Long

La Revo

Photograph by D. Sánchez

 

On Calle San Luis, in one of Seville’s oldest neighbourhoods, a large purple banner hangs from a grand, tiled house. Painted on it: the outline of a vulva and the words La Casa Revolucioná de Mujeres (La Revo). It is a Casa Social Okupa, established for and by the women and non-binary people of the barrio. The building itself is striking, its reds and yellows burnt and faded by the unrelenting sun. San Luis is a typically Andalusian street, lined with orange trees, flamenco peñas and churches that were once mosques, their minarets turned bell towers with the fall of Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus. The barrio is known for once being home to Cervantes’ lover; local legends describe him scaling San Marcos church tower to woo her from the balcony. Centuries later it would be Seville’s last Republican stronghold, and site of the massacre of hundreds of communists and anarchists by Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Now there’s La Revo.

La Revo is Seville’s first non-mixed occupation. It was established in 2015, not intended for permanent habitation, but as a social centre that would be home to community workshops, debates, fiestas, a crèche, a kitchen and a library. I got involved with La Revo when it was still an idea and not yet a concrete project. I had lurked in awe around the project’s authors and architects for about a year after moving to Spain. I had seen their involvement in other actions, like the 2012–13 pro-choice campaigns responding to the government’s attempts to outlaw abortions, and I was attracted to their confidence and creativity.

Those at the centre of the project gradually came to trust that I was not a police informer and began to include me. Alongside practicalities, we had to face doubts and dilemmas that were rooted in Seville’s history, concerning queer and feminist theory and our own experiences. Was it inconsistent and hypocritical to seek gender equality in the public sphere through championing separatism though we were a women-centred house? Why bother occupying a building and risking police repression, when one could just pay rent? And finally, would La Revo — could it — survive, despite its inherent contradictions and the resistance it was already facing? These questions framed my involvement with La Revo.

We discussed these indecisions at our initial meetings, when La Revo was nomadic and still a name to be whispered. At this point, we were unsure of almost everything, including where we’d like to be. To the feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, nomadism characterises the contemporary postmodern subject, especially the feminist subject. Her nomadism does not refer to physical displacement, but rather points to the metaphysical travel done across established conventions of thought and behaviour via an itinerant critical consciousness.[1] To us, being nomadic meant code names and cafés, paranoia and promise; at this early stage, we had to remain exclusive and elusive for security reasons. If the guardia civil — the Spanish police — had sensed our plans, that would have been it. But our attempts to remain obscure was complicated by the goals of the project itself. Our idea was to build an open and inclusive project that was designed for and around the community’s women. We wondered, however, if this was possible to do on such well-concealed foundations.

La Revo was born of rage. Groups of female and trans activists — mostly self-identifying anarchists — had become incensed by the hypocrisies of the squats, cooperatives and communal gardens where they’d spent much time and energy. Alongside their male counterparts they’d asserted their rights to these spaces and to greater freedoms generally, yet they often found their own liberties curtailed by the other project participants. They were excluded from certain tasks, activities and decisions — expected to perform unrecognised emotional labour, and often implicitly or explicitly undermined. The recurring inconsistencies between the ideas and actions of their male companions compelled them to act.

 

No cis men allowed?

Feminist activists have repeatedly asked, and been asked, how they can demand equality while advocating separatism and difference. In the West, women have faced this fraught question since their first entry into the public sphere. The notion of the ‘public sphere’ was initially established in opposition to the ostensibly feminine ‘private’ domain: a distinction crucial to Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between family and state. With industrialisation and urbanisation, shared conceptions of space became more acutely partitioned through social practice and the division of labour. According to Doreen Massey, as men departed a their personal abodes to enter the public sphere, they came to characterise that place as ‘home’ and framed it around those who had stayed. The identity of a place, Massey concludes, is derived from the specificity of its interactions with the ‘outside’, as the private become inextricably intertwined with the domestic and femininity. [2]

During the ideological turmoil of the French Revolution, social spectators began to think about, or rethink, women’s relationship to the public sphere. Contemporary political thinkers Nicolas de Condorcet and Olympe De Gouges presented antithetical arguments for why women had the same rights to citizenship and public life as men. De Gouges argued that women’s unique attributes were compatible with new ideas of the ‘nation’, asserting that femininity could enhance its strength and defence.[3] She was killed on the guillotine for her provocative views. Condorcet conversely claimed that women could learn to be like men, and in doing so, they would eventually be entitled to play with the big boys.[4]

Both approaches place women in an impossible position. In De Gouges’s position, women must draw on an abstract feminine ‘essence’ — often seen as maternal and passive, and therefore at odds with ‘the public’ — to attain more influence, or, qua Condorcet, must adopt the conventional masculine way of being and banish any ‘feminine’ traits. This conundrum still exists today. Female politicians are encouraged to take vocal coaching, lowering the timbre of their voice to give it more ‘authority’; they are also publicly vilified for not being sufficiently motherly, gentle, or ladylike. Many women who daily navigate public space, whether at work, in the media, in politics, or at university, will recognise that sensation of having assumptions made about what they will say before they have opened their mouths to speak.

These women will be familiar with the feeling that they must work harder to show they are as intelligent as their male peers, and can be as assertive. They then risk being labeled as ‘oversensitive’, ‘overbearing’, ‘whinge’’ or ‘hysterical’ when their passion is displayed. Instead of trapping people into these dichotomous categories, we ought to open up our understandings of what we consider to be powerful, authoritative and influential, thereby broadening the possibilities of action for women, non-binary people and men. The historian Joan Wallach Scott, in her landmark essay ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis’, urges us to reject the very idea that equality-versus-difference comprises an opposition:

It makes no sense for the feminist movement to let its arguments be forced into pre-existing categories, its political disputes be categorised by a dichotomy we did not invent… The only response is a double one: the unmasking of the power relationship constructed by posing equality as the antithesis of difference, and the refusal of its consequent dichotomous construction of political choices.[5]

These were the kinds of challenges we confronted when imagining the future of our project, and I felt excited by how La Revo seemed to represent a response to Scott’s admonitions. It sought to embrace contradiction and upset Manichean binaries from its very premise. Its aim: to become a house — a home — for women, but one that was firmly situated in the public and, as an Okupa, a challenge to the very rationale of private property.

Unlike the French revolutionaries or even secondwave feminist predecessors, we in La Revo were not attached to the uncomplicated category of ‘women’. That concept had been disrupted and troubled by intersectionality and queer theory, and by our own lived experiences.[6] Many of us identified as queer and would have ultimately liked to see gender divisions banished completely. Though others didn’t agree, discussion, whilst heated, remained playful and productive. Does my stance as a feminist mean that I am reaffirming essentialist categories that I simultaneously seek to undermine? I do recognise the apparent contradictions in aiming for the eventual erosion of the simplistic sex and gender binary while advocating for women’s rights. But as Braidotti says:

In feminist theory one speaks as a woman, although the subject ‘woman’ is not a monolithic essence…One speaks as a woman in order to empower women, to activate socio-symbolic changes in their condition: this is a radically anti-essentialist position.[7]

In 2015, we agreed that a female-run (if not female only) space was important, and emphasised three main arguments in favour of our stance:

  • To redress an imbalance. In the Andalusian capital, masculinity still dominated public space: in the bars, the hermandades (Catholic brotherhoods), and sites of politics and sport. Even though women were supposedly welcome, these places were often built for and around men, giving them a distinctly masculine feel.
  • To change. We were of mixed ages, but those who were older and had experiences of mixed activism told us of difficult interactions: being overlooked, undermined and dismissed. Many argued that by organising separately, women could gain the confidence to become more assertive and vocal in mixed spaces. Personally, I’m more convinced by the inverse argument that we should work on transforming society itself; to think about why and whose voice fits public spaces, and attacking the ‘faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse’.[8]
  • To care. If there is one woman who, for whatever reason — perhaps because of a particularly traumatic or violent experience — feels particularly uncomfortable around men, surely she too has a right to a public space. La Revo would offer a kind of private refuge that allows women a form of escape from the relentless masculinity of the public sphere.

The process wasn’t straightforward. From talking with a non-heteronormative male friend who defined as a male feminist, for example, I found myself coming round to the idea of men’s entry to the space. He made the case that if he was denied entrance, he would be deprived of learning and the company of friends. After hours of meetings, we decided that once La Revo was more established in the community, self-identifying males would be allowed to contribute. They would not maybe be free to attend every event, and they would never be the principal organisers, but they would be granted entry.

 

Why occupy?

People occupy spaces to free themselves from market or state dependencies and because they have no alternative. While Barcelona and Madrid’s reputations as radical sites of squatting have been firmly established, Seville’s tradition in the practice is less recognised. In 1978, during the Spanish transition to democracy, a group of Spanish Communist party members was released from prison and sought a space in which to socialise. They found and occupied an abandoned hut, transforming it into their collective’s hang-out, which still stands today. Since then, various groups and families have occupied empty buildings, in which to both live and organise. Despite the introduction of repressive anti-squatting laws, the 90s saw a surge in these activities.

In 2006, it took police 36 hours to evict occupants of Casas Viejas, an Okupa named after a nearby town where insurrectionary anarchists were killed in 1933. The eviction involved a fierce showdown, with hundreds protesting and two activists chaining themselves inside a secret underground tunnel they had built under the house. The activists later said brutal tactics were used to remove them, while the police defended their actions by claiming the squat was connected to the Basque organisation ETA, for which there is no evidence. The title of a documentary made about this episode, ‘London Isn’t Seville’, indicates the pride in Sevillana resistance many felt.

El Pumarejo, an 18th century Mudejár palace converted into a residential home and community centre became the site of another success story. In 2000, authorities tried to expel the building’s residents, some of whom were elderly, to sell the old palace to a hotel chain. The occupants refused to leave and were supported by their neighbours, who delivered food and care. Such acts of solidarity continue today, with neighbours looking after those who still live there, and making sure that the building — abandoned by the local authorities — doesn’t deteriorate. While many of the original inhabitants had to move out to get more specialised care, El Pumarejo is now home to dozens of meetings, community events and cultural shows, and has its own currency. Close by, too, is Rey Moro urban community garden, established in 2004 by local residents who had refused to allow their beloved bit of wild wasteland to be sold off and built on, and converted it instead into communal allotments.

These examples of grassroots neighbourhood resistance challenge popular assumptions that Spain’s recent political mobilisation — the post-2008 economic crisis Indignados movement — represented a radical break with the past. In reality, recent activism in Spain is constructed from the residue of previous mobilisation, going back to the dictatorship and transition years. To emphasise the novelty of contemporary activism is to ignore its contingency on past radicalism and previous struggles, and to view current politics through an ahistorical lens.

Spain has seen a huge political mobilisation since 2008. Over one million people were involved in the protests and occupations in May 2011, in a phenomenon known as 15M (15th May). According to one poll, 70% of the population was sympathetic to the Indignados movement.[9] Around a thousand organisations, platforms and assemblies coexisted by 2012, most of which were responding to austerity measures brought in during a recession that deeply affected Spain along with Greece and Portugal, countries which had also undergone transitions to democracy in the mid-70s.

Housing and unemployment were particularly sharp areas of conflict. The decades preceding the crisis had seen a credit-fueled boom in property and construction, partly driven by increasing levels of tourism. The financial crash left millions of people with insurmountable debts due to rising mortgage prices, and without employment. In 2012 alone Spain witnessed 100,000 evictions, and rates of youth unemployment soared.[10] The tragic irony of multiplying empty houses occurring alongside rising homelessness prompted many to get involved with anti-eviction organising or Okupa projects all over Spain. The left-wing Barcelona mayor, Ada Calou, owes many of her votes to her support for anti-eviction and anti-gentrification initiatives, drawing from groups like V de Vivienda and Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH). By 2015, PAH had stopped 2,500 evictions.[11]

In May 2012, 38 families in Seville occupied four empty buildings owned by a bank, calling it La Utopía. In the following months, 200 families squatted 12 more buildings. These were mainly working-class families — with children — who were unemployed and homeless.[12] Within Urban Studies this activity is described as ‘deprivation-based squatting’, and is therefore distinguished from political squatting. Yet the reasons why people squat are entangled. What might at first seem like a response to primordial needs can become profoundly political. The thousands of illegally-established makeshift homes that constituted Spain’s chabolas — shanty towns —  in the 1950s came into life as sites of survival, inhabited by impoverished families who had internally migrated to work in newly-established factories. They would become hot-beds for anti-Francoist dissent and were key settings in Spain’s 1970s citizen movement that accompanied the transition to democracy.

The house occupied by La Revo serves as a metaphor for some of Spain’s recent history. Until six years ago it was one of the five properties owned by a banker called Antonio Pulido. After the bankruptcy of Pulido’s own firm, the house — with a mortgage of nearly 100% of its value — passed from one almost-insolvent bank and insurance company to another. Meanwhile it lay empty and decaying from lack of care. We plotted and prepared for a year. I even had an abseiling lesson, which, given my clumsiness, was luckily not put into practice. When we got in, we danced. Then, I thought of some words by Emma Goldman: ‘If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution’.[13]

 

How to stay open?

Can La Revo remain open? By ‘open’, I mean both operative (not closed down) and inclusive. In the first weeks we camped inside, keeping guard from the police, and considered how linked these ideas of ‘operational’ and ‘inclusivity’ are. With the broader community’s backing and involvement, it would be harder for the authorities to kick us out. We set to work, trying to make the house welcoming. We cleaned, made furniture, wired up electrics and gardened. We politely (-ish) declined the numerous offers from male amigos of support with the ‘harder’, ‘heavier’ tasks. And some of us called on the neighbours, updating them on our progress and inviting them around. Yet this question of how to incorporate the community was complicated, and began to provoke internal divisions.

On the one hand, a group emerged that felt the house had to remain true to the anti-capitalist, anarchist, ecological values held by many of its original members at all cost. It would become a platform to expand these values and teach other people of their importance. On the other side was a camp which felt that strictly maintaining these values and establishing a proselytising ethos in the house might alienate some women and non-binary people.

What if a neighbour comes along wanting to make a tortilla — the classic Spanish omelette — or organise a cake-baking competition and can’t because of the proposed vegan premise of the house? Is only serving locally-brewed beer turning the place into a hipster house and possibly excluding certain members of the community, out-pricing them or making them feel guilty for their own life choices? I wondered how many groups had imploded on debates like this. Jane Mansbridge discusses a paradox central to many organisations: ‘To change the world, a movement must include as many people as possible but to attract devoted activists, a movement must often promote a sense of exclusivity’.[14]

Those in La Revo who prioritised openness and diversity over political or anti-capitalist integrity were often assumed to be less radical, more mainstream. I saw this as problematic, and worried that the group thought of as inherently more extreme could come to dominate, backed by an unspoken understanding that that is what they deserved. Some members mentioned that they felt not conforming to the more extreme group’s ways would lead to their exclusion, sensing judgment from some members for pursuing heteronormative relationships, for example.

When old norms are challenged, ‘alternative’ orthodoxies sometimes emerge that can work to conserve the newly-established power structure. A few people from the neighbourhood said they felt intimidated by La Revo because their clothes were not punky enough or were too feminine. That we could be perceived or imagined to exclude or discriminate based on something so superficial was disturbing and far from our initial intentions. But these sentiments are a feature of many organisations, often inadvertently creating their own uniform. Groups that address the issues of race, class, and gender as they relate to the topic of ‘image’ are brave, and probably last longest. When I left Spain, La Revo was just beginning to address these big questions. I think the project will only survive if its participants can stay open  and honest about these issues and others that emerge.

People ask if I was happy to leave Spain and return to education, to begin a Ph.D. They have no idea of the education I’m missing. On the day I write this, activities that will be happening at La Revo include a variety of classes, a talk on Colombian feminist art and a film screening. But I carry many of the questions raised by my experience with this project into my academic work. It challenged me to reflect on how to unsettle neat categories, resist established codes and try to blur boundaries while remaining sensitive to the new ones I might create along the way. La Revo unsettles classifications. It is an occupation that is not inhabited; a feminist house that seeks to undermine the gender binary; simultaneously a home and a public space.

La Revo will continue to break down its own internal and invisible boundaries and divisions only if its participants keep talking. Coming to see the importance of communication, and what happens when this is impeded, were La Revo’s most important lessons to me. Some – not all — of its members showed or reminded me of the power of doubt; the merit of raising questions over the repetition of answers, and the value of collaborating. If La Revo encourages these qualities I think it could endure a forced eviction, a return to nomadism, the hunt for a new home and other challenges it might face. We turned La Revo from an idea into a physical space, but it remains an idea, bigger than the building it inhabits, as important now as when it was first conceived. In promoting its core values and remaining open to new ones, it will persist as a fertile conceptual site for further interrogations, pushing past the four walls it now occupies.

 

[1] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press), 4.

[2] Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge, 1994) p.168.

[3] Olympe de Gouges, ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizen’ (1790) in Eleanor Riemer and John Fout (eds.) European Women: A Documentary History (1980) pp.62-7 (p.65-6)

[4] Marquis de Condorcet, ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship’ (1790) in (ed. Baker) Condorcet: Selected Writings, p.8

[5] Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 168–77, doi:10.2307/1864376.

[6] Moraga and Anzaldúa, “This Bridge Called My Back”: Writings by Radical Women of Color; Hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism; Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[7] Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, 3.

[8] Mary Beard, ‘The Public Voice of Women’, London Review of Books, 20 March 2014, p. 11-14. 

[9] Martí i Puig, S. (2011) 15M: The Indignados”, in Bryne, J. (ed.) The Occupy Handbook, NY: Back Bay Books, pp. 209-217. (209)

[10] Ibán Díaz-Parra and J. Candón, “Squatting, the 15-M Movement, and Struggles for Housing in the Context of the Spanish Social Crisis,” Human Geography 8, no. 1 (2015): 40–53.

[11] Portos, “Taking to the Streets in the Shadow of Austerity.”, 203.

[12] Díaz-Parra and Candón, “Squatting, the 15-M Movement, and Struggles for Housing in the Context of the Spanish Social Crisis,” 21–22.

[13] Paraphrased from Extract of autobiography, Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1934) 56.

[14] Jane Mansbridge, ‘Ideological purity in the women’s movement’ in (eds) Jeff Goodwin and James M. 1957- Jasper, The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2003). Pp.161-162.