Spain is well-known for being one of the most accepting countries for LGBT+ people. In fact, Madrid hosted World Pride in 2017. As an openly gay man, choosing an accepting study abroad location was a key deciding factor in my choice of locations. Since arriving in Madrid in early January, I have found several occasions to visit the major gayborhood of Madrid. The neighborhood or barrio, is located a short fifteen-minute walk from the city center and is located just a few steps away from the famous Gran Via street. The neighborhood is named Chueca in honor of the famous Spanish composer Federico Chueca. It is known for being one of the trendiest neighborhoods of the city. When I wandered through it for the first time, I was in awe by the multitude of pride flags hanging from windows and the number of same-sex couples holding hands in the streets.
However, it was not until I went on a guided tour of the neighborhood with a professor at the Syracuse Madrid program that I began to appreciate the historical significance of Chueca. Below is a picture of a sculpture in the neighborhood that first appeared to me as an abstract curiosity. During the guided tour I found out that it symbolized HIV awareness and is believed to be the first sculpture in Madrid to celebrate the LGBT community. This revelation learned from the guided tour shifted the way I looked at the sculpture and the neighborhood as a whole, opening up a whole world that I had walked by oblivious to. Discovering the history of this sculpture and the surrounding neighborhood allowed me to experience Chueca with a newfound appreciation and perspective. I have carried this lesson with me in my exploration of the city this semester, asking myself how the histories of the places I visit contribute to my own perspective and experiences? My hope is that knowing the history of the places I visit will develop consciousness of the space I occupy and provide a more local and informed experience.
To understand Chueca, it is important to look at the role of gay tourism and the value placed on the pink dollar, or the purchasing power of the LGBT+ community, oftentimes referring specifically to gay men and their vacation spending. In 2017, Madrid hosted WorldPride, attracting around 2.3 million people to the city for celebrations and events while bringing in an estimated 115 million euros. The neighborhood of Chueca continues to attract tourists throughout the year and has become known for fashion, food, and nightlife.
There is a darker side to international tourism and the economic success of Chueca. Locals have told me that the storefronts of the neighborhood are changing every few months as rent prices steadily increase. This process of gentrification alters the neighborhood by pushing small businesses and vulnerable populations out of the neighborhood. Many of the smaller local shops and small businesses have been swapped out for designer and high end clothing stores, while many of the neighborhood’s longtime residents are forced to look elsewhere for cheaper rent. An example is the Decathlon building, which was originally one of the first successful fashion boutiques in the neighborhood, helping to define alternative fashion before the neighborhood grew popular. Today, the original owners have been forced out by rising rents and the store offers designer clothing.
After the severe repression of the Franco dictatorship (1892-1975), homosexuality was legalized in 1979. Before legalization, Chueca was considered a “bad” neighborhood full of drugs, prostitution, and crime. Because Chueca was cheap and close to the center of the city, LGBT businesses opened in the 1980s and began to thrive. By the late 1990s, the neighborhood was considered to be safer, fashionable, and increasingly popular. Rising rents began to displace the original inhabitants and those who had spent the last few decades shaping the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this process of gentrification continues today, albeit on a much larger scale. Multinational companies seem to have “taken over” large swathes of Chueca.
However, in spite of economic pressures, much of the original character of the neighborhood has been preserved. Many of the stores which made the neighborhood famous have moved from the center of the neighborhood to more affordable streets or into the adjoining neighborhood of Malasaña. One important site is Berkana, Spain’s first gay and lesbian bookstore. It was opened in 1993 by Mili Hernandez, who was listed as one of Spain’s 20 most important homosexual figures. It has moved from a central location in the heart of Chueca to one of the side streets.
Another important historical site of the neighborhood is the LGBT+ association COGAM, which opened its doors in 1986. The association started as a coffee shop promoting visibility and safety for the community and has since grown into community-oriented non-profit organization. The center features a logo depicting an upside down pink triangle, honoring the gay men who were forced to wear the symbol during the Holocaust. Today, the original storefront has been replaced by a high end shoe ware shop called Decimas. Like many other small shops and organizations, the association has moved into the Malasaña neighborhood, where much of the unique character and personality of Chueca has spilled over in recent years. Boutique shops thrive and Chueca is now known for its trendy atmosphere and hipster ambience.
Like Chueca, Malasaña is undergoing the process of gentrification, whereby an American multinational company called Tribal has bought up many of the properties in efforts to make the neighborhood the “new SoHo” of Madrid. As a result, current residents and businesses that are deemed undesirable are being pushed out. Although it seems as though gentrification in Madrid will not be slowing down anytime soon, there are still ways strong communities can be maintained. One positive example is the Horno San Onofre bakery, which has developed a close relationship with the LGBT+ community of Chueca. The bakery closed in the 1980s due to concerns about the neighborhood’s safety. It reopened in the 1990s because efforts of LGBT+ community had made the neighborhood safer. The bakery owners were so grateful that they purchased the floats for the first gay parade in Madrid. This relationship has been sustained and contributes to stabilizing the neighborhood against the influences of gentrification.
The first time I visited Chueca I walked by with no sense of how the streets I walked on have changed throughout time. Instead, I was rather impressed with how “nice” and “high-end” the neighborhood looked. I did not stop to consider how all of these changes, both good and bad, may have impacted the people who lived there. My initial reaction of joy at the normalcy of openly LGBT life in Chueca distracted me from questioning the neighborhood’s history. Learning the history of Chueca has made me more conscious of the space I occupy and the identities I hold, especially in the context of my semester abroad. I hope to carry this consciousness with me when I leave Amherst and move somewhere that will undoubtedly have its own complicated history.