when he demonstrated in front of it in support of Lluís Maria Xirinacs, who stood in front of the prison for twelve hours every day for almost two years during the transition to democracy, calling for an amnesty for political prisoners. Today – 5 July 2017 – this sturdy man with agile fingers and white hair is out with fellow members of the Watercolourists’ Collective of Catalonia; they are on one of their Wednesday excursions to paint the city, this time coming to the patio where the prisoners used to do sports. One of his companions remarks “you’ll soon see how the painting is prettier than it really is”. To one side of them, busy moving furniture that is to be sent to other prisons are workers from the CIRE (Centre for Rehabilitation Initiatives), inmates from various open prisons who are paid minimum wage.

If like Francesc and his watercolourist friends you would like to experience the Model prison, anyone can sign up and book a visit to see the most symbolic parts of the premises as well as the exhibition “The Model Prison talks to us. 113 years. 13 stories”, commissioned by Agustí Alcoberro, which is part of a series of open-doors day events that is running until November.

The residents wander through the fifth gallery, the cells of which have been decorated to tell their respective stories. Some of them are using selfie sticks to photograph themselves in front of the cell that describes the prison riots in the time of El Vaquilla (a famous criminal who was at the Model prison in the second half of the 1970s). The room is a mess, with mattresses, chairs and blankets, and dirt and misery. Opposite it is a recreation of one of the original cells of 1904, designed for a single prisoner, clean and exemplary, something like the cell where Ferrer i Guàrdia would have awaited his death sentence.

Beside Francesc – who has finished his watercolour, which is indeed prettier than the reality it reflects – an open prison inmate who now has to go to Brians prison every night to sleep signals around him and points out “They’ve left this looking very nice, but don’t fall for it, the Model prison wasn’t like this.” On the way out of the premises, past the three security gates and in the outer courtyard, the Justice Department has set up a small stand – something like a museum shop – where you can by baskets, bags, notebook, towels, fabrics and so on, all manufactured by prisoners. On the labels of these products it says: “Made in CIRE”.

Barcelona urban planning: a look at everyday life

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Barcelona City Council plans to redesign the city with a view to raising the profile of everyday activities, rather than production-focused activities. The Council’s Gender Mainstreaming Department suggests that the city is currently “built on the male breadwinner model”.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Efforts to refocus urban planning to take into account the human aspect place a special emphasis on the gender perspective, the aim being to obtain an equal use of the city based on the diversity of gender, ethnic origin, age or occupation of the community.

Carrer de la Princesa was opened in November 1853, the same year that Barcelona City Council sent Madrid its plans to knock down the city walls, which began to take effect the following year. Nineteen centuries after Barcino was first founded, the city was preparing for its biggest urban transformation yet: expansion towards the Llobregat and Besòs rivers. The construction of Carrer de la Princesa saw dozens of houses demolished and many mediaeval lanes disappeared, but to leaders of the time it was worth the effort: opening the road would provide a straighter, more direct and wider route for military carriages to easily cover the 750 metres separating the citadel, or Ciutadella, from Plaça Sant Jaume.

and setting up barricades in the narrow streets, which was much easier than at the junction of Gran Via and Passeig de Gràcia, for example. The result is a city where one can drive to work, a city that has grown in parallel with the consolidation of the capitalist system and that defines itself by its public face — the world of the working man, the public man, the breadwinner — and its private face — the housewife, ‘her indoors’, who does not see a penny for her hard work.

Cities are not neutral; Barcelona is no exception. Sonia Ruiz, head of Barcelona City Council’s Department of Gender Mainstreaming, says that an urban model that meets the needs and experiences of everyday life is needed: “The city is built on the male breadwinner model; it is not planned for any other uses that are not solely based on the formal labour market, namely public services, shops, schools and primary care centres, among others.”

In order to take into account other needs and experiences that are essential when building neighbourhood communities, Barcelona City Council is proposing to redesign the city to give more visibility to the diverse range of activities, uses and tasks that people do each and every day, thereby shifting the focus of urban planning in the city away from a productive-centric emphasis and towards a more humanistic focus. These ambitious objectives therefore require a transversal approach — rather than just from an urban planning perspective — to ensure that these changes are successful. After a brief conversation with Sonia Ruiz, this necessity becomes clear: “Before implementing any measures, we need to put our house in order.” In December 2015 (six months into its mandate), the city’s new administration presented its gender mainstreaming measures, which are aimed at “integrating the gender perspective into all areas of public policy”, says Ruiz. To do so requires a process of institutional change that involves reviewing processes and routines in order to integrate equality as a prerequisite, train council staff and hire specialists in feminism.

Urban planning with a gender dimension

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Women more urgently need an accessible city because they are the ones who travel around it the most, often lugging shopping carts or pushing prams.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

The Ecology, Urban Planning and Mobility Area has been the most involved in the government’s policy on “Urban planning with a gender dimension” (with the telling subtitle “Urban planning for everyday life”), presented on 22 March. The plan not only aims to tackle issues relating to women, but also aims to give the city back for the people to use, from an equality perspective, taking into account issues of gender, ethnic origin and age diversity as well as the functional needs of the neighbourhood. It is a perspective that, for the mere fact of being based on equality, is based on feminism: “It’s true that we are taking women more into account, since they have historically been excluded, but the policy is not aimed solely at women; rather, its objective is to place the everyday lives of people at the centre, with a clear gender perspective”, says Mercè Llopis, Technical Coordinator of the City Council’s Department of Urban Modelling (part of the Urban Ecology Agency).

Men and women do not use the city in the same way. The Plan for Gender Justice, published in July 2016, specifically states that there is a “strong gender bias in terms of the uses and the freedoms and associated rights” in the city. Moreover, the Plan reveals that women are more likely to use local shops, primary health centres, schools, day-care centres and children’s play areas than are men, who more often use sports, leisure and recreation facilitates. It is an overexposed snapshot of traditional roles: the woman looks after the family, the man is the breadwinner who enjoys his leisure time.

The Working Day Mobility Survey, carried out in 2014 by the Metropolitan Transport Authority in conjunction with the City Council and the Regional Government, also demonstrates gender-specific uses. According to the survey, women move around the city primarily for family reasons, with occupational reasons in second place (15.6%), while men’s motivation for moving about is generally to do with work (19.4%). Women make more journeys, more often and, above all, more locally. Moreover, women make more use of public transport and walk more; men, on the other hand, use private transport more often: 32.3% of men use a car compared to 25.4% of women. On that basis, women are the ones who most need an accessible city because they are the ones who travel around it the most, often lugging a shopping trolley or pushing their children in a pram.

With that in mind, Sonia Ruiz, of the Council’s Department for Gender Mainstreaming, says that a two-pronged strategy was required: “Some actions are aimed at preventing discrimination against women while others are intended to equalise men’s and women’s participation. Positive measures are being implemented in spaces where women do not often go, and in other spaces to encourage more men to go, such as nursery schools.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Men, who move around more for occupational reasons, use private transport more often than do women: 32.3% of men use a car to get around compared to 25.4% of women, according to the Working Day Mobility Survey carried out in 2014 in the Metropolitan Area.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

People’s mobility patterns change depending on the care burden they face, a burden that is particularly significant in the case of women. Many of the urban development actions that are planned will take this approach.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

One of the activities planned from a gender perspective is a multi-approach project for Avinguda Meridiana, aimed, according to Llopis, at turning it into a much friendlier avenue, creating more walkable pavements and reducing the number of cars. The objective is to make it easier to cross from one side to the other, a journey most often made by local residents: “We are trying to make it so that the street crossings are more convenient, so that people living near the Meridiana can easily get across to do their shopping, go to school or do any activity they want. The idea is to stop Avinguda Meridiana being thought of as a difficult river to cross”, she says.

Against the feminisation of poverty

Breaking the narrative of gender separation in areas of the city means tackling the root causes of the feminisation of poverty, a structural impediment to achieving more equal conditions. Some 28% of Barcelona’s residents are at risk or in a situation of exclusion; of that figure, 55% are women. According to Barcelona’s Gender Justice Plan, “the average take-home pay for women is 18% lower than that of men”. What is more, since women bear disproportionate responsibility for providing care and doing unpaid housework, it is more difficult for women in Barcelona to lift themselves out of poverty. “Gentrification also more adversely affects non-white women, older women, poor women, large families, single-parent families and immigrant women, among others”, according to the government’s Urban Planning and Gender policy.

Without doubt, the most common areas of inequality (age, ethnic origin, class, gender identity or sexual orientation) cause the most obvious situations of poverty. “In addition, the lack of a work permit or qualifications, and transsexuality, exclude women from the formal labour market”, according to the Strategy to combat the feminisation of poverty and vulnerability, published in July 2016. This plan, which has the long-term objective of halving the number of women living in poverty in Barcelona, examines the socioeconomic realities disaggregated by gender: “As a result of intermittent career paths or working as homemakers, older women receive 38% less in contributory pensions than men, and single-parent families headed by women run a very high risk of poverty (40%).”

Austerity policies and the erosion of rights brought about by labour and pension reforms, along with the revision to article 135 of the Constitution and the decision to bail out the banks using public money, have caused budget cuts in public services and for employees that disproportionately affect women because they have more need of them.

This inequality in wealth distribution has been exacerbated by the decline in public spending for health-care services — as a result of the freeze to Law 39/2006 on personal autonomy — and the reduction in public nursery school places. Against that background, and without losing sight of the urban focus, the City Council is working to democratise and nationalise care: it cannot be left to families and, in particular the female members of those families, to provide; men must take on more responsibility, as must the government. Or, at the very least, it should try to change the city landscape so that it is friendlier and more inclusive for carers.

In that vein, the Department for Life Span, Feminism and LGBTI drafted a policy aimed at democratising care services, which it submitted at the end of May. Marta Cruells, the department’s political advisor on gender equality, says that the policy was a year and a half in the making and was based on consultations with carers and persons being cared for, public and private care providers, shared parenting groups and organisations providing care for the elderly, among others.

The policy’s objective is to recognise and place a value on care, taking into account that from birth to death “everyone needs to be looked after and, in all likelihood, we will all have to look after someone else”, Marta Cruells. A clear way of socially acknowledging this activity is to factor it into the budget. “Care services account for 25% of a society’s gross domestic product”, she adds. That is a lot of money for an activity that so often goes unpaid.

The policy incorporates more than seventy activities, the first of which is to map all the programmes and services offered by the City Council in relation to the provision of care. Many of the activities have been formulated with care services in mind, since, as Marta Cruells explains, mobility patterns change depending on the level of care with which a person is provided: “Another way of looking at the city is from the point of view of daily life”. One of the specific measures is to build five new family facilities and increase the number of nursery schools.

Safety and prevention from a gender perspective

Structural changes in terms of mainstreaming, combating vulnerability and ensuring mobility and care services, will never be successful if the issue of violence against women is not stopped once and for all. In 2013, the City Council’s Prevention and Safety Area conducted a gender and safety audit in order to mainstream the gender perspective in data collection on safety issues and in the implementation of public policies on safety and prevention in Barcelona. Following the audit, municipal technical staff were trained in safety audit methodologies from a gender perspective. These audits served as a starting point for identifying the spaces where there is a perception of insecurity and launching activities to improve the public space and put an end to these urban incidents of violence against women.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

The neighbourhood plan provides for women’s reconnaissance walks in all districts with a view to identifying the factors that create insecurity.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Sonia Ruiz, head of the City Council’s Gender Mainstreaming Department, says of the only safety audit that has been undertaken during the current mandate, on 24 November 2016, at Colònia Santiveri in the Mare de Déu del Port neighbourhood, within the Zona Franca area of Barcelona: “The participants — around twenty or so local residents, technical personnel and activists, among others — made some very reasonable requests, such as improving lighting and stairways, pruning trees and cleaning up the area.” The most dangerous areas tend to be dark spaces or those with lots of vegetation; women are more vulnerable there since they cannot see well or be seen. “For that reason, we are attempting to ensure that the safety audits are used to inform those tasked with carrying out improvements; for example, the city police and park and garden rangers.”

The Council’s Neighbourhood Plan provides for at least one of these audits to be carried out in each neighbourhood. “The aim is to do ten more audits over the next two years,” says Ruiz. One audit is likely to be conducted on Carrer de Pi i Margall as part of its remodelling plan. Mercè Llopis, from the Council’s Urban Ecology Area, says that a participatory process has been initiated with local residents, businesses and, in particular, the women’s committees of the two districts affected: Gràcia and Horta-Guinardó. There is a danger, however, that this participation does not take the gender perspective into account: “Depending on the time the meeting takes place, and if we fail to use ways to encourage women to take part (for example, providing a waiting area with female staff to look after children), more men than women will attend,” argues Ruiz. “When asked about if and how a road should be renovated, what is likely is that men will say that they need more car parking spaces.”

Some 29.9% of women in Barcelona have at some point in their lives been victims of serious gender-based violence; 16.3% have been attacked on the street and 29% ensure that they never leave the house alone; and yet, only 0.4% of female victims have filed a police complaint. This data come from the Gender-Based Violence Survey published in 2011, which contains shocking data that reveal a number of self-defence strategies used almost exclusively by women (for example, more than 9% of women carry some kind of object for self-defence, such as a spray), often based on limiting their exposure to risk in public spaces by restricting their freedom of movement and personal autonomy.

Predating the institutionalised measures, social and feminist movements in the Poble-Sec neighbourhood established a protocol of action to combat gender-based violence, which was implemented during the street festivals of 2015 and was awarded the 25 November Prize (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) by the Council. Since that experience, work has been under way throughout 2016 to implement similar protocols in the remaining districts, albeit tailored to the characteristics of each street festival. As Marta Cruells explains: “The Council has requested that all protocols share certain minimum elements, such as the provision of basic training for all persons responsible for organising each festival. Organising a large festival like the Gràcia festival is not the same as organising, say, the Nou Barris festival, which is much smaller and has virtually no concerts.”

Another approach was taken during the La Mercè festivals in 2016. A stand was set up in Avinguda de la Reina Maria Cristina, which was the site of concerts that attracted a younger crowd. Two people staffed the stand and two others patrolled the concert area. “If they saw anything or if someone made a complaint to them, they were able to take immediate action. And they did so on a couple of occasions. They also directed victims to the stand to make a complaint and seek help. Around a dozen such cases were reported”, says Cruells.

The same model was also implemented at the Lali Jove festival on 12 February and a stand was installed on a permanent basis at the Vila Olímpica, a busy area for nightlife, full of bars and nightclubs and popular with foreign tourists spending a few days in Barcelona and university students on their Erasmus year abroad. “The Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan regional police force) have detected a rise in complaints of sexual violence in this part of the city”, says Cruells.

One of the activities implemented at the Poble-Sec festival was that, if any violence against women occurred in the concert areas, the music was stopped and a message emitted over the PA system to inform the audience of what had happened. Stopping Barcelona’s urban planning model and restarting it from a different perspective will only be possible with the important work of public action groups and the political awareness of a council that integrates a gender perspective.

Women residents and workers; decades of silent struggle

Historical narratives from the time of Spain’s Transition to Democracy have sometimes ignored the role of social movements and particularly the importance of women in residents’ and workers’ movements. The four life stories we present exemplify how women activists are marginalised because they belong to the working class, they are women and, in some cases, they are migrants.

Photo: Lluís Salom

A demonstration by the cleaning staff of the Hospital de Bellvitge, organized by the trade union Comisiones Obreras, to demand improvements to working conditions; Via Laietana, 1986.
Photo: Lluís Salom

Paqui Jiménez played a prominent role in one of the landmark workers’ struggles of the final period of the Franco regime: the Harry Walker strike. Maruja Ruiz, chairperson of the La Prosperitat Casal de la Gent Gran (a day-care centre for older persons), was one of the organisers of a lock-in by women and children at the church of Sant Andreu de Palomar, in 1976, in solidarity with their husbands and fathers, who were on strike at the Motor Ibérica factory. Llum Ventura is a councillor for the district of Ciutat Vella and one of the founders of the association Les Dones del 36 (The women of 1936), which has worked to commemorate the women of the Spanish Civil War. Hotel chambermaids, one of the most ignored and badly treated labour collectives of our time, are represented through the testimony of Rosmery.

“Willy, we’re being followed”, I said to Willy, although in reality that wasn’t his name.

“Don’t wind me up, Ana”, he must have replied, though that wasn’t my real name either.

It was 1970 and our bus was travelling along Virrei Amat. A few days previously, the women who worked at the Harry Walker factory had gone on strike. I was one of them. I had collected the addresses of all my striking workmates and I was so scared that the papers with their addresses on would be found that I decided to hide them in my knickers, wrapped in plastic and fabric, like a sanitary pad.

“Ana, we’re being followed.” Willy became so nervous he got off the bus and left me on my own. We all have moments of panic and by then the police had already arrested one or two of our colleagues. And they had hurt them quite badly. So I stayed on the bus until the very last stop, in Trinitat Vella, and then I ran and I ran, seeking refuge at the home of some priests who were friends of mine.

“Do what you like, but I’m sleeping here tonight”, I said, and so I did. I was so scared when I got off that bus on Via Júlia: the bloke who was following me nearly caught me, but I ran and I ran.

Photo: Albert Armengol

Paqui Jiménez, who played a leading role in one of the landmark strikes of the final years of the Franco regime, at the Harry Walker automotive factory, 1971.
Photo: Albert Armengol

Ana’s real name is Paqui Jiménez and she was born in Baeza (Jaén) in 1946. For decades now she’s been living in a small flat in L’Esquerra de l’Eixample, where she’s recalling those times in a calm, clear voice, surrounded by countless house plants.

One street away from Via Júlia lies the Casal de la Gent Gran (a day-care centre for older persons) for the La Prosperitat neighbourhood. Maruja Ruiz, its chairperson, was born in Guadix, Granada, in 1936. She is a veteran community activist. I ask her how many times she had ended up in police custody. “Well, kid… Many times, I can’t even remember, but I was always released… The day we protested about the bogus building on Via Favència we were put in a cell with two blokes who were suffering from withdrawal symptoms. A neighbour was with me, and he was scared out of his wits because he’d been arrested; he was crying and everything. One of the junkies was banging his head against the wall and shouting… That neighbour who was with me must still be around here, I think… I never heard any more from him!” Maruja, with her sky blue eyeshadow, hair perfectly backcombed, laughs at the memory.

Llum Ventura is a councillor for the district of Ciutat Vella and was born in Poble-Sec, Barcelona, in 1941. “I was born into a family of anarchists: always on the losing side, but very committed. I had a tough childhood; I was almost entirely ignored as a little girl. But one day a relative of ours who ran a hairdressing salon in the neighbourhood started calling on me to help her wash hair. Later, I set up my own salon in my flat, on the seventh floor.”

Photo: Albert Armengol

Llum Ventura, a district councillor for Ciutat Vella and one of the instigators of the project to preserve the historical memory of the role of women during the Spanish Republic and Civil War, through the Les Dones del 36 association.
Photo: Albert Armengol

In 1979, in a new but fragile democracy, Llum Ventura opened another salon called La Mar, right near the Picasso Museum. It was a small space with a little library for the women of the neighbourhood, with not a single gossip magazine, and Llum offered information on how to get an abortion: “Once a month, Françoise, a woman from Toulouse, would come to perform clandestine abortions.”

Rosmery’s fingernails are very pointy, like those of all the hotel’s chambermaids. Apparently, the constant contact with fabric, sheets and towels makes your nails as sharp as knives. If you get distracted and they rub against your skin you’d cut yourself, and you can’t let that happen. Rosmery’s boss runs a tourist apartment and gives her just half an hour to clean it from top to bottom. She doesn’t even have time to complain: “In high season, we might not even have one day off. We hardly get to see our own families; we get home just in time to have dinner and go to bed and up again the next day to go to work”, she pushes up her glasses and takes a much-needed moment’s pause. “It’s like slavery: we don’t have a life.” Rosmery has had to stop working because she suffers from epicondylitis (an injury more commonly known as tennis elbow), but she has barely two months of unemployment benefit remaining. If it were not for the help of the Las Kellys chambermaids’ association, Rosmery would be left completely defenceless. Her injury has not even been recognised as a work-related condition.

Multiplied marginalisation

The historical narrative of Spain’s Transition to democracy, according to historian Cristina Borderías, has for a long time ignored the role of social activism and, even more, the historical significance of women as regards community-based and workers’ struggles. The life stories of these four women are just a small sample of an enormous, perverse reality; that of the double (and even triple) marginalisation of working women, of spirited women. The official narrative has locked them out of its memory because they belong to the working class, they are women and they are migrants.

The fingernails of the women working in the Catalan textile industry must have been as sharp as those of today’s chambermaids. “The Industrial Revolution happened in Barcelona because of women”, says the historian Isabel Segura. After the introduction of the steam engine, factories began to modernise and the whole structure of Barcelona changed. In modern homes, kitchens had only one door and space for only person: a woman, of course. Domestic work was unpaid and the husband’s wage was not enough to feed the family. The woman would have to work in the home and in the factory. For example, in the mid 19th century, a woman living in Sants would patch up her family’s tattered clothes and not charge for it, but she would also get up at five in the morning to go to work at the Güell, Ramis y Cia textile factory – the Vapor Vell, the largest textile factory in Spain at that time – and she would weave and weave for twelve hours for a meagre wage, even less than what a man would earn for doing the same job.

The factory was in operation from 1846 to 1890 and three-quarters of its employees were women. Its proprietor, Joan Güell (Torredembarra, 1800) got rich in Cuba, where he monopolised the entire textile market of Havana. There are unconfirmed suspicions that part of his fortune came from the slave trade. It’s no surprise that activist groups in Sants, which were behind the conversion of this and other old factories in the neighbourhood into public amenities, have covered over the street name of Carrer de Joan Güell, on the wall of the factory, and replaced it with Carrer de les Dones del Vapor Vell (Women of the Vapor Vell). The struggle to turn the spotlight away from the upper classes to the working classes in the historical narratives on the construction of Barcelona often starts with a comprehensive and egalitarian review of street names.

It has never been easy for women to balance their two working lives (domestic and paid employment) with an active role in social movements. As well as the obvious problem of having the time, many male factory workers did not like the idea of working alongside women. They felt that the job was being degraded by the fact that a woman was doing it and that this led to lower wages, explains Nadia Varo, a historian: “These things were happening right when jobs were in short supply. There were attempts to expel them from the employment market, they were prevented from working as apprentices and there was never any question that their wages should be much lower.”

Historically, women were also not helped by the opinions of some of the socialist and anarchist intellectuals of the second half of the 19th century. The ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of the fathers of anarchist ideology, were nothing short of cruel. Proudhon saw the home and domestic work as a woman’s natural place. It’s worth saying that this was not the general view of revolutionary thinkers and that Friedrich Engels, for example, put forward much more acceptable ideas in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: “The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.”

Photo: Pilar Aymerich

A large demonstration through the centre of Barcelona, demanding an amnesty for the women, 1977.
Photo: Pilar Aymerich

According to data collected by Isabel Segura and presented in her book Dones de Sants-Montjuïc, itineraris històrics (Women of Sants-Montjuïc: historical itineraries), in 1905 Barcelona’s textile industry as a whole employed over 5,000 men, almost 16,500 women and just over 5,000 children in poor working conditions and with working hours that often did not even comply with the labour laws in force since 1873, when the working day was set as eleven hours a day. The year 1905 was also the year that textile worker and anarchist Teresa Claramunt (Sabadell, 1862) published La mujer. Consideraciones generales sobre su estado ante las prerrogativas del hombre (Women. General thoughts on their condition in the face of the prerogatives of men), one of the groundbreaking texts of feminist anarcho-syndicalism in Spain. Previously, Claremunt had, in 1889, set up Spain’s first feminist organisation, the Autonomous Women’s Society of Barcelona (SAMB). Arrested as a result of the attacks on the Corpus Christi procession of 1896, Claramunt went into exile in England until 1898, although she was never officially convicted of any crime. In 1902 she took part in the February general strike and was again arrested during Tragic Week ( a week of violent clashes between the Spanish army and the working classes), which occurred in Barcelona in 1909. Teresa Claramunt died on the eve of the 1931 municipal elections and was buried on 14 April 1931, the same day that the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed.

“Liberate married women from the workshop”

The Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship halted any signs of women’s progress, emancipation or liberty. Franco’s labour laws, the Fuero del Trabajo, were passed in 1938 and promised to “liberate married women from the workshop and factory”. Marriage was declared to be “once only and indissoluble”, according to another of the basic laws that underpinned the dictatorship, the Fuero de los Españoles (1945). Abortion and disseminating contraceptive practices became a criminal offence in 1941, and maternity was seen as a biological and Christian duty, as put forward by Pilar Primo de Rivera, head of the women’s section of the Falange political party from 1937 to 1977: “Women’s real duty to the Nation is to form families with a solid foundation of austerity and joy, families in which they foster all that is traditional.” And if women wanted to work, they needed their husband’s permission.

Despite this, the battered economy of the post-Civil War period could not afford for millions of women to not work – the textile industry was one of several that had collapsed – and, as such, plans to “liberate women from the workshop” were to fall by the wayside. These were years of silent struggle, years that district councillor Llum Ventura remembers as “the time of hush, hush, don’t talk about that”.

Photo: Pilar Aymerich

Demonstration outside La Trinitat women’s prison to demand that the nuns, of the order of Cruzadas Evangélicas de Cristo Rey, who were in charge of the prisoners, be replaced by professional prison guards; that prisoners be allowed to read legal texts, speak in their own language and wear their own clothes; along with other demands. 1976.
Photo: Pilar Aymerich

It’s not the first time that Ventura has worked for the local authority. Sipping on her cortado coffee, one can see the nostalgia in her eyes as she recalls her time as an independent councillor under Pasqual Maragall: “I was much further to the left, but I accepted the position so I could work on projects like commemorating the women of the Spanish Civil War, known as Les dones del 36 [the women of 1936]”. She travelled to Madrid, asking for names. In Barcelona, she visited women who were members of the Communist party, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), but she was particularly keen to make contact with an anarchist woman, as her mother and aunt had been (also called Llum). “I had to tell the people in the CGT [the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the General Confederation of Labour] that my name was Llum and that my mother’s was Llibertat, and that the commemoration project could not go ahead without a female anarchist.” So it was that she met Concha Pérez, a libertarian and anarchist who had been held for several months at the women’s prison on Calle de la Reina Amàlia: “It was through that project and, in particular, through meeting Concha, that I returned to my libertarian roots and values.” The “hush, hush” was over.

Memories don’t last if they are not passed on. Ventura and the women of ’36 set up an association and went into primary and secondary schools, keeping the memories alive and passing them on to the younger generations. They gave a talk on Montjuïc for the twentieth anniversary of the first Catalan Women’s Conference, held at the University of Barcelona in 1976.

Women in movement(s)

To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of that conference, the City Council set up a project called “En moviment[s]. Dones de Barcelona. 40 anys i més… 1976-2016” (In Movement(s). Women of Barcelona. 40 years and more… 1976-2016). The project will continue until July and it includes exhibitions, panel discussions, events at Cinefórum and the publication of a text written by historian Cristina Borderías, the project commissioner: “The project came about because we have a local government that is more open to these issues and because, in recent years, we have seen a growth in the feminist movement. The initiative has been well-received by feminist groups, which is not always the case with projects launched by the authorities. There is a stronger connection now between the feminist movement and the city administration”, says Borderías.

The pro-democracy and anti-Franco activism of the women of that time remains solid, even if the memory of what they did has been left to one side. “Women had a presence in trade unions, political parties and community associations, but they were denied access to management roles and not given any representation in these organisations”, Borderías explains in the book written for the “En Moviment[s] exhibition. It was this commitment that drove Paqui Jiménez and her colleagues at the Harry Walker automotive company to go on strike during the dictatorship, at a time when such action was completely illegal.

What was it like to work in that factory? Paqui Jiménez explains in detail: “The carburettors would come and, using these hard, fine blades, we would remove the burrs. There were almost twenty of us women working on a production line. It was really tough: when I went to the toilet, my legs would buckle from the effort I’d had to put in. If we didn’t earn the productivity bonus, the wage was just not enough. We’d work from 6.00 in the morning until 2.00 in the afternoon, with 18 minutes for a mid-morning snack. The men had very basic jobs, they’d work on the shift and get splashed with this kind of oil that burned your hands. The bosses would put the most strong-minded women there. I’d protest. I didn’t want to go there.” Paqui grimaces, bites her tongue but finally opens up. “I’d curse the boss and he’d refuse. He was this illiterate bloke, a loser, a lout who treated woman like pigs… I would stand up to him, I scared him and in the end he would take me off the shift.”

During the dictatorship, the masculinisation of women was a constant, says Nadia Varo, a historian specialising in the role of women in the workers’ struggles organised by the Workers’ Commissions (CC.OO.) at that time. “Women were victimised when they suffered as a result of the working conditions, but when they took a strong role in an actual conflict they were masculinised and seen as male workers.” This was done out of fear that the male workers would not accept women as comrades in arms.

“They kept on increasing the amount of work we had to do to get the bonus”, recalls Paqui Jiménez, “and we just couldn’t do it, it was impossible. People were really wound up. The management threatened to sack some particularly militant colleagues and it was then, in 1971, that we set up the Harry Walker’s workers committee and went on strike. We’d meet in secret. I remember getting up at three in the morning to go and throw leaflets down into the entrance of the Santa Eulàlia metro station. It was all very quick, we’d throw them down and run off to get to work at the factory for 6 am. That way, if anything happened, I could always say that I had gone to work.”

Photo: Albert Armengol

Maruja Ruiz, one of the women who organized the protest by the wives of Motor Ibérica workers, now Chairperson of the Casal de la Gent Gran de la Prosperitat, a day centre for the elderly.
Photo: Albert Armengol

Historian Cristina Borderías explains that it was through the workers’ struggle that many women discovered “the limitations of individual action and the need to mutually support each other”. Paqui Jiménez is more explicit and recalls that when she got into those circles “her eyes were opened as big as saucers”. For Maruja Ruiz, community activism also means solidarity, unity and cooperation: “You have no idea how much one has to lose!”, Maruja scolds the youth of today. “I get goosebumps just thinking about you having to go through what we did… Goosebumps!”

The sit-in at Motor Ibérica

“My husband spent thirteen years working at the Motor Ibérica plant [which produced vehicles and machinery] and they fired him for leading a strike. It was 1976, the same year people were asking for the labour amnesty. So I spoke at the neighbourhood assembly and said that I could mobilise the wives of the workers”, says Maruja Ruiz, exuding self-confidence. “We tried to get them to take notice, but there was no way, so in the end we decided to stage a sit-in.” To mobilise the women, Maruja went to the Vertical Syndicate, the only trade union allowed in Franco’s Spain. “I went to the union and I told the men that we’d have an assembly with the women. I called the women. When I had the group set up, quite a nice group, we decided to lock ourselves in (the women and the children). We looked for somewhere central, the church of Sant Andreu de Palomar. What’s now the town hall of the Sant Andreu district, opposite the church, was then a health centre, and we thought it would be a good thing to have it so close just in case one of the kid’s got ill. And the metro was just a short way away, and the Pegaso, Maquinista and Fabra i Coats factories were also really close by. So it was easy for people to follow the sit-in.”

Photo: Pilar Aymerich

In June 1976, a large group of wives of workers at the Motor Ibérica factory, staged a sit-in at the church of Sant Andreu de Palomar together with their children, in a show of support for the strike their husbands were holding. They were forcibly removed by the police after 28 days.
Photo: Pilar Aymerich

When Maruja Ruiz gets going, it’s impossible to stop the flow of memories. “The priest, name of Camps, was very wary because the CNT people [the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the National Labour Confederation] had also locked themselves in there at one point and had left the place like a pigsty. I promised him that we would fix anything that we broke. So we got in. I brought a stove and some milk, not much, because I thought we’d get thrown out the day after. No-one imagined that we’d last 28 days.” More than 250 women and children took part. “We’d block the door with statues of saints to stop the police coming in at night.” But, in the end, come in they did.

“We knew that something was cooking when they opened up the factory and the bastard strikebreakers went back to work”, explains Maruja. She eyes the audio recorder, hesitates for a moment and finally says: “Bah, it doesn’t matter anymore if anyone knows”, and continues her story. “When the police came, we started tolling the bells to summon people and the square filled with people who came to stop the eviction. I told my workmates that we should wear our Motor Ibérica jackets with nothing underneath. I had been fined by Motor Ibérica for wearing their work clothes without being a member of staff, so I guessed that the police would tell us to remove our jackets. There was one of us, Julia, who had boobs like melons… when the police came through the courtyard at three in the afternoon, breaking everything in their path, they shouted: ‘Remove your jackets!’ But when they saw those boobs they changed their minds and shouted ‘Put on your jackets!’”

At this point Maruja Ruiz cannot contain her laughter and loses track of the story. That’s how she talks, in fragments and going off on tangents. “I’ve got everything ready for Carnival. Can you imagine fifty-odd eighty-year-old grannies dressed as rats? With little tails and everything… we’re going on the neighbourhood parade.” Maruja descends the stairs of the day-care centre nimbly and purposefully. She rests her hand on the bannister, but she has no need of the support.

“We spent seventeen years fighting to get this day-care centre. They were going to put up a block of flats on this site, and we would dismantle the crane every night. I think Josep Porcioles was the mayor at the time…” Dates and names get a little mixed up in her head, but she doesn’t mind, because she’s more interested in the stories than the figures. “When Jordi Pujol [the then President of the Catalan Regional Government] came to open the day centre, I told him he was seventeen years late.”

The historian Isabel Segura explains that “there is no division between the neighbourhood association movement and the feminist movement, because the feminist movement was directly involved in the demands for improvements to the neighbourhood. If, for example, there was a shortage of school places, it would be a couple of mums, fed up of travelling miles every day, who would decide to take action”. Women organised themselves into networks: that’s why they were not so boxed into solid structures, Segura recalls. “When conflict arose, the women created a network, other activists joined them and in the end it would end up being the men who were the public face of the demonstrations.”

The enemy within

Despite this, too often the women who have taken part in social movements in Barcelona have found the enemy within their own ranks. “At the time, society was much more chauvinistic than it is now, and the people who took part in these actions were also very sexist. They were part of society and they reproduced its models”, explains Nadia Varo. Not all of them truly defended an equal society, even if they were good at paying lip service to it.

Paqui Jiménez remembers that, during the Harry Walker strike, she twice went to sleep at a flat in Besòs. “We all slept on the floor, and there was one guy who’d move in on me and touch me. ‘Hey, please don’t touch me’, I protested. And he’d answer: ‘Paqui, you’re frigid. If you want to be a fighter for workers’ rights you have to be sexually liberated.’ And I’d say: ‘I’ll liberate myself when and with whom I want. But don’t think you can come and grope me in the middle of the night, because I’m not having it. And if that’s being frigid, then that’s what I am and that’s the end of it.’”

The living room is pervaded by the smell of the stew she cooked a little while ago. The former Harry Walker employee seems sad when she remembers these situations. “Chauvinism has always existed, and when you had to suffer it up-close, it seemed like there was no other option but to just lump it…” If these things happened between colleagues, one can only imagine the behaviour of the police under General Franco. She explains how “they called you a whore, they called you everything under the sun, and said that you should be at home cleaning…”

It was a learning experience for Paqui Jiménez. “I learned about the unity of the working class, the sense of working class pride. Really important ideas that people don’t think about nowadays. Working-class consciousness gave me the strength to carry on. There was great camaraderie in the factory, although there were one or two scabs too… Once, one of them got five kilos of paint thrown over her head: I felt bad about that, I really did”, the sad look on her face is clear. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that, but at the time, deep down, you felt like she deserved it, that she was asking for it… And anyway, she was as thick as two short planks stuck together, she just didn’t get it.”

Being a working woman changed her too. “I discovered what it meant to be a woman in that society. I learned that you can say no, that we had the same rights as anyone else, and that if we women stood together, we could win. Oh, yes! And I discovered financial independence. Because my family was poor, I gave all my wages to my mum and I could see that if I wanted to leave home, I couldn’t depend on a man. That was the biggest liberation I’ve felt in my life. You men, especially when you’re young, can’t even imagine what that feels like.”

It wasn’t easy for Maruja Ruiz: “Because I was always hither and thither, surrounded by men all day, some people thought I was a prostitute and that’s what they told me when I brought male colleagues to a clandestine meeting for the first time.” One of the workers at Motor Ibérica tried to make his wife leave the sit-in, but she refused. “She had seen what solidarity meant and she cried as she told us that she was not leaving.” She didn’t leave, and her husband reported her to the police for abandoning their children, then he took them away. The story has a happy ending, or maybe a predictable one: he ended up giving the children back to his wife because they were too much work.

A group on the margins

Rosmery only has two months of unemployment benefit left and she worries about how she will feed her children in the future. Isabel Cruz, a member of the Las Kellys chambermaids’ organisation, points to outsourcing services as one of the biggest problems that apartment chambermaids have to face. “The fact that they are not on the hotel’s payroll, but on that of a subcontracted company, means lower wages, excessive workloads and reduced workers’ rights.”

Chambermaids, marginalised because they are working class, female and, often, migrants, have very few resources to improve their working conditions. “They suffer a lot of stress, and because they are scared to ask for sick leave, they end up self-medicating”, explains Isabel Cruz. Prozac and ibuprofen to treat the impossibility of resting as they should or of having the family life they deserve. “There are cases of chambermaids who, at eight months pregnant, are spending their days making beds and moving mattresses.”

“Barcelona is an all-year tourist destination. How is it possible that all these chambermaids have temporary or zero-hours contracts? The only explanation is that the business owner knows full well that the worker will end up getting ill because of the working conditions she’s subjected to”, says Isabel Cruz. “In our association we have several cases of workers who have been sacked for taking sick leave, or chambermaids on zero-hours contracts who are told on one day not to come back for the next: these dismissals cost very little for business owners”, she explains.

The social movements of the Transition period fought for a more just and equal city. But on the margins of society, where we find the Las Kellys workers, there is not a trace of justice or equality.

Constructing the City Council with see-through walls

Illustration: Patossa

Illustration: Patossa

Barcelona’s municipal government is working on various ways to provide citizens with greater access to information on public affairs as the basis for boosting public involvement in their management. The establishment of the Office for Transparency and Good Practices, the Ethical mailbox and the Transparency web portal are some of the actions that have been taken for that purpose.

A code of conduct is also being drafted for elected officials and high-level municipal staff. In addition, work has been underway since the summer to amend the regulatory standards governing civic involvement in public affairs. The regulations being brought into effect go beyond what is required by the law on transparency, access to public information and good governance, which was passed by the Catalan Parliament in 2014.

In December 2014, the Catalan Parliament ratified Law 19/2014 on Transparency, Access to Public Information and Good Governance with CiU, ERC, PSC and PP all voting in favour. Iniciativa and Ciutadans abstained and CUP voted against. In June 2015, during her inaugural address, Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau spoke of a City Council in which “people feel that they have an important role” and she urged residents to get involved in designing and assessing public policies and making them more transparent: “We want a new City Council with glass walls, because if the public does not have information, democracy is not possible”, she added. The Law on transparency only came into force in Catalan town councils a year ago, in January 2016.

But the council’s intention of giving the public access to data that is of public interest goes back to 2010, when former Mayor Jordi Hereu’s team put forward the proposal for what would later become the council’s open data service. Since then, the internet portal that provides the open data service has gathered 330 datasets, according to Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer of the City Council, Francesca Bria.

Although the volume of data is starting to become quite significant, the Association of Archivists of Catalonia is calling for more coordination when it comes to establishing a shared methodology for classifying, integrating and standardising documentation, as archivists have been carrying out this task for some time and have found that the resources and information available on the City Council website and in the municipal archive are sometimes duplicated.

In addition, the format of the data has to be reusable. In other words, it has to be in the form of spreadsheets and not PDF documents, to allow analysis and comparison with other data and to be more representative, says Karma Peiró, a journalist specialising in information technology: “We want the original archives, not the Administration’s interpretation of them”, she points out.

Photo: Barcelona City Council

Inauguration of the Office for Transparency and Good Practices, November 2015. From left to right, director Joan Llinares, deputy mayor Jaume Asens and two members of the Office’s advisory board: Simona Levi, from Xnet, and journalist David Fernàndez, former member of the Popular Unity Candidacy party (CUP), who headed up the parliamentary commission of inquiry into alleged wrongdoing by former Catalan President, Jordi Pujol (known as the Caso Pujol).
Photo: Barcelona City Council

Office for Transparency and Good Practice

In November 2015, the city council launched the Office for Transparency and Good Practice (OTBP), which, through its digital tool, the transparency web portal, is to be the first guarantee of this government with glass walls that Colau announced in her inauguration speech.

The office reports to the Department of Public Rights, Participation and Transparency, which is led by Jaume Asens: “Transparency makes us weaker as a government, because the opposition knows where we are at all times, who we’re meeting, what we’re doing; and this information is very valuable to them because they can use it to get ahead of the game. But at the same time, it makes us stronger”, says Asens.

The person at the helm of the OTBP is Joan Llinares, Manager of Council Resources. As someone with no small experience in corruption scandals, Llinares was the person who took over the management of the Palau de la Música after Fèlix Millet was found to have defrauded the institution: “The role of the Office, together with the council’s legal services, is to develop the regulations that will be rolled out to guarantee the principles of transparency and good practice”, he says.

These regulations, which go beyond the requirements of Law 19/2014, according to Llinares, provide for the creation of an Advisory Committee on Transparency to support and audit the Office. The committee is made up of twelve people, most of them from community groups and civil society, who receive zero remuneration for their work. The list includes people like Itziar Gonzàlez, David Fernàndez, Josep Ramoneda, Francesc Torralba, Miguel Ángel Mayo of Geshta (the Trade Union for Inland Revenue Staff), and Simona Levi.

In fact, the group of which the digital activist Simona Levi is a member – XNET, which acted as the public complainant in the Bankia trial and is behind the 15MpaRato Citizens Against Corruption initiative – has been charged with implementing the ethical mailbox service.

The ethical mailbox is an open mechanism that allows members of the public to denounce any illegal behaviour by governments or any other official organisation, with guaranteed anonymity and protection, thanks to the free TOR encryption software: “It’s been a technological task and it involved changing the technical protocol of the City Council’s entire I.T architecture, but we’ve also had to generate understanding of this new way of doing things, which is more of a cultural change”, says Simona Levi. Other traceability protocols have been incorporated that allow complainants to track the progress of their complaint, thus ensuring feedback from the authorities, and allowing people also to complain if they feel their case is not being properly handled: “We are trying to get people to take control of their own complaint, to take ownership of it”, explains Levi. “There have to be ways of preventing participation from being a painful process. Public vigilance must not take over your life.”

At the Office for Transparency, they admit that they have taken too long to launch the services and apply the laws. The mailbox was meant to be ready by January 2016, after the hacker-proofing and external filter resistance testing phase was complete in December. According to the Director of the OTBP, Joan Llinares, organisations and individuals were asked to break through the security barriers to find out if they really were impenetrable.

A general code of conduct

All we know about the ethical code of conduct is the blueprint that was presented in March. The Council has been seeking the consensus of political parties and civil society groups to be able to push ahead with it: “It’s like a constitution,” claims the Fourth Deputy Mayor, Jaume Asens. “Everyone has to abide by it, so we want everyone to give it the green light.” The official process began in December and will culminate in a municipal plenary in February. As such, by March, the City Council will already have its two main instruments for transparency and good practices in place.

The code will serve to prevent and report conflicts of interests, incompatibilities, unjustifiable expenses and the acceptance of gifts worth more than €50: “Unlike other codes of ethics that are only declarations of principles and therefore not much more than lip service, ours goes above and beyond ethics,” claims Jaume Asens. “This is a true code of conduct that, if it gets the compliance we predict, will have very clear positive effects.”

The code is aimed at all elected positions, executive staff at the City Hall, the organs of government of all associated Council entities and even the temporary staff working at the Council and its associated entities who hold positions of trust or advisory roles.

Political malpractice has not always been punished; quite the contrary. We should recall the €3,000 fine imposed by the Supreme Court on the NGO Access Info Europe in 2012 for having asked the executive what measures Spain had taken to fight corruption. After the Partido Popular government set up the transparency portal for the whole of Spain, the Director of the NGO, Helen Darbishire, was critical: “For a country to be transparent, there has to be a cultural shift.”

Interactive images from the Let’s Decide Barcelona (decidim.barcelona ) website, which provides information on the different aspects of the participatory process that were implemented in preparation for the Municipal Action Plan 2016-2019. The first depicts the distribution of proposals according to origin, and which ones were incorporated into the strategic thrusts of the plan; the image below, on the left, provides information about the entities and citizens who actively participated in the process; the image on the right represents the number of proposals per inhabitant that were registered in each district, and the volume of support that they received.

Smart city versus technological sovereignty

According to Francesca Bria, Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer, today’s digital economy is based on data. That is why the majority of data is concentrated in the hands of very few companies that tend to be technology firms, banks or insurance companies: “We are living in the time of the wild west of the digital economy: data are the oil of the 21st century”, she warns.

Bria accepts that there is still a long way to go and she points out that the Council is in touch with other local authorities in cities such as London, New York and Helsinki, with which to share information in this area. “We need to go beyond static data that relate to the past, and monitor the city’s dynamic data, in other words, the data that speak to us in real time about mobility or pollution levels, for example,” explains Bria. These data are useful for the City Council and they must be accessible to it so that it can improve its services”.

In October, the City Council presented its Barcelona Digital City Plan 2017-2020. The Transition to Technological Sovereignty, which has a budget of 65.6 million euros. This plan sets out to guide the Council’s digital transformation by laying down the standards for open code and free programming software. “We have included a clause by which all the information in contracts with external providers and the resulting activities (cleaning, lighting, the bicing bike-share system, etc.) must be made public, because they relate to public facilities”, explains Bria.

She maintains that we need to diversify the digital economy so that it is not “in the hands of some companies, as happened with the idea of the smart city, which put technology before anything else simply to make money”. For Bria, the answer lies in putting all the Council’s digital efforts into hiring Catalan SMEs to provide services. “To do this, our digital plan allocates ten million euros to innovative public procurement, and this means adapting the Council’s relationships with providers to include SMEs”, she explains.

Making data more than just a juicy business resource for the private sector and ensuring that it provides returns for the public purse would be the first step in achieving technological sovereignty. But there is no sovereignty without social empowerment. Many members of the public are unaware about what is done with their personal data. “The digital economy often violates our basic rights to privacy,” claims Bria. “We have to intervene here, to ensure that members of the public really are the sole owners of their data”. In addition, Bria talks about how the Council needs to exercise its public leadership to set out the priorities for putting technology at the service of the public.

The participation process Decidim Barcelona (Deciding Barcelona)

The first example that Francesca Bria gives when she’s asked how the public leadership of council policies should be developed through transparency and technology is the participation process that helped to elaborate the Municipal Action Plan (PAM) 2016-2019, which began in October 2015, with the name of Decidim Barcelona. The Head of Projects at Barcelona’s Residents Federation (FAVB), Joan Maria Soler, gives a positive evaluation of the work done: “There has a been a clear desire on the part of the Council to implement participation processes, with an intensity that had not been seen before.”

Over 15,000 people attended the workshops and preparatory meetings, but the bulk of the participation happened through the Decidim Barcelona internet portal, which has 24,000 registered users: “Never before has there been a municipal action plan with real public participation”, points out Bria. But Joan Maria Soler sees the FAVB’s participation experience a little differently, as “not very successful in quantitative terms” given that only 2.4% of the city’s population took part.

10,860 proposals were collected from individuals, organisations and associations, to be incorporated into the Plan, of which 8,142 were finally included. According to Soler, some of the proposals in the Plan are having limited returns: “There was a very high sense of expectation (the process went on for a long time and it was intense) and in some specific cases, there was frustration. Proposals that received a lot of votes were then interpreted too weakly, or given a less radical spin.” Soler gives the example of the project to cover the Ronda de Dalt ring road, which was the proposal that got the most votes regarding the ring road issue and which, according to Soler, was dealt with in a very lightweight manner by the Council, with deadlines that are too long. When asked about this, Joan Llinares accepts that the results have not been as hoped, but assures that it is because of budget priorities and is nothing to do with the aim of covering the road, which remains intact.

Photo: Albert Armengol

The Fort Pienc ward council met on 14 December 2016 to discuss the launch of a participatory budgeting pilot project in Eixample. Both this district and Gràcia are the first areas in which the participatory process is being implemented, on a trial basis, as a means of enabling citizens to make proposals and take decisions regarding the use of municipal funds in various areas.
Photo: Albert Armengol

There is no magic wand that can strengthen participation, but Soler does refer to the self-management of public spaces: “We can do wonders when it comes to participation, but if people don’t meet in their neighbourhood, there is no way we can achieve it,” he says. “Facilities, day centres and community centres should be self-managed as much as possible: people need to feel that they are an active part of these spaces, not just customers or users”.

Since the summer, there has been a process to review the laws governing public participation in the city. Joan Maria Soler explains that the FAVB forms part of the committee that instigated this process and says that, while it is too early to draw conclusions, the Federation will put forward its own long-standing demands to the discussions on public participation: “District councillors chosen directly by the public, the ability to develop public legislative initiatives, having binding consultations with residents and decentralising the city government. The districts must have real decision-making power on many issues that are currently closed to them, such as the area of urban planning”, maintains Soler. The Director of the Office for Transparency, Joan Llinares, also accepts that it is still very early days but he does point out that participation “should be based on administrators’ commitment to be accountable to the public”.

A report entitled Transparència, accés a la informació pública i bon govern (Transparency, Access to Public Information and Good Governance) produced by the Catalan ombudsman, the Síndic de Greuges, in July 2016 (Law 19/2014 gives the ombudsman the authority to assess its compliance) says that Barcelona is Catalonia’s most transparent city of over 50,000 inhabitants, when it comes to active council communication or the public’s right to access public information. The UAB’s Laboratory on Journalism and Communication for a Plural Public also conducts a yearly assessment of the transparency of all Catalan town councils. In the 2016 survey, Barcelona City Council meets all 52 requirements.

One of the clearest examples of the winds of change in the city government is the Transparency web portal developed by Civio, where one can look up the council budgets from 2013 to the budget proposals for 2017, in an open format with interactive viewing options. Or there’s the opportunity to download a spreadsheet of all the invoices processed in the City Council in 2015.

One may ask oneself what real power the people would have if all town councils made this information accessible to their residents and if people were interested. One last piece of data: the private company that sent the Council the biggest bill last year was the building firm Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas (FCC), for €116,155,886.43. And it’s the Office for Transparency and Good Practice that is responsible for auditing FCC’s alleged €800,000 fraud in the Council’s cleaning service.

Beyond Catholicism, religious diversity

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Children play freely during the celebration of the Sabbath in the progressive Jewish community of Bet Shalom, in the Eixample district.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

While it is not found in any of his books, one of the most famous phrases from writer and bishop Josep Torras i Bages is the one in which he guarantees that “Catalonia will be Christian or it will not be”. More than a century later, the secularisation of Catalan society is not complete, but it has gone far beyond what Torras i Bages would have wished: 52% of Catalans consider themselves Catholic, 15% are of a different faith and the remaining 33% are not of any faith.

This Catalan multi-religiousness is thriving in Barcelona. There are 243 Catholic places of worship in the city, compared to 270 that are not Catholic. Immigration in the 1990s and onwards is the key to understanding the emergence in Barcelona of religions such as Sikhism; however, it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who is not Catholic must be foreign. Among the followers of Islam, the Eastern religions and all the Christian denominations are plenty of Catalan surnames and national identity documents without the telltale X or the Y that precedes numbers issued to foreigners.

Centuries of a close and confused relationship between the political and ecclesiastical authorities mean that, even today, Spain continues watering the Catholic garden with abundant public money, while many religious minorities do not have enough resources to erect decent places of worship. In a country that declares itself in its Constitution as being areligious, secularism is like a strange creature that has trouble adapting to our indigenous fauna, like an elusive cat with too much of a French accent.

Recognised but discriminated against

The legal treatment given to religious diversity in Spain and, therefore, in the city of Barcelona, is unequal. The secularism of the State, although it is laid down in the Constitution, is entelechy for many communities that endure precarious conditions and can barely conduct their worship in a dignified manner.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Volunteers from the Evangelical Hillsong Church inform passers-by on La Rambla about their community, prior to Sunday services at their centre in the historic Teatre Principal.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Albert Riba, Chair of Ateus de Catalunya (Atheists of Catalonia), recalls the figure of Gaietà Ripoll, after whom the magazine published by the association is named. A soldier, scholar, teacher and pantheist, Ripoll was condemned to the gallows in 1823 by a Spanish Inquisition faith tribunal for failing to teach the Catholic doctrine in his classes. As a gesture of humanity, instead of burning him at the stake, which was the usual punishment, he was hanged over a piece of wood on which the executioners had painted some flames. He was the last person to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition.

The first non-Catholic communities came to Barcelona after heresy had been decriminalised: the Protestants (or Evangelicals), who arrived in the mid-19th century; the Adventists, who reached Barcelona in 1903, in the form of three Californian missionaries; and lastly the Jews, who, in 1918, opened their first synagogue in the city for four centuries.

Franco’s dictatorship slowed the expansion of religions other than Catholicism. But the defeat of the Nazis and pacts with the US and the Vatican forced the fascist regime to tone down prohibitions on the grounds of belief and to establish basic religious freedoms in order to gain access to international recognition. Worship in private was restored, but “in chapels that could not bear any external sign that would enable them to be identified, and not without sporadic episodes of violence and attacks on the locals”, recalls Joan Estruch, sociologist and founder of Investigacions en Sociologia de la Religió (ISOR, Research in Sociology of Religion), in his book Las otras religiones: Minorías religiosas en Cataluña (The Other Religions: Religious Minorities in Catalonia) (ed. Icaria, 2007).[1]

Since the 1960s, religious diversity has been thriving in Barcelona. The first Baha’i centre was opened in 1965. Emilio Egea, member of the only Baha’i community in the city, explains that when his parents converted to the Baha’i faith, the police checked on them and censored their correspondence because their home was the meeting place for the community. “We often only received permission from the police just minutes before the meeting, making it impossible to meet”, recalls Egea. The Baha’i faith bases its precepts on the existence of just one religion and one god, and it advocates equality in terms of gender, class and opportunity for all humankind.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, present in the city since the 1940s, suffered during the Franco dictatorship owing to their refusal to swear loyalty to the flag and to take up arms, which made them the first conscientious objectors in Spain. Josep Morell, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Catalonia, served a two-year prison sentence in Melilla: “It was nothing compared to the time served by other Witnesses”. He was released two weeks after Franco’s death. Today, there are 16 Kingdom Halls (the name of their places of worship) in Barcelona, where they read the Bible before going out to the streets to explain it to people.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

A religious service in the Mormon community (also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in their new chapel on Carrer de Cantàbria, a premises that was once the Verneda cinema.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Proselytism is also a basic element of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons because of the vital importance the Book of Mormon has to its adherents. Young people between the ages of 18 and 26 work as missionaries for two years to spread the message abroad. Regularised since 1968, thanks to the dictatorship’s first religious freedom law, the Mormons have two places of worship in Barcelona.

In the early 1970s, the Protection of the Mother of God Orthodox Church was set up in the Esquerra de l’Eixample. The parish was formed by four Catalan converts, although the fall of the Berlin Wall and the war in Yugoslavia led to people from Eastern Europe joining the community. For that reason, prayers and liturgies are sometimes conducted in Russian or Romanian, although Catalan is normally used (in addition to Latin). There are currently six orthodox communities in Barcelona.

Economic and legal inequality

It is set forth in Article II of the updated Concordat with the Holy See – signed just five calendar days after the Spanish Constitution was approved in 1978 – that the State undertakes to financially support the Church. In Article V, the Catholic Church “declares its intent to achieve by itself sufficient resources to meet its needs”. That has still not happened. The April 2015 report from the association Europa Laica (Lay Europe) estimated that the State has given €11 billion to the Catholic Church in the form of direct subsidies and tax exemptions. That amounts to 1% of Spain’s GDP.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

A workshop on the iconography of the Orthodox Parish The Protection of Our Most Holy Lady, the Mother of God, in the Eixample district.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

The introduction of Eastern faiths (Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism) to Barcelona in the 1970s and 1980s stemmed largely from the hippie movement and from the journeys some Catalans had made in previous years to India; in some cases, they even returned with a guru. There are now 25 Buddhist centres (either Zen or Tibetan) and five Hindu centres in Barcelona.

Article 7 of the 1980 religious freedom law allows the State to enter into agreements with religions that can demonstrate “clear roots” in the country. Since the law entered into force, Muslims, Protestants, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists and Orthodox Christians have achieved this status, but only the first three – Muslims, Protestants and Jews – have signed cooperation agreements with the State. These agreements go back to 1992 and grant a series of privileges, such as the option to own separate plots in cemeteries, exemptions from property tax for places of worship owned by these communities and, in particular, access to public funding.

The law provides that this aid must be exclusively channelled through the Fundación Pluralismo y Convivencia (Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation), created to this end by the Ministry of Justice. In 2016, the State distributed more than €780,000 among the Evangelical, Jewish and Muslim federations to carry out programmes, organise the federations and improve the facilities of the entities they comprise. But if the entity does not belong to any of the federations registered with the Fundación Pluralismo y Convivencia, it does not get a penny.

Mohammed Iqbal, Vice-Chair of the Minhaj-ul-Quran Muslim association, believes that the 1992 agreements are little more than a dead letter: “The saying goes that things are easier said than done, right? Well, no matter what anyone might say, the State doesn’t provide resources.” Jai Anguita, Chair of the Jewish community Bet Shalom, goes even further: “The model for the agreements was dire. It is anti-constitutional.” For Mar Griera, director of ISOR, they are no more than symbolic agreements: “They were signed to pave the way for international relations and with a desire for historic reconciliation due to the role Spain played in expelling religious minorities.”

The legal treatment given to religious diversity in Spain and, therefore, in the city of Barcelona, is unequal. The secularism of the State, although it is laid down in the Constitution, is entelechy for many communities that endure precarious conditions and can barely conduct their worship in a dignified manner. If we look to Rome, the words of Pope Francis are illuminating: “States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of history”, he said in an interview with French Catholic magazine La Croix in May 2016.

The problem with places of worship

The phenomenon of the precariousness of places of worship in Barcelona is real; it is not endemic, but it affects the most impoverished communities. It is a question of social strata, not of specific religions. The demand for spaces for religious use is increasing, and the administration is starting to look for other solutions.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

A Vaisakhi procession celebrating the Sikh new year, which is celebrated on 14 April, and ends with a large communal meal in Les Tres Xemeneies park, in Poble-sec.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

The seats in the stalls of the Teatre Principal on Barcelona’s Rambla are full. The audience sings, cries and cheers. A dozen musicians play the final bars of the third song (“I will sing to the one who rescued me / I will sing to the one who received me”). One of the 20 or so technicians working this Sunday morning activates the smoke machines on the stage. Gradually, coming out from the shadows towards the lights, the figure of Juan Mejías can be seen. The sound technician adjusts the volume of the band, lowering it to the level of background music. Now only the organ remains prominent. Juan Mejías, pastor of the Hillsong Barcelona Evangelical Church, grabs the microphone and blesses the congregation.

At the same time on Sunday, John Asemota waits his turn in a chair, with the Bible on his lap, taking notes in a small notebook. He is the pastor of the Power of God’s Grace Ministry, waiting to give his sermon at the Sunday service of this Evangelical community, which is formed mainly of people of Nigerian origin. They also sing – in English, as is the entire service – and the pastor demonstrates passionate devotion in his sermon and the congregation pray out loud with their eyes shut. (“I have confidence in you, Saviour / I have confidence in you, Jesus”). The church is in an old warehouse, forgotten on a precariously tarmacked side street on an industrial estate in the Bon Pastor neighbourhood. It is not easy to find the first time, which is why the workers on the estate give precise such directions: “They are there on the left, the blue metal door, right by the scrap yard.”

The city council is trying to improve their situation through funding lines that have been available since 2014 to refurbish places of worship, but sometimes the problem is more deeply rooted. Gloria García-Romeral is a municipal technician at the Oficina d’Afers Religiosos (OAR, Office of Religious Affairs) and works with Muslim communities: “In the African communities, the majority of members are undocumented and collect scrap or are street vendors, for example.”

There are communities that, according to OAR director Cristina Monteys, raise the shutters, paint the premises and begin their activity without registering in the Ministry of Justice’s Registry of Religious Entities. The requisite paperwork is not accessible to persons who do not have their documents in order: “If the District initiates proceedings, the community could end up without any premises, since they are carrying out an activity without a licence.” If this occurs, the OAR can only act as mediator: “We don’t have the jurisdiction to grant licences or permits or to carry out inspections”, says Monteys.

The sermon from pastor John Asemota is the most impassioned of those heard at the Sunday service for the Power of God’s Grace Ministry evangelical community, who are mostly from Nigeria.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Children from the Power of God’s Grace Ministry evangelical community play following the Sunday service.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Before arriving at Bon Pastor, the Power of God’s Grace Ministry Church passed through various premises in Santa Coloma de Gramenet that they had to leave owing to noise complaints from the neighbours. Now, surrounded by industrial premises, they are not bothering anyone, particularly as Sunday service takes place on a day when the estate is deserted.

At the Teatre Principal, Hillsong pastor Juan Mejías is giving his sermon. He speaks plainly, dotting his talk with present-day allegories. The average age of attendees is under 40 years old. “Just because we have a modern church doesn’t mean that it’s a superficial church”, he says during the service. The Hillsong Barcelona Church originated from meetings between Mejías and his partner Damsy Mich, another pastor in the community, and other friends in a Starbucks. They spent the time reading the Bible and debating. After studying theology at the Hillsong International Leadership College in Australia, they founded the Barcelona chapter. Currently, around 1,000 faithful attend the three Sunday services.

Protestant communities

There are 167 Evangelical Christian, i.e. Protestant, centres in Barcelona. Although they have been in the city for almost two centuries, the arrival in the 1990s of Latin American and Sub-Saharan Evangelicals has led to the creation of independent churches, often formed according to nationality.

Many communities (not just Evangelicals) carry out work related to drug addiction and prevention or reception of refugees, says Lola López, the city council’s immigration commissioner: “But they don’t have the power of Caritas, because they are very small.” In the case of the Power of God’s Grace Ministry, there are regular campaigns to collect money for the poorest in the community. In addition to helping with bureaucratic matters, the community tries to cover the costs of transport and food for those in need. Grace, the pastor’s wife, explains that they have managed to get many of their compatriots out of prostitution and prevent more than one suicide. In addition, owing to the economic crisis in Spain, many of the congregation have returned to Nigeria or tried their luck in other European countries.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

The pastor Juan Mejías and his partner Damsy Mich founded Hillsong Church Barcelona four years ago. The picture shows Mejías leading a Sunday service for followers of their religion.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

One of the three Sunday services held by the Evangelical Hillsong Church at their centre in the Teatre Principal. In total around a thousand people attend.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Both the Hillsong and Power of God’s Grace Ministry communities are self-funded and the two dedicate a significant part of Sunday worship to talking about the importance of donations. At the industrial premises in Bon Pastor, they sing a song and pray before putting envelopes in a box. The attendees at the Teatre Principal can make their “tithes and offerings” though a link on the Hillsong website, by bank transfer (which can be set up as a direct debit) and even at the theatre itself with their credit card.

The phenomenon of the precariousness of places of worship in Barcelona is real; it is not endemic, but it affects the most impoverished communities. It is a question of social strata, not of specific religions.

The Grace Ministry faithful leave the service still singing “People will see, testimony of my life”, and a couple of children who were at the church are now playing with the only two white people there, the journalists. The Hillsong faithful leave the Teatre Principal and step out onto the Rambla with the final verses of Soberano (“God of the universe, eternal Saviour”) still playing in their heads, surrounded by tourists among whom they walk unnoticed.

Demand for public space

Photo: Arianna Giménez

The Hare Krishna temple in Plaça Reial. The meditations are accompanied by music from a harmonium and a mridangam.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Also on Barcelona’s La Rambla, albeit some hours later at around 5 pm, the Hare Krishna retinue begins its march at Drassanes. They parade behind a standard bearing the mantra that gives them their name, which they continuously repeat throughout the procession. They reach Canaletes, turn around and set off in the opposite direction, down the Rambla. Some people move to one side when they see them, others join the march and dance and a few others make fun of them. As there are only a few Hare Krishnas, it is not difficult for them to have enough public space to exercise their right to demonstrate and disseminate their religion.

Monteys says that at OAR, they prefer to describe secularism as a neutral space that is open to all (including those who are non-religious). The Chair of Ateus de Catalunya, Albert Riba, is not opposed to the fact that religion occupies the public space “provided that it doesn’t monopolise it”, and argues that this space should be “an agora not only for freedom of religion but also freedom of conscience”.

The demand for spaces for religious use is increasing, and the administration is starting to look for other solutions. For now, the immigration commissioner Lola López stresses that the council “has found spaces for people to celebrate, for example, Corpus Christi or the Sikh Vaisakhi parade”. The spokesman for the Sikh community, Gagandeep Singh Khalsa, plays an influential role in mediating between the interests of the community and the administration, and it is thanks to his work that this community has not experienced too many problems when it comes to organising public events: “What gives me the greatest satisfaction is seeing Catalans among us, no matter what religion they are”, says Gagandeep, smiling through his thick beard.

There are around 2,000 people in Barcelona’s Tres Xemeneies park. Large cloths have been laid on the ground and people are eating typical products from their home region of northern India. They are celebrating the parade of Vaisakhi, the Sikh baptism.

The day began hours earlier with a martial arts demonstration on the Rambla del Raval. Countless weapons were lying on a canvas on the floor: swords, knives, shields, lances, clubs and the chakkar (a wheel with filaments in the shape of spokes with weights at the end of each one). Five young Sikhs are on the other side of the weapons. To the sound of two drums, the faithful demonstrated their expertise in handling various weapons with well-thought-out choreography. Occasionally, a manoeuvre would be unsuccessful, but nothing major.

The Sikhs have just one premises in Barcelona, the Gurudwara. It offers food to anyone wishing to enter, the only condition being that they must take off their shoes, cover their head and prostrate themselves before the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which they consider to be an infallible guide. They therefore treat it as if it were a person: bringing it offerings, covering it, putting it to bed at night and waking it up in the morning.

Somewhat more difficult to organise are the annual Jehovah’s Witness assemblies in Barcelona. This June, they hired Espanyol’s football ground, for the third time, for a meeting that was attended by 23,500 people. “It was a nice programme; the central theme was loyalty and faithfulness to God and fellow man”, explains Josep Morell, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Catalonia. 104 people were also baptised by immersion. Morell does not know how much it costs to hire the site.

Cristina Monteys, OAR director, says that sometimes communities ask the Districts for municipal spaces, but they receive cursory refusals: “Not due to the rejection, but because sometimes, within the city council itself, there is a notion of secularism that is…” she measures the description, “let’s say, restrictive.” To correct this situation, on last october, the City Council regulated the assignment of public spaces and municipal facilities for holding religious activities.

The city council is working on a proposal to redefine the competences in this area, which, as this article was being finalised, had still not been presented.


Photo: Arianna Giménez

Members of Muslim community Minhaj-ul-Quran in the Raval neighbourhood during Friday prayers in the Sant Oleguer sports centre, which they rent for this purpose.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Wadud, who started the Sufi school of the Naqshbandi order, breaks the Ramadan fast with companions.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Some progress has been achieved for other large festivals, as in the case of Ramadan. The council has reached an agreement with the Barcelona Sports Institute (IBE, Institut Barcelona Esports) to use the sports facilities. But here, again, the problem is money: “There are communities that ask us for a space for the 30 nights during which Ramadan takes place and, of course, the solution cannot be to offer them the facilities free of charge because if there is a public price and people pay it, then they have to as well”, says Monteys.

One of the communities that can afford rent is Minhaj-ul-Quran. Every Friday (the holy day in Islam) during Ramadan, they hold the Friday midday prayer in a room at the Sant Oleguer Municipal Sports Centre in El Raval. Mohammed Iqbal, Vice-Chair of the community, says that although they have always had a good relationship with the District councillors, negotiations are not easy: “Politicians always look at votes, and public opinion does not usually look kindly on these things.”

Ramadan began on 6 June, coinciding, as always, with the last moon of the eighth month of the Islamic calendar. That night, at the Minhaj-us-Quran oratory (one of the 25 Muslim oratories in the city), 300 people broke their fast after 15 hours without eating or drinking. In barely 15 minutes, all the men (there were no woman) had eaten and a crowd of people had gathered up the tablecloths: “The premises aren’t very big, so we eat quickly and use the same space for eating and praying”, explains Iqbal, one of the many carrying plates and cloths.

With prayers already started, more followers arrived, filling the room. Many had come from work. One of them arrived worn out, prayed for barely three minutes and left. A short time later he was seen back in his spot, behind the counter, in one of those shops that sells everything.

Around that same time, on the Turó del Carmel hillside, a girl was also arriving late to the iftar (Ramadan dinner). Other members of the Sufi community of the Naqshbandi oratory had broken their fast frugally – a couple of dates, an apricot here, some chocolate there – and were already saying the first prayer. The girl took some sips of water and joined the prayer. It was her first Ramadan. Once the prayer was finished, and while the 20-odd members of the small community were preparing the main meal – larger this time, with lentil soup, salad and cheese – the Chair, Abd al-Fatah, spoke with the first-timer: “Always have some dates on you, so when the sun sets you’ll be able to break the fast, wherever you are. I always do it.”

Muslims started to become visible in Barcelona in the 1980s. Since then, the arrival of Pakistanis and Sub-Saharan Africans, in particular, has enriched Islamic culture in the city. More residually, some Catalans have embraced Islam as a religion. This is the case of the Naqshbandi community, mostly made up of converts. Wadud, originally from a small town in Montseny, north-east of Barcelona, formed the community 20 years ago. He says that, after flirting with Freemasonry and dipping his toe into Buddhism and Hinduism, he found “the path of realisation” in Sufism, known as the mystical branch of Islam due to the importance of contemplation, music, poetry and spiritual perfection.

During the informal meal, the Sufis appear relaxed and joke around. Men and women occupy the same space, although they do not mix. They will finish eating around midnight, they will pray, sing and spend the small hours together as a community. At around 4:20 am they will begin fasting again.

At the exit to the oratory, in the darkness of the slopes of El Carmel, an almost mystical peace absorbs the dense hubbub of the big city. “This is Barcelona, but it’s outside of Barcelona”, says Wadud, and it does not bother him. It reminds him of home, the peacefulness of Montseny.

The Jewish Passover

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Celebration of the Sabbath in the Bet Shalom community’s synagogue. Any of its members can lead the proceedings.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

Photo: Arianna Giménez

The rabbi, Stephen Berkowitz, and the president of the Bet Shalom community, Jai Anguita, at Passover celebrations.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

In the heart of the city, on a corner in the Dreta de l’Eixample, a Mossos d’Esquadra police patrol stands guard in front of Hotel Catalonia. Later, they will end up playing with the children from table 5, who are having a great time with the officers’ torches. Inside the room, the mother of the children from table 5 had reached the conclusion that it was more practical to leave the children to their own devices than try to keep them calm and silent. They are not old enough to follow the Haggadah, the text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder, the remembrance of the Exodus from Ancient Egypt.

The progressive community Bet Shalom brought together 200 people at Hotel Catalonia to celebrate the Passover Seder. During the ceremony, they paid tribute to the refugees and talked about equal rights for homosexuals and gender equality through the figure of Jewish intellectual and feminist Susannah Heschel.

The Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish sabbath) celebrations take place at the Bet Shalom community premises. There, the children also run around and play unimpeded during the ceremony, this time held at the community synagogue. The service is conducted in Hebrew, Catalan and Spanish. While not overly solemn worship, it is very devout. In his sermon, Jai Anguita, Chair of the community, mentions Adam Smith and Karl Marx and finishes by recalling that “the Earth is God’s”.

For more than six decades, the only Jewish community in Barcelona was the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona (CIS, Israelite Community of Barcelona). The arrival of immigrants and ideological differences gave rise to various divisions that have ended up creating a map of four communities, of which Bet Shalom is “the most Catalan and the most progressive”, says its Chair. Asked about so much division, he replies: “What the community leaders may say is not what their members think; nothing is unanimous. Two Jews, three opinions, you know?”

Encouraging religious dialogue

The Grup de Treball Estable de Religions [Religions Stable Work Group] is an initiative that arose from the Universal Forum of Cultures in 2004, and brings together leaders from the five religious traditions with the greatest followings in Catalonia.

Photo: Arianna Giménez

Stephen Berkowitz, rabbi of the Bet Shalom community, explains the Jewish tradition of Passover to Sebastià Taltavull, auxiliary bishop of Barcelona, during a commemorative ceremony organised in a hotel on 22 April 2016.
Photo: Arianna Giménez

On Christmas Eve in 1990, the then Archbishop of Barcelona, Ricard Maria Carles, laid the first stone of the Abraham Centre. The 1992 Olympic Games were on the horizon and the Olympic village needed a multi-religious space for the thousands of athletes (of different faiths) that the city would host. From that multi-religious centre proposal was distilled the need to structure interreligious dialogue in the city.

The Grup de Treball Estable de Religions (GTER, Standing Working Group on Religions) was born out during the Parliament of the World’s Religions held during the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures. Joan Hernàndez is the director of GTER, a group formed by leaders of the Catholic Church and of the Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish communities. Whenever a workshop is organised, GTER also invites Mormons, Sikhs, Buddhists and Baha’is. “We have the five religious traditions that have the longest history and are most established in Catalonia. Coordinating them is no mean feat, and if we were to incorporate other faiths that have different goals and are less established, it would be much more difficult.” The Group is extended at least twice a year, forming the Intrareligious-GTER Council, when there are invited all religions in Barcelona.

This great diversity of communities within each religion sometimes makes dialogue difficult within each faith, known as intrareligious dialogue, which even Hernàndez admits “is more difficult than interreligious dialogue”. He says that the most important thing “is not that they argue, but what is taken away from the disputes”, and recalls that “relations were worse in the 1990s, when some judicial proceedings were launched among them. Everything is calmer now.”

Wadud and his Sufi community only have a close relationship with two other Muslim oratories in the city, but they do not consider this to be a problem “because we are all brothers”. He does see a problem that, in his opinion, is fragmenting the Muslim community in Barcelona, in the influence of Saudi Arabia on some Islamic communities: “That country is subsidising books, oratories and visits by imams, and it pays for pilgrimages; its message has caught on here. It has become the indoctrinator of the Islamic world in the West and sends people into communities with a discourse that is backward, stubborn, reactionary, radical, extremist… terrible.”

For Griera, the GTER model is “that of religious leaders, with a very important role for the Catholic Church”. Another model for Griera is the UNESCO Association for Interreligious Dialogue (AUDIR, Asociación Unesco para el Diálogo Interreligioso), albeit a “more basic” model, she says.

Francesc Torradeflot is the director of AUDIR, which works for religious freedom for communities and freedom of conscience for atheists and agnostics: “It’s more than interreligious dialogue; we are seeking inter-denominationalism”. He warns that the reduction in the aid that the administration allocates to the association puts its planned activities at risk. In addition, he says that the religious community members have other priorities: “They’re worried about the community itself, their families, their work… Dialogue comes second and is used more for resolution than for prevention.”

Once the Olympic Games were over, the Abraham Centre became the parish of the Prophet Abraham, i.e. a Catholic church in the new Vila Olímpica neighbourhood. The idea of setting up a new multi-religious space was put back on the table years later. “We conducted a survey and even the most precarious communities were against it, because they wanted their own space”, explains Cristina Monteys, OAR director. “This demand is understandable, because a place of worship is also the communities’ home.” The idea was shelved.

Seen from the air, the outline of the Prophet Abraham parish is in the shape of a fish, the sign used in the age of the catacombs so that Christians could safely recognise one another. Centuries later the fish became an ecumenical symbol of union between all branches of Christianity. But only of Christianity.