Photo by Suzannah Larke
Alberto Rabinal, portero for a building on the Diagonal for over 20 years
Whether it’s a salutary greeting or a good gossip about the neighbours, many people in Barcelona will have some kind of daily contact with a portero. These proud men and women are the modern-day equivalent of gatekeepers, the eyes and ears of business proprietors, office occupants and residents, and they protect their manors with a fierce sense of responsibility.
Normally located next to the lift, porteros spend around eight hours a day in their ‘lodge’—a space that can be anything from a functional desk and phone, to a mini-version of their own home, sometimes complete with grandchildren. They may be gruff and businesslike, or chatty and cosy, but almost all porteros take pride in their work, and will often go out of their way to help a neighbour, or even a stranger, in need.
Alberto Rabinal, 64, looks after Diagonal 420, part of the Casa de les Punxes, a national monument that stands on the quadrant to the right of Roger de Lluria. As well as safeguarding two private apartments and the offices of 12 companies, Alberto has the added challenge of up to 40 tourists a day asking him about the mock medieval masterpiece designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and built in 1905.
“They always ask me if they can go up on the roof to take pictures, and I always say, ‘No, it’s private,” Rabinal said with a smile. “I do, however, let them take pictures of the entrance hall and am happy to pose with them if they ask me.”
He has looked after Diagonal 420 for 20 years. Like most porteros, he works an eight-hour day, from 9am until 8pm, with a three-hour lunch. He likes to have a coffee and a read of the paper at 8.30am—“Before I open the doors”—after which he monitors a constant stream of people coming through the grand entrance. His morning duties include sorting the newspapers and post, and calling up to offices whose visitors or workers haven’t closed the lift doors properly.
“The elevator is the bane of my life. It’s often getting stuck or breaking down because it’s so old. Sometimes I can fix it, but if not, I’ll call an engineer.”
At 1pm, Rabinal goes back to his home in Sants for lunch, and he is back at 4pm for the afternoon shift. He used to live on the premises, something that is less common these days, and he has a good relationship with his charges. “I chat with most people, especially the people who live here, but I don’t really know too much about them. They might show me pictures of their families from time to time. The office workers tend to just come and go. I don’t think many of them know my name.”
Rabinal’s lodge is sparse. He has a desk, a chair, a fridge and a toilet, and there are some photos on the wall of him posing with tourists. He gets out a box of postcards. There is one from a couple in Seville, full of gratitude for his kindness. Another contains a ‘thank you’ message signed by a worker from the Royal household, and counter-signed by HRH Infanta Cristina of Spain: “I helped her carry something once that she had bought from the shop next door,” he said. “It hurt my back, but I didn’t mind.”
Although due to retire next year, Rabinal hopes he can stay on for a little longer. “I’ve been in the job more than 40 years—it’s my profession,” he said. “I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family and to doing more travelling, but I will find it very hard to give this up. When I was younger, I didn’t dream about being a portero, but I really enjoy my work. What’s the point if you don’t? I find it interesting.”
Josefa Macedo Rei (‘Pepa’), is also 64 and also works in the Eixample. She started as a portera, living on the premises in Valencia 281, in 1975, and has worked as a conserge (living off the premises) since 1994. Unlike Rabinal, Macedo spends a good part of her day cleaning the entrance hall, the stairwells, the road outside and the building’s patios de luz for her neighbours. “The patio duties aren’t in my contract, but I don’t mind,” she said. “In my opinion, I work for the people in the building.”
Of the 14 pisos in Valencia 281, seven are viviendas or residences. “When I first came, there were only two offices,” Macedo said. “It was otherwise full of ‘first generation’ people of the area: old people who only moved out when they died or went into a home. Now they are occupied by couples or families. Three of the apartments are inhabited by the owners; the rest are rented out. You get a lot more for rentals, especially in this area.”
The upmarket Eixample area has changed enormously in recent years. “I’ve lived and worked on this street for 40 years. When I got married, we lived across the road, on the corner with Pau Claris, and moved here when we had the children.
“The character of the neighbourhood has changed a lot. For me, the worst thing is the appearance of new buildings like the one next door. They take down the beautiful facades and replace them with ugly glass edifices. Also, the shops are all different now.
“We used to have a fishmonger’s, a butcher’s, etc., all in this little bit of road. Every day you would see the ladies going out with their baskets to do the daily shop. They never shopped in supermarkets or commercial centres in those days—there was no such thing as doing all your shopping for the week in one go. Gradually, as more office workers came in, the local shops were replaced by boutiques, restaurants and beauty parlours.”
Unlike Alberto Rabinal, Macedo spends her whole day in the building. “I live in El Prat. It’s an hour each way so by the time I got home, it would be time to come back. I have a microwave here and a table, and I’ll do my shopping and errands at lunchtime. I have a very close relationship with all the people in this building and consider most of them friends. We share information about our lives. Everybody has a different personality, but everyone is friendly. In my building in El Prat, I hardly speak to anyone.”
She is also proud of her work. “This is my job, in the same way another person might be a lawyer. We all have our roles in life. I get a letter every year from the administrators outlining my conditions, my salary increase and my holiday allowance. I love what I do, and in 33 years, I’ve never had a problem.”
A bit of history
The role of today’s portero descends from a profession that began back in the 15th century, when, as a member of the domestic staff of Barcelona’s aristocrats, their role was to let carriages in and out of their employer’s property. By the mid-19th century, when cases des veïns started to spring up and the Eixample model of residence took off, the portero’s role changed to one of watchdog for a number of flats, and by the middle of the 20th century most new buildings featured a portero’s lodge as part of their design.
Living rent-free on the premises, often in the àtic (penthouse) and sometimes in the baixes (ground floor), the portero’s principal role was still to keep unwanted visitors out day and night. But by the mid-Eighties, a rental boom was underway. Building owners installed security systems and buzzers, freeing up valuable space. Soon accommodation was rarely included in the job description, and the portero’s role changed to a regular day job.