Workers take over a palace in Andalusia

Moratalla Palace and SAT members

SAT members outside the Moratalla Palace.

First a raid on supermarkets, now workers take over a palace of a cousin of the king. It is occupied for a day by workers angry at the extremes within Andalusian society. Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo and his jornaleros (day workers) are rapidly becoming the bête noir of the Spanish establishment.

The momentum has been growing following the raid on 2 supermarkets in Andalusia by the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajardores/as (SAT) on Monday 6th August.

Following the news locally it has been interesting to see how the government and the judiciary are pursuing the matter. The leader of this present wave of direct action is Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, an Izquierda Unida (United Left) senator as well as being the long-term mayor of the Andalusian town of Marinaleda. As a senator he is immune from prosecution and there have been calls for him to resign his position in Parliament to show that he is prepared to face the consequences of his actions. He has replied that he is prepared to give up his immunity but why should he give up his seat if he thinks that he is merely representing the people who voted him in in the first place.

Soledad Becerril, a member of the present Conservative ruling party (Partido Popular) was appointed as La Defensora del Pueblo (what would be called a Omsbudsman in the UK) earlier this year. She has come out arguing that the union members who raided the supermarkets did so because the only opposition they knew they would face at the check out desk were women.

Her argument, somewhat bizarrely, is that they did not choose a supermarket where there were men built like heavy weight boxers at the tills for fear of their own physical safety. She has still to indicate where these supermarkets can be found as she indicates, by omission, that this is the norm. Perhaps if you know of such an establishments you could let her know.

Sanchez Gordillo responded by branding her a fascist, as she was selective with the facts in making her accusations. So no love lost there, then.

There must have been images in the newspapers or on the tele making references to one of the women being quite distressed by the events that took her by surprise on that Monday, (I myself have not seen them). And it has to be accepted that it must have been a shock. However, the question to be asked is why, under those circumstances, did she try to stop them when they must have told her that their fight was not with her but with the wealthy in Spanish society and the inequalities they are perpetuating.

It has to be remembered that they were not furtive in their actions. They were not masked or using anything more offensive that a supermarket trolley (although that can be a lethal weapon in the hands of some people I’ve encountered in supermarkets). They even had their pictures taken and these have been widely broadcast. It was, therefore, obviously an open and clear political act.

There’s an open letter (by a Blogger called Pascual Serrano) to the woman who was depicted crying as events unfolded. It’s in Spanish but the gist of his case was why did she feel she had to protect the interests of her employers when they were paying her not much more than minimum wage levels and apart from being multimillionaires in their own right had a reputation for the poor treatment of their employees. Pascual’s argument came down to basically asking her which side was she on, that of the rich or of her own class?

Although the Defensora del Pueblo, Becarrill, maintains she is standing up for the rights of poor working class women it is worth noting that she herself is a Marquesa and stands for, and represented in her political past, the interests of her own class, one that would be challenged if such activity were to spread.

And spread it has.

On Tuesday 21st August a group of 200 people, including Sanchez Gordillo, invaded a palace of a cousin of the king in a place called Hornachuelos, again in Andalusia. This palace was not occupied and is in the process of being converted into a luxury hotel. One of their reasons for choosing this particular location was the fact that workers doing the renovation work have a dispute over payment for their work.

Again this action took place in the full light of day, no violence was involved, the people were happy to have themselves filmed and they even jumped into the swimming pool (the temperatures in Andalusia that day topping 40ºC). Can’t imagine what the water in the pool would have been like if it had not been treated for some time but at those temperatures I suppose they didn’t care.

So it appears the movement is growing. More people becoming confident and not caring about the consequences. And their position will only get stronger as more people are attracted to the cause. Poverty is not something that has just affected Andalusia in the last few years with the present economic crisis. It has always been a low wage economy and there have always been problems caused by the almost feudal manner in which many of the rural workers are treated. Social welfare services are minimal and people are literally without the wherewithal to find money to pay for their next meal.

Some of them, still a small number but seemingly increasing as time goes on, are starting to say that they are not prepared to accept this situation any longer.

SAT members in the gardens o f the Moratalla Palace

Jornaleros in the gardens of the Moratalla Palace

‘Privatisation’ of Parc Guell?

Information Board Parc Guell

The Barcelona municipal council are considering charging admission for entry into Parc Guell, one of Antonio Gaudi´s gems, in order to get more money from visiting tourists, without improving access or services.  This is opposed both by tourists and the local residents.

Parc Guell, to the north of Barcelona, is the green area which offers one of the iconic panoramic views of the city below as well as being the place to see some of Antonio Guadi’s unique designs. If you haven’t yet been able to visit the park then you´d better do so soon if you don’t want to pay.

‘There’s money in them there hills’, according to the municipal government, now in the hands of the CiU party, the right-wing Catalan nationalist party. Every day thousands of tourists visit the park, most seemingly wanting to have their picture taken beside the dragon – which has become the symbol for the park itself. It pains the local grandees that so much money is virtually flowing out of the open gates.

So many people want to visit the area so why not charge them?

Many of the residents around the park are against this virtual privatisation as it would affect them directly and they are also angry that an increasing amount of the park has been paved over, presumably because that makes it cheaper to maintain.

As far as I can remember the park was accessible at all times but when I visited yesterday (the first time for more than 10 years) I was surprised at the substantial gates that prevent access after sunset. This restriction on access would have been instituted by the previous ‘socialist’ local government – who had had control of Barcelona City Council continuously since the death of Franco in 1975 – so a change of government would not necessarily mean a change of policy, if payment is introduced in the near future.

Especially in the peak summer months of July and August Barcelona is teeming with tourists and, as in so many other cities throughout the world, tourism is vital to the local economy. But as is becoming increasingly the case elsewhere, instead of being open and welcoming to visitors the main emphasis seems to be on how to milk them even more.

So far this policy has not had an adverse effect on tourism where surcharges have been introduced already for the mere temerity to want to visit the place, as has happened in Venice. Perhaps people will be prepared to pay ever more to see these places, perhaps not. But it is sad to read, yet again, that politicians consider that almost everything has a price. Don’t be too concerned about the pickpockets operating on the Rambla, it’s the bandits in the town hall who are after every cent you have.

It’s good that the local residents are against charging for entry to Parc Guell. However, one of the lines in their little poster to be seen in the vicinity of the park I find disconcerting. They talk about the ‘poor management of the affluence of visitors’. Does this mean that they don’t care where the tourists are fleeced as long as it doesn’t directly involve them?

March 2014 Update.

It was with a great deal of annoyance that I received the news that you now have to pay for entrance into the park. It was on the day before leaving Barcelona that I was told by Catalan friends that payment was now required to visit the Gaudï structures part of the park, the green space that is the majority of the area is still free to enter.

So the struggle against the privatisation of yet another public area has been lost. I know that the local people were against it but the state, whether local or national, and the greedy and avaricious will never give up until they lose their influence and power. They will always grind us down by their sheer determination to win – we, all too often, give in.

Not having visited Barcelona for more than I year I had missed out on the arguments. I’m sure I’d read that Güell himself had left the park to the people of Barcelona but by maintaining that the green spaces are still freely accessible and by employing a high-flying and expensive lawyer, together with a right-wing administration and judges with fingers in many lucrative pies the privateers have been able to get around whatever he might have desired a hundred years ago .

Not only do you now have to pay there is also a limit of 800 people visiting a day and if you arrive too late you might have a long wait.

Opening times:

25th October – 23rd March 08.30 – 18.00

24th March – 24th October 08.00 – 21.30

Entrance Fees:

Adults €8.00

Child (7 – 12)/Over 65/Disabled €5.60 – Under 7 free

Tickets can be bought at the ticket vending machines at Lesseps and Vallcarca Metro stations and at various ATMs close to the park, or at the park entrance itself.

7th March 2014

Carrers Guarnits in the Festa Major de Gracia, Barcelona, 2012

Carrers Guarnits, Gracia, Festa Major, Barcelona, 2012

Every year the Barcelona district of Gracia organises a street based competition during its Festa Major in August.  The carrers guarnits (decorated streets) are a tradition going back just under a hundred years and attracts visitors from all parts of the world.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours walking around the streets of the Gràcia district of Barcelona, taking more than a hundred pictures of rubbish, literally, (hopefully not rubbish pictures!).

I used to know this area quite well (about 15 or so years ago) but this time I needed a map to get me there and once I found a reference point it all started to fall into place. Although one of the older parts of Barcelona there is a grid design of the old streets, if maybe not as formalised as the 19th century area of the Eixample, so it’s not a difficult place to navigate your way around.

At a time when festivals are being invented all the time in order to attract tourist money it was a pleasure to visit an area where they are continuing a tradition that goes back almost a hundred years. In the 1920s neighbours and community organisations based on a street level began to organise a competition to find out who was able to best decorate their street, in Catalan this is ‘carrers guarnits, at the time of the Festa Major in August.

This socialised structure that had been developed in times of peace was to have a profound effect upon the community in the time of the Civil War where these neighbourhood organisations directed their efforts towards the construction of air raid shelters to protect the people from the fascist bombs of the German Nazi and Italian Fascist air forces.

After the Civil War the Festa Major and the decoration of the streets took on a political dimension with references to the colours of the Falangists (Franco’s fascists) in a satirical manner. At first this increased the number of streets that would be decorated but as the years went by the numbers dropped and by the end of the 1970s the tradition was all but dying out.

As the society got used to the fact that Franco had finally kicked the bucket matters slowly started to change and although still a long way from the heyday of 1942 (which saw 70 streets and 5 squares involved in the competition) there were 17 locations putting themselves forward in 2012.

Before the festival opened, the official date is always the 15th August, different newspapers I read were speculating upon how the economic situation would have an impact upon the display. The argument was that as most of the materials used in the decoration were recycled plastic, paper and cardboard, etc., this should not really have an impact.

To this I would say yes, and no.

The amount of thought, planning and work that goes into these decorations, different every year, is phenomenal. Just like the Rio Carnival the process starts the day after the present festival ends. At times it must be like Blue Peter on speed with children demanding of their mothers the inside cardboard of the toilet roll before it had been used. And a huge amount of material must have been collected and then stored ready to be turned into some quite remarkable objects. However, that ecological idea was not really represented, I think, in the final awarding of honours.

In some of the less complicated ideas there must have been something similar to a production line in reproducing the same objects that hang above the streets for a hundred metres or so. But some of the more complex would have needed trained artists, or at least enthusiastic amateurs, to produce the designs on display.

I visited the festa on the day after the judges had made their decision on the main winners (everyone gets some sort of recognition). However, the gold, silver and bronze winners (after all we are in an Olympic year) were all which had invested more than time and enthusiasm and community involvement in the exercise, they had invested money (and not an insignificant amount).

And this increased investment in the street decorations will inevitably have an effect on the Festa Major in general. Each street has a temporary bar, presumably a money-maker for whatever is planned for the following year. If you win one of the top prizes you will get more visitors and, potentially, more income at those bars. Then you arrive at a situation that exists in football where the most financially better off can maintain their dominance by pure force of money.

As more and more visitors come to see the ‘carrers guarnits’ big companies will be searching for sponsorship opportunities and then any local feeling will gradually disappear. That might be happening already as the Catalan brewer Estrella was represented on every street bar I noticed and would seem to have attained an almost monopoly position.

It would be a shame if commercialisation was able to get its tentacles too deeply into this street festival as it would spell the end of the community spirit that has kept the tradition going for so long.

I enjoyed my time finding my way around the narrow streets and was pleasantly surprised by some of the depth of ideas that were being presented at times, or just the sheer idea of fun. These traditions fail when people take the whole idea TOO seriously.

I was glad to be doing my exploration before noon than after midnight. The smell of piss in the hot Barcelona August sun, the remains of discarded food by the bins (although that would have all been cleaned up by the time the next evening’s festivities began) together with the partly digested pizzas and hamburgers occasionally decorating the pavements indicated the nights could be horrendous.

And it’s not really worth all the hassle for the overpriced delights on offer. After all, its only lager!

I have selected 3 or 4 pictures from each street, to give an idea of what was there this year. See if you can pick the winners and in a few days I will let you know the results and also which ones, and why, I thought should have been on the podium.

Here are a couple of websites which might be of use for anyone thinking of visiting Barcelona at this time of year – but remember it’s hot, hot, hot – or just after more information about the Festa Major.

Official Barcelona City website

In the lead up to the Festa Major go to the bario’s official website (in Catalan) here

and the map produced for the event this year (2012)

Gracia Festa Major Map 2012