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Dani Cortijo: "With the advent of Web 2.0, academics can no longer allow themselves the luxury of keeping their knowledge to themselves"

In the UB Alumni Association’s “Passejades amb història” tours the historian Dani Cortijo teaches us about the history of Barcelona, away from the usual tourist haunts.

In the UB Alumni Association’s “Passejades amb història” tours the historian Dani Cortijo teaches us about the history of Barcelona, away from the usual tourist haunts.

The city has many hidden corners that often go unnoticed, like the Col·legiata de Santa Anna, an oasis of calm just off the Plaça de Catalunya.

The city has many hidden corners that often go unnoticed, like the Col·legiata de Santa Anna, an oasis of calm just off the Plaça de Catalunya.

Cortijo shows a section of Barcelona’s medieval city walls, hidden inside a shop in Carrer del Call.

Cortijo shows a section of Barcelona’s medieval city walls, hidden inside a shop in Carrer del Call.

16/05/2011

Entrevistes

Dani Cortijo holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Barcelona. He has published numerous articles, released collectively in the book 1001 días que cambiaron el mundo, and contributed to the anthology Història de l’esperanto als Països Catalans. Recull d’articles. He is also the author of Històries de la història de Barcelona, which has sold over 6,000 copies. This last book was created from the entries on his blog, Altres Barcelones, where he offers an alternative vision of Barcelona through different facets of its history. The blog won Cortijo the Catalonia Blog Award 2009 in the culture category.
 
Cortijo is also the creator of the Barcelonasfera network, which lists a range of blogs on the city of Barcelona and its former villages. He has worked with other young historians to launch the HistoTube project, a portal offering students, teachers and all those interested in Catalan history and culture a selection of videos to view online.
 
More recently, Cortijo embarked on a collaborative project with the UB Alumni Association’s Humanities Circle to organize tours aimed at teaching locals and visitors about the history of Barcelona, away from the usual tourist haunts. The season, Passejades amb història, began on 5 March with the first tour “La invenció del barri Gòtic”, focusing on the history of the city’s gothic quarter, which sold out. The second tour, “El Raval: el barri proscrit”, took place on 3 April and matched the success of the first, to such an extent that three separate tours had to be arranged.
 
Blogger, writer, guide... How and when did this adventure begin?
To understand it we need to look back to my fifth year at primary school. Back then, when everyone wanted to be an astronaut or a footballer, I already knew that I wanted to be a historian. But it was not until secondary school that I began to feel – in a positive way – envious of my teachers. I pictured myself next to a blackboard trying to convince the class of the importance of learning about our past.
 
In the first year of my degree I decided that in addition to studying I had to start to get teaching experience and began working for various companies as a history tour guide for primary and secondary school children. It was at this point, by following the example of my former teachers, that I began to build up a collection of historical anecdotes to help me get the children’s attention and illustrate what I was explaining more clearly. Before I knew it I had a folder full of these snippets of our past, and when I was out with friends I couldn’t stop telling them stories. I discovered that adults were interested too and decided to share these stories on the Internet. Over time, Altres Barcelones achieved unexpected success, and the Blog Awards opened the door to radio and television work and the publishing world.
 
What are the keys to this success? Is it simply that we are interested in history?
Yes, I think that we are interested in history, ever more so. Historians, on the other hand, interest us less. If we look at the list of non-fiction bestsellers we generally find a lot of history books. But how many of these have been written by historians? This is even more evident if we look at magazines and radio programmes that focus on history. How many are edited or presented by historians?
 
Professional historians have been guilty of keeping information amongst themselves to a certain extent. We generate information from each other’s work and largely for one another. Ultimately, though, we must realise that our studies lose much of their relevance if we cannot transmit them to a wider audience that is hungry for history and for new information. If we are not able to disseminate this information clearly and in an appealing way, other groups of less qualified professionals will do it for us.
 
My project, as I have said, grew from the desire to use examples from our own surroundings to convince those with no interest in history that it can be an extremely useful discipline. It is this degree of familiarity that has made the project successful. People can find me on Facebook, on my blog and on Twitter, but I also give talks open to the public and am involved in tours and local events. This is what I call history in the field – getting out among the people with the mission of defending our heritage, increasing awareness of our own history and keeping an open mind.
 
Where did the idea come from to work with the UB Alumni Association’s Humanities Circle in setting up the season of tours “Passejades amb història”?
Speaking to some of the historians that belong to the Humanities Circle we reached the conclusion that – now more than ever – there is a pressing need to reinvent our profession and become more active figures in the diffusion of information, a field we had not given much thought to until now. I spoke to them about my idea and they liked it. We thought that setting up a series of activities like these, with the help of lecturers from other faculties like Philosophy and Geography, would help us to make some headway. With the advent of Web 2.0, academics can no longer justify the luxury of keeping their knowledge to themselves. Many of us are part of what is already being referred to as the lost generation. We are young, capable people with a good education and a desire to work but a highly uncertain professional future. Despite this uncertainty, our vocation as humanists makes us believe that our work is fundamental to society and we are not prepared to sit with our arms crossed while everything falls down around us. A lost generation? I suppose we’ll see...
 
You must know more than most about the history of the city. Where do all of these stories emerge from?
Unfortunately, as my fellow historians can confirm, the stories don’t just emerge on their own, you have to look for them, and this can be quite a challenge. We’re talking about hour and hours of research, interviews, comparing sources... Since my first year as a teacher and guide – when I began to gather stories and vignettes to make history more interesting – up to the present I have filled shelves and shelves with old and new books on Barcelona and its history, to the point at which I now have real trouble fitting any more in. I have always worked independently, without grants or scholarships, and have devoted much of my free time to these pursuits.
 
Do you have a favourite story among the many you have researched?
Three years ago I found out about some graffiti in the Barceloneta district dating from the Civil War era. The faded letters remind us that the Carrer de Sant Miquel had been renamed Carrer de Miquel Pedrola in honour of a young man from the neighbourhood who had died in the first months of the war. The fascists eventually painted over the name, but looking carefully I managed to find it. I read the accounts of others who made reference to it and was able to talk to the relatives of those who had known Miquel Pedrola. After a year of talks with the city council, which included submitting a signed petition, and with the support of the Òstia neighbourhood association, we managed to have the graffiti restored. We then managed to convince the Municipal Institute of Urban Landscape and Quality of Life to install a plaque explaining the history behind the name.
 
And how did the family react?
When the story made the news, relatives of Miquel Pedrola got in touch with me and were clearly very moved. They didn’t know anything about the graffiti, but it also turned out that I knew nothing about Pedrola’s daughter, born after his death to Mara Valero, a militant he was in love with and who I had read about in memoirs. The family and I, with the help of neighbours from Barceloneta, set out to find Pedrola’s daughter through public records. In the end the daughter herself, through a French historian I had spoken to, sent me an e-mail from France.
 
Two weeks later, those of us involved in the project accompanied the daughter to what had been the Aragon front during the war, following the final footsteps of her father. Once we had arrived, we went to the building where Miquel Pedrola had been involved in his final battle, where I explained to Pedrola’s daughter what had happened in the last moments of her father’s life. At the request of the neighbours in Barceloneta we organized a party to welcome her to Barcelona. It was a day on which emotions ran high and many tears were shed. Barceloneta had recovered its past, a family separated by the war had been reunited and a daughter had discovered her father’s history. I had never seen anything so beautiful...
 
Through your blog, your book and the new season of history tours with the UB Alumni Association we can discover places that most locals are completely unaware of. If we look for history will we find it?
I have always said that walls can only speak if we know how to listen. And that is what historians must do: find the way to make stones, buildings, remains and documents tell us something that we can understand and explain their past. Once we have uncovered this information I believe that it is our obligation to transmit it to society through any channel available to us, avoiding the influence of third parties as far as possible and ensuring that the essence of what we have learned is not lost.
 
Do the people of Barcelona not know their own history?
Some do and others don’t. And when I say that they don’t know their own history I don’t just mean as residents of Barcelona but as people in general. To take a simple example, many people don’t know what their ancestors did, where they lived, what their lives were like... Similarly, many of us know nothing about the history of the building we live in. For example, have people ever wondered about all the things that have happened in their home? Who lived there before? Have important events happened there?
 
The other day I was surprised when I rang at the door of a flat in the Eixample district to ask to neighbours whether they had any information about a crime that had been committed there in 1916. No-one had any idea and they were surprised when I showed them old news clippings about the event. But just as many people know nothing about their history, others hold the key to real historical treasures that would be impossible to find in the archives... That is why I am a firm believer in getting out there and doing the field work.
 
Tell us one of the stories that features in your tours.
The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is one of the most flagrant cases of architectural manipulation in history. The square was completed destroyed by heavy bombing in 1938. Only the church, where some twenty children had died, remained standing. Franco ensured that the events were forgotten by rebuilding the square and moving old buildings to the site stone by stone. Even now, though, a wall behind the building that once housed the shoemakers’ guild reminds us that, despite its apparent resistance to the passage of time, the square hides a tragic past.
 
What are your plans for the future?
My plans are essentially the same as those I had before starting my degree: to get a job as a social sciences teacher at a secondary school and to continue to devote my free time to the projects I already have underway.
 
Finally, what are three reasons to sign up for one of the UB Alumni Association’s “Passejades amb història” tours?
First, to rediscover the history of the city, to look at it through different eyes. Second, to meet of professionals who studied at the UB. And third, to exchange points of view and share experiences with people from other disciplines.
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