The Hidden Histories Museum Tour of Barcelona City, And Yours
My grandfather who was not gay was born in 1930 in Seville, Andalusia. He worked as an itinerant labourer for the señoritos, the rich landlords, tending their olive trees and their domesticated animals.
My grandfather who was gay was also from the poorer south of Spain. He was born in 1925 and, some years after he married, he moved to Barcelona and got a job as a cabinetmaker at a factory. Soon after, his wife, my grandmother, and their three small sons, my father and his two brothers, followed. Together they settled in the El Raval district, when it was not yet gentrified, in a small, dark tenement on a sunless, narrow street, such as the street we are walking now.
In fact, their flat was only a few blocks away.
When I used to visit after school, I remember, even in the early 1990s after the esponjament, the ‘mopping up’, there were certain alleyways my grandmother forbade me from going down. It was rough, there was a criminal element. But now, see the cafés, the bookstores, the museums, the tourists, the row after row of galleries. How things have changed.
Of course, back then, when my grandfather was still young, it would have been impossible for him to have been openly homosexual. Franco’s law was severe. My grandfather would have been sent to one of the concentration camps on the Canary Islands, which are, as I’m sure you know, now a resort and beach holiday destination. How things change…
But come, follow me. We are turning here.
You ask about my grandmother? She was angry, you understand. Nowadays, they would’ve been divorced and that would have been the simple solution to everything. But my grandmother is Catholic. She still blames my grandfather for our family’s tragedies – two of her sons died young, one from a motorcycle accident, the other a brain tumour, and the third, my father, had a serious heart disease and was hospitalised for two years when he turned 40. In her mind, my grandfather’s sins caused all of our punishment. His actions, she believes – and she does not let anyone forget – were equal to the terrors of the anarchists who, in 1909, entered Barcelona’s crypts and removed the skeletons and mummified remains of priests and paraded them in the streets dressed in feather boas and fancy hats; and then, as if to add insult to injury, set fire to the city’s religious buildings, thereby unleashing chaos on the world where there should have been only abiding order.
Yes, yes, we saw the photographs of Tragic Week earlier today at La Virreina, the first museum we visited. Yes. The black and white aerial shots you thought were images of the industrial revolution but were, in fact, churches, convents and monasteries aflame.
My grandmother said my grandfather had let the devil into the house, but I don’t remember him in that way.
I’m afraid my recollections may not be what you want to hear. My grandfather was not flamboyantly camp in any cliched way, though he did like art – Monet, Dalí, Picasso – and he did sew my mother’s wedding dress, and he did enjoy the cheesy pop singers from TV and bought their records, even if he never sang along out loud. He was a serious and an often stern man. In retrospect, I think, I can only imagine, he felt ashamed of who he was. He worked very hard – perhaps to hide that shame – at the factory, where he eventually became manager of its expanding enterprise; his hands never idle, if he’d finished his tasks, he collected leftover metal scraps and welded them together to make sculptures of hares, bulls, mountain goats. He built all of the family furniture. In his free time, he took on extra responsibilities. For example, he was the president of a neighbourhood association for the disadvantaged and was honoured with a ‘degree’ and named hijo predilecto, a favourite son.
Not surprisingly, if he thought I was being lazy or misbehaving, he would scold me harshly.
On the other hand, he never said no to any of my silly games or projects. Once, at my bidding, he helped lay out a long domino train, with multiple split-offs and turns, that ran through every room of the flat using his old VHS covers. He made every single one of my carnival costumes; taking my hand-drawn designs as his gospel, he put together my gruesome vision of a Grim Reaper, including a two metre paper mache scythe. He was soft at heart, especially with children.
I will illustrate.
On his last birthday, his eighty-second, my parents and I took him a birthday cake to celebrate on the Sunday, even though his actual birthday was on the Monday. I was the one who presented him the platter – I suppose my parents thought it would be sweet for me to do the offering – but instead of happy smiles, he became viciously angry. It turned out he was as superstitious as my grandmother; if he blew out the candles a day early, it would bring bad luck. He shouted loudly at me to take the cake away at once. Of course, by the next time I visited – I was a kid – I had forgotten all about it. He had not. I was busy eating my merienda, my afternoon snack, when he called me to his room. I found him sobbing. He told me how deeply sorry, how ashamed he was about his reaction and asked for my forgiveness. I said that it was alright and patted him on the back, confused.
And then before the year was out, he was dead. I was 16. It was 2007. I was doing my Arts bachillerato – he had encouraged me to drop the Science stream I had been failing at, to pursue my strengths – and, after my last class, I went to the hospital with my parents so I could pay my respects. I assumed he had died of old age, but at the ward my grandmother told me that my grandfather had died of AIDS, and that he had been a wicked homosexual who had been unable to change his ways. Honestly, I’d never had an inkling. I knew that my grandparents didn’t sleep together anymore in the same bed, but neither did my maternal grandparents! I was sympathetic to them both.
Later, my mother told me – my father has never spoken about the topic – that my grandfather, Antonio Moreno Rivas, had been diagnosed as HIV+ back in 1984, and had outlived his doctors’ expectations, their bleak prognoses. That he had had a strong will. Or he was simply lucky.
And so here we are now at La Capella, the second museum on our tour. Shall we go in?
I should tell you, you can probably guess – no, no, I’m not gay, I have a girlfriend, but see the arches, the domed roof – this museum used to be a chapel. It belonged to the hospital. It says here on the plaque that it was acquired in 1926 by Barcelona City Council. Restoration work began in… Well, yes, it is possible, what you propose. Though it doesn’t say anything about the building being damaged or set fire to during Tragic Week, it’s probably not something officialdom would like to proclaim. In any case, the chapel has been transformed into an exhibition space for emerging Catalan artists. And today, uncannily – given what we have been talking about and how hidden histories seem to move and excite you so – there is a show that focusses on the honouring of the life and work of the almost forgotten queer (non)father of queer (non)history in Spain. You will not have heard his name.
Alberto Cardín – I am translating from the catalogue here – was born in Asturias, in the north, in 1948. He tried to become a Jesuit but then made a life from writing and thinking about art, history, philosophy, anthropology, often in the context of homosexual culture in Spain. He moved to Barcelona in 1973, and in 1985 he announced, publicly, that he had contracted AIDS, which coincidentally was the year after my grandfather’s diagnosis. Not that I’m suggesting there was any direct link; the virus was newly rife in the country at that time. Cardín went on to become the loudest spokesperson for the unknown disease, dispelling myths and addressing the problem of homophobia and care to the then impassive government. Though his voice did not reach my grandparents, it has certainly impacted on my generation. Things have changed.
But I will let you look at the artefacts: the altar space, Cardín’s material legacy, his writing, the books his work has given rise to, his now finished film. And then I will ask you – I have spoken far too long already – how it is in your place, in your home, in your family, in your country. In these matters of the once unspoken, the unseen, memory, celebration, love, pleasure, desire.
I would like to hear.
Tamara Lazaroff is a writer of short fiction and narrative nonfiction. She has a particular interest in hidden histories, the migrant experience, queer and feminist themes and celebratory stories of social connectedness. Her work has appeared widely in Australian, NZ and UK journals such as Meanjin, Southerly, Headland and The Wrong Quarterly, among others. She lives in Brisbane, Australia, with her cat, Lila, and recently visited Barcelona where she was taken on a tour of the city’s museums by a Catalan artist and guide.