About Maria Barbal


From roads of tranquillity to city streets

Humans are fast to learn about the world. We love the land and the people who gave us life. Yet we are able to be amongst other people, to go to other lands, to learn other languages and customs; all without forgetting about our roots.

Foto: Brangulí / AFB.
Polygon blocks of Sud-Oest del Besos, built between 1959 and 1966 by the Municipal Housing Board, during a visit by Mayor Josep Maria Socias, in 1978.

The particular period in which one is born stamps one’s life with a particular identity. Belonging to a certain place and, due to circumstances, having to change it for another, has the same effect.

My own emigration was a smooth one. What I mean is, if I had not moved from Tremp to study in Barcelona when I was fourteen, I could have stayed there with my parents and godfather. That journey was not necessary, but back home they thought it was a good idea. I think those people, without being aware of it, made a decision about my life path. They were generous.

I remember the early days in Barcelona with tenderness. I spent the lion’s share of my time at my uncle’s place and at the Institut Montserrat school. I missed the comarca of Pallars, and particularly the town of Tremp, as I did my home, my friends and the landscape. At the beginning, on Sundays, I did my best to find what I could of the comarca in Barcelona. My brother, relatives, friends studying there, acquaintances – all those who were from up there, as we used to say. One day in class, when the natural sciences teacher mentioned the salt evaporation ponds in Gerri, I was as struck with emotion as if I had heard someone talking about my family.

Looking back, I see the second half of the 1960s as the time when the resistance to Franco became noticeable, as a time when people in Catalonia fought tenaciously, no longer in absolute silence. Facts emerge because of their importance. I was already in high school in Barcelona when the Caputxinada church incident occurred – now fifty years ago. Montserrat Roig did her pre-university studies at the same high school. Also in 1966, the Democratic Students’ Union (SDEUB) was formed in the university. I joined a couple of years later when I was in my first year of a Philosophy and Arts Degree.

I progressively expanded my knowledge of the city, from the initial area then called Plaça de Calvo Sotelo as far as Carrer de Copèrnic, above Via Augusta and close to Plaça de Molina. In fact, two and a half years after I arrived, I moved to a students’ residence in Carrer d’Avinyó. And three years later, I was reunited with my brother in a flat close to Avinguda del Paral·lel.

My network of routes through the city was in a state of continual expansion. During those years, even though I would go back for the whole summer as well as at Christmas and Easter, my perspective on Pallars grew distant. I internalised its landscape without being able to see it every day. I also connected the little story about my parents and grandparents, the Second Republic and the Civil War, with the reality of a student who listens, reads and protests with fellow students. In the silence, the roads of Barcelona and Pallars intersect and become the shortcuts to a history that I had been denied. I didn’t speak with a Barcelonian accent and lived largely in a state of unawareness. However, within a few short years I felt like I was from everywhere: from where I was born, where I had been raised and where I lived. Soon, the rich Catalan language that I’d picked up at home – although not at school – would fight to become a written language in the city. Or at least for expressing memories and desires. Those first years at the Institut Montserrat were when I made some of my best friends and when first started writing with literary instincts. Verse and prose.

A valuable reserve

I do not know to what extent I was aware then that my place of origin would furnish me with a valuable reserve, an experience that would inspire me over the years and help me acquire a sense of structure. So I had made a journey from the mainland to the coast. Unfortunately, in the 1960s and 1970s, Pallars lacked basic infrastructures, the reason some people left. For young people, it had no high schools or opportunities for professional training, or even any halfway decent jobs. But I repeat, I was Catalan with a Pallars accent which I have lost from hearing others, and we never lacked for anything at home. It could be said that, in my case, emigration was an attempt to broaden my education.

As it stands now, I am not quite from Barcelona, but I feel like I am; nor am I quite from Pallars, but I feel like I am. This is a distinctive feature that I share with thousands of people living in the capital of Catalonia and around the world. It will be increasingly rare to be born and live always in the same place: be it a city, region, country or continent.

After completing my degree in Philosophy and Arts, specialising in Hispanic Romance languages, I embarked on my teaching career. I was expanding my landscapes and circles of acquaintances for reasons of work and friendship. The early 1970s marked a turning point. That’s when I became a teacher at the Joan Maragall school in the Besòs neighbourhood. Vocational training was taught after school, with classes beginning in the evening and ending at 10 pm. The students there were studying to be clerical workers, electricians and chemical industry workers. There I taught Spanish to students from different groups; at that time, I was only two or three years past the age of twenty. They were, for the most part, older. Young women and older men. Some of the men worked in factories and shops in the neighbourhood, as did the women. The clerical students were mostly female, while those studying to be electricians were almost all men. Amongst the future chemical assistants there was more balance between the sexes. The bulk of the school’s students came from outside Catalonia – particularly from Múrcia and Andalusia. Now that I’m on the subject, I remember the sense of affection that linked me to those people and how proud I was to know that some of them felt as Barcelonian as I do, even though neither I nor they had been born in Barcelona. That experience was profound and helped expand my vision of the city, of immigration, of language, of social classes and of friendship. Since that time, I have been aware of what a privileged emigrant I am.

My Besòs period lasted two or three academic years. Sometime later, in 1978, I took the first entrance exam to be an assistant lecturer of Catalan Language and Literature. More than twenty years would pass before I started writing fiction on the subject of emigration from Andalusia in the 1960s. The result was the novel Carrer Bolívia (Bolivia Street). It was about that time, the Besòs neighbourhood as it was then, with almost no infrastructures and filled with families who’d come from other places. Many streets were still unpaved, the flats were small and the people long-suffering. The school was anchored to the neighbourhood, to people’s problems, to the aspirations that made some people take the sacrifice of studying after working all day. My main characters (Lina, Néstor, Sierrita) were not based on people I knew, although the character of Daniel bore some resemblance to a worker-priest I knew. Perhaps Núria Solera had something to do with a teacher, but I had no desire to copy anybody’s personal story or personality. But, yes, I did try to capture atmosphere. Street blocks and bars, nostalgia, resignation, companionship, political and social struggles.

Humans are fast to learn about the world. No need to explain this. We love the land and the people that gave us life, and the words that paint people, objects, attitudes and feelings for us. The customs. Yet we are able to be amongst other people, to go to other lands, to learn other languages and customs. And we can do all this without forgetting about our roots or anything else that we consider or have considered to be part of us. None of the characteristics that have given us our place in the world stop us from loving its infinite variety of paths.