The Struggles of the Magi

Continuing in the festive vein from the last post, here is a piece by Isaac Rosa, published in on the 3rd January, on the subject of the parades (Cabalgatas) of the Magi (Reyes Magos). The final sentence is left untranslated.

Cabalgatas and neighbourhood struggles (with Balthasar in an internment centre)

Let me tell you a story about the Reyes Magos, and my neighbourhood, that might seem a minor thing when compared to everything that’s going on at the minute, but perhaps it will help in understanding how we ended up where we are, and it even has a useful moral for the coming times.

My neighbourhood is Hortaleza, in the Northeast of Madrid, an old village absorbed by the capital, with a long tradition of participative and contestatory neighbourhood movement, and a strong network of association. In 1979 the residents decided to organise a Cabalgata de Reyes so that the children could see Their Oriental Majesties in their neighbourhood. Note the date, which is not just any date: 1979, when the political and social thrust of the Transition was at its peak, when citizens were losing their fear, before the coup d’etat of 1981 ordered a halt, and before the PSOE, already in power, set about decapitating and demobilising the neighbourhood movement that was so important at the end of the dictatorship.


(Photo taken from the Cabalgata Popular de Hortaleza website)

For three decades everything took place without much of a fuss, every 5th of January Melchor, Gaspar and Balthasar move through the neighbourhood. During this time the landscape and above all the inhabitants of Hortaleza changed: its population grew at a great speed, there was urbanisation until the last piece of countryside was absorbed, thousands of dwellings were built, many of them at high prices which changed the socio-economic composition of the old working class neighbourhood. Despite this, the community spirit remained strong, and the residents of Hortaleza led many struggles to improve their neighbourhood, and joined in with others on a greater scale.

Until 2007 comes, when the council decided that there had been enough people’s parad: for the next edition, in 2008, the children’s excitement would be in the hands of professionals, the area deserved a quality parade, the residents’ floats were nice but tacky, you could see a lot of cellophane and cardboard beneath the tinsel. Once again, note the date: 2007, when the two bubbles, the global financial bubble and the Spanish real estate bubble, were about to blow, you could see the crisis coming in the form of an avalanche, but we kept on looking elsewhere and carried along by the momentum of the good times.

So the municipal rulers decided to take charge of the parade, but to privatise it: in 2008 it would be organised by a business, and it would change its route, it would no longer move through the popular areas of the district (for example the UVA, a re-housing development from the sixties), and instead it would go round a big shopping centre, which by coincidence was the sponsor of the parade.  

But since in Hortaleza we have fixed ideas, we residents were not content to turn up as spectators to a parade that would no doubt be more colourful, more spectacular, in which you wouldn’t see cellophane or the fake beard on the Reyes; but it would not be our parade, the one in which the associations spent weeks preparing the floats, which helped to build community, in which the children had a central role, and which moreover went through the most modest areas.  

So, in an act of disobedience that sits alongside the many insubordinate acts seen in the neighbourhood, we decided to go ahead with our parade on our own, with our route and our means. And without any help from the council; on the contrary, for years the council had seen fit to place stumbling blocks in front of the residents, changing the date and the route at the last minute so as not to take away from the importance of their privatised parade, and sabotaging the residents’ work at every turn.

Until, after four years of battle, the last edition came, the 2012 one, and the council suspended the ‘official’ parade, the sponsored and privatised one that went round the shopping centre, as well as cancelling the majority of parades in the district, and removing the funding it gave to the organisers. The scissors of cutbacks do not understand excitement, and if any child wants to see the Reyes Magos, let them go the Castellana [the central thoroughfare in Madrid] and enjoy the central parade, which make no mistake is laid on by professionals, without citizen participation, and adorned by the logos of its sponsors: Mastercard, El Corte Inglés, Movistar, Vodafone, Samsung or Universal, among other traffickers in excitement.

And nonetheless, the children of Hortaleza will also get their visit from the Reyes Magos this year, because we residents never throw in the towel: after winning the battle with the council, we continue to run our own parade, the same one as always, and it is now the only one in the neighbourhood again, made with the efforts of many and without council help, with the economic assistance of residents and traders.

There you have the moral, should it be of use: the neighbourhood turtle beats the council hare and its sponsors, if the children of Hortaleza today have a parade it is because their elders fought for it, we laid claim to it, we resisted pressure and siren songs, we stayed together when the comfortable thing was to watch the float with the hypermarket logo pass, we denounced the privateers, we operated in a way that was autonomous, participative, horizontal and democratic: in sum, we took control of what was ours, what was everyone’s, what was public. And we have won.


(Photo taken from the Cabalgata Popular de Hortaleza website)

Can we come away with any lesson for other struggles? I believe so. Obviously it is not the same thing to fight for a parade as it is to resist the dismantling of public education or health privatisation; it is not a matter of comparing since neither the effort nor the adversaries are comparable in either case. But in the end the basis is the same, and the strategy to follow is identical: resist, denounce, disobey, get organised, build a community, take control.

I have told you about Hortaleza, because it is mine and because its story is long. But it is not the only one that will emerge tomorrow thanks to the resistance of its residents. Butarque-Villaverde and Carabanchel will do the same, neighbourhoods now siblings to mine from so many recent struggles.

In those cases too, the council laid down the stumbling blocks that it could, even preventing them at the last moment from parading on Saturday, which they finally achieved by seeking permission from the Government Delegation, which is not there to authorise parades but demonstrations. Another good metaphor for what we are living through, and it doesn’t end there: in the case of Carabanchel, King Balthasar is locked up in a CIE (Centre for Internment of Foreigners) in order to be expelled to his country of origin, proof that not even the excitement of children is safe from this terrible time.

If you are in Madrid and you have children, I invite you to bring them tomorrow to the parades of Hortaleza, Butarque-Villaverde or Carabanchel. Let them learn early that, in this as in other things, sí se puede.




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