The Repúblicas are community houses for Coimbra University students whose history dates back to the 14th Century. The houses have played an important role in the civic life of the university and its students, acting as political collectives and spaces of community organization.
Problems and Purpose
The “Repúblicas” (republics) of Coimbra are students’ community houses, whose history dates back to the origins of Portuguese university, in the XIV century. They are spaces of living and conviviality with a specific culture, generated by a centuries-long tradition. The republics are the most ancient and original form of academic life in Coimbra. Their defining characters are not given by the house per se, but by the fact that a small community of students is inhabiting the same house, sharing a common “spirit of republic”, whose kind and quality, in turn, changed across history and depending on the single houses (Ribeiro). Their organization is based on the collective self-management of the house, which is usually a very big structure, usually provided with large living rooms and libraries, and on different forms of mutualistic support between their members. The latters’ number commonly varies between six and twelve, but these ciphers may change, as there is no specific rule for it. There are currently 24 republics, but their number changed a lot during the various phases of their history. Even if they are currently facing a “crisis of demand”, due to the small amount of students which are deciding to join one, their social value is nonetheless recognized by the statutes of the University of Coimbra (UC), which materially support these “autonomous energizing poles” of culture and collective life (UC, 2008, art. 4 par. 6).
The value of these houses is also given by the fact that they effectively work as political collectives, able to animate the local social movements; their role in this sense is still evident today even if reduced, but has been especially valuable between the decades of the 1960s and ’70s, during the period of intense political participation which surrounded the Carnation Revolution of 1974 and the end of the Estado Novo. However, their main point of interest resides in the persistence and continuous reformulation of a phenomenon of self-management. In the last seven centuries, spaces of the city of Coimbra have been directly organized by communities of students, generating an important experimentation in the relationship between them and the city, based on direct participation and democratic involvement.
Background History and Context
The first traces of community houses for students in Coimbra come from the age of the King D. Dinis, who reigned over Portugal between 1279 and 1325. The republics were basically the result of a phenomenon which occurred in different cities of medieval Europe, when the students of the first universities reunited themselves in collective houses, like the “Nations” of Paris (Ribeiro).
During the XX century, the moments which defined the republics’ identity are connected to great students’ mobilizations, defined as “academic crises”. With the Salazarist dictatorship, the spaces of autonomy in the university were constantly attacked, and the students’ houses repeatedly opposed such centralizing policy. The first “crisis” occurred in 1956, and consisted in a mobilization against the “law 40.900” – which in the end was not approved – that would have established the dependency of the students’ associations to the national ministry of education. The republics’ common organ, the Conselho das Repúblicas (CR), contributed to the mobilization, organizing meetings and assemblies which triggered the process of radicalization for the youth. This was also the period in which the Portuguese Communist Party was increasing its influence in the academic environment, and the republics contributed to the illegal circulation of its newspaper. The second crises occurred in 1962, when some students were imprisoned after the participation to a demonstration against the colonial war. Due to the students’ participation to such protests, the members of the academic association were subjected to a disciplinary process, but their colleagues responded with a strike of the classes. In this occasion, the Ministry of Education suspended the association’s representatives and proceeded to arresting a high number of students. In 1965, an administrative commission was established in the university, which denied to the students their right to participate to the official council and to the assembly of the University of Coimbra, and expelled the elected representatives of the association. The CR, which was cooperating with the association until that moment, responded with the reactivation of its clandestine newspapers, spreading democratic propaganda. In 1968 (after the transfer of power from Salazar to Marcelo Caetano) the CR promoted a petition for the immediate election of the executive organs of the academic association, which was signed by 25000 students. In February 1969 the elections were finally held, and the CR won with the 75% of the votes. The last and most important crisis started in the April of this year: the president of the association was prevented from presenting a speech during the inauguration of a new building for the faculty of Mathematics, and this fact was followed by mass demonstrations and by the arrest of the president himself. The students declared the “academic grief”, which consisted in the suspension of all the academic activities, from the participation to classes to the celebration of traditional parties. The CR gave a relevant contribution in the organization of autonomous, alternative courses, colloquia, free lessons, and in the promotion of other initiatives against censorship and authoritarianism in the city. In general, during every crisis the republics played a prominent role, hosting assemblies and illegal conferences, promoting the activities of leftist organization and cultivating the growth of a democratic counter-culture (Vinterovà, 2007).
From the cultural point of view, the members of the republics of Coimbra traditionally conduct a kind of “bohemian” lifestyle, in a context of continuous and festive conviviality, connected to their progressive ideology. The effect is the production of an avant-gardist spirit, in which radical political positions are connected to alternative artistic production (Estanque, 2010). The republics have been strictly connected for centuries to the praxe, the traditional goliardic “praxis” which disciplines the life of the students of Coimbra, which unofficially submits the new students to a precise set of rules, and to the authority of the older ones. Nonetheless, since the academic crisis of 1969, most republics to not allow such practices in their houses, or even oppose them in the general academic context.
Both politically and culturally, the most relevant innovation brought by the last decades has been the appearance of the feminist republics, Rosa Luxemburgo (founded in 1972) and Marias de Loureiro (1993). The latter is composed only by women, while the former has become mixed in more recent times. Both of them have an important role in the animation of libertarian mobilizations in Coimbra, and they are in the first line of the opposition against the praxe, due to its legacy of sexist and authoritarian values (Estanque, 2011).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The issues of republics’ funding and of material sustenance of their members is at the center of their raison d'être. From the economic point of view, living in the republics allows students to alleviate the charges for food and housing. The republics may receive support from the university and from the municipality in different ways, the most relevant one being the possibility to halve the price of the food, acquiring it from the social services of the academy and from the canteens. The members normally pay the house rent (except for the cases in which they or the university are the owners of the building) and the bills on their own. In order to face the house needs or to finance the external socio-cultural activities of the republics, the members may resort on the support of the other houses (usually through the mediation of the CR) or organize self-financing events like parties and concerts. A peculiar form of financial support is given by the relation with the antiguos, the past members of the republics, which are still part of the house community and often continue to subsidize their republic. In this way, each republic is in the center of a web of solidarity which brings together people from different countries and various generations.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The members of the republics are mostly students in Coimbra, coupled with a small minority of young workers. The persons which live in the house have the name of repúblicos; there are also other students, part of the same community, which do not have a room in the house but share the meals and the other activities with the other members, and are called commençais. There are no rules which select members on racial or national basis. Being traditionally connected to the sexist values of the praxe, republics have had only male members also after the entrance of female students in Portuguese university, but currently only a few of them maintain this rule, while the majority of them is mixed with one of them (Marias do Loureiro) being only feminine. The University of Coimbra has a majority of female students, which are nonetheless a minority in the representative organs of the academic association (Estanque, 2007); this contradiction is somehow reflected in the republics, as many of them are still mostly composed by male students.
Regarding the arrival of new members, every republic has the right to decide over their admission, through varying methods and rituals of selection. The potential member undergoes a “period of experience”, during which he or she has to live the typical life of the republic and respect its rules. After this period, the repúblicos will decide over the entrance of the new member, which will also decide about his or her own compatibility with the house (Vinterovà, 2007).
Methods and Tools Used
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Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
Republics are based on autonomy and self-management. The problems relative to the house organization, the decisions on the external activities as well as eventual personal or academic issues of the members are discussed and resolved during the regular house meetings, characterized by very prolonged debates. Every year, each republic organizes an assembly inviting the antiguos, with the intention of reuniting the whole community of the house.
The rules regarding the division of duties may differ, but they generally function by division and rotation of specific responsibilities. Many houses have a “government”, composed by a “president of the republic” and by various “ministers” (of the finances, external relations, cleaning), that are responsible for the various tasks (Vinterovà, 2007).
The republics are all united in a common decision-making organ, the Conselho das Repùblicas, which underwent through different phases of crisis and refoundation during the XX century. All the republics have the same rights and duties towards it, and are obliged to follow its decisions, taken by unanimous consensus. The CR operates to protect the interests of the republics as a whole, or to approve the birth of new houses and their emblems, but it can also work as a central assembly for common political mobilizations. An example of this fact has been given by the week of initiatives against the transformation of the University of Coimbra in a foundation dominated by private investors, organized in February 2017 (RUC, 2017).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Republics constantly organize activities of political, social and cultural character, both inside and outside the house. A complete list of such activities is impossible to report, but the most common ones comprehend concerts, projection of movies or documentaries, organization of exhibitions, photographic contests, sport events, contribution to popular festivities, cooperation with districts’ associations, organization of debates and assemblies or promotion of demonstrations on urban and academic issues. A good example of republics external activities is given by Cri’actividade(UC, 2014), a festival of cultural events organized every year, mostly by the republics’ members, created to provide an alternative form of integration for the new students, different from the traditional praxe.
The first social group to be influenced by the existence of the republics is formed by their own members, that present some noticeable differences with the rest of the students: even though Coimbra is characterized by a frail students’ movement, as the young inhabitants of the city present low levels of social and political commitment, the people which live in the republics present is instead highly politicized, and appear primarily concerned with the collective interest (Estanque, 2011). The most important external effect of this fact is that republics (the most radical ones especially) keep animating social movements in Coimbra since the times of the Carnation Revolution, when these houses hosted the dissent against the Estado Novo, playing a role in the leftist mobilization against it (Ribeiro).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
An important political lesson to learn from the history of the republics of Coimbra and from their current practices is that the experience of a collective life in a context of mutualism and self-management of common spaces favors the participation in other form of political activities in the urban context. The students of the city are lowly politicized, which means that spending years in Coimbra following a very different lifestyle may be another of the factors which facilitate political involvement. These juvenile environments can be powerful seed beds of radicalism, and the republics show how aspects of traditional students’ culture can be reformulated, as they can acquire new political significance in contemporary times. One particularity of this renovation lays in the fact that some patterns of the republics’ tradition, which bears the weight of sexist and authoritarian values, can be directed against other ones in an egalitarian and democratic sense. The clearest example of this is given by the attitude towards the praxe: the republics contributed to create and formalize this practice since they were born in the Middle ages, but during the ‘60s they turned against it, and the majority of them currently has a critical position towards it or plainly opposes it, lead by the feminist houses.
In the second place, the original political meaning of the republics of Coimbra is the fact that they function by bringing and maintaining together people of different countries and generations. These very diverse people find themselves inserted in self-organized communities with their own rules, common goods and external activities, of social or cultural nature. Such collectives have a continuity towards time (thanks to the past members becoming antiguos and antiguas), and create a unique relationship between certain spaces of Coimbra, as well as with the city as a whole. Through the republics, current and past students are involved in urban collective life, giving their contribution in preventing Coimbra from becoming only a crossing point for young people, or a mere place of consumption. Even if the republics are characterized by the internal nomadism of their members just as much as Coimbra itself, they nonetheless produce a stable relation with the territory, based on mutualism and democratic participation.
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Estanque, Elísio (2010). Juventude, Boémia e Movimentos Sociais – culturas e lutas estudantis na universidade de Coimbra. Revista Política e Sociedade, 9(16), 257–290.
Estanque, Elísio (2011). Cultura estudantil, 'Republicas' e participação cívica na Universidade de Coimbra, in José Machado Pais, René Bendit, Vítor Sérgio Ferreira (org.), Jovens e Rumos. Lisboa: ICS.
Ribeiro, Artur. Repúblicas de Coimbra. COIMBRA, DIÁRIO COIMBRA.
RUC – Radio Universidade de Coimbra (2017). Semana contra o regime fundacional comença amanhã.
UC (2008). Estatutos da Universidade de Coimbra.
UC (2014). Cria’ctividade, uma semana alterativa à praxe.
Vinterovà, Jana (2007). Repúblicas de Coimbra, Faculty of Philosophy of Masarykovy University. Thesis supervisor: Mgr. Maria de Fatima Nery-Plch.
Portugal Tourism "Republics of Coimbra" http://www.centerofportugal.com/republics-of-coimbra/
Lead image: "Coimbra, students comunity houses (repúblicas)" | brites bi/Pintrest https://pin.it/numgg5unswsubq