Prostitution is booming despite, or perhaps because, of the economic crisis, with macroburdeles (brothel complexes) like those in La Jonquera engaged in turf wars over this lucrative business.
And as for saints, heavy, wooden idols of suffering, lace-clad, virginal womanhood abound.
So something different, something that helps evoke the veritable armies of Spanish women who have rejected these two stereotypes – historically and in the present – is noteworthy.
On our recent trip to Extemadura we found that noteworthy something different: the Serrana of La Vera. The word serrana comes from sierra (mountain range) and means a woman of rural, highland origins. We stumbled on her statue after driving through miles of foggy woods in search of the Mirador (look out point) over Cuacos de Yuste.
In the local, popular mythos the Serrana is said to have been a woman named Isabel Carvajal who lived in Garganta de la Olla during the Middle Ages. After an amorous dispute, in which she lost her faith in marriage, she´s said to have taken to the hills.
Writers such as the prolific Lope de Vega (1562 – 1635) then incorporated the figure of the Serrana into their literary works, inspired by the stories and songs about her in oral cultures.
Despite varying versions, the ballad usually tells of a tanned, blonde woman armed with a crossbow or other weapon. When the mood comes upon her, she drags men off to her cave to have sex with them before killing them.
One prisoner, a young serranillo who had been gathering firewood, manages to escape from her cave full of skulls.
The enraged Serrana is fearful the serranillo will reveal the location of her cave and so she pursues him, her sling loaded with a huge boulder. She succeeds in knocking off the young man´s cap made of good, fine cloth and though he laments the loss of it, nothing would induce him to go back and retrieve it from the wild creature whom he describes as a beautiful woman from the waist up and a mare from the waist down!
I like this story. But before I get hate mail accusing me of being a feminazi, I should clarify that, of course, the Serrana is hardly a model for contemporary women. Yet the principle of rebellion which she embodies is refreshing, even if she is vilified in the ballad for her crimes.
And I´m not alone in my fascination. As of 2010, the town of Garganta de la Olla has celebrated a yearly Serrana de la Vera Day, complete with dramatisations of her life.
Now a tourist attraction, to my mind the Serrana is every bit as good a draw as the tearful, submissive and passive Virgins paraded on high throughout Spain and the brothel tourism that attracts customers from across the French border.
Outwith the control of men, a legendary transgressor who was the mistress of her own destiny, the Serrana is a reminder that women can, and will, oppose a repressive social system such as the one still prevalent in Spain today, despite all the freedoms we´re supposed to enjoy in our “post-feminist” world.