Lavapiés: forever beaten but never defeated

Today, the sloping streets of Lavapiés are fragrant with drifting scents of incense and spices, but back when Madrid was first founded hundreds of years ago, the stench in the neighbourhood was so appalling that the uptown pijos rarely ventured down here. 

The powerful smell came from the tanneries that ran along the main street of El Rastro, Calle Ribera de Curtidores, which is still one of Madrid’s main leather areas. Anyone who lived downwind of the stink and downhill from uptown Madrid was considered the lowest of the low.

However, despite their straitened circumstances, the citizens of Lavapiés are a fiercely proud tribe. Throughout history, when pushed too far, they have risen up in bloody clashes with the authorities, and here’s why.


The first residents of the barrio were Jewish conversos (the converted) – not by religion, but by bloodline. Their ancestors had chosen back in 1492 to convert to Catholicism rather than risk being expelled from Spain.

Keen to root out heresy, however, the Inquisition kept a close eye on them. The converted in turn stuck close together; in those days anybody who bore you a grudge could anonymously denounce you to the authorities, and those with Jewish or Muslim ancestors were particularly vulnerable.

If someone did accuse you of practising another religion, you might find yourself in the local underground dungeon, imprisoned at your own expense and encouraged to repent while stretched out on the rack or hung upside down as water was poured over your face to simulate the feeling of drowning.

Ventilation holes from below are visible from the street

All this would culminate in an Auto de Fe in Plaza Mayor, where most of the accused unsurprisingly opted to repent in public rather than being burned alive at the stake.


Relief came in the 18th century, when the number of people accused of engaging in Jewish and Muslim practises by the Inquisition dropped – a change that coincided with the end of the Habsburg dynasty. Following the War of Succession, the French Bourbons took control of Spain, ushering in a new epoch.

While you’d think that the converted would have welcomed their new rulers, this was not the case. By this time, they identified themselves as being true red-blooded Spaniards. In Lavapiés, they’d begun to call themselves Manolos – a name that derives from the custom that many converted had of christening male children Manuel.

Along with other working-class tribes in Madrid, they adored bullfighting and dressed flamboyantly in long capes and embroidered matador-style outfits that were markedly different from the French costumes worn at court.

Chulapos dancing


When Charles III took to the throne in 1759, a conflict over dress sense led to a riot that nearly toppled the monarchy. Charles was an enthusiastic and intelligent ruler, but many of his subjects found his new-fangled ideas hard to swallow.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was an edict demanding that all citizens adopt the French fashion for short capes and three-cornered hats, instead of long capes and wide-brimmed hats. When this was issued in 1766, the people rebelled.

The Esquilache Riots began in Antón Martín with a confrontation between some soldiers and a couple of saucy Manolos in wide-brimmed hats and cloaks. It ended with the king fleeing to Aranjuez, fearing for his life.


Things calmed down once the king capitulated to the people’s demands, and peace reigned until Napoleon summarily invaded and occupied Spain in 1807.

On 2 May 1808, the Manolos rose up again alongside Madrid’s working classes and defied the invaders (this time in favour of their king) in a short-lived rebellion that was brutally quashed in a round of mass executions the next day. Their sacrifice is commemorated on a plaque at Puerta de Toledo that reads “In this place on 2 May 1808, the women and men of Lavapiés, El Rastro and La Paloma fought against the French cavalry.”

Fighting on May 2


Napoleon’s forces continued to occupy Madrid until 1812 and, during this time, resentment simmered. One hapless French officer strolling around Plaza Tirso de Molina was said to have been set upon by a gang of Manolos and beaten to death. Fearing reprisals, the men hid his body in a wine barrel at a local bar. Legend has it that when this wine was finally poured, it was said to have an “extraordinary bouquet”. To this day, you can still sample this grotesque concoction at the Taberna Antonio Sánchez by whispering to the waiter “dame la cuba del Francés”.

Taberna Antonio Sánchez

The French were finally booted out and the Bourbons restored to the throne after a bloody war in 1812, but the bitter irony was that Spain’s working classes might have been better off under the French.

During his brief rule as king of Spain, Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte banned the Spanish Inquisition and tried to introduce a constitution. But when Ferdinand VII was restored to power, he reinstated the Inquisition and ripped up the Constitution of Cádiz, which had been written by the Spanish rebels who had sacrificed everything for him.


Over a century later in 1931, at the beginning of the Second Republic, Spain finally got a constitution. By this time, the working classes in areas like Lavapiés were better educated and politically empowered. They had chosen to vote for a government that promised to end centuries of grinding poverty and improve the lot of the common man.

But not everybody was happy with the new policies instituted by the government. Among other secular changes to the law, civil marriages were introduced and religious processions banned. When the Catholic Church – more than a little put out by these changes – declared its support for the rebellion led by Franco, it unleashed an outpouring of rage from the working-class left, some of whom began to loot and set fire to churches.

In Lavapiés, the church of Escuelas Pías fell victim to an arson attack on 19 June 1936, just a month before civil war broke out in Spain.

The burnt-out church on Plaza Arturo Barea


When General Franco finally took control in 1939, he went about systematically destroying all trace of the existence of the Republic, bulldozing burned churches along with monuments created during the era. However, the ruins of Escuelas Pías and a fountain commemorating the Republic were never destroyed in Lavapiés. It’s believed that leaving a few traces of opposition is typical of dictators even to this day, with the intention of making them seem less extreme.

Plaza Nelson Mandela

That’s not to say that Lavapiés wasn’t affected by the dictatorship. Though it was once home to a great number of radical activists, most of these people went to jail as soon as Franco came to power.


The end of this painful era only arrived in 1975 with the dictator’s death. While Lavapiés remained impoverished, the mood lifted along with the beginning of the Movida Madrileña and the opening of lively bars like La Candela. Gradually, the area flourished. Attracted by cheap rents, immigrants and activists alike settled here during the 1990s, and now the area is one of Madrid’s most multicultural and radical barrios.

But all of this looks set to change. According to El País, the immigrant population has dropped over a period of 10 years from making up a third of all residents in Lavapiés to just under a quarter. This change is mainly down to soaring rents.


Understandably, tensions are rising. In March this year, the death of Senegalese street vendor Mame Mbaye sparked off a riot. As police poured into the barrio, the streets filled with smoke and sirens as residents – furious over the police’s persecution of its immigrant population – bricked windows, burned vehicles and challenged the police.

The next day, thousands of Lavapiés locals and people from beyond the barrio gathered to make their views known in a powerful protest from Plaza Nelson Mandela, down the sloping street of Calle Mesón de Paredes and into Plaza Lavapiés.

The protest following Mame Mbaye's death

Now that the smoke has cleared, for now, the fight against unaffordable rent prices resumes with residents hanging signs up all over the neighbourhood in the hope that they won’t be forced out by the current tidal wave of gentrification.

"Carmena and Ahora Madrid (the town hall) are evicting Meson de Parades 39"

True to the barrio’s roots, however, it’s unlikely that residents will be moved on without a fight. Their ingrained rebellious spirit is set to guide them through many more battles, and there’s something just slightly contagious about it.

This article was written in collaboration with published author Felicity Hughes of The Making of Madrid. Felicity can often be found digging through the Madrid archives for her history blog, which aims to explain how the events throughout Madrid’s past have made it what it is today.

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