Law lessons that hit the rights note

May 25, 2001

Paul Rigg meets a Spanish lawyer who uses old ballads to bring family law to life.

Rosa Peñasco is a Spanish lawyer who sings ballads to her students to teach them the law. She has discovered that the lyrics of ballads called coplas are full of stories about families, marriage, children, illegitimacy, separation and divorce that have legal connotations.

"The copla is quintessentially Spanish, we hear it all our lives on the radio, in our homes. It is a three-minute song that speaks about what mattered to ordinary people in postwar Spain," says Pesnasco, a lecturer in family law at UNED, the National University of Distance Education.

Peñasco's desire "to teach law creatively" comes from her student experience at UNED. Raised in a small village in southern Spain, she was not able to move away to do her degree. For five years she experienced feelings of isolation and sometimes desperation as she studied alone. "That is why I am passionate about finding new ways to communicate with my students," she says.

Peñasco hit on the link between the Spanish Civil Code and the copla - a genre she originally hated - by chance. A friend gave her a music tape and, listening to a track as she travelled to work to give a class on illegitimacy, she was struck by the lyrics: "You know you have a son but you are not even going to give him your family name. You have no rights because your mother does not wear a ring with the date inside."

It was the beginning of two years of research that culminated in a book, La Copla Sabe de Leyes (The copla knows the law), and a pilot university course that ends this month. The media latched on to the book immediately, which took Peñasco by surprise.

The book contains sections from the civil code, period photos, newspaper cuttings and unusual case law, along with extracts from the copla . The traditional bibliography at the back of the book is joined by a discography and a list of films that students are expected to draw on in their research.

Her course attracted a variety of people, from a lawyer to a housewife "who told me she wanted to leave her husband and has signed on the course to understand her rights better".

But how do songs help explain the law? "The law is cold, rational and long-winded, whereas the copla is warm, passionate and concise," Peñasco says. "The copla allows us to learn about legal matters... without having to spend all our time reading heavy legal clauses. It is great because every aspect of family law has its reflection in a copla . Why make it boring if there is a better way to tell it? You have to take the themes to people in a warmer way."

Her lectures exude the warmth, fun and enthusiasm of her nature. One of her recent television appearances began with a picture of her as a three-year-old in pigtails. As the picture faded out, Peñasco, the adult academic, came into focus still wearing pigtails.

"Rosa is always gently playing with people," Peñasco's colleague Cecilia González says. "She makes you think by provoking you and then, before you know it, you find yourself involved and participating."

Peñasco says:"We find it easy to talk about equality in Spain today. But before, during the dictatorship, men and women were not considered equal before the law. Women, for example, did not have the legal right to hold a driving licence without their husband's permission."

Pilar Primo de Rivera, leader of the Francoist women's movement for more than 40 years, once said: "Women have never discovered anything - they lack the creativity reserved by God for intelligent men; women can do nothing more than to try and interpret, for better or worse, what men have done."

Peñasco quotes from the song "Mar!a Manuela" in which a man says to his wife: "I know nothing of clothes, but do you really like what you are wearing? So fine, transparent and light, probably you are going to die of cold in the street. Are you listening to me? Go on with you, change your clothes now, while I have a drink."

Peñasco uses the song as a starting point in her lectures to talk about how, under General Franco, women lacked the right to buy or sell without their husband's permission or to leave their husband or to marry without their father's consent. She contrasts this with the right to equality enshrined in article 14 of the Spanish constitution, 1978.

The copla was popular in the 1940s-1960s. General Franco loved the songs and rewarded singers with weekends at his royal palace, titles and medals. In the late 1960s, rebellious youths turned their backs on the copla and started listening to newer music.

As the copla 's negative political associations have faded, it is being re-evaluated as a part of Spain's cultural heritage. Young Spanish musicians are producing new versions and writing lyrics that relate to the immigrants' struggle for legal status in Spain with the government's controversial immigration law, which seeks to curtail their rights.

Peñasco's drive to raise awareness about rights and to make legislation accessible to people has taken the law into forums as diverse as women's groups and prisons. "Like the copla , family law is close to our skin. It is important because the issues it deals with affect all of us at some time or other," concludes Peñasco.

Songs open a window on women's lives

Mercedes Carbayo-Abengozar, senior lecturer in Spanish at Nottingham Trent University, uses the copla to open a window in to women's lives in postwar Spain. Women would listen to these songs while working in factories or doing housework. The words can be interpreted as mocking Francoism, which said that women should aspire to nothing more than having children and looking after the home.

Abengozar says the copla can be seen as a "search for identity and a way in which women showed resistance in a profoundly discriminatory society".

"Although coplas were also sung by men, they were principally interpreted by women and dealt with issues that affected women." In Yo soy esa (That's what I am), for example, a woman has been forced into prostitution because a man's deceit and society's double standards have made her an outcast.

Despite being offered an alternative, she defiantly decides to remain a prostitute in order to stay in control of her own destiny. A "nice young man" offers to marry and "save her" by giving her a name.

But she replies: "to pay him back for how much he loved me, with the words I disillusioned him: Yo soy esa (That's what I am)."

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