It’s a nighttime summer ritual in much of Spain: as the sweltering heat of the day eases, chairs are pulled out into the streets for an outdoor conversation. Today, an enterprising village in southern Spain seeks to have the tradition recognized by the United Nations as a cultural treasure.
The aim is to protect the age-old custom from the growing threat of social media and television, said José Carlos Sánchez, mayor of Algar, a town of about 1,400 inhabitants. “It’s the opposite of social media,” he told The Guardian. “These are face to face conversations.”
Sánchez recently requested that the custom be added to Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage, hoping it can earn a place in a catalog that ranges from the art of Neapolitan pizza to sauna culture in Finland and at a lawn mowing competition in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It’s a new way of thinking about the impromptu, often mundane gatherings that have long provided respite from the heat, he conceded. But every time the extended families and neighbors of the white pueblo – or the white city – go up on their steps, he sees an effort to safeguard the tradition.
“But that’s not what it was,” Sánchez said. “So we want to go back to having everyone outside in the great outdoors instead of scrolling through Facebook or watching TV inside their homes.”
Sánchez, who regularly spends balmy summer evenings on the doorstep of his 82-year-old mother’s house, is quick to list the many benefits of what’s called charlas outdoors, from the energy savings obtained by turning off the air conditioning for a few hours to the sense of community forged when neighbors share the day’s gossip or comment on the latest news.
Nightly chats also offer a kind of psychological release, keeping loneliness at bay at a time when concerns about mental health have heightened, he argued. “The residents go out onto the streets and instead of feeling lonely, they get a therapy session,” the 38-year-old said. “They share their stories or the problems they are going through and the neighbors try to help them.”
The inhabitants of the small village have reacted warmly to his candidacy for world heritage status, he said. “So far I haven’t received any reviews, it’s very positive.” He awaits news on the next steps, but expects it to be a slow process, which could take years.
In the meantime, however, his quest to recognize the cultural significance of the custom produced an unexpected benefit: media coverage poured in from all over the country, offering him a chance to plug his small village nestled between two nature parks in southern Spain.
“In Madrid, they get to know Algar. In Barcelona too. And in so many other regions, ”he said. “So we are offering free advertising to the municipality. “