MADRID, Spain — The right of Spanish youths to party in the streets is in question.
The “botellon” phenomenon, literally “big bottle,” attracts gatherings of youths to drink in parks and squares. People bring their own drinks: soda to mix with gin, vodka or whisky, and wine to make “calimocho,” a blend of coke and wine.
Some botellones are composed of small groups of friends, while others are massive. The time and place of “macro-botellones” are “announced” by viral dissemination, using mass texting, emails or social networks such as Facebook or Tuenti, a Spanish network popular among youth. The legal age to buy alcohol in Spain is 18, but younger teens attend these parties. (Binge drinking in general is on the rise among Spanish teenagers, as I reported in an earlier article.)
Residents in nearby apartment blocks complain of screams and loud music from “disco-cars;” vandalism; trash from broken glass, plastic cups and bags; and urine in the streets and on their doorsteps. “They go literally all night, Thursday through Saturday,” said Emilia de la Serna, spokeswoman for an aptly named Association for the Right to Rest. “And, what’s worse, these young people are destroying themselves. How can this be allowed?” she asked.
TV news coverage spotlights the crudest images of botellon: youths vomiting; unable to walk by themselves, being dragged by friends; or simply passed out on the ground.
In some cases, botellones have ended in clashes between youths and police.
Javier Ruiz, from the National Confederation of Students (CANAE), admitted such trangressions do occur, but said he feels they are the exception rather than the rule. “There are many people who don’t drink but they go to a botellon as a meeting point to hang out with friends and chat. The majority doesn’t abuse alcohol. They don’t do anything wrong.”
“There’s a tendency to criminalize the youth, but the youth is a reflection of society. The youths drink, but so do their parents,” said Ruiz.
In some locales, such as Madrid, youths defy municipal regulations banning street drinking. If caught by the police, they are subject to a 300 euro ticket, unless they opt to attend a session of alcohol awareness. Once-renowned botellon hangouts do not draw large crowds any more.
Smaller groups resist. “People will continue doing it,” said Ruiz. “Punitive measures don’t educate.”
Ruiz said he understands residents’ complaints and their right to rest, and he supports the allocation of a space for botellon, with bathrooms, garbage containers, security and the Red Cross or an ambulance that could provide information about responsible drinking and sex education.
Some townhalls, like Granada’s, designate a location where a botellon is permitted. Surrounded by commercial centers but not homes, and known as a “botellodromo" — or “bottle track” — the area has a capacity for 20,000 people. Ten thousand youths reportedly showed up for a “macro-botellon” in March 2009.
The purpose is to conciliate the right to rest and the right to leisure. The townhall in Granada declined to comment on whether the experience is positive or negative: “We won’t talk about this because the issue is solved,” sources from the townhall said.
“Botellon would be considered anti-social behavior in other countries,” said De la Serna. “But here the message being sent is, ‘the youth has a right to get drunk, drinks are expensive in bars, so let’s create a system so they can drink more cheaply,” she argued.
More than 10,000 college students attended a botellon in Seville in October 2009. It was technically illegal, as street drinking is banned, and there is no botellodromo — yet. The town hall is planning to build one in an area that “will not bother residents.” Police did not impede the gathering, but they diverted traffic and monitored the area to prevent trouble. There were no fights or problems, except for a handful of cases of alcohol coma, according to the town hall. Six tons of trash were cleaned up the next morning.
“We don’t think botellodromos are a very good idea. It doesn’t solve the problem. What should be the objective, not to bother residents or prevent abusive alcohol consumption?” said Tohil Delgado, secretary general of Sindicato de Estudiantes, a student association.
In his view, a combination of two factors could contribute to reduce botellon. “The price for a beer is 4 euros and 8 to 10 euros for a mixed drink in a bar. A scandal. One can buy a whole bottle and drink with a group of friends in the street for the same price,” he said. He believes if prices were affordable in bars, the youth wouldn’t resort to botellon. And he claims there should be “quality leisure alternatives,” such as public sports facilities open late at night — “1 or 2 a.m.” — as well as places to do theater or music, managed by young people. “We’re the first ones interested in more constructive leisure,” he said.
“Abierto hasta el amanecer” — or "open ‘til dawn," in English — is the name of a youth association program in Gijon (population 275,700), a town in northern Spain. Municipal offices and public schools open until 3 a.m. on weekend nights to hold free, youth-managed cultural activities — cooking, dancing, crafts — and sports, for 16- to 31-year olds. Christian Rodil, the association’s president, said 4,500 people attend these alternative leisure options every weekend. The program has been so successful, it is going to expand to other towns.
But Delgado thinks these options are insufficient in large cities like Madrid, which have many more neighborhoods. Having enough centers “would require considerable public investment,” he said. Ruiz, who also calls for youth-managed public leisure alternatives, believes schools staying open on the weekends “would be a way to optimize resources.”