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Photo by Sonia Lucas
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Photo by Tori Sparks
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Photo by Andrea Moreno
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Photo by Sonia Lucas
Every neighbourhood in Barcelona has its own festa major (annual festival), usually involving live music, dance, decoration, parades, and above all, hanging out in the streets with the neighbours and celebrating life in the barrio. The Gràcia festival is arguably the city’s most highly anticipated, both for its historic significance and for its sheer visual delight, musical diversity and communal street party fun. Every August, dozens of streets are transformed into microcosms of light and colour, each with its own theme. The themes are different every year, and can range from robots to the jungle to underwater to zombies. The Festes de Gràcia start on August 15th and run until the 21st, with more than 30 streets participating, as well as squares, balconies and other spaces around the neighbourhood.
Josep Maria Contel Ruiz is the Head of Communication for the Fundació Festa Major de Gràcia, and the President of the Taller d’Història de Gràcia, which jointly oversee the festival logistics each year. “You know, we do the boring stuff,” he joked. “Arranging permits, renting chairs and so on. The real organisation work is done by the associations of the individual streets.”
He says that the first public mention of the Festes de Gràcia appeared in the local daily newspaper in the year 1827, though the Catalan historian, Francisco Curet, mentions a similar festival taking place as early as 1817. “We’re coming up to the 200th anniversary in 2017, that will be a massive celebration!” Ruiz said with glee.
Though the festival was originally celebrated in honour of Saint Isidro on May 15th, the start date was eventually changed to August 15th. At the end of the 19th century, the increased participation of local artisan and worker organisations made the event increasingly important in secular tradition as well.
Though Ruiz says that the tradition of decorating the streets can be documented all the way back to 1860, it was in 1956 that the festival was given a more formal structure, when the Festival Federation was formed. The Fundació de Festa Major de Gràcia that later replaced the Federation has its offices in what used to be the local headquarters for the Falange party—now called the Espai Albert Musson—where exhibitions and activities for adults and children are organised throughout the year.
One of the streets that has participated in the festival since the beginning, and has consistently been awarded prizes over the years, is Carrer de Mozart. Sonia Lucas has been the secretary of the street’s association for the past five years, and Héctor Escudero has been in charge of communication, press and social networking for the past three. They admit that the prizes are nice but “that’s not why we participate”.
Every street decides how to organise their association in terms of decorations and events. In Carrer de Mozart’s case, the residents vote on who is assigned which responsibilities within the non-profit organisation. Everything is completely volunteer-based. “We think that’s one reason the decorations come out so well,” said Lucas. “The work is fuelled by enthusiasm for the project; no one here is making any money. It’s a labour of love.”
Escudero says that throughout the year leading up to the festival, Mozart’s association organises events, such as calçotadas, barbecues and Halloween parties, in order to raise money to invest in the decoration materials. Between these funds and some economic assistance from the Fundació Festa Major de Gràcia, they scrape together what is needed to purchase paint, tools and all manner of items to decorate the street according to the theme that the commission has chosen. As for the prizes, the streets are ranked in a general category, but there are also special categories, such as Best Use of Recycled Materials, Best Entrance Gate, Most Original, Best Lighting, Most Artistic Detail. Mozart is often awarded the ‘Best Use of Recycled Materials’ prize, as empty bottles, cans, string, wire, bits of metal, plastic, wood and broken appliances have all been put to good use in the street’s colourful past.
The commission also creates a volunteer panel to organise the entertainment. Some streets showcase a specific genre of music—for example, Caribbean music to go with Caribbean decorations—while other streets, like Mozart, mix up the musical styles. One night might be all jazz bands, another night rock, another traditional music. “We try to look for up-and-coming bands that will benefit from the exposure of playing to a large crowd, even if they’re not getting paid,” said Lucas. “Young, up-and-coming musicians and DJs are usually willing to play for the fun of it.”
Ruiz said that the Festes de Gràcia continue to thrive after nearly two centuries precisely because the structure of the organisation is so decentralised. Breaking the festival organisation up into small associations is key—individuals have more responsibility, and therefore take more personal pride in their role. “The preparation for the event is extremely intense. It brings people together to work on a creative project for months and months! This collective effort really unites the residents who live on each street,” he said. “It’s unique, in that people who might ordinarily have nothing in common come together and collaborate just for this occasion.”
Escudero agrees, saying that the festival is “a way of maintaining the personality of the neighbourhood”. And although it was originally a traditional religious celebration, most people who come to celebrate do not do it for religious reasons. “We’re sort of atheists in that respect,” he joked. “The point is to provide everyone with a positive experience, period. It’s an inclusive party.”
Unfortunately, the festival has suffered from vandalism in recent years.For that reason, Josep Maria Contel Ruiz wanted to make a special request to the public this year: “If you come to the Festes de Gràcia, please come and enjoy the decorations in a respectful way. Sometimes people get so excited over a particular piece of scenery that they decide to try and take it home with them. Or they party a bit too hard and start breaking things. We want the decorations to last the entire celebration—please keep that in mind this year if you come and celebrate with us.”
So what’s on offer at the 2015 festes? Decorated streets and balconies, live music, poetry and photography contests, sports, a painting exhibition, activities for children and themed spaces, such as the ‘Plaça del Folk’ in Plaça del Sol and ‘Plaça del Swing’ in Plaça Diamant, are just some of the attractions. A miniature version of Barcelona will be on display in the Plaça del Nord. A map of the main historic points of the festival and the neighbourhood, as well as details about all the sights and sounds, is available on the festival’s website.
More information here.