By Roseanna Conway
In an attempt to become an integrated madrileña in the golden metropolis of Spain’s capital city, I have taken great pleasure in the act of exploring this exciting and fascinating city, while living and working here this year as part of my degree course. I have very much enjoyed spontaneously roaming the cobblestone corners and cool streets in the various barrios in Madrid, with no cultural agenda or tourist tick list. It is an easy city to explore on foot, and seeking out serendipitous gems off the beaten tracks, away from the tourist hotspots of Gran Vía and Plaza del Sol has been both satisfying and fulfilling.
Indeed, it was during one of my al fresco strolls through the streets of Malasaña, a district of Madrid, where I came across a statue I could quite easily have missed. For it does not tower above the passers-by like The Fallen Angel statue in Parque del Retiro, but stands rather subtly, as if merging into the crowd. It is this very notion that makes the statue of ‘Julia’, on the corner of Calle de la Pez all the more encaptivating.
The statue, carved into bronze stone, depicts a young student leaning against the stone wall of the Palacio Bauer. She is wearing a skirt and a blouse, standing barefoot and holding school work. Her name is Julia, and a legend from more than 150 years ago revolves around her.
The statue is a symbol of history, for Julia was no ordinary girl. To know more about her, we must go back to mid-nineteenth century Madrid, when a young woman with an unconditional love for reading decided that she wanted to go to university and learn from the great thinkers of the day. As she was a women, her access to academia was denied as admittance to university was permissible only for men. So, Julia cut her hair, put on her father’s clothes and remaining faithful to her convictions, enrolled with a false name and fulfilled her dream of graduating from Central University.
With the passage of time, the legend has grown and fascinated locals to the point when in 2003, the sculptor and painter Antonio Santín paid homage to this mysterious woman. The Central University was at the time on Calle de San Bernardo, so Julia’s position on the street corner is poignant. To this day, though the sculpture has lost its initial gold frills, passers-by retain their love for Julia, a now, permanent neighbour of the Malasaña neighbourhood with a curious and fascinating story given the context in which she lived.
As an Erasmus student on my year abroad, Julia made me reflect on the privileged position I am in. Like me, thousands of students each year flock to cities all over the world to embark on a new academic journey, whilst living abroad for a semester or a full year. It’s not often that we contemplate the struggle that those before us faced to attend university and yet it’s thanks to their strength and determination that students around the world, in particular women, can enjoy a full university experience along with their male counterparts.
The statue of Julia is a reminder of her precious story of sacrifice, equality and struggle for women in Madrid. I will be sure to visit Julia in the colourful streets of Malasaña again, for her remarkable story is one which none of us should ever forget. ff