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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