About Lilian Neuman


The neighbourhood that disappeared under the sand

Somorrostro. Mirades literàries

Selection and presentation of texts: Enric H. March

Publisher: Barcelona City Council

163 pages

Barcelona, 2018

Somorrostro was inhabited by a working population that was all too often looked upon as marginalised people who did nothing to escape their condition. The quality of the photographs and the variety of texts in the book –literary excerpts and chronicles make up the unique map of a massive settlement of huts that survived until 1966.

It is surprising to reach the text by J. Ruiz de Larios. This text makes reference to the intensity of the colours of this neighbourhood without light or water which, in 1935, he explores at the request of La Vanguardia newspaper. Because the first image of Somorrostro which comes to mind is in black and white, in greys which sadden and whites which suggest that, when looked at closely, on that great stretch of sand and under the sun, they would harm one’s sight.

Curiosities of our memory: having questioned several people (including myself) they answer that the film Los Tarantos (1963), by Francesc Rovira i Beleta, was filmed in black and white. But Antonio Gades and Carmen Amaya (daughter of these huts, to which she returned to in 1951; and of that triumphant return, here is the chronicle of Sempronio) moved amidst scenarios of an unusual colour, somewhat yellowish. Like the sandy ground on which people with and without work erected no less than 2,357 huts that gave shelter to about 18,000 people.

The seafront promenade, the construction of which began in 1957, ended abruptly at the site where today we see the Hospital del Mar. And then came an abyss. Here lay that neighbouring land limited by the sea and, at the back, by the gas plant. The native of the Barceloneta district, Arturo San Agustín, in his book En mi barrio no había chivatos, retrieves his childhood fascination for that area which he glimpsed nearby, just a few steps away if he jumped from his window. A gradual settlement, one of eternal provisional status, accessed by overcoming mountains of cans and smell of sewage. Which began in the 19th century and lasted for about a hundred years, with a mind-blowing end.

In the interesting introduction to these texts sought and chosen by Enric March, literary fragments and journalistic chronicles, which spoke of inhabitants of working class families who “all too often were seen as marginal individuals who did nothing to escape their condition”. In this sense, the article printed by El Correo Catalán considered the neighbourhood as a “realisation of the underworld of Barcelona” that had to disappear. In the eyes of the Generalísimo Franco, according to the same newspaper, the huts “ruin the image of greatness of Barcelona, and of its citizenship and the diligence of its children”. For his part, a report of the works by the Parish of San Felix Africano, dated 1950-51, makes reference to an atmosphere of hatred. The worker “hates his life”, “has no inner peace”. The Work is concerned: Somorrostro encourages “the most shameful promiscuity” and is “the scenario of early sensualities”. While, despite prejudices, attempts are made to provide health care and education.

The other great idea is particular, literary: to the cited authors others are added such as Juan and Luis Goytisolo, Josep Maria Carandell, Juan Marsé, Blai Bonet, David Castillo, Sergio Vila-Sanjuán, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Joaquim Muntañola, Arturo Llopis, Antonio Rabinad, Xavier Benguerel, José Hierro and Terenci Moix. Each in his own way, with respect or stupor, with naturalness or morbid interest in this marginal population, they include us in this landscape through myriad details: “In the hut close to the sewage, a child crawled along the sand, with one foot tied to a rope and to the door of his home” (Juan Goytisolo).

Photo: Jacques Léonard

Photo: Jacques Léonard family archive.

The quality of the photographs –Joan Colom, Ignasi Marroyo, Jordi Pujol, François Papinaud, Josep Brangulí, Nicholas Jacobs, Colita, Agustí Centelles, Jacques Léonard– and the diversity of the texts form a map of light and sounds: the radios that can be heard from all of those huts built, in some cases, with solid brick, others with whatever was available. Rooms without windows or with slits. The young girl who spies from her small window on her neighbour while shaving (Mercè Rodoreda), the sun beating down and the men wearing hats made from newspaper pages. Half naked, snotty children, and gentlemen and hierarchies. People who make a living out of smuggling and girls such as Carmen Amaya heading towards the spring. The strumming of a guitar under the sun.

1957 saw the beginning of the works to dismantle that world of exiles in the name of “a great urban planning work with social projection”, the seafront promenade, which in its first phase swallowed up the huts closest to the Barceloneta, and in 1966 came the final destruction on the occasion of a military exhibition. The people were sent to Badalona, to the Sant Roc neighbourhood, still under construction. A shot by Carles Barba shows a simulation of a navy landing on those already rampaged beaches.

Today we walk on this very site.

Return to China Town

La Criolla. La puerta dorada del Barrio Chino
Author: Paco Villar
Publisher: Comanegra and Ajuntament de Barcelona
256 pages
Barcelona, 2017

Transvestitism and brazen homosexuality reigned supreme on Carrer del Cid. So, too, did treachery, dishonesty and the broken, questionable condition of the people. The owner of La Criolla, who presided over a bar that would turn from a seedy joint into a hotspot, started by playing dirty and ended up worse off.

The book called Historia y leyenda del Barrio Chino (The History and Legends of China Town) (La Campana, 1966) was — and still is — a surprising endeavour, a map of the most dismal (and cheerfully) celebrated bars in that area outside the old city walls, often referred to as El Raval, both loved and loathed by locals and foreigners alike. In that book, Paco Villar (Barcelona, 1961) catalogued in text and photographs the euphoria and the follia – or folly – as well as the misery, for several decades from the start of the 20th century. It is a singular book to which this return to the topic has now been added, with a more unrelenting narrative thread that follows the origins and the apogee of a tavern set up in the heart of a street of ill repute that, during the First World War in 1914, would refine its artifices: “Or, more precisely, a bar with a pianola, pale electric lighting and large mirrors covering the sheets on the wall.”

It is impossible to reflect in this review the power of the images on display here. Some of them are so incredible, such as the one of the famous man they called Flor de Otoño (Autumn Flower): “The most enigmatic character of all those who performed at La Criolla… an anarchist activist, homosexual and cocaine addict who, by night, used to don makeup and regularly visit the dance halls along Carrer del Cid.” Or the photo of Carmela, a pretty girl who would go on to be elected Miss Barrio Chino in 1934; only up-close could one tell — because someone sitting at a nearby table warned the innocent bourgeois type who had succumbed to her charms — that she was, in fact, a man.

Transvestitism and brazen homosexuality reigned supreme on Carrer del Cid. So, too, did treachery, dishonesty and the broken, questionable condition of the people. The owner of La Criolla, who presided over a bar that would turn from a seedy joint into a hotspot, started by playing dirty and ended up worse off.

Participants in the Miss Barri Xino transvestite contest in 1934. Image published in the book La Criolla. La puerta dorada del Barrio Chino.

China Town embodies many stories, starting with the chronicle of its poverty; so miserable, so tough and unhealthy it was to be a part of it, so naturally lugubrious. The private rooms without sheets on the beds; the children that went running by, the sight of women renting themselves out, by the hour, in full view.

Paco Villar is a career journalist. What would have become of us without him? What would have become of him without Francisco Madrid and his account of the night he dared to sleep in one of those hostels with 140 hard beds and millions of fleas? Or without Sebastià Gasch, devoted admirer of a fourteen-year-old girl who danced like a wild animal? “Carmencita [Carmen Amaya] remains impassive and statue-like, haughty and superior, with an indescribable racial nobility, inscrutable, distracted… Then, suddenly, a jump. And the gypsy girl dances. It is indescribable. Soul. Pure soul. The transcription of soul through dance.” Or without Juli Vallmitjana and his insurmountable descriptions of that world that he intimately explored?

The history of prostitution and drugs is reflected here in its evolution as a small-time business — the nearby port, the sailors who arrived with consignments of cocaine (the mandanga) — and its process of globalisation. Likewise, the girls who brought the Polish Jews are the same ones — through the connection with Buenos Aires — that an Argentinian Jewish writer (César Tiempo) wrote about, in his stories about girls, who threw themselves from a balcony, drawn there by false promises of work and marriage (and they are the same enslaved women we see today and about whom we know not their terrible reality).

The reader will not forget this account of glitter and grime: the poverty of a Barcelona that all of a sudden had to become beautiful — during the 1929 International Exposition — the ingenuousness of a mechanical pianola and the décor of angels and blue skies. The poor, obese Mrs Rosa who died in her brothel, having received the last rites from a priest who reluctantly entered the premises. For this reason, through all this glitter and grime, the reader will not forget the celebrities who began to appear, such as the Nobel prize-winning writer, Jacinto Benavente; the stage actress, Margarita Xirgu; and even the French novelist, Jean Genet, who was in it up to his neck.

A dark tale, a story of two shades. Like how Flor de Otoño trafficked explosives by day and painted his lips by night.