In terms of reputation, few places in Europe can compete with Madrid’s famously eclectic and seemingly inexhaustible appetite for nightlife. “Going out” in Spain is a way of life, almost a daily activity which requires practice and commitment if you are to develop the stamina necessary to last through the evening. Known in Spanish as marcha—which translates as gear or speed, but also as the clearly militaristic march—nighttime entertainment is not taken lightly in the country. Yet even by the high Spanish standards, as June approaches its final days and World Pride 2017 floods the streets of Madrid with over two million reveling visitors the partyometer of the Spanish capital will be sent spinning into a whole new dimension
The City of Water and Culture
Built high up on the northern banks of the Manzanares River, Madrid owes its name to the medieval Muslim settlement of Mayrit or Majrit, which in turn translates as “the place of water”. Eclipsed by the infinitely more important city of Toledo, Madrid lived a relatively sleepy existence until the mid 1500s when King Philip II, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, moved his court from Valladolid to Madrid. The city immediately experienced unparalleled growth, going from just over 10,000 inhabitants in 1560 to close to 100,000 by the end of the century.
Madrid’s convenient location, in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula and at the foot of the mountain range that cuts right through its center, was one of the keys to it emerging as the capital of the empire. Its relative anonymity was the other. Soon, however, the void created by such anonymity would come to be filled with the sensational output of a cultural center at the height of its powers: the home of Spain’s Golden Age in literary and artistic creation, Madrid’s court attracted and financed geniuses of the caliber of Miguel de Cervantes and Diego Velázquez, while the city’s thriving theater scene in the 1600s saw the emergence of three indisputable greats in the shape of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Calderón de la Barca. Names, all of them, that haven’t only defined the cultural landscape of Spanish language but that to this day continue to pervade with their inescapable presence the city’s streets and bars and theaters, in short, Madrid’s everyday life especially, though not exclusively, in the trendy Barrio de las Letras, the literary quarter.
Chueca, the New Tradition
The death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, after almost four decades of ruthlessly conservative and autocratic rule, amounted to a new dawn for Spain, both in terms of political and civic transformation, of course, but also in the form of the cultural renaissance unleashed directly by this very change. Almost immediately, Madrid was swept by a transgressive and liberal—almost libertine—social revolution that gave birth to the famous Movida, a countercultural movement fuelled by relief and revolt that was especially intense in the capital. Exciting and chaotic in equal measure, the newfound verve that defined those days influenced just about every aspect of life, from the music of Alaska to the wave of nudity evidenced in Spanish cinema—a phenomenon known as el destape—to the proliferation of drugs in the city, most notably heroin, and the struggle to secure civil rights for disenfranchised segments of the population, especially women.
Somewhat distanced from the limelight, but equally fiercely, the gay community built a bastion of its own, not too far away from the neighborhoods most commonly associated with La movida, the likes of San Bernardo and Tribunal, in a central but largely neglected area of the city named after the composer Federico Chueca, famous for his short and ironic zarzuelas. From the first generation of underground, dark, clandestine gay clubs little remains other than a handful of legendary names, such as Black & White or Griffins—but even those have moved to a different location or adapted to new, more salubrious, standards.
Equally legendary, though stemming from the more militant post-Movida era of the mid 1990s,is the bookshop Berkana. Disenchanted with the secrecy that surrounds a clandestine existence, Mili Hernández, together with her partner Mar de Griñó, and Arnaldo Gancedo, set up the bookshop to give visibility to a community that had long been relegated to the shadows. The time had come to storm out of the closet, and these courageous entrepreneurs took a step forward that still reverberates in today’s community: faced with the threat of closure, Berkana launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier in 2017 to secure the funds necessary to keep it running for a full year—and the target sum of 13,500 euros was reached within ten days!
While clearly proud of its roots, Chueca has undergone a dramatic transformation in the new millennium which has seen it emerge as one of the trendiest and most expensive neighborhoods in Madrid. Where once only junkies and petty thieves reigned now there is a plethora of bears with perfectly trimmed beards and carefully gelled hair sharing the narrow streets with tourists from all over the world and plenty of straight madrileños too, lured by the progressive vibe and the sumptuous dining options found in the district. For as well as the late night show venues such as LL Bar with its famous drag queen and stripper performances or more laid back options such as the classic Bears Bar, Chueca boasts an impressive array of gourmet establishments, ranging from the swanky San Antón Market, yet another example of the successful regeneration of a derelict space, to the traditional cider bar El Tigre, celebrated around the city for its extraordinary selection of tapas.
Pride for All
Every year in the month of June the quarter of Chueca bursts into a candid, colorful and quite remarkable celebration that above all extols the sense of camaraderie and neighborliness of a closely knit yet tremendously diverse community. Habilitating dozens of areas, from the different squares within the district to makeshift food stalls on the side of the roads, the area is turned overnight into the Republic of Gay Pride. Multiple parallel focuses encourage revelers to keep moving, generating a unique sense of small-town involvement and big-city dynamism, which likely is the reason why Gay Pride, el orgullo in Spanish, has long been adopted by gay and straight, lesbian, trans-, bi- and asexual residents of Madrid as their own favorite annual festivity.
Or perhaps it’s just because madrileños love a big party. This too will come in handy this summer when somewhere in the region of two to three million visitors descend on the streets of Madrid to commemorate the 48th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The sheer volume of people already makes this a memorable occasion, the pinnacle of which will come on Saturday June 1 with the Pride Parade, but its truly special ingredient concerns not the size of the crowd, it concerns its heterogeneous nature. For Madrid’s orgullo is an inclusive and joyous celebration of respect, tolerance and cosmopolitanism kindled singlehandedly by the gay community’s tireless quest for visibility and equality. That in itself should be the source of a great deal of pride.
Published in issue 13 (June/July 2017) of Palette magazine, the Miami Herald’s LGBT lifestyle magazine.