The Ateneu Enciclopèdic Returns to the Raval District of Barcelona

On 6 October 1935, a Sunday, Federico García Lorca gave a recital in Barcelona and such was the turnout that there were so many people stranded in the Rambla de Catalunya that the organizers, the Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular /AEP (People’s Encyclopaedic Athenaeum) erected loud-speakers on the street so that none of the workers who had turned out would miss out on hearing from the poet, who stated of this experience that he had never read out his poetry to such a huge crowd so appreciative of his work.

In the 120-year existence of the AEP there were dozens of unforgettable incidents like the emotional visit of the author of the Romance de la Guardia Civil Española. It was launched in 1902 in the home of Francesc Layret in El Raval, the district from which the libertarian AEP was driven at gunpoint by Francoist troops in 1939; just yesterday, the AEP had another important date that had to be postponed due to the pandemic. On 17 July 2021 this anarchist body should have been celebrating its return to El Raval with the opening of its new premises at 38 Calle de Reina Amàlia. Premises which – albeit without the partying – are to be open to the public from tomorrow morning.

The President

The new location has come as an especial delight to Manel Aisa, the AEP’s president. “Here we are on the Brecha de Sant Pau where revolution was possible. Where anarchism saw off fascism. Besides, we are beside the Collaso i Gil high-school, the city council’s newest college and a favourite of the Control Patrols back in 1936. All of the school equipment seized in the area was brought here”, Aisa points out, happy to have premises in which to organize activities without having to borrow other people’s, albeit there is a hint of sadness because “it has come too late for many”. “Some of those who fought for these premises to become a reality have passed away. Others, like Muniesa, are in wheelchairs and in homes … Our entire dream of recovering our premises cost us but here we are, eager to see these new premises boost our growth and draw in fresh blood”, the libertarian states.

For the time being the AEP archives, one of the most significant in the libertarian movement around the world, and the largest archive of working-class Barcelona, will remain in the Paseo de Sant Joan, housed by the Biblioteca Arús. The agreement reached with the city council – signed on 27 October, the Friday when Catalan independence was briefly proclaimed – says that the AEP will have premises on which to organize its activities at 38 Reina Amàlia, until such time as it locates big enough premises in that barrio to accommodate it and its (substantial) archives. The overall arrangement is that those larger premises will be in the Can 60 factory building, premises a lot larger than the current one, to where the documentation centre and its upwards of 12,000 newspapers, 25,000 books and all manner of documents relating to the anarchist movement can be transferred. Gems such as the letter that Lorca penned after his legendary recital in the city, in which he explains how he spent over an hour and a half shaking hands with “elderly female workers, mechanics, children, students and manual workers”. “It was the happiest performance in my life”, he insisted.

Now that it finally has premises – over recent decades it has been operating as a precious archive but its public activity was rendered very difficult due to the lack of premises of its own – is to get back to the spirit of Layret and 1902 and “provide the tools for leaning to those who do not possess them”, “since the context has undergone a lot of change, but the inequalities endure and we have to promote debate”.  “The new premises offer us an opportunity to generate reflection upon the world in which we live: climate change, decreasing growth, collapse”, Aisa points out, keen to see people embracing the premises as their own, with fresh blood coming in and himself able “to take a step back”.

The challenge of digitization

Aisa recalls that, albeit briefly, the AEP was located in the same premises to which it has returned in the Brecha de Sant Pau “albeit not in an apartment but rather in the basement”. That was back in 1979 but a fire had forced it to relocate. “The newspapers of the day carried the headline POWDER KEG IN THE BARRIO CHINO. CNT ARCHIVES ON FIRE. Luckily, on that occasion the archives did not catch fire, but were merely somewhat dampened by the hoses dousing the flames.” In order to protect this material and facilitate ready access to it, one of the battles waged by the AEP now is to raise the funding required for digitization, a matter that it has dabbled in on several occasions. 


From: El Periódico. 18 July 2021. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.