“It’s ten o’clock at night. Lower the volume of your wireless. You will be fulfilling your duty as a citizen, and you see that you can hear perfectly.” Unless you arrived in Spain more than about 30 years ago, this nightly message from those nice people at Radio Nacional de España might seem amazing in a city and country which, these days, appears to wake up—and noisily—at precisely the time the previous generation was going to bed.
But, it was at that hour that an eight-hour shift begin for a group of workers called, variously, serenos or vigilantes, and every barrio had them.
Paid for by local residents and businesses, the vigilante generally held spare front door keys to most apartment buildings and local shops and offices—as most people left their flat doors unlocked, the sereno could let you into the street door after he recognised you. Once a month, he came to the door for his salary and, latterly, while collecting his five pesetas, familiarised himself with the household.
“All you had to do was clap your hands a few times,” remembers 51-year-old Francesc Espalder, who has lived in Barcelona all his life. “Then you’d wait for the sereno to answer with some taps of his chuzo”, a metal-tipped stick which let you know where he was patrolling.
The vigilantes also performed other tasks for the local community within the seven or eight streets that made up his beat. Fetching medicines from the chemist, calling a doctor if someone was ill—remember that there were few telephones or cars just 30 or 40 years ago—all formed part of the nightly duties of a sereno, even if they weren’t set down. And, if someone arrived home inebriated and needed a little help getting up the stairs, the vigilante was likely to be there with a helping hand.
If you ask anyone over 40 about this Spanish equivalent of the ‘bobby’ on the beat, they are likely to look blank at first, and then say “But they don’t exist any more.” Pursue the subject and they tend to remember the serenos, with more than a little nostalgia, as a constant presence in their lives, a bit like Brits who probably never considered door-to-door deliveries of milk as anything more than just a part of normal daily life.
There was no legal recognition of serenos or vigilantes until the 1830s, in spite of the fact that the first official notice of their creation goes back to 1495. Continuing on an ad hoc basis all that time, their well-established vocation was formalised under law, revised and generalized throughout Spain after that first regulation.
The 1908 revision of their corps set down basic requirements of the job—applicants had to be between 25 and 50 with no criminal record, be able to read and write, and so on. It also listed possible reasons for the sack: found drunk twice, failing repeatedly to intervene in incidents on their beats, if there were more than three robberies a year on their beats, failing to pursue criminals, or sheltering in doorways.
Those who freely offered their precious cars to the serenos in the 1950s and ‘60s to ‘shelter’ chose to ignore this rather harsh regulation.
Modern Spain decided in the early 1970s that the job of the serenos and vigilantes was being covered effectively by the Guardia Urbana and the other police forces, and the vocation, as such, disappeared.
Amongst the roles carried out by the serenos, and set down in the first set of regulations in 1838, was to patrol while “announcing the time and weather every quarter of an hour” throughout their beat.
But, anyone who has ever suffered from the effects of a late-night party, or a drunken neighbour, might appreciate another of the 1838 tasks listed for the serenos: “Prevent shouts and noises which could disturb rest.”
First published October 1998.