Manuela Carmena, this year's festival-opening speaker

Smiling as a weapon of mass construction

The former Mayor of Madrid is a feminist and fighter, who backs stronger ties between the two cities and takes on hate and intolerance with a smile on her lips.

Healthier finances and environmental measures that will sooner or later end up applying to all European capitals are part of the legacy of this woman, who was Mayor of Madrid from 2015 to 2019. Yet the thing citizens will remember best about her is her style of politics, which has even been praised by the The New York Times. “The frugal leftist who shook up Madrid” was the headline of an article from that paper highlighting the refreshing and simple style of a retired and strictly secular judge who, as mayor, brought her lunch to work in a plastic lunchbox … or treated visitors to her own cooking. Because, at a time of excesses and exacerbated feelings prevailing over reason, she showed us that simplicity is the choicest luxury, that you can be just without being severe, that efficiency and kindness are not opposing concepts and that you can respond to the harshest criticism with a smile. And, above all, that experience rather than a university degree makes the perfect complement to the drive of youth. 

She was born in Madrid, where her parents had a clothes shop in the Gran Via. She studied at a school run by nuns, like so many other children of her time, and, as an adult graduated in law in Valencia. That was 1965. Having joined the Communist Party that same year, she then moved to Barcelona, escaping the repression that had already put her twice behind bars. She remained in the city from 1966 to 1969, rubbing shoulders with the intellectuals and freedom fighters of that period, including Montserrat Roig and Mercè Olivares, with whom she created the Democratic Women’s Association. Back in Madrid, she co-founded a firm of labour lawyers in Carrer d’Atocha, where, in 1977, the country’s transition to democracy was seriously threatened when the far-right murdered five professionals and union leaders who had been working there. A colleague had asked her to exchange offices. It was her compliance with the request that saved her life. That was Carmena's closest encounter with a form of hate that has never succeeded in affecting her way of doing things, possibly by personal decision. 

She left her career as a lawyer in 1981 to become a judge, which took her to the General Council of the Judiciary, while also becoming one of the founders of the Judges for Democracy progressive association. She retired in 2010, but ended up starting a business tailor-made for her: a company dedicated to commercialising products made by prisoners. An active woman like her, however, was not cut out for a quiet life and she ended up running as a candidate for Madrid's mayoral elections.

Manuela Carmena says that “she is no longer anyone” today, at least at Madrid City Council, but she is clearly wrong about that. She is the epitome, in both Madrid and Barcelona, of a political idealism successfully put into practice, a living example that reminds us how hate only triumphs if we open the door to it. And that a smile, when properly used, can easily become a weapon of mass construction.

  Download the opening speech