Madrid's 72-Year-Old Feminist Mayor Shares Her Wisdom On Life And Politics

Manuela Carmena has become the unlikely face of Spain’s youth-driven social and political change.
Mayor of Madrid Manuela Carmena came out of retirement and captured the imagination of Spanish politics.
Mayor of Madrid Manuela Carmena came out of retirement and captured the imagination of Spanish politics.

MADRID -- Manuela Carmena is, perhaps, Spain's most recognizable face of political change. A year ago, the 72-year-old retired lawyer and emeritus judge of the Spanish Supreme Court lived a happy and active life. She dedicated her days to her grandchildren and shopping in the Malasaña, a Madrid district where female prisoners from various Spanish prisons sell clothes and shoes that they themselves sew. These employment workshops were promoted by during her long and successful career.

The world needs the leadership of female culture. Manuela Carmena

Until just a year ago, when angry youngsters of Spain's emerging grassroots socialist party Podemos knocked on her door, Carmena says that she was living in a sort of paradise. Then these same Podemos members suggested that she ought to be head of their party's mission to wrest Madrid's City Council from the conservatives of the People's Party, who had led the city for more than 20 years.

It wasn't an easy decision, but in the end she joined them as an independent, representing Ahora Madrid in the city's municipal elections. Soon after accepting Podemos’ call, she became a political phenomenon

Days ahead of celebrating her nine-month anniversary as Madrid's mayor, she welcomed HuffPost Spain to her office in the Plaza de Cibeles. The streets were full of posters with the slogan "Madrid needs feminism," which had been distributed by the city's government to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8.

Why does Madrid need feminism?

Because the world needs the leadership of female culture. It's nice to think that women's supposed inferiority only comes from differences in physical strength. The leadership of women is the leadership of conviction, conciliation, compromise, peace. That's the change, and it's clear that the world can't keep on destroying itself with puerile attitudes that are expressions of physical force. Human beings are both reason and heart, and women are experts dealing with both.

Here in Madrid, the ecosystem is different from that of Spain's national politics. Women are leading the Mayor's Office and political opposition. Is there a particular reason for this?

I don't know. Perhaps women are more comfortable in municipal politics. It was hard for me to say yes, and I never would have done it if it meant entering national politics. I said yes because it was about leading a candidacy that was organized by citizens from neighborhoods, by protest movements, by people with their feet on the ground, and there was a price to pay, but I thought I could do well. For me state policy would have seemed more distant, somehow. [M]unicipal [politics] is closer to the human being, to the everyday, to life.

Politics means solving everyone's problems, which is why I love to work managing a city that belongs to no one in particular: the air belongs to everyone, gardens belong to everyone, transportation belongs to everyone. Manuela Carmena

Is there an excess of testosterone in national politics? We are experiencing some very tough sessions in the new parliament as the new and the old parties clash, sessions that move us further away from the possibility of reaching a government agreement to prevent new general elections next June.

Of course. It's testosterone, and something very childish as well! Sometimes they seem like big kids playing to see who catches the ball, when the important thing is that they just got elected and society wants them to reach an agreement. The beautiful thing is to see how the agreement is reached, not how they insult each other. ... They really act like kids! I think that their language is extremely damaging to the essence of politics. Politics means solving everyone's problems, which is why I love to work managing a city that belongs to no one in particular: the air belongs to everyone, gardens belong to everyone, transportation belongs to everyone. ... It doesn't make sense for those of us that have a political responsibility to insult, disqualify or disparage each other because then we lose the synergies that we ought to have.

I'm surprised because I come from the judiciary. There, discussions are continuous: you're in a collegiate court, where you argue about how to judge the conduct of another person, and you put out there a lot of yourself when you judge someone else with your own parameters. Many debates in court are very intense, but they never have that level of disqualification that you find in politics. You can't build anything when we you are all insulting each other. I'm surprised that active politicians don't reflect on this. Why do you insult each other? Why do you disqualify each other? Why do you despise other? ... Why is it that what you think is better than what others think? It's true that every ideology, every political group has its strategic objectives, some essential points that they want to achieve. But then there's a "How?"... a "When?" an enormous ability to speak and reason. ... Maybe the other person can come up with something interesting!

This way of thinking is shared by many citizens. But you are the leader of an interesting experiment: Ahora Madrid is now headed by an independent like you. Your words are interpreted as an open criticism to the party's leader, Pablo Iglesias.

Well, if it is understood that way ... criticism is necessary. It is the most loyal thing to do with the people that you're closer to, especially those you care about. I recently had dinner with Pablo Iglesias and told him what I think. Of course, there cannot, there should not be elections. Voters dealt you a hand, and they've told you, "Use those cards." And that's what needs to be done.

Other respected figures, independents like yourself, are moving away from Podemos. Are you concerned about the disenchantment?

I don't think so. That's the good part about being outside, you have a greater capacity to swerve through the different roads. I think it's better not to be too inside. I don't think political parties are the most suitable structures for political management. It may seem arrogant of me to expose this theory, but I think we are experiencing a structural crisis of the parties. We have to find another way to articulate political representation, a less ideological one, a more transversal one.

And, what would substitute political parties?

Imagine groups of citizens that came together to achieve, for example, housing as an enforceable right. We know it is a right because it is in the Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights, but it's a right that is, let's say, "unimportant" because you cannot claim it. If you have the right to a certain benefit, you go to an office, fill out a form and you get it. There's no place where you can go and demand housing! And I think you have to demand it. The developed world has too much money and personnel for it to be impossible to give a home to every family that needs it.

Imagine if the way to achieve this goal was a platform that entered the electoral debate. Then, imagine if that were true for what everyone thinks about abortion or other issues ... who knows?! Parties tend to form around a conceptual whole. They have to provide answers for everything. Why? There could be a group for a single objective. And it could be a left-wing objective, understood in the way I define the Left: people who believe that an essential objective of world development is equal opportunity for everyone. There would be others who would oppose that, of course, but that would allow us to articulate ourselves more effectively and freely.

Is that why you're not part of any party?

Of course. I can't do it.

Manuela Carmena likes to read during her subway trip to work at Madrid's City Hall.
Manuela Carmena likes to read during her subway trip to work at Madrid's City Hall.

What has been the best and worst about these nine months as mayor?

The best is Madrid. I am from Madrid, and I've lived almost all my life here, except when I was away on judicial trips. I rediscovered an amazing city, full of life. The number of associations, activities, artistic impulses, places, buildings. ... When the politician moves in the everyday space, he or she has the ability to feel how the citizens feel. The fact of being on the street, in the subway, standing in line -- it allows you to be a part of the city.

But with the mayor's agenda, the bodyguards... Can you still live as a citizen?

Yes, of course. This morning I took my subway, just like I do every day... People are very discreet. Sometimes they flash a smile, which is something that I appreciate a lot. Sometimes they just look at you. And sometimes you notice an unpleasant face, but they are usually very educated people and they don't say anything. And I also think it's reasonable that there are angry people who vent by saying critical things: It's OK, there's nothing wrong with that.

And the worst moment, the most frustrating thing... was it the failure of the initiative to withdraw from Madrid's street names the names of soldiers who staged Franco's revolt in 1936? 

The mistake was wanting to do things without thinking them through enough. We were in a hurry, and that led us to make mistakes. Those are the worst moments: when there are difficulties with the team, because, for me, the human factor is crucial.

You've already been forced to defend your team in public. The Ahora Madrid movement, in which Podemos participates, barely existed a year ago, and it is made up of very young people with no political or institutional experience. But a city can't wait for those who run it to grow up.

Well, what they have is a huge amount of experience addressing social problems. And that is an enormous advantage, because that is what the City Council is supposed to do. Perhaps they still need to solve problems within the institutions. But I think each passing day we learn more and do better. Perhaps our particularity, unlike other teams, is that when we've done something wrong we have admitted it.

Carmena speaks with HuffPost Spain's Editorial Director Montserrat Dominguez.
Carmena speaks with HuffPost Spain's Editorial Director Montserrat Dominguez.

The opposition is being tough with you and your team, and they've done so with an important level of aggressiveness. How are you managing it?

Well, the truth is that I don't worry too much about that. I've got used to it, and since they are not real stabs ... I also have some therapy: I don't read newspapers that much. And above all, I have two positive inputs: seeing that you can do many things that improve Madrid, and that advantage that is proving so important to me, without having foreseen it, that arises from sharing the public space with the people. That is spectacular.

Further contact, instead of a shell to hide in?

Yes, and even if you receive some criticism, which is not much, it is life-giving because it is personal, direct contact.

You are 72 years old. You were living a full life, you were involved in many social issues, and you were enjoying life and your grandchildren. Do you feel you have lost more than you've won?

Well, I was in paradise because you have to work on active retirement. It was fantastic. Now I'm not in paradise, but I am confirming everyday how exciting and challenging it is to work to improve a city.

There are many who don't believe you'll last until 2018...

I hope I do. It is all about a Mediterranean diet and knowing that the things that really matter in life are not political criticism.

How do you unplug yourself?

Fundamentally, reading. It is something very special: you enter a shell and suddenly you're in another world. And you leave the shell feeling great. You get so much from reading ... For me that's the key.

At The Huffington Post we are sleep evangelists. We think that many of the things that go wrong in the world would work better if leaders slept the necessary hours. Do you sleep well?

I sleep very well, but I'm sleeping little. Sometimes I would like to sleep one or two more hours, especially in the morning. My day seems to be too short, and though I can't sleep more, I think I should. But what little I sleep, I sleep straight through.

Can a city really change the style of politics as we understand it in this country?

I think it can. There are some guidelines that are important and that have a lot of significance. Since I think that cleanliness is so important for Madrid, I usually greet the sweepers I meet. It is interesting to see how they react to it. The other day I received a Whatsapp [message] that read, "Once again I have hope that politics can be different." And it was nothing more than that. As I do so many times, I saw a sweeper, I took off my glove, she took off hers, we shook hands and talked about society, garbage, our jobs...

This interview first appeared on HuffPost Spain. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.