As streetlamps burst into life and the alleyway flooded with light, the small table I sat at with six others became part of something larger. Out of the evening twilight, 250 other diners appeared, stretching out to my left in a line of plastic card tables unfolding down the alley. Our dinner party spanned the width of the street, a ribbon of red and green paper tablecloths covered by tupperware containers fit to bursting with empanadas, fruit, fried croquettes, tostas de tomate y jamón, and the rich saffron-yellow of homemade Paella.
The sudden illumination changed the atmosphere from an intimate conversation with table-mates in the dimming light of a Barcelona evening to that of a public gathering.
This is a gathering of the Sants neighborhood – a community in the Southern end of Barcelona – and it is one of many neighborhood feasts that will take place during the week-long Festival de Sants.
Across the table from me sats Agus Giralt, one of the evening’s main facilitators. Agus grew up in Sants, attending more of these dinners than he can easily recall, and I was his guest for the evening. In addition to being a member of the community, he is also the Coordinator of La Lleialtat Santsenca (Loyalty to the Community of Sants), one of several neighborhood-managed community institutions in the area.
Similar to Community Centers in the United States, La Lleialtat provides a space for neighbors to create groups of mutual interest ranging from rock bands and time banks, to dance troupes and robotics clubs. It also gives community members access to important resources like computers, community transport, and language classes.
Unlike our Community Centers in the US, however, La Leiltat is democratically owned and managed by the neighbors themselves. While Agus facilitates the day to day operations of the center, all larger decisions are made during quarterly assemblies of community-members, a fact they take great pride in.
While setting up for the festivities, one of the neighborhood leaders proudly told me that their recent decision to start a small-business incubator program in La Lleialtat had just led to the founding of several local, worker-owned businesses.
The neighborhood dinner was also organized through this deliberative process, and it took place in the alley that runs beside La Lleialtat’s main building. Seeing people packed shoulder to shoulder, the serving dishes passed clockwise in rhythm up and down the table, and the walls of the alley rising high above us reminded me of the place I mainly associate with such community gatherings in the US: Church.
More specifically, it made me think of the annual Jamaica festival that took place at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, a large Hispanic Parish that I had worked with in West Dallas. Just like the neighborhood festival in Sants, the Jamaica at Lourdes brought together hundreds of parishioners over food that spanned long communal tables, and mixed a cacophony of voices with up-beat summer music played over loudspeakers in a celebration of a shared community.
I asked Agus if he was happy with the night's turnout. He looked tired, but nodded enthusiastically. “We are still rebuilding from the pandemic” he admitted, “pero esta noche estamos tejiendo el tejido de nuestra comunidad” – “but tonight we are reweaving the fabric of our community.”
Thinking of my community back home in Washington State, I wondered: How are we reweaving the fabric of our community after the pandemic?
We may host one-off gatherings or see each other spontaneously at activities like “Pig Out in the Park,” but no common institution binds us all together.
An “institution” is characterized by a common set of values. It hosts gatherings on a regular basis to spark/strengthen relationships, and it has a sustainable source of income (membership dues, tithes, etc.) to keep it going over the long-term. An institution provides stability and accountability. It can tell when someone falls through the cracks.
Outside of churches, we have very few institutions like this in the US.
Even in my lifetime, I have seen people have become increasingly isolated and siloed. This is perhaps the biggest difference I have found between the US and Spain so far. The number of institutions that people belong to here, like La Leialtat, is remarkable.
Now, anyone who has ever tried to work with other human beings knows that being a part of a community is not all fun and dinner parties. Conflict is human and natural; it happens. Agus did not hide that the community at La Lleialtat has its share of fighting, resentment, and jealousy – just like any other space where people gather.
But that’s not the point. I am not in Sants because I am looking for a place where everyone gets along. I am here because I am trying to understand how people can build power and win. And any community that can bring together 250 people on a regular basis has power.
Their power rests in the fact that they have relationships; these 250 people know each other, that does not mean they have to like each other.
Over the last 100 years these relationships have allowed the residents of Sants to effectively organize and win remarkable victories:
They pressured the city to build new affordable housing instead of a new mall.
They stopped an overpass from bulldozing through their neighborhood
They transformed an old factory into a community park instead of luxury condos.
And the Jamaicas at Our Lady of Lourdes? The hundreds of people who showed up for the food and festival also showed up when we organized listening session campaigns in the neighborhood. And when safety was identified as one of the top shared concerns, those hundreds of people also organized and turned out more parishioners for an Accountability Session with the Dallas Police Department to get commitments for improved policing. They made announcements at mass, they used church funds to print out fliers, they connected their mission with the values of Catholic Social Teaching. All things that would have been impossible without an institution.
So here’s the point: Strong institutions like Our Lady of Lourdes and La Lleialtat Santsenca are critical to strong organizing. The dense networks of relationships they provide are what make it possible to identify common issues in a community and mobilize to address them. In Barcelona, for some reason, they have been able to build impressive institutions across the city that have made these neighborhoods a safer, healthier, happier place to live. Not to conduct business, be productive, or find convenience, but to live.
What would it look like for us to do the same?