Colombia: Medellín lights up for Christmas

The celebration of Christmas is a curious mix of Christian and pagan traditions in Europe, and indeed has absorbed many influences from other cultures in its unparalleled spread across the globe. As such, its festivities exhibit some parallels, but equally manifest themselves in manners completely unique to a particular region. Latin America is particularly rich in this variety, given its waves of immigration and history of Catholic colonisation. Medellín, the second city of Colombia has become renowned internationally for its particularly vibrant take on Christmas, with the city centre plastered in millions of brightly coloured fairy lights every festive season, known locally as ‘The Lighting’ or El Alumbrado in Spanish.

The illuminations of Medellín were initially borne out of a distinctly Colombian Christmas custom: El Día de las Velitas (‘Little Candles Day’). It is traditional on 7th December, considered the eve of the Immaculate Conception, for Colombians to adorn windows and doorways with candles in honour of the Virgin Mary. With the advent of electric lighting, this celebration became an altogether more public affair, with the public utilities company EPM starting to decorate the city with modest displays of coloured lights.

Alumbrados - Avenida la Playa

Alumbrados on Avenida la Playa, Medellín. Source: Laloking97 on

Fast forward to 2014, and the Alumbrado is celebrating its 50th birthday. Over its lifetime it has mushroomed into a spectacle that attracts up to 4 million spectators, along the course of the Medellín River, Avenida la Playa and some 100 other locations across the city. With the advent of technology, the colours are ever more vivid and the styling more ambitious. This year’s display has been lauded as especially spectacular, with more than 30 million light bulbs depicting scenes relating to peace, reconciliation and the humanity associated with the festive period. To yield such awe inspiring results is truly a mammoth task, with the first lights needing to be hung in late summer in order to ensure everything is ready for the big reveal at the end of November.

Lights at Rio Medellin

Visitors enjoying the lights along the Río Medellín. Source: SajoR on

If you are lucky enough to travel in Colombia in December, Medellín by night is sure to even ignite something of a Christmas spirit in its hardiest opponents thanks to the uniqueness of the celebration. These are the best Christmas traditions – those that demonstrate a personal and local touch, quite at odds with the bland commercialism that we often witness elsewhere. Before you part ways to indulge in your own Christmas festivities, perhaps share some of your own traditions with your classmates to make their own celebrations that little bit more memorable. Feliz Navidad!

Your Friendly Spanish team

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London: The Argentine Film Festival 2014

Weary of the same old multiplex blockbusters? Stuck for weekend ideas yet cannot quite face the tumultuous task of Christmas shopping? London residents take note – the Argentine Film Festival is back for its third outing from 27th to 30th November. Both sides of the river will be represented, with both the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton and the Hackney Picturehouse showcasing the best contemporary filmmaking of Argentina. These two locations, already known for their pied cinematic offerings in stylishly offbeat surroundings are playing host to a jam-packed schedule over four short days. To help you decide how to manage your precious time, here is a brief run-down of some highlights.

Scene from Metegol

Scene from Metegol. Source:

Relatos Salvajes (‘Wild Tales’) is one of the highest grossing films in its native Argentina of recent years. The blackest of black comedies, this film reflects the darkness of co-producer Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish triumphs. Wild Tales is composed of six shorts that explore people’s drastic responses to dramatic circumstances. Expect a great degree of spontaneity and a healthy dose of violence. Metegol (billed in English as ‘The Unbeatables’ or ‘Underdogs’) represents director Juan J. Campanella’s first foray into animated film after celebrating Oscar-winning success with El Secreto de sus Ojos in 2009. This is a comic tale centred on Argentina’s foremost religion – football. Inspired by the designs of table football, the animated characters are comically distinctive, whilst remaining exceptionally detailed and visually stunning.

The festival also honours the documentary genre, exploring current issues within Argentine society. The observational Años de Calle follows four homeless children over a period of twelve years. This is a humbling and poignant portrait of individuals for whom the typical challenges of growing up in modern-day Argentina are hugely intensified, given their precarious circumstances. A more light-hearted yet equally revealing study of Argentine society is found in Living Stars, with a selection of residents of Buenos Aires filmed for the duration of one music track dancing themselves silly in and around their own homes. This hilarious and heart-warming project bears something of a resemblance to the Where the Hell is Matt? Youtube phenomenon, in which the protagonist is filmed exhibiting awkward dance moves across some of the world’s most iconic places.

Brixton's Ritzy Cinema

Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema. Source: Malc McDonald at

Friendly Spanish students remember – there are still places available to join us this Thursday 24th on the festival’s opening night for Relatos Salvajes – an opportunity not to miss! See the website and/or check your email inbox for details. Meanwhile over in Hackney, the event is sponsored by Bodega Argento’s wines, so arrive for your film in good time to enjoy a feisty Malbec from the renowned Mendoza region, with a backdrop of tango dance demonstrations, naturally!

Ritzy is conveniently located in central Brixton a few steps away from the tube station. Hackney Picturehouse can be found at 270 Mare Street, just 5 minutes walk from Hackney Central Overground. For more information on the festival, visit:

Your Friendly Spanish team

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José Mujica: Uruguay’s exceptionally humble president

Away from the glitzy seaside resort of Punta del Este and other areas across the water from the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, Uruguay is a small and unassuming country, little explored by international tourists and overshadowed in many senses by its larger and more powerful neighbours. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Uruguayan president José Mujica has hit the headlines around the world for his extreme degree of modesty. Pepe as he is known to his legions of admirers lives a life so frugal that it barely resembles the glamorous political circles in which many other national leaders reside.

Mujica with his wife Lucía Topolansky

Mujica pictured with his wife Lucía Topolansky. Source: US Embassy in Uruguay, at Wikimedia Commons

In a world where presidential residences are often extremely lavish and iconic buildings at the centre of our cities, Mujica opted to remain in his rustic farmhouse an hour or so outside the capital, Montevideo. Whilst politicians elsewhere have lately become embroiled in deplorable salary and expenses scandals, Mujica openly pledges 90% of his salary to varied social projects and housing associations. To both his admirers and detractors, Pepe is an utterly unique leader, and is driven as much by his first-hand experience of a turbulent political history as his progressive agenda for contemporary Uruguay.

In common with much of Latin America, Uruguay had entered a period of political crisis in the second half of the 20th Century with a military dictatorship on the horizon. In the 1970s, the then dissident Mujica became the leader of the Tupamaros guerrillas who tasked themselves with fairer distribution of the national wealth, often forcibly by way of violence and robbery. The military government placed him and many contemporaries in prison, frequently in barbaric conditions. After 14 years of incarceration, Mujica was released in 1985 as Uruguay too was released from the clutches of dictatorship, and he became steadily more involved in a more measured and democratic school of politics. Driven by a desire to see the country developing in a more equal and sustainable manner for its people, Mujica paved his way to presidency in 2010. Accused by some as seeking to hamper international economic development for Uruguay, Mujica frequently warns of the damage and exploitation of big business on the smaller and more fragile economies of the world, with rampant capitalism creating as much relative poverty as it does new wealth. In a way, his own lifestyle is the most powerful symbol of this belief. A particularly poignant moment was when a wealthy Middle Eastern sheikh offered $1 million for Mujica’s famous VW Beetle. Needless to say, he declined the offer.

Portrait of Mujica in Montevideo

Portrait of Mujica in Montevideo. Source: Ehrmann on

The Uruguayan president has also become well-known (and indeed often criticised) for his liberal policy making, such as a bill authorising same-sex marriage and a relaxation of abortion laws. Perhaps most famously, he approved the regulated sale of marijuana to the people of Uruguay in December 2013. Rather than an expression of civil liberties, Mujica was keen to point out that this pioneering step was a message to the wealthy industrial economies of the world, urging them to take similar measures in order to protect both their own citizens from crime and those affected elsewhere by the violence and oppression of drug trafficking.

Mujica is due to step down after five years in office next March as stated by the national constitution, though it is likely he will retain a political presence. Whatever your political stance on his leadership, the pace of change has been significant over the last few years, but Uruguay still faces many challenges as a developing country based on the occasionally conflicting demands of social stability and economic openness. Latin America has not been short of maverick leaders in the last few decades, offering their own agendas for tackling challenging times. Drastically different leadership approaches give an insight on the extremes present in many Latin American countries and the inherent challenge of responding to such a varied society. What do you think are the attributes that make a good leader? A challenging topic for your Spanish class perhaps…and definitely a revealing one!

Your Friendly Spanish team

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Argentina: Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Buenos Aires, a political and cultural megacity, is a place that wears its diverse history very much on the surface. Whether in the form of grandiose European-inspired architecture, the sultry sound of tango, or imagery relating to Eva Perón, the Argentine capital has a strong connection to its roots and identifies with the past. However, this is a past that has been punctuated with turbulent times, and even relatively recently Argentina suffered under the oppression of a brutal dictatorship. This may seem surprising for what is one of the more developed and stable countries of Latin America, but scratch the surface and the memory very much lives on for local people, most famously for the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (‘The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’).

Argentina - Madres protesting 1982

The Madres protesting in 1982. Source: Archivo Hasenberg Quaretti in

In the 1970s, Argentina was descending into political turmoil, as extreme factions prevented any sense of political stability or moderation. In 1976, the military junta seized control, marking the beginning of what would be eight years of dictatorship. The constitution was suspended, and in its place the Process of National Reorganisation or more commonly The Dirty War was implemented. Members of the public displaying political dissidence or leftist guerrilla tendencies were tracked down and abducted, and made to ‘disappear’ from society. The desaparecidos as they are known, were mostly taken to detention camps to be tortured and executed, their bodies then hidden. The purpose of this was both to eliminate the presence of violent political clashes, but also to invoke fear amongst the population so that they obeyed the dictatorship’s rule. Amidst this environment of terror, a group of women began to form, united in the search for their lost sons and daughters and angry for answers.

The modest collection of madres began to congregate weekly in the Plaza de Mayo at the heart of Buenos Aires, facing the Casa Rosada – the Argentine governmental headquarters. As the number of cases of desaparecidos spiralled, so too did the crowds of mothers, and their defiance. Their association served as a support network, as the women carried out near-impossible detective work at a time of such secrecy and oppression. However, equally it served to visually shame the military government. The distinctive white headscarves worn by the women served as an easily recognisable symbol of their public struggle. As Argentina hosted the world cup in 1978, the image of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo drew international media attention.

The white headscarf that symbolises the movement

The white headscarf that symbolises the movement, painted in the Plaza de Mayo. Source: Banfield in

Once democracy was restored in the 1980s, a handful of women received answers, but for the most part the struggle continued. The mothers were still angry as legislation such as the ‘Full Stop Law’ set out to give those involved in the dictatorship indemnity once those in the top positions had been punished. It was argued that full responsibility could not be attributed to those acting under the control of the military leaders, but many were angered by this seeming reluctance to truly get to the bottom of the fate of so many Argentineans. Eventually in 2006, the government of Néstor Kirchner overturned these laws as unconstitutional, and the madres brought their protests to a close. However, even today you will find the mothers of the disappeared in regular attendance in the plaza, championing various other social causes.

In terms of your Spanish classes, discussion of politics is often a sensitive subject that should be approached with caution. Even so, understanding the political history of the Spanish-speaking world is a key to understanding its people and cultures today. Whether events from the past invoke celebration or regret, it is our ability to discuss and learn from them that matters.

Your Friendly Spanish team

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Valparaíso – Chile’s edgiest city

As you are probably aware, Santiago is the capital of Chile, and overwhelmingly dominates the nation in population and economic terms. However, there is another city that is increasingly proving a worthy rival in the tourism and cultural stakes – Valparaíso. Located only some 75 miles from the capital, the mountainous scenery between the two serves to highlight that the character of Valparaíso is markedly different, and seemingly worlds apart from the rest of Chile.


Ascensor scaling the slopes of Valparaíso. Source: Robin Nystrom on

Valpo, as it is known to locals, is hardly brimming with conventional tourist attractions, but rather it is the overall character and landscape of the city that gives it irresistible appeal. With its origins as a colonial port city, the seafront is the focus of the city, and is framed by sharply rising mountains, crammed with a chaotic maze of brightly coloured houses that scale the dizzying hillsides. Unlike the regimented grid system typical of most South American cities, the hill neighbourhoods (known as cerros) are reached by twisting alleys, staircases and a system of lifts and funiculars collectively known as ascensores. These elevators may delight tourists for their sweeping views and ability to ascend what appear to be impossible inclines, but equally are a crucial means of commuter transport, saving residents from arduous climbs home from the city centre. Valparaíso has also become famous in the cycling world, whereby daredevil downhillers race at breakneck speed through the precipitous streets.

The port of Valparaíso went from strength to strength as Chile became independent in the 19th century, and the city developed as a prosperous commercial hub, with the grand civic architecture to match. Fortunes were built on revenue from the copper and silver trades, as well as the city’s function as a stopping off point on the long and treacherous route from Europe around the southern tip of South America to the Pacific. The next century was not so kind to the city, with a catastrophic earthquake in 1906, and the opening of the Panama Canal shortly after which secured its economic stagnation. Over several decades of decline, the grand stock exchanges and suburban mansions became vacant and run down.

Valparaíso mural

Valparaíso mural, of Valparaíso. Source: elrentaplats on

Today, Valparaíso retains its slightly decadent and faded air, with a healthy dose of port-city grit. This, coupled with the innate attractiveness of the urban landscape has attracted buzzing arts and cultural scenes. Attracted initially by low rents, artists have created many cutting-edge venues hidden within the labyrinthine streets. In particular, the Cerro Bellavista neighbourhood is known for its creative ambience and striking murals, known collectively as the Museo a Cielo Abierto, or ‘open air museum’. A stroll around Valparaíso is extremely rewarding, as the city shows off the scars of its past and the energy of its present with equal and unmistakeable pride.

As students at Friendly Spanish, try to think about where your Spanish skills could take you. Do you have a dream destination in Spain or Latin America? If you are searching for inspiration, the travel sections of online newspapers like El País or Clarín may give you some tips on exciting destinations.

Your Friendly Spanish team

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The best of Spanish cinema: Mar Adentro

Since its release in 2004, Mar Adentro (translated as ‘The Sea Inside’) remains highly regarded as one of the jewels of contemporary Spanish cinema, thanks to its extremely perceptive yet unflinching take on a social issue more polemic than almost any other: euthanasia, or the right to die. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, this film’s powerful storyline and believable characters are made all the more poignant by the fact that the plot revolves around real life events. The storyline in question is that of a Galician man named Ramón Sampredro (played by a wonderfully prosthetically-aged Javier Bardem) who was tragically left completely paralysed below the head after breaking his neck in a diving accident.

Ramón and Julia

Ramón and Julia (left) and his family (right) Source:

Confined to his bed for thirty years gives Ramón ample time to reflect on his predicament, and we meet him at the time he has decided he wishes to end his own life. At the time of release, and indeed to this day, the topic of euthanasia is extremely divisive, as it remains illegal across much of Europe. Despite this, Ramón insists on his right to die with dignity, thereby bringing two very different but equally vivacious women into his life. Julia (Belén Rueda) is the lawyer who arrives from Madrid to stay in the family house and help prepare his defence case, and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local neighbour who devotes herself to the task of convincing Ramón that life is worth living. The two tenacious female characters enrich Ramón’s surroundings with their opposing beliefs, yet it is ultimately Ramón himself who has a particularly profound impact on them, by way of his strength of character, humility and darkly humorous take on his plight.

Rosa introducing Ramón to her son

Rosa introducing Ramón to her son. Source:

The setting, on the wild north-western coast of Galicia is suitably mournful and reflective, exposing a landscape that is at once beautifully uplifting and bleak. The characteristics of the local population also contribute to the ideological contradictions in the story. Typical of such a close-knit and isolated fishing community, they exhibit great warmth whilst exhibiting reservedness to outsiders, and a distinct allegiance to traditional customs and beliefs. Ramón’s simple story causes immense upheaval within the family and wider community. As events unfold, the two female lead characters begin to see aspects of themselves in Ramón, leading them (and us too, the audience) to call into question assumptions and inherited attitudes towards life and death. This is a challenging and extremely personal tale that is guaranteed to both enchant and move you deeply. The fact that the film is based on a true story only adds to its emotional impact and realism of the characters.

Films are one of the best ways to improve your Spanish linguistic and cultural knowledge. Ask your teacher at Friendly Spanish for some of their favourites, and don’t be afraid of suggesting a film you’ve recently seen as a class discussion topic.

Your Friendly Spanish team

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Mexico – El Día de los Muertos

As people have migrated over the centuries, so too have their cultures and religions with them. This has led to similar festivals and observations occurring in different countries, albeit with distinct variations from place to place, reflecting the unique cultural makeup of its people. The Mexican events calendar is a classic example of this, projecting both the nation’s overwhelmingly Catholic faith, as well as its long and complex pre-Hispanic history. This exotic amalgamation of religious fervour and indigenous mysticism is at its most iconic and vividly Mexican on the annual celebration of El Día de los Muertos (‘Day of the Dead’).

Families decorating the graves of their loved ones

Families decorating the graves of their loved ones. Source:

Coinciding with the traditionally European and Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day at the beginning of November, El Día de los Muertos is a festival for families to pay respects to and rejoice in the memory of those that are no longer with them. Infants and children that have passed away are typically honoured on the 1st November, whilst the 2nd constitutes the principal feast day, and is a public holiday across Mexico. Whilst now integrated into the Christian calendar and rich with catholic symbolism in post-colonial Mexico, the essence of Day of the Dead is centred on the Aztec belief of the afterlife. People believed in a cycle of life and death, with the passing of a loved one a journey into the next life. A celebration to honour Mictecacihuatl, goddess of death and the underworld, revolved around the idea that those who had passed on to the next life could rejoin their families in spirit once a year, therefore giving cause for celebration and the foundation of El Día de los Muertos.

The festival is both a private and a public one. Within the home, people traditionally construct altars for the dead and adorn them with offerings of sugar skulls or calaveras, and pan de muerto (‘bread of the dead’) in the shape of bones and skeletons. Later, processions and exuberant music fill the streets, as people congregate in cemeteries to spruce up family graves and shower them in flowers and papel picado – ­­the distinctly Mexican strings of brightly coloured paper cuttings. The normally quiet graveyards are injected with life, as people gather not to mourn but to cheerfully reminisce over happy times spent together, and maintain the inclusion of the dead within the community. Far from being a macabre spectacle, there is a feeling of respect but also pragmatism towards death. It is accepted as something inevitable, and therefore an opportunity to celebrate together with those that have passed is seen as something natural, and to be enjoyed.

Decorated calaveras

Decorated calaveras on display. Source:

El Día de los Muertos also exists in some form across much of Latin America, though the Mexican festival is the grandest and most significant. It has also gained a stronghold in the southern states of the USA, following immigrant communities across the border. To some extent it has also captured the world, perhaps due to its highly decorative and distinctive imagery, or maybe a slightly morbid fascination in celebrating something that remains taboo across western society. In today’s world where logical explanation is sought for everything, death remains one of the great unknowns. Therefore the manner in which it is honoured is a particularly revealing window on a culture and the beliefs, superstitions and character of its people.

For those Friendly Spanish students who are in our Advanced and Proficiency Spanish classes we will be discussing this fascinating event next week.

Your Friendly Spanish team

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