The Magic of La Tabacalera
By: Paul Runge (Macalester College)
By principle, I am not a blogger. Blogs can be… stupid. Especially livejournals. I wish those would all burn.
The fact is I don’t really want to recount my experiences to you, non-existent reader. It wouldn’t be useful. Documentaries wouldn’t even exist if they didn’t have a point, or if they didn’t ask the viewer to take action. And, really, this blog entry would just be just that: a failed documentary. It wouldn’t have a lesson.
The nitty-gritty is, I’m worried if I just wrote the minutes of what CIEE: Madrid did at La Tabacalera, I would really kill the magic of it all. Madrid is supposed to be a fantasy. We’re studying abroad because it’s supposed to cure us of something: fear, loneliness, disinterest, or most deadly, boredom. These experiences are meant to change us and incite us to take action. They are the compounding investments we make on the promise that in return we will think bigger, better, broader.
The idea I’m getting at is that the experience we had at La Tabacalera may have changed us, or led us to do something new (hell, it did for me). But a blog entry that simply recounts things that happened won’t do that for you, reader.
So I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll just give you two sentences on what we did. Then one of what I did afterword.
Then I’ll try to do the real heavy lifting: describe some of the fantasy that exists at La Tabacalera, but in the simplest way possible, so to force you to imagine it. Maybe that’ll incite you to visit one day. Or donate.
Alright, here we go.
Two weeks ago CIEE: Madrid’s students and coordinators volunteered at La Tabacalera, a community center in Lavapies. We made cheaply priced paella for a generally working class audience, and had access to only the kitchens and cafeteria.
I responded by returning (really, just by coincidence) to discover that there is much more to the space, and that it is, without doubt, the most magical place I’ve ever been blessed to visit.
La Tabacalera is an old tobacco production compound, owned by the government until Franco died in 1975, after which it was abandoned. In its hay-day, it was one of the first places that women were permitted to work. Some of those first female workers are still alive today.
In the early 80s, a complicated process of acquiring the abandoned site began. It started with squatters, mostly artists and homeless kids. Eventually the site was purchased by the neighborhood Lavapies as the site of a new community center. It was cleaned up and made into what it is today: an industrial beauty, a dharma bum punk-stoner hangout, a hedonist temple and a hellish but brilliant hole from which urban art crawls.
Here are the floor plans. It is a walled city. The walls don’t keep people out, but the energy in.
It has several bars, a cheap cafeteria to keep the skinny artists alive, a nave to host local bands, caverns dripping with graffiti and modern art, exposition space, an outdoor movie theater, a theater for plays, a skate park, a woodworking shop, a soap factory, urban agriculture, a patio surrounded by murals, a garden, free dance, art, language and literature workshops, a daycare and to top it all, a security office with on-staff guards.
Entry is free.
Those are the logistics. I’ll describe one scene and be done:
A ska band wraps up its show in the nave. The walls have been painted with grey-brown figures that stand well over ten feet tall. Several hundred people are dancing. The bar has run out of beer. An old woman is sitting on the ground near the nave’s exit toward the patio. She smokes a joint with a teenage girl. In a nearby room an artist takes a polaroid photo of the woman and begins to paint her. Now she’ll live forever, even if she dies. Maybe she realizes that, because she finishes the joint, gets up and hugs the girl goodbye.
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