The Invisible People

Urban melodies: dissidence, resistance.

This essay does not wish to express an objective or rigorous thesis so much as try to follow the fragile thread of situations, voices and subjectivities that are increasingly more intermittent or silenced. The fact that these other visions and concerns, present on the streets and the daily life of the city, are largely ignored or simply instrumentalised in political debate transmits the urgency of the situation.


The best shop in the world.

Barcelona is undergoing a unique and probably decisive point in time with regard to its imminent future. And once again, it seems that the social city understands the situation better than the political city, but it is the latter that holds the power, that decides how, where and why to invest everyone’s money, and the truth is that it seems much more sensitive to the voices emanating from the concept of the global market and satellite vision than to the voices from the street and everyday life; a reality that often demonstrates ignorance, discovers too late or is simply imposed on already catastrophic situations.

The city suffered gravely under Franco’s regime and against all expectations the so-called “period of democratic transition” defined a very grey and disillusioning daily reality. To sum up, we could say that we went from a patriarchal dictatorship to high-speed capitalism in record, linear time. Although in Barcelona this process was qualified by the local version of social democracy, the key issues and the direction of this genuine transition have scarcely been questioned, if at all. Progressively, the feel-good factor per-se of marketing converted to ideology has been accepted dogmatically, and its slogans have been implanted in the living fabric of the city, with the help of the more conservative sectors which, in addition, saw the possibility of maintaining or recovering the few privileges granted them; with the attractive concept of constant competitiveness, there is no let-up. Thus we have gone from the timidity of “Barcelona, make yourself pretty” to the more audacious “positioning Barcelona on the international market of the major competitive cities”, and the decidedly euphoric “best shop in the world”.

When at long last, after years of abandonment and dictatorial repression, the city started commissioning the works and urban interventions it was so desperately in need of, ideas, debates and actions that were both interesting and full of common sense emerged; in other cases, however, actions were imposed from a distance; i.e. projects drawn up in far-off offices by people with little knowledge, and sometimes little interest, in the specific issues of the people who lived there. Sometimes, common sense was displaced by extravaganza. The bulk of decision-making and action fell into the hands of architects, some of whom turned into great patricians; do you remember that image of Oriol Bohigas, elegantly dressed in his colonial-style suit, with a huge map of Barcelona at his feet? It was selected, enlarged and reproduced with complete ingenuousness.

When these actions increased in power, certain things started becoming quite clear with regard to the chosen model; for example, in terms of public or private transport. Other urban actions, especially the remodelling of neighbourhoods, appeared to respond excessively to an enlightened nineteenth-century model, too abstract with regard to the places in which they acted, and there was a notable absence of a more empirical, practical, enriched notion for working in the field. It seemed an elegant debate at a theoretical level, until it became evident that in practice it was much friendlier towards real-estate interests than towards the needs of the people who actually lived there. Building work went on for decades, paying scant attention to the people who had to put up with it; an entire generation grew up alongside the so-called (by the residents) “hole of shame”. Too many people in the old quarter learned, seeing what was happening in the old neighbourhood, that when their district was finally modernised, it would not be for them but for the people who would replace them.

But we were saying that this is a special moment in time; and it is because immigration has dispersed the mists of what seemed the almost inexorable inbreeding so tediously propounded by part of the local bourgeoisie. Barcelona is, for the first time in its modern history, experiencing a level of multiculturalism that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. An immigration of very diverse characteristics and sources, which is imposing social and political experiences - sometimes painful, often uplifting – of multifaceted customs, rites, religions and views of the world. It is important that the opportunity for dialogue that is opened up by this situation takes place within the framework of a society open to exchange, to disparity, and that it has sufficient force to change key aspects of our culture, if we believe that it is for the common good. When this is the case, the result is always mutually enriching; in our case freeing ourselves from the more rigid aspects of our culture, which make us lean towards a notion and usage of the world which more and more people are recognising as not just unjust but as mistaken and self-destructive.

The mass-media, however, again and again repeat the stereotype of “waves of poor, dispossessed, needy people arriving at…” We will not judge the truth of that vision here, but we will take issue with its total partiality, and even more so the fact that it imposes, under a falsely humanist encomium, the strict rules for the relationships that should be established, the rules of the game. Racism has many forms, none of which is any better than the other; they are simply slogans, but the basis is always the imposition of the innate and/or cultural superiority of one people upon another as an initial point of interrelationship. The needy status of immigrants is the proof of the alleged inferiority of their culture, and what singles us out as a “developed world”, a “port of hope” is the supposed superiority of our own. Obviously both views are false, and it is very important that we realise that this fallacy is directed at both sides, both “them” and “us”; we are being doubly deceived. And as a result, in a best-case scenario, the welcome speech to immigrants will have a certain charitable, understanding tone. But it is never a dialogue between equals, never an exchange of experiences, of suffering; never a de-stratified commentary on the experiences of these people, the strategies of struggle, celebration or hope that we could share. Quite the opposite: a world separated by “them” and “us”, in which some see their culture undervalued –in the strong sense of cosmovision, of knowing about the world, or practices- that will only be accepted in its most ‘lite’ aspect, their folklore; and “us” the mask of a vacuous self-satisfaction which prevents us from even suspecting our own miseries. Paradoxically, but very revealingly, the process of culturisation, i.e. estrangement from one’s own culture – and from this the view of reality itself – imposes itself in both cases; we all suffer from it. Yet more proof of the inoperability of the “us/them” distinction, as fortunately our language reminds us: nosaltres (us) includes both us (nos) and them (altres).

But let’s talk about needs. In the first place, we cannot forget that the voraciousness of the economic systems of “developed” countries is at least one of the main causes of the shortages in other parts of the planet, and is once again manifested by the imposition of unfair, unequal trade, where the strong imposes contracting conditions on countries that, furthermore, have been created ad hoc by the process of colonialisation and by the implantation of favourable local elites. Secondly, the mass-media exports and imposes around the world, as if it were completely normal, their single, ethnocentric perspective of what is poverty and what is wealth, bandying big numbers around, while including, together more or less reasonable (but de-contextualised) criteria, other criteria that are totally arbitrary while excluding other criteria as being insignificant (to whom?). Thus for example, the number of mobile telephones, televisions and cars per family is decisive; while on the other hand the amount of work necessary to obtain food or shelter is an extravagance. This is not the place to go into more detail on these concepts. But it is to remember what we are being forced to accept all too easily: the lack of time, the state of constant stress, the out-of-control handling and speculative interests in food production; and now, more specifically, our city, the levels of acoustic contamination, the pollution generated by the port, the poor quality of water provided by the utility company and the proliferation of skyscrapers, the lack of children’s nurseries, the abandonment of the elderly, etc. In other words, with a minimal ability to look at ourselves from outside, our own level of “need” is revealed to be much more serious than we believed, with the aggravating factor that this is not due to lack of resources but rather our choice of model. And still we remain deaf to other possibilities.

But in addition there is a question that is equally, if not more, important to the matter in question: who is the needier? The countries that send the immigrants or the host country? The economy of “advanced” countries (incidentally, advancing in which direction?) has been based on immigrant labour for some time; the economic “miracle” of Spanish agriculture is one excellent, well-known example. The imposition of working days and conditions that history books decried as extinct social models (?) are once again the order of the day. Illegal workers are essential for this system, not an accident.

“Who is the needier?” The pompous, mercantilist western culture is as far-removed from daily life as it is from effective criticism of the value patterns that crowd an uninhabitable world, incapable of the “transmutation of values” required by a change (or just a departure from) the model. The need, therefore, to exchange dialogue on an equal level with other cultures, who possess knowledge that we ourselves have lost, or which the “political and religious domination” throughout our history has robbed us of, or has prevented us from developing, is a key factor in terms of survival and mutual benefit. It forms the basis of a real exchange of knowledge, the foundations for its development and a way of understanding not only the so-called ‘others’ but also ourselves and those around us. Historically, this active and participatory form of co-existence has been the foundation of culturally, economically and politically (in terms of freedom) advanced societies. Negating this, either by law or deed, has initiated periods of decline and generalised repression that our history is only too well aware of.

Up until now, this dialogue has had various results in civil society; in some neighbourhoods of the city, it seems that the weight of the media machine, the repetition of stereotypes, the decade-long fount of “telebasura” (poor-quality TV) and the “updating” of prejudices during the stupefying PP (Popular Party) era have brought this coexistence to its absolute limit, where the most basic rights of immigrants have first of all been subjugated and later silenced. As happened once upon a time when the voices of national immigrants made up these neighbourhoods. It is a sad syndrome, but is starting to become predictable, and could give us some clues to a dark future. Or will we be surprised once again?

The fundamental improvements that the city has experienced in the last 20 years have facilitated, in other cases, the social city; in other words the city that can be found getting on with daily coexistence on the streets, shops, schools…and which often accepts this dialogue of cultures, languages and behaviour quite naturally. A dialogue that often takes place in difficult social conditions, not to say untenable, with very little help, under constant political and economic pressure, without any social or religious centres, etc., that these communities of immigrants are calling for, without them having any kind of self-management either; with part of the local population living in extreme conditions: the elderly, the unemployed, long-standing tenants, etc., and yet despite everything, the result of this daily grind is often the spontaneous celebration of cohabitation and a certain level of social autonomy, which is what has happened in general in the Raval neighbourhood, amongst others. But we cannot forget that all this is happening under conditions that a large part of the affected population would define as a state of social and economic siege, in the shadow of a speculative and occupational violence that never lets up…

Meanwhile, in this world of wide-screen TVs, advertising hoardings, brochures, neighbourhood newsletters, exhibitionist industry and Forums… the people affected see themselves portrayed as the passive subjects of the huge, exorbitant and spectacular machinery that the institutions have developed; they see how their most attractive corners are stereotyped, falsified in tourist promotion slogans, and their numerous and most urgent concerns and hardships are either ignored or regularly deferred. As always, the true forum of cultures, this time more opportunely in lowercase, takes place on the streets every day of life, and it is neglected, ill-treated and endangered.

For this reason, at the beginning of this essay we were saying that the city is currently at a very special and long-awaited moment in time. The genuine needs of the city can either be addressed or the moment will be lost. If we lose this opportunity, we will lose them all. We will lose the human wealth they generate and we will suffer from conflict. And very few will be the winners. One very probably already is: the process of theme-parking on which the city is engaged, of which we already have examples: neighbourhoods where the public space is being systematically depleted, sold off to establishments that are progressively controlled by chains and franchises, squares without public seating, full of commercial terraces; all kinds of shops geared towards visitors, international tourists, domestic tourists and even people from other neighbourhoods but never the local population; the hyper-proliferation of the leisure industry with outrageous hours, that even have an affect on rubbish collection. And all around us ridiculous prices that will end up forcing out everyone except a socially privileged minority, who will remain imprisoned – yes, even them! – in a society that is literally a simulation: of antiquity, of modernity, of multiculturality, of affability – all a front. A society in formaldehyde, a methacrylate box full of police and private security guards. A bonsai social community, extremely attractive…for real estate agents. Can’t we save it from this? Alternatives do exist, and we have seen that they are here, in our everyday reality; we need to listen to them, to tune into the urban melodies generated by the community itself, to allow space for social autonomy. We need to redirect the huge expenditure that does not directly benefit the people and decentralise its management. We need to question the model we have chosen before the “best shop in the world” comes down on all of us.

A few days ago we were talking about two terms that, at this time of conflict, affect a large part of humanity: resistance and dissidence. Let’s look at them now on a local scale. Is there room for dissidence? It is obvious that at an ideological and debatable level, there is. From the standpoint of dissemination and media access, less so. At a social level, none. It is increasingly difficult to live on the margin of this expansive, aggressive economy that even more incredibly assumes it is at the cutting edge of all ideologies; it is increasingly difficult to escape from the conflicts it creates and to experience the social, cultural and life-sustaining aspirations that are different from what it imposes on us. It is increasingly difficult to choose to live with only just enough resources, without becoming swallowed up by a consumer- and work-driven life, leaving room for life itself, for intimacy, for communities that are not prefabricated. And if no room is allowed for dissidence, this is when resistance appears, and if this is vanquished then so much the worse for all of us.


Tuning in to the invisible people.

In recent years, the production of independent videos in the city has led to the emergence of opinions and issues that otherwise many people would not be aware of, works that include “The Barcelona you don’t see, hidden Barcelona”“The Hole”, “Passatge Cussidó…a farewell”, “Rafting the Forum”, “The sit-in at the Pi Church” (1), etc.

We would like to include here the transcript of one of them: “The Barcelona you don’t see; hidden Barcelona”:

“ …anyone who’s got a minimum of dignity says: bloody hell, if I’m still able to work, then why won’t they give me a job?…I’m fit enough to work, I want to work, and I’ve got skills I’ve learnt over many years, so why won’t they give me a job?, what the hell have I done, what the f*** have I done to be punished like this?…how have I become old?…why am I old?.. why am I too old? I’m not old, I don’t feel old, I feel older... but I’m still able to work, I am physically able to work, but they don’t want to give me a job, they look at me in the face, I can’t say my appearance… well, I’m not exactly Robert Redford, so they don’t give me a job…the street is hard, very hard, apart from which the people who live on the street are like dogs, fighting each other out of an instinct for survival… they gang up in clans…and what am I going to say about it? Well, nothing, the anger, the right to protest, but no, I’m not going to hurt anyone, I’m not going to go stealing, I’m not going to attack people, because my dignity as a human being stops me… I’m not going to humiliate anyone, I’m not going to hurt anyone because I’m human and I respect other human beings, though they don’t have any respect for me.

And so that the tourists can see that Barcelona has a Forum of Cultures, that it can put on an Olympic Games, big ventures, the poor people, the sick, miserable people have got to disappear from sight. If the local police see you with a blanket, a package or a few goods to sell so you can eat that day, they’ll take it away from you, they’ll take it away and they don’t care if it’s 12º below zero, they don’t give a shit, it’s better that you die because you’re a social parasite, you’re a disturbance, in the way, what the hell’s your purpose in life?…do you understand?…and this is with a progressive, left-wing city council; if they were right-wing they’d just shoot us… they’d shoot us straight in the neck…and I’d recommend it too because perhaps it’d be a way of relieving a lot of people who are going to die on the street feeling like convicts…

You see people who are sick, really sick, who can barely walk… and they have to go and get their plate of hot food at half past ten in the morning at the Sisters of Calcutta so they can survive another day…one more day! There are times when you get so depressed that you go under, but as you can’t exactly go to a psychologist… you know?... you can’t get depressed because you’ll die…You’ve got a choice of two; you either get over the depression on your own or you let yourself die…there are no alternatives, here there are no longer any alternatives. And you can’t get help from anyone because … well, you can go to the social worker… but the social worker sends you to the FIRMI… they process you, I don’t know… they send you to the social canteen… but that doesn’t solve the problem at all.

You don’t see the deaths on the street here; in India you see them, but here you don’t, but every day there are people dying on the street; abandoned people, people sick with AIDS… obviously sometimes through ignorance… through neglect, they were people who had completely lost any sense of balance. But when they’ve been on the street for years, I can promise you that people go crazy… they don’t get better, in other words you fall into a hole in which no-one gives you a hand, if they don’t lend you a hand, you’ll never get out on your own as you’ve no resources, on your own you’ve got no strength to get out, you need someone to help you. This morning, a young guy from South America… an 18-year-old South American… was crying in Plaza Cataluña… crying because he was hungry, he was just hungry, and he was crying because he was hungry and we’d taken him to the Sisters of Calcutta to get something to eat… because the man was in a country he didn’t know, customs that he didn’t have the faintest idea how they worked, and of course in his own “jungle” he’d probably survive, but the thing is that here he wouldn’t survive, he’s not familiar with anything, he doesn’t know anything, people marginalise him, they spurn him because of racism… you know?... there’s also the racism factor, you don’t trust people whose customs you don’t know, they’ve got different customs, different cultures and at the moment they just inspire distrust… and if on top of that you’ve got a sector that’s dedicated to crime, for example…. let’s say there are a hundred thousand Muslims in Barcelona and two of them are involved in crime… as far as they’re concerned all Muslims are delinquents… their customs are different, their religion is different, you’re frightened because you don’t know them, it’s fear bred by ignorance. And then… South Americans, slave people…and I’d like to mention here that the Italians who emigrated to America at the beginning of the last century had to support each other to such an extent that they created these major organisations… that put the government of the United States itself up against the ropes, right? Let’s not be so lacking in solidarity that we repeat this…do you understand what I’m saying?…don’t let our lack of solidarity make the people from elsewhere feel they have to organise themselves to do things to…survive, to do things that are against the law.

It’s just that it seems to me that our politicians haven’t read any kind of history books, either ancient or modern, because these situations recur constantly… so however much they invade, or stop invading, or however many guns they have…bear in mind that the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 might take on another shape, but it’ll happen again. Because it will be necessary again, because we have to change this society… they need to watch out… they need to watch out… I mean it; the social, political and economic systems… and world leaders need to watch out too…. assassins like Mr Bush, for example.

So this is the other Barcelona, the Barcelona you don’t see… the Barcelona that’s hidden… the marginalised people, the people who live on the edges for a thousand different reasons, these people are invisible people… nobody wants to see them… they don’t matter to anyone”.


toni serra 2006


- “The Barcelona you don’t see, the Barcelona that’s hidden (captive in the Raval)”, 17’, Blanca Isabel Cardoso, Enrico Missana, Fátima Kamal, Marta Cortiona. Workshops coordinated by Arxius de l’Observatori (OVNI), with the collaboration of the TEB and the CCCB. Barcelona 2004.

- “The Hole”, 75’, José María V Peña, Barcelona 2004.

- “Passatge Cussidó…a farewell”. 30’, Jordi Secall; Manel Muntaner, Yolanda Bermúdez, Txema Alonso, Barcelona 2004.

- “Rafting the Forum”, 20’. A collective work with independent cameras of Okupem les Ones, Barcelona 2004.

- “The sit-in at the Pi Church”, 20’, Rabia Willimas, Barcelona 2004.

These and other works were screened at the last OVNI Resistències exhibition and can be freely consulted at the Arxius del Observatori OVNI.