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On the gypsy tarmac of La Perona

El barri de la Perona. Barcelona 1980-1990El barri de la Perona. Barcelona 1980-1990

Authors: Esteve Lucerón (photography), Àngel Marzo (text)

Publisher: Barcelona City Council and Marge Books

176 pages

Barcelona, 2017

Esteve Lucerón recovers the last few years of the gypsy Perona, when the neighbourhood had been living amidst conflict and exclusion for quite some time, and does so without prejudices and in a natural manner.

It seems strange to evoke a neighbourhood that disappeared due to embarrassment. Not a neighbourhood that has transformed itself to such an extent that it is no longer and will never be as it once was, but one which has been eliminated from the very root to give way to a sleeker, more anonymous and indifferent urban aspect. Transformations are what regulate urban life and a city changes so much faster than a human heart, but it tends to retain some part of the heart and the insides that have made it what it is.

Not in this case. We talk of an urban life that doesn’t exist, one with no streets or houses, no bars or markets, no children, adults or elderly, no police or teachers, no passers-by or neighbours; a life without people. Without problems. Rather, only the typical problems of a park, the Sant Martí park that has replaced it. We’re talking of La Perona. Nowadays seen in photos and records.

La Perona disappeared in 1989, year in which the huts still standing in Barcelona were finally demolished, leading to the visible step taken towards the Olympic event and the new city which has since then emerged. Before the Olympic Village and the urban opening onto the sea, the first images that announced the change that was coming were photographs of the Mayor Pasqual Maragall at these public sites during the demolition of La Perona huts, among the most widely recognised. Others were ones such as the Carmel, Montjuïc, of remaining spots of the Diagonal. The destruction cleaned and cleared the path.

La Perona neighbourhood no longer existed as of then, neither did Somorrostro, the inhabitants of which were relocated alike those of La Perona when the huts and camp sites that had been erected along the seaside were removed on the occasion of Franco’s visit in 1966. Gypsy settlements.

Photo: Esteve Lucerón

Photo: Esteve Lucerón

That Perona now lives in the archives, in the private images of those who lived there, in the scarce recorded material available. And especially in the photographs taken by Esteve Lucerón, now compiled into the book for which these lines have been written. With the disappearance of this neighbourhood, the inhabitants were relocated to the homes provided by the City Council to eradicate the huts they had built themselves. El barri de la Perona. Barcelona 1980- 1990 comprises a worthy selection of photographs which Lucerón has released to the Photographic Archive of Barcelona and are accompanied by very experienced texts by Àngel Marzo. A photographer trained in the highly active dynamics of the International Photographic Centre of Barcelona who decided to document the lives of the gypsies living in La Perona and that is what he has done, immersing himself in the neighbourhood as an occupational workshop teacher, and a writer who was a teacher at the Adult School of La Perona.

Located along the length of the Sant Martí district, between Espronceda bridge and Horta river, where we now find the park and part of the Sagrera railway tracks. La Perona received its name not thanks to the sweet nun as was thought for years, but due to the visit by Eva Duarte de Perón, who was referred to as “la Perona”, to the Franco regime in 1947. This site had already been chosen by the peninsular migrants of the post-war period, who made up La Perona of gorgers, which remained until 1967. As of which mainly gypsies settled there, until the settlement was removed.

Esteve Lucerón recovers the last few years of the gypsy Perona, when the neighbourhood had been living amidst conflict and exclusion for quite some time, and did so without prejudices. His photographs recover that life with great naturalness, following along the line of the strength arising from experiences sustained by each family –“which is a tree”, in Marzo’s words– and by children that grow up accompanied by the caring eyes of their grandmothers, who represent “the connection with the line of a time that doesn’t end”. Plenty of sun shone on that gypsy tarmac, not only the shadows of conflict

In the park that ends the photographic collection there are several neighbours, I imagine, and also the migrants who once again make a living from scrap iron in Sant Martí and Poblenou, the new nomads of Barcelona, now arriving from the diaspora of global poverty.

Montserrat Roig, up-close and from afar

An author with a variety of registers and a novelist of the viscera of classical Barcelona, Montserrat Roig wrote about and experienced deeply everything she had at hand. Her research into Catalans in Nazi camps signalled a turning point in her career. This November marks the 25th anniversary of her death.

Foto: Pilar Aymerich

The writer in 1990, a year before her death.
Foto: Pilar Aymerich

Montserrat Roig (1946-1991) left an ever-changing, deepening body of work that to a large extent is still to be discovered: we have not read it closely enough. I’m not talking about a formal assessment of the work, but about the writing the author was proposing and, above all, the modes and manners of the words she used and in which she was deeply immersed. A short life means that we must not lose sight of the writer’s time; it concentrates this time. What Roig did in order to leave a mark and the overall image of the world and of us that she built, in particular while she was dying, since she published daily right up until the end: that is probably what counts the most.

Photo: Pilar Aymerich

Pregnant with her first son, in April 1970.
Photo: Pilar Aymerich

There is a good dose of adventure in Roig: in her words, her expression. She was a woman who wrote and experienced deeply everything she had at hand, irrespective of whether she sought it out or stumbled upon it. The way that life and literature combine is complex; there can be no other way. In Roig’s case, the breadth of tools and spectra of words were her keystone, in parallel to a life experience that was likewise prismatic and hard-working. Theatre, narrative, journalism, television, research on history and memory, travel books, conferences, classes at foreign universities, cultural and media contributions, article writing. Friendships, love relationships, travels, children, editors, political and social changes, editorial changes, and changes in the role of the writer itself from the 1980s. Roig had experienced the rise of the moral figure of the contemporary writer (of varied morals, since the single worldview is from the 21st century, which she did not experience) and was spared from seeing the confusion and decline of that moral figure in the intertwining tendrils of the market.

Ever-changing and deepening. Her final works of prose both confirm and display this evolution, day by day. In newspapers, first in El Periódico and later, when she was already ill, on the back pages of Avui. She had fought to become a professional writer, to earn a living by writing, and so she had explored different genres. The recent biography by Betsabé Garcia, Amb uns altres ulls (With other eyes) (Roca Editorial), is a good, dynamic recounting of the tireless work she did, and all without much in the way of publishing networks. In the 1970s she was a media figure, although back then it wasn’t called that. An urbanite daughter of pop culture after all, she had created her public persona from the very beginning and turned herself into a star. The photos by Pilar Aymerich, her partner in crime for many years, bear testament to this: what presence, what glamour and elegance Roig had. And when cancer attacked her, the hour of relentless truth that is illness brought out the self-portrait that the public persona had been hiding: a lucid, serene, combative writer and an excellent reader, who was cognisant of the fact that Franco’s dictatorship had pulled literary training up at its roots and who was, therefore, all too aware of her limits to that point and the power that, despite her illness, journalistic prose could give her.

She took advantage of the eventuality of the irony of life. With her antennae more attuned to inner life – owing to a sharpening, as the writer Maria Marçal, who was also sick, would say a short time later – of the body and the tools when it comes to describing the social and political world, including culture, as both foment and fertiliser of personal and collective life, where words act as precise tools of a geometry of noble expression. As in the case of Marçal, who also died at the age of 45, and of Helena Valentí, who died age 50, I ask myself how much more we would have gained from them had they been able to survive the tyranny of cancer, which had (also) given them so much enlightenment. Roig’s final works of prose are magnificent and are some of her greatest literary legacies.

Inside and outside Catalonia

What would she think, what would she write about this or about that? And one aspect no less important: Roig had taken to heart the aim of strengthening relationships (and translations) between Iberian literatures. She developed contacts outside Catalonia and acted as a cultural bridge. She did the same for the region of Valencia too. I don’t know to what extent she felt appreciated or if anything came out of it; it is, however, reasonable to assume that no one seems to play this role any more.

Photo: Pilar Aymerich

Roig in a demonstration in Paris against Vietnam’s war, in 1973.
Photo: Pilar Aymerich

Something similar happens outside the Iberian peninsula. In terms of contacts and professional visibility, Roig had impact. Some American universities were familiar with her work and valued it. In 2004, in Guadalajara, Mexico, at an international congress, I was asked about what had become of her work, because neither gender literature nor Hispanist scholars were giving due consideration to it any more. I didn’t know what to say. Presentism rules in a way that could be fatal. If you are not here, which means if you’re not alive and you cannot travel here and there to endorse your books, then you are simply not taken into account. Misogyny does the rest.

Photo: Family archive

With Neus Català, survivor of the Ravensbrück Nazi concentration camp, at the inauguration of a monument to Spanish Republican refugees in Septfonds (Languedoc) in October 1978.
Photo: Family archive

Roig was, at heart, a woman of her time, in every sense. She cultivated her own vision; often, in her case, as a female chronicler, but not only as that. In this sense, there is, in her books, a strong political, pedagogical desire aimed at changing the ideas received in the consciousness and exploring the vital margins in the area of women’s freedom, with clear discernment that this is a central point of contemporaneity. Like all writers, she was shaped by her early and modern forefathers. While she was from a family that had not entirely broken with Catalan tradition – quite the opposite, in fact – even so, such were the effects of the Franco regime that she was not spared from having to recover a great deal of Catalan literature and pour her heart and soul into interviews that remain essential even today, nor was she saved from the pressing need to consider literature from other contexts, both from literary history and from the present. For her, the feminism of the 1970s represented the gateway to knowledge, which is, in essence, what feminism is.

Linking everything together is this vision of history and of memory. In particular, I am thinking about the extraordinary research on Catalans in Nazi camps, which marked a turning point in her work and in her life. In my opinion, this is one of the central points in analysing Roig’s work, a book that was finally published in 1977, after a long period of financial difficulty.

Roig’s Barcelona

Foto: Pilar Aymerich

Montserrat Roig with her son Roger in the Casino de Lloret.
Foto: Pilar Aymerich

Remembering her should mean reading her, now. We have the above-mentioned excellent biography as a foundation; what is missing is a comprehensive reading of her work, one that considers her fiction in detail and also views it in the context of the overall panorama of her work and, therefore, of the literature of her contemporaries. Time puts everything in its place and it is worth re-reading books perhaps read all too often with condescension and critical negligence. Her novels feature a Barcelona that, in addition to the named characters, exists as another character and sometimes, even, as the lead character. She narrates the history of the city and the neighbourhood she knows best: Eixample, which is where she was born, but it is more than a chronicle – even though that would be value enough. Instead, you can get to know Barcelona from deep down inside it, almost to its viscera.

For such an impenetrable city, that is no small thing. The same could not be said of the many novels in which, after all, Barcelona is just scenery and nothing more, an editorial hook without meaning or sense, a private reference, at the most, for those who write them.

Maria Aurèlia Capmany – 25 years later

2 October will mark a quarter of a century since the death of Maria Aurèlia Capmany (1918-1991), a versatile author who for over 30 years remained at the centre of the cultural scene. She worked in all genres, although her essays on feminism and young people are of particular note.

A typical image of the writer Maria Aurèlia Capmany smoking a cigar.
Photo: Ferran Sendra.

Today, the multi-faceted work of Maria Aurèlia Capmany and how it was possible for her to create it seem to have passed into history. I can’t think of any current authors among us who are as admirably versatile. A versatility encouraged by the cultural world for three and a half decades, from the mid-1950s right up to the end of the 1980s, during which time Capmany brought out novel after novel, article after article. Nowadays you would need to be Basque to take advantage of a public and private climate that would allow an author to work in different genres and even intermingle them in the same book – novels, essays, stories, poetry, theatre, song lyrics, scripts for comics and feature and television films, translations, memoirs and diaries, articles in newspapers and magazines –, to have so many readers and to be translated. Capmany did all of the above, except for books of poems (although song lyrics are poetry) and film scripts.

As a precise indicator of the cultural changes for the worse in this quarter century, her essays on feminism and the new role of young people are particularly worthy of attention. Formidable in terms of timeliness, they defined an era. And they were written at the request of a publisher! Wouldn’t an update be equally necessary today, when generational changes and mentalities are going in this dual direction, no matter how many obstacles might be encountered? If that did happen, though, I don’t know whether there would be any publisher that would commission them from an intellectual.

La dona a Catalunya: consciència i situació [Women in Catalonia: awareness and situation] was published half a century ago now, in 1966, also the year of “La Caputxinada”, the constituent assembly of the University of Barcelona’s Democratic Students’ Union, held at the Capuchin convent in Sarrià (Barcelona), in which the author took part. Maria Aurèlia – as many called her, proof of the recognition and popularity she earned and won – had been a well-regarded writer since the publication of her first novel, Necessitem morir [We need to die] (1952), completed in 1947. An allegorical novel about those years of transformation and cultural recovery, written by a 30-year-old woman who had lived through the war and the harsh initial post-war period, a failure, as she mercilessly categorises herself in her memoirs, resolutely determined not to forget it while at the same time not complaining about it.

Maria Aurèlia Capmany with members of the theatre-cabaret group Oli de Boges, at the performance of one of her works at the legendary theatre La Cova del Drac in 1989.
Photo: Robert Ramos.

She was also a woman of the theatre, an author and actress. A teacher, an anti-Franco and pro-Catalan activist, a woman going against the flow who, with a keen eye and a sharp tongue, was increasingly in the limelight. A woman with bohemian ways and more. She wasn’t a beatnik, but she began to spread the American crime novel and provided a glimpse of the nascent counterculture, as would soon be seen. A child of Barcelona’s Rambla de les Flors.

Her book on feminism was valuable. Reading it today, it is perfectly reasonable to see it as an early example of the cultural studies then developing in the English-speaking academic world. Capmany provided a good critical review of the context and women of the educated petite bourgeoisie of the early 20th century, the prudent feminism that would always drive her crazy. But she also rescued them from the abyss and from cultural nothingness. The Barcelonians Dolors Monserdà, an author, and Francesca Bonnemaison, an educator and promoter of female education, sprung back into life. Three years after this historical plunge into a past that was so opaque it seemed empty, she submerged herself in the present.

And she emerged with La joventut és una nova classe? [Are young people a new class?], devoting the same attention to popular culture and analysis that avoids making the elite the central focus for this exploration. This was also published by Edicions 62, a publishing project that at that time had become a reality, which, seen from today, was glorious. It did not punish intelligence and boldness; on the contrary, it encouraged them.

This span covering interests ranging from the cultural history of modernity to the country’s present and the vibrations in the western world, despite Franco’s dictatorship, would put her in the public eye even more with articles in newspapers and magazines. Capmany was a well-informed author, with knowledge of languages and other cultural landscapes such as France, Italy and the United States, where statuses were being stirred and new understandings roused. It was known she was multifaceted, but when she published her books on feminism and then on young people  an author appeared whose scope went beyond novels, a genre she would continue to cultivate but which would gradually become just another of the many areas in which she worked. A mention must be made of her theatrical involvements, particularly as an actress with the Adrià Gual company, contributing greatly to accompany the works of Salvador Espriu. There was also her work as an author, with works as stunning as 1971’s Preguntes i respostes sobre la vida i la mort de Francesc Layret, advocat dels obrers de Catalunya [Questions and answers on the life and death of Francesc Layret, advocate for Catalonia’s workers], co-written with Xavier Romeu.

In sum, Capmany was above all an intellectual who, luckily for herself and for us, found herself in a wonderful cultural context when she entered adulthood. Today, the essay is a chimera for many authors, as is prose itself if it does not take the form of a novel or memoir, and even then. A talented author, who writes very well, a writer of prose who is completely out of the ordinary, contrary to the stereotype, clearly attentive to the expressions of everyday life and of the senses themselves, a born arguer, a provoker of words. These are qualities that link her with two contemporaneous authors who were exclusively prose writers, as if they were French or Italian, thanks to their shared moment in publishing and politics, to the varied cultural revolution, which expressed itself as it could and which brought them together from different angles: Josep Pla and Joan Fuster. It really doesn’t matter if they had it in for each other, if they had any kind of relationship or not. We are the ones who read them (if we do); we are the ones who finish the books or put them aside, talk about them or not, make them come back to life or not. We hear people talking about Pla nearly all the time; less (too little) about Fuster; and almost never about Capmany. They should ask us why.

The “I” and the “we”. That is the central point, I note, of Capmany’s work. Her later books of memoirs are, in this sense, a literary document and a moral indictment about the life of a woman and a culture that, in order to continue being of their time, modern, have seen it all. They exude the intelligence of speaking without saying everything, leaving readers the space and responsibility that falls to us and to which we are entitled. We will not know much about the author of these books, about her difficult childhood and youth, about her even more difficult old age. We will know, on the other hand, if we want to, much more about ourselves.

The cover of Capmany book on women in Catalonia, from 1966.

She wrote these books when she was a staunch socialist and had reached a position of considerable public standing. A woman who, during the heated (politically and even more so meteorologically) Míting de la Llibertat [Freedom Meeting] of 1976 (the first major mass act of the transition period, representing the formal start of the process towards forming the new Socialist Party of Catalonia) at Montjuïc in Barcelona, when not even the Communists were legal, shouted to the drenched crowd: “We sweat socialism!” The councillor for culture who would accompany Mayor Maragall for years. She then wrote Dietari de prudències [Diary of prudence] (1981), Mala memòria [Bad memory] (1987), finishing with Això era i no era [It was and was not] (1989) when she was already suffering from cancer. Together with earlier memoir works, the two volumes of Pedra de toc [Touchstone] (1970-1974), they form an invaluable compendium about how to reconnect “I” and “we”. Something which is still so badly needed.

Here’s to Maria Aurèlia!