On May 15, 2011, a day since known as 15-M, tens of thousands of young Spaniards swarmed into the streets. Unemployment had reached 21 percent nationwide—43 percent among 16- to 24-year-olds—and the government of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was preparing further spending cuts with barely a glance in the direction of the country’s 5 million jobless. A week before regional elections, and then for close to a month afterward, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol became the hub of nationwide demonstrations. Scores of signs were strung up along a languishing construction site on the east lip of the plaza, where a landmark billboard featuring the cheerily behatted mascot for the renowned Spanish sherry Tío Pepe had recently been removed to make way for an Apple store.
Demonstrators made their way up the sloping glass outcropping of the metro station to lead chants decrying political corruption and ineptitude. “They don’t represent us” was one refrain, and the words reverberated with an almost festive trill. Several protesters wearing tuxedos and top hats in mock imitation of fat-cat bankers tossed Monopoly money into the crowds and puffed on gnarled, unlit cigars. Whole families arrived, drawn to the spectacle of rollicking civic engagement; parents proudly urged their children to applaud. One demonstrator held a sign that read, Am Fed Up and Would Like to Debate Anything. People peeled away from the crowd and gamely approached him, emboldened by his invitation to spar.
The protests of 15-M, reprised in June and October to more dramatic effect, hardly diminished the zeal for austerity among the political class. But the rallies did help clear the air, and inspired protesters in Spain and abroad, including Occupy Wall Street. A mass movement called Democracía Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) had materialized out of the ether, organized on Facebook in the manner of the Arab uprisings. Until then, Spain’s “lost” or “defrauded generation,” as it is known, had existed in the public imagination as a set of unemployment statistics. Now, faces and voices were attaching themselves to the numbers. Most of the self-proclaimed indignados are between 19 and 30, and go by the moniker ni-ni: neither students nor workers. Without union representation and cynical about voting, they live outside the country’s fragile, and contracting, social compact.
They are not supposed to be counted among newspaper readers either. The core protesters are the offspring of the digital age, and have grown up hearing laments about the death of newspapers and a print culture in decline. Yet along with smartphones, crumpled newsprint was a common sight among the crowds surging through the capital. Mostly it was the pages of El País, the country’s leading daily and diario de referencia. The paper has been around as long as Spain’s fledgling democracy. Launched two years before post-Franco Spain even had a constitution, it turned 35 in May. In its early years El País played a role unknown to its international counterparts: it was the fourth estate to a democracy that didn’t yet exist. After Franco’s death in 1975, and with only dim prospects for a stable political union in his wake, the paper exercised the kind of authority that the young political class hadn’t the experience or power to assert for itself. Its inaugural issue featured a front-page editorial calling for the replacement of a ginger interim government with a new one that had “credibility among citizens.” Over time, El País became synonymous with the consolidation of a democracy in transition. In a 1995 poll, 82 percent of Spaniards felt that the press had played the largest role in democratization, more significant than that of any political figure except Adolfo Suárez, the first democratically elected prime minister to succeed the late dictator. It is a mark of the paper’s clout that the “press” in those years could have meant only one thing.