Community Concepts Start Young: The Lonja

Posted by on May 24, 2011 in Europe, Featured, Videos - 1 Comment

First of all, I must give mad props to my valiant English students, 16-year-old Janire and her friend, Joanna, who agreed to speak on camera IN ENGLISH to give us a tour of their lonja*. Although I can’t raise their grade for lending a hand, I promised them I would try to make them famous on Social Earth. :)

All pride aside, I want to introduce our North American readers to a really cool concept called the Lonja. The closest translation in English would probably be “youth club”, but even this does not quite fit. The Lonja is a rented space paid for and taken care of by young people. A group of students agree to pay around 15€ a month to have their own hang-out space. They usually take over abandoned storefront shops, bring in discarded furniture and appliances to decorate, and are solely responsible for the place. They even have a cleaning chart!

“It doesn’t always work though,” Janire admitted. “The boys don’t clean a lot.” Go figure.

Lonjas are primarily a result of the difference between Spanish and American living. Americans have big houses and big yards, making it easy to have gatherings. In contrast, in Spain, most people live in small apartments. There is not a lot of space to hang out. Shopkeepers don’t want kids loitering around their businesses and police officers don’t want kids in the parks after dark. Thus, the lonja was born.

At first, I couldn’t believe that parents let their children hang out in such an unsupervised space, but no one, not even the police, tend to suspect that the kids are doing anything other than just being kids. This is refreshing.

So is this similar to a fraternity or a sorority? The answer is no. It’s not nearly as exclusive or outrageous. Because the consumption of alcohol is not so taboo in Europe, it’s use not nearly as glorified. Also, because there is very little competitive spirit in school (sports are entirely separate organizations), the concept of cliques is almost non-existent. Lonja members can deny others access to their hang-out, but it is not common and not nearly as petty. There are no lists and in general, very few incidents of this nature.

Lonjas should not be confused with gaztetxes, which is the Basque word for occupied houses. Yet in general, gaztetxes are also allowed to flourish in peace here, even though their existence is technically illegal. I have become increasingly fascinated by lonjas and the care young people put into making their own social communities. These are social communities that have nothing to do with competitive sport, name brand clothing, or anything of that nature – they are purely local constructs – and they teach kids a sense of community responsibility and ownership at a young age.

I hope to bring you more of local lonjas in the future, but for now, enjoy this tour!

*For those of you who are language freaks, lonja translates literally to “the local fish market” (in case you google image it and wind up with a lot of fish photos!) Una lonja is also “a slice” of something. For example, una lonja de queso is “a slice of cheese.” However, the word has been modified to also express a youth hang-out.


Ashley is a friend of anyone who is fighting the good fight for social change. She has worked for environmental advocacy in Montana, poverty eradication in Guatemala, and peace and conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. She now lives in Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain where she teaches International Relations English and is pursuing her Masters in Language Acquisition in Multicultural Settings.

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One Comment on "Community Concepts Start Young: The Lonja"

  1. Kitty October 31, 2012 at 1:15 pm ·

    Currently living in the Basque region for the past 6 years, I am quite
    familiar with lonja’s and gaztetxes. The lonja is privately funded
    because they are usually owned by an adult who has no use for the space
    that is located usually on the ground level of an apartment building.
    Our local gaztetxe was being provided by the local town hall so I guess
    by definition it shouldn’t be called a gaztetxe but is. Cleaning
    person, TV and new double glazed windows all at the tax payers expense. I
    don’t really understand your point about police here not wanting kids
    in the parks after dark. The kids are allowed to roam freely until all
    hours of the night and morning without police interference. Any minor
    can buy a beer at the bar and Marijuana is legal so rolling and smoking
    anywhere is tolerated and even in some bars you can see this as well. So
    the kids aren’t limited to where they can go unlike the kids in the
    states were police don’t want kids in parks after dark. So not only are
    they not limited to where they can congregate and party, they also have
    lonjas. Sure we have larger houses and gardens in the states, but if the
    mentality were such that the government was no longer supporting and or
    legally allowing places for kids to get high and drink and party then
    kids would be forced back to their parents homes to do this kind of
    thing regardless of size of home. I for one grew up in a small home in
    the states, not much bigger than many pisos and still had my friends
    over. Parents here don’t mind the lonjas because it keeps their kids out
    of their houses and it has nothing to do with the size of the house it
    has to do with not wanting to know what their kids do and not wanting
    them doing it in their homes. The gaztetxe in my community supposedly is
    no longer funded by the local government due to the economic crisis
    recently but they occupy a very special building at the front entrance
    to our community. Parking where they want, congregating outside,
    spraying the entire village with political garbage when they are angry,
    posting junk on the outside walls and no longer filled with just kids,
    but adults who shouldn’t even be there, the gaztextxe aka lonja is just a
    living room outside of ones home. Girls don’t seem to be welcome in my
    local place so guys take it over for their own personal use. My local
    gaztetxe space could be used to promote local artisan goods and nature
    activities to benefit all yet it is allowed to be used as a living room
    for kids who’s parents don’t want them in their own homes and that
    doesn’t make sense to me. Lonjas are no different except personally
    funded. The basque region has this ugly habit of building ugly apartment
    buildings and not allowing apartments on most ground levels but
    instead leave this ground level for rental retail space that never gets
    rented because they all can’t be supported by local ecomony because
    there are too many so some are turned into lonja’s here and there for
    kids because parents don’t know what to do with the unrentable spaces.
    In general most ground levels are left to look ugly for the entire
    community to suffer from. The lonja is a place to party, talk, drink,
    get stoned, hook up and do whatever one should be doing in their own
    homes or in cars or in parks and the police don’t suspect a thing here
    because they don’t police like our police do in the US. Kids pull out
    old furniture in the fronts of the lonjas in the summer and take over
    the sidewalks, and because the kids don’t have money, the fronts of the
    lonjas look like crap adding to the ugliness of most piso (apartment)
    communities. So I guess its a matter of opinion and age what one thinks
    about lonjas and gaztetxes but I think they are the Basque regions way
    of letting the parents off the hook and putting them in the hands of the
    public for all of us to view and put up with. This is a socialized
    country and the US is not so we will never have funded lonjas or
    gaztetxes in our country. If people want youth hang-outs in our country
    let the kids pay for them and then good luck with our legal system that
    will shut them down. They do nothing to teach kids social
    responsibility because they are usually filthy and mismanaged, the drug
    and alcohol consumption is out of control in them because they don’t
    have to worry about anyone checking up on them. Furthermore, Basques
    have their own labels such as skunkfunk, desigual, ART, etc. so don’t
    think for a minute these kids are any less label conscious just because
    they have a lonja and look all natural with wooden earrings and hiking
    boots. Whats more, you mention that the kids aren’t clique oriented and I
    beg to differ greatly. The kids grow up and have their cuadrias from
    nearly birth. No one usually comes in who is new and rarely anyone
    leaves because this culture has had the luxury of not having to be
    mobile or nomadic like our culture in the states but that is severly
    changing at this very moment as people are now panicing about their
    future prospects here. Kids in general have more freedom here than in
    the good old USA that is for sure but not sure if the freedoms such as
    lonjas and gaztetxes are something positive. Fiestas that run all summer
    in any given community at any given time are over run with kids
    carrying bags of coke and Don Simon to make kalimotxos and having
    endless supplies of marijuana because its legal to grow and smoke.
    Seeing the social responsibility can be wintessed in the early hours of
    the morning after a fiesta. Vomit, feces, trash and grafiti will be seen
    and the smell of urine in just about all places. The kids here enter
    bars freely and there is no such thing as carding anyone here so this
    culture is vastly different and if you think any of this will ever be
    accepted in our country by the religious fanatics and staunch political
    parties your kidding yourself. I personally think gaztetxes should be
    banned and most certainly never supplied and paid for by the government
    and I think lonjas should have stricter rules if they are to be in
    existance just like business store fronts if I think they should exist
    at all. Hours should be enforced, exterior aesthetics should be enforced
    and permits should be required. I think what would teach kids a sense
    of ownership and responsibility at a young age is to get jobs and pay
    for their things like American kids do. Kids here don’t get jobs at 16
    and they don’t understand what it means to have to work to buy. The
    parents in the Basque region tend to coddle their kids and take care of
    them far too long and kids are far too dependent on their parents money
    so survive.

    I personally see nothing positive about the lonja as a positive community concept.

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