Manuel Delgado: ‘Greater vigilance of children is the reason why Sant Joan bonfires have declined’

A total of 822 Sant Joan bonfires were lit in Barcelona in 1970, a figure which has declined over the years, with just 14 in 2001. What is responsible for this decline? The anthropologist Manuel Delgado thinks he knows the answer: children used to be the ones who made them, and they were gradually stopped from playing on the streets, a place that started to be seen not as somewhere for socialising, but as a source of danger. The anthropologist has led a study that explains this phenomenon. It is part of the book‘La Nit de Sant Joan a Barcelona’ [Sant Joan’s Night in Barcelona], an analysis of the festival’s history in the city, from all possible angles: historiography, anthropology, folklore…

It is sometimes thought that Sant Joan bonfires declined because of the streets being tarmacked, increased traffic density, urbanisation, etc. But the field work carried out with the university for the book ‘La Nit de Sant Joan a Barcelona’ puts these theories in doubt.

There were different factors involved in the decline and near extinction of the bonfires of Sant Joan. For example, an emphasis on banning them in order to maintain a stylised, magazine-like image of Barcelona, along with phenomena like an increasing dependence on motorised traffic. But beyond the cars and the prohibitions, which were applied for centuries, the key factor explaining the decline in the number of bonfires is that people just stopped making them: nobody built them.

And who used to build them?

Neighbourhood kids, groups of preadolescent children aged between 8 and 15. At a given moment in time, children stopped hanging out on the street. Building Sant Juan bonfires was not the only thing the kids used to do: most of their lives was spent on the street. From when they came out of school until it started getting dark and they went home, there could be three or four hours to spare. And they spent that time on a very specific kind of socialising. Apart from enjoying their free time and playing, they learnt things that would prove essential to their future lives.

What type of learning?

Things they didn’t learn at school or with their families, such as friendship, responsibility… On the streets they developed skills that no one else could teach them, such as administering their own time, having a sense of freedom, however relative that might be, because there was always someone watching over them, albeit indirectly. As a child, you knew that you were free and that your time was your own, that you were in control. Most of my generation, and the one that came after, learned a lot on the streets. And anyone who has listened to Serrat’s songs will know what I’m talking about.

This is why the book refers to the gang, the streets and the neighbourhood as social institutions…

Indeed, they were very important social institutions that have been lost. In fact, they were antisocial, because they had that touch of rebellion, but the entire community was aware of their importance. Rebellion is understood as a source of information about life, and you could get it from that kind of interface, halfway between such recognised institutions as the family and school. But what happened on the streets was also a social institution and it was useful, too. It was a kind of teaching that society was ultimately responsible for.

Building a bonfire for Sant Juan was one of the things the kids did for fun.

There aren’t many people that know exactly what is involved in building a bonfire: the work started two weeks before and involved not only going door to door to collect wood, but also hiding it away. You had to hide it from other kids and from the Guàrdia Urbana police and the fire brigade, who, in the days leading up to Sant Joan, would patrol and confiscate all the stored up wood they could find. This was a really complicated affair and involved almost military strategies: collect the wood, hide it, watch over it and then build the bonfire. And when kids stopped doing that, bonfires started to disappear from the city.

And when did it all finish?

When what is known as free-time education became generalised, appearing as youth clubs and after-school activities. The belief became widespread that children always had to make the best use of their time for learning things, not wasting it by playing on the street. The streets became a place full of dangers: physical dangers, like traffic, and also moral dangers, because nothing good could come of it. A greater control of children undoubtedly finished off the bonfires of Sant Joan.

The bonfires we see today are a very different thing.

As I build one every year, I know that one of the main problems nowadays is finding the wood to make bonfires. It’s not that there’s no wood around, because people throw things away every day, but you can’t get to it because the City Council picks it up and doesn’t allow things to accumulate on the street. Collecting bits of wood, something that used to be part of the realm of children, is now controlled by the people from BCNeta: they are the ones who pick up the wood that people leave out on the designated day.

One of the book’s theories is that young people later take revenge for the confinement they suffer as children.

When they are children, they are not allowed outside, so when they eventually get permission, they take over city spaces en masse, which in the end is just a delayed expression of the hunger they feel for the street. In the case of Sant Joan, this is evident above all on the beaches and in the botellon drink binges. During the rest of the year, it is revealed by graffiti, making noise with motorbikes… They are victims of the infantilisation of childhood and this is their way of getting even.

Serrat describes the night of Sant Joan very well, but there are other literary references for this magical night.

The song speaks of the melancholy of a young man who is no longer a boy, and who wants to do what he always used to do. This is a subject that is part of all Catalan literature and music. Salvat – Papasseit, Martí i Pol, Mercè Rodoreda, Carmen Laforet, Juan Marsé, Vázquez Montalbán… Indeed, I don’t think there are any Catalan or Spanish writers who have experienced the night of Sant Joan and not set something down to remember it. And this doesn’t just happen with artists, because if there is one thing that stands out in our anthropological study, it is that all the participants had emotive memories of the Sant Joan festivals they experienced as children. With or without bonfires, it is a night where everyone has a good story to remember. It is our night; everyone’s night.

Was Sant Joan more disorderly in the past?

Festivals are always disorderly: Even the most controlled and institutionalised events involve massive crowds on the streets. The streets belong to the people, and on a night like Sant Joan that can be seen more clearly than ever, because the people claim their right and exercise it. Sant Joan is a festival that consists of getting out onto the street, and it is also very participative and decentralised. When it is Sant Joan, the whole city knows about it because there are bonfires, parties and bangers everywhere. It’s like a state of emergency, a massive public disorder where many everyday places are transformed. Because it is a festival with no centre, it becomes a sort of festive metastasis that affects every inch of the city. Sant Joan is Barcelona’s festival par excellence, because it is the most difficult to control.

There are still bonfires around these days.

Yes, the only people building bonfires do so to preserve them, so that they survive. They are organised by NGOs, local-resident associations, etc., but there are no kids doing it now, and they won’t be doing it any time soon, either. I don’t know what the future holds for them, but their realm on the streets has gone forever. Even so, I’m optimistic about Sant Joan: when one part of the festival is lost, another one appears. The festival’s essence, which is taking the street, has not been lost. While it is true that the bonfires have disappeared, new ways of laying claim to public areas have appeared, such as taking over the beaches.