Tabacalera then and now

Tabacalera to be transformed

On January 2024, plans were announced to transform the Lavapiés institution Tabacalera, into an arts centre. The details are sketchy but it seems like the new state-run institution will offer spaces for artist residencies as well as other artistic programs. To make this a reality, a whopping 12.5 million euros allocated for post-Covid recovery funds will be spent on much-needed renovations for a building that was falling apart. Many who know this independent institution can’t help but feel a little sad, however, as it was once a grassroots venue run for and by the community.

Community collective

Before Tabacalera shut its doors, many people wandering through the chilly graffiti-splattered corridors of Tabacalera were under the impression that the former tobacco factory had been abandoned by the powers that be. Rundown, raucous, and rough around the edges, the space felt more like a Berlin squat than a state-owned community centre. This is mostly down to bad management on the part of the Ministry for Culture who took over the building after the factory was shut down in 2000 without any clear plans for the future. While bids rolled in to convert the huge industrial space into courts for the Ministry of Justice, a museum of decorative arts and an extension of the Prado, funding dried up and the place began to deteriorate.

Tabacalera was run as a community centre by residents of Lavapiés

Luckily it was saved by a group of locals who in 2009 stepped in to run the space while another section was used for exhibitions by the Ministry of Culture. The community space, though rough and ready was really good fun and I have fond memories of seeing lucha libre fights run by White Wolf Wrestling back in the day. However, my memories of the scuzzy toilets were less than fond! It was clear the building needed work if it was to survive. And I’m glad it’s being rescued for posterity’s sake.

Me with El Vikingo(The Viking) at White Wolf Wrestling in Tabacalera cerca 2013

Original purpose

Built in 1780 during the reign of Charles III, the building was originally designed for the production of spirits, playing cards, and other products the state had a monopoly on. However, when Napoleon invaded in 1808, production ground to a halt. Faced with frequent insurrections, Joseph Bonaparte, who had been put in charge of Spain by his brother, was desperately in need of places to lock up Madrid’s rebellious populace, so initially the enormous sombre edifice was turned into a prison.

Pepe Botella aka Joseph Bonaparte: Every person has his luck, yours is to be drunk until death

A relaxing smoke

As the occupation ground on, morale became a problem among Joseph’s stressed-out troops. One easy way to boost their spirits was to supply them with a good smoke. However, while the French troops had plenty of paper and tobacco, they didn’t have the chops necessary to roll their own. Enter Lavapies’ manolas, a tribe of working class women who were then running an illegal trade in cigarette production out of their homes. When news of this cottage industry reached Joseph’s ears, he decided to harness their skills rather than punish them, creating Madrid’s very first tobacco factory.

Cigarreras fighting for their rights

The factory thrived and continued to run even after the occupation as the population of Madrid itself swelled; initially 800 women were employed here, but by 1890 that number grew to 6,300. These women of independent means were known as cigarreras and they were famed throughout the city for their cheeky and rebellious attitude. They banded together on more than one occasion to strike and for the most part, the authorities gave into their demands. This led not only to better wages and working conditions, but also to the creation of a kindergarten and school onsite where female employees could leave their children while they worked.

End of an era

Tabacalera shut its doors during the pandemic and I heard rumours this was partly also down to problems the community had with managing the space. Not only was it literally falling apart around their ears, but drug deals were going on in the basement leading to a risky atmosphere. A timeline for the reopening hasn’t been announced yet and I suspect, like any restoration job on a historically significant building, the project will likely be beset by delays.

Keen to find out more about the history of Madrid? See another side of the city with one of my unique walking tours.

2 thoughts on “Tabacalera then and now”

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