This paper uses archival documents, literature, and art to sketch the history of the blind in Spain. Traditionally, certain occupations, such as singing and playing musical instruments, saying prayers and selling chapbooks were reserved for the blind. Spanish artists and writers have portrayed the blind engaged in these occupations. Starting in the Middle Ages, the blind established powerful brotherhoods through which they controlled these professions. The changing roles that the blind played in the creation, production, performance and sale of popular literature known as literatura de cordel show their successful adaptation to an emerging print culture. The situation of the blind today and the success of the National Organization of the Spanish Blind (ONCE) are also discussed.

What is the relationship between disability and socio-cultural circumstance? Scheer and Groce (1998, p. 23) write, "[D]isability is a human constant—that is, all societies have and have always had disabled members. While the presence of such individuals is a constant, culturally shared responses to them vary greatly across time and social context." Here I discuss what might be called the Spanish response to blindness, offering a discussion of what archival documents, literature, and art tell us about the history of the blind in Spain. Most of this essay focuses on the period stretching from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries. At the end, I briefly discuss the foundation of the highly successful National Organization of the Spanish Blind, commonly referred to by the acronym ONCE (Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles), and what that organization has meant for the situation of the blind in Spain today.

Blindnesss has been a common theme in Spanish literature and culture from religious poetry of the Middle Ages (Kelley, 2005), through the picaresque novel of the Golden Age (Sears, 2003), into ninetenth-century Realist novels (Chamberlin, 2006; Gómez, 2013) and, even more recently, in the films of Pedro Almodóvar (Marr, 2013; Poe, 2014; Skibba, 2014). As we will see from the overview presented here, the history of the blind in Spain is long and involves institutions that they themselves established beginning as early as the thirteenth century. As we fill in the history of the Spanish blind, we may—in the future—be in a position to compare their history to that of other groups such as the deaf or the physically-disabled.1

This study is divided into four major sections. First, I discuss the centuries-old social practice of reserving certain professions or occupations for disabled individuals and what happened in this regard in Spain. I present examples of how Spanish artists and writers have portrayed the blind engaged in these occupations. In the next section, I examine the changing roles the blind played in the creation, production, performance and sale of popular street literature. The third section focuses on the powerful brotherhoods the blind established in cities throughout Spain, the oldest dating back to the thirteenth century. In the fourth and final section, I discuss the dissolution of the brotherhoods, the establishment of the ONCE, and the blind in Spain today.

Traditional Occupations, Artistic and Literary Representations

Across cultures, several different occupations have been "open to, appropriated by, or sometimes virtually reserved for blind people" (Keating & Hadder, 2010, p. 124). Fortune-telling, story-telling, musical entertainment and massage were occupations commonly held by the blind in medieval China and Korea (Vaughn, 1988) and in Japan (Farrell, 1956). Young blind girls in Japan once underwent rigorous training to become spiritualists or mediums known as itako (Vaughn, 2002). This institution has all but disappeared today. Itako—like fortune-telling—exemplified "the ideology that impairment is compensated by supernatural sensitivity" (Keating & Hadder, 2010, p. 124). Today massage and physiotherapy are often practiced by the blind in Israel (Gleitman, Kurssiya, Miterani, & Marom, 2004) and Italy (Cattani, 2009). The Italian blind have also been directed toward becoming telephone and switchboard operators, though changes in telecommunications are making such jobs obsolete (Cattani, 2009). Among the Kanuri people in Nigeria, ropes are made by the blind (Rosman, 1962).

In Spain, the professions in which the blind were traditionally employed fall under the broad category of performance—oral and musical performance. Poetry and music are often associated with the blind, an association which in the West goes back to Homer and, as the examples from China, Korea, and Japan show, has counterparts elsewhere. Across the centuries, Spanish artists and writers have depicted the blind as musicians and singers. In the eighteenth century, Manuel de la Cruz, Ramón Bayeu, and Francisco de Goya created works in which a blind musician was the subject. Cruz's undated drawing entitled Ciego con la guitarra y el perro [Blind Man with Guitar and Dog] shows a blind musician standing and playing the guitar. His cane is tucked into his belt and his dog, who is probably protector and companion, sleeps at his feet. The painting by Bayeu, Ciego músico [Blind Musician], shows a blind musician seated on a rock playing a hurdy gurdy, his cane at his side. A young boy—his guide, perhaps his son—plays the castanets and dances; a small dog dances as well. Goya's 1778 painting, El ciego de la guitarra [The Blind Guitarist], captures a scene from everyday life in the outskirts of Madrid. A small crowd listens while a blind man plays his guitar and sings, his guide—or lazarillo—beside him.2 Similar scenes showing the blind making a living in this way were still being painted in the early years of the twentieth century. Between 1901 and 1904, Picasso created the now-iconic image of an old, blind musician bent over and playing his guitar, The Old Guitarist.3 In 1912, Robert Henri, an American artist who travelled to Spain several times, painted Blind Guitar Singer, a portrait of a blind woman who made a living as a street singer.4

Like these artists, Spanish writers from the Middle Ages onward have represented the blind in characteristic ways, showing them engaged in various types of musical and/or oral performance, especially composing and singing songs and reciting prayers. One of the earliest references to blind singers in Spanish literature is in the fourteenth-century Libro de Buen Amor [Book of Good Love] by Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita. At one point (v. 1514), the narrator tells us: "Cantares fiz algunos, de los que dizen çiegos" [I wrote some songs of the kind the blind sing].5 Later, he includes two such songs. In both, the singers identify themselves as blind beggars and offer prayers for the souls of those who give them alms.

Over the centuries, singing or reciting prayers was an important source of income for the blind and an art essential for them to learn. It was an activity jealously protected by some brotherhoods of the blind—a topic I discuss in a later section of this paper. Álvarez Barrientos (1987) writes that the blind passed the tricks of their trade on to one another, just as those engaged in other professions did. Formal arrangements were made for this transfer of knowledge and skills. Documents from the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries show parents apprenticing their blind sons to older blind men. A document from 1495 shows Leonor Rodríguez, who lived in Triana, placing her twelve-year old son Lope in the care of Juan de Villalobos for four years so that Lope might accompany the older blind man and learn to say prayers well (Rodríguez Marín, 1905). Two similar documents from Badajoz, one dated 1592, the other 1632, show that parents were concerned that their blind children be taught a profession by which they could support themselves (Marcos Alvarez, 2001). In both documents the blind teachers agree to share all they know with their apprentices, "sin le encubrir cosa alguna" [without hiding anything from him] according to the 1592 document (Marcos Álvarez, 2001, p. 222).

The most famous blind character in Spanish literature, the blind man in the anonymous picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), makes a living in part by saying prayers. Lázaro, the narrator-protagonist, tell us, "Ciento y tantas oraciones sabía de coro … para muchos y diversos efectos: para mujeres que no parían; para las que estaban de parto; para las que eran malcasadas, que sus maridos las quisiesen bien" (Lazarillo, 1554/1980, p. 14-15). [He knew well over a hundred prayers by heart … for all sorts of particular purposes: for women who could not conceive, for those who were in labor, for those who were unhappily married and wanted their husbands to love them. (Merwin, 1962, p. 13-14).] Lázaro goes on to say that his master was extremely skilled and that, when he prayed, his voice echoed throughout the church. Blind characters who know numerous prayers appear in works from the seventeenth century as well; two examples are Cervantes's play Pedro de Urdemalas (1615), in which the main character claims to know an infinite number of prayers, and Francisco de Quevedo's picaresque novel La vida del buscón (1626).

The Blind and Literatura de Cordel

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as printing became more widespread and the production of pliegos sueltos (literally "loose sheets" or chapbooks) increased, the role of the blind changed. Oral performance of the kind observed in the literary examples—singing ballads and saying prayers and litanies—remained an important source of income for them. Increasingly, however, they moved into selling ballads and other genres of literatura de cordel (Rodríguez Marín, 1905; Álvarez Barrientos, 1987; García de Enterría, 1973). Literally "literature on a string," the term encompasses various genres of cheap, popular literature printed in pliegos sueltos and most often sold on the streets. The name derives from the custom of hanging chapbooks from a string so potential buyers could examine them.

The literary history of early modern Spain provides ample evidence of the blind as authors, performers and vendors of literatura de cordel (Caro Baroja, 1969). One subgenre of this literature is so linked to the blind that for centuries it has been known as the romance de ciego, or blindman's ballad. Cervantes's exemplary novel La gitanilla (1613), Lope de Vega's play Santiago el Verde (1615), and the anonymous Estebanillo González (1646), all contain references to the blind selling ballads (Caro Baroja, 1969; Rodríguez Moñino, 1976b; Sutherland, 1991). While it was an extension of their well-established role as performers, this shift marked the beginning of one of the great ironies of the history of the blind in Spain: for over three centuries, their major profession was selling printed texts, merchandise that they themselves had neither access to nor use for.

Works by blind poets survive in pliegos sueltos from as early as the second half of the sixteenth century. The titles on many chapbooks mention the author's name and his blindness; he is said to be "privado de vista" [deprived of sight] or "privado de vista corporal" [deprived of bodily sight]. A 1570 chapbook from Valladolid containing "amusing verses and jokes to sing and play on the vihuela" is a good example:

Coplas y Chistes muy graciosos para cantar y tañer al tono de la viguela. Ahora nueuamente hechas por Gaspar de la Cintera, priuado de la vista, natural de Ubeda, y vezino de Granada.6

The author, Gaspar de la Cintera, had a successful career as a poet and performer; this is just one of his works that survives (Rodríguez Moñino, 1976b; Sánchez Pérez, n.d.). This title not only tells us he was blind but also that he was born in the Andalusian town of Ubeda and lived in Granada.

Two of the most well-studied blind poets from this period are Cristóbal Bravo (Rodriguez-Moñino, 1976a) and Mateo de Brizuela (Catedra, 2002). Bravo was from Córdoba; his most famous composition is El testamento del gallo [The Rooster's Last Will and Testament]. In this ballad, the rooster leaves parts of his body to others, each bequest made with a decidedly humorous end in mind. Bravo also authored a similar piece, El testamento de la zorra [The Vixen's Last Will and Testament]. Both ballads were enormously popular and were reprinted well into the nineteenth century. They inspired many imitations and, eventually, spread into the oral tradition as well (Pérez Vidal, 1947).

Mateo de Brizuela wrote one of the most commercially-successful examples of literatura de cordel of all times, La renegada de Valladolid [The Renegade of Valladolid]. A best-seller for centuries, the poem tells the story of Agueda, a woman from Valladolid, who is taken captive, marries a Muslim ruler, and in response to his entreaties, renounces Christianity. Years later, a Christian captive (a priest) is brought to her house as a slave. The two later discover they are sister and brother, and Agueda repents. The second part of the poem recounts her penance on a mountain near Rome and her conversion of her two children to Christianity. The oldest extant copy of Part I is from 1585, though Cátedra (2002) believes Part I first appeared around 1581 since the oldest extant copy of Part II is from 1584. La renegada was reprinted in chapbooks well into the nineteenth century. Brizuela authored other works and may also have published under pseudonyms. He was "quizás el más leído u oído de los de su clase hasta las puertas del siglo XX" [perhaps the most read or listened to of poets of his kind up to the beginning of the twentieth century] (Cátedra, 2002, p. 23).

By the eighteenth century, the blind were working directly with printers to arrange for the production of texts. In other words, they had gained some control over the merchandise they sold. A case brought before the Consejo de Castilla in 1797 shows the blind working as authors, publishers, performers, and sellers (González Palencia, 1931/1943; Sutherland, 1991). The Consejo was Spain's supreme governing body and, among its duties, it oversaw censorship and the granting of printing licenses. At the center of the case was a two-part composition entitled El Cachirulo, which was being performed and sold by the blind men in Madrid. Many found the song's lyrics offensive; moreover, the blind singers enlivened their performances with obscene gestures and suggestive movements. In response to complaints, the Consejo had all copies of both parts of the song confiscated along with copies of another related (and equally objectionable) song, Las quejas del Zorongo y defensa del Cachirulo.7 An investigation was launched and the Consejo soon determined that permission to print the verses had never been granted, and that some chapbooks had been printed with false colophons attributing them to printing houses in Valencia or Málaga. The investigation further found that two blind men, Francisco Pérez and Pedro Micó, had composed both Part I of El Cachirulo and Las quejas del Zorongo y defensa del Cachirulo and had arranged to have them printed in Madrid. Part II of El Cachirulo had been printed in Seville and brought to Madrid where it was reprinted.

One of the two printers involved in producing the chapbooks was fined, while the other was let off with a warning not to reprint compositions that had not been granted a printing license. The blind men received the same warning and were told that if they continued to use "acciones descompuestas y provocativas en sus canciones" [immodest and provocative actions in their songs] (González Palencia, 1931/1943, p. 202) that they would be placed in the Real Hospicio de San Fernando, an institution which housed beggars and the poor.

During the eighteenth century, the blind were hawking a variety of printed materials: newspapers and gazettes, pronósticos (calendars announcing astronomical and meteorological phenomena), piscatores (almanacs with meteorological predictions) and other types of almanacs, relaciones (speeches excerpted from theatrical works), relaciones de sucesos (poetic accounts of noteworthy events), and poetic compositions such as coplas and décimas. The blind also sold romances de ciego, the genre with which they are most identified.

Romances de ciego have a recognizable rhetorical structure (Sutherland, 1991) and their language is as excessive and extravagant as their subject matter: terrible crimes, impossible loves, saints' lives, miracles, and martyrdoms, to give a few examples. The exploits of smugglers and highwaymen and the exemplary punishments meted out to them were popular topics as were the sufferings of Christian captives at the hands of infidels. Although the stories are often hair-raising, in the end romances de ciego are highly moralizing. Most often the moral is religious in nature.

Romances de ciego were printed in pliegos sueltos and were typically divided into two parts, each having about 200 octosyllabic lines, although the length varied depending upon layout and print size. They generally had a woodcut at the top of the first page that was meant to catch the buyer's eye. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the visual aspect of selling chapbooks was further enhanced as the blind singer/seller often set up a canvas with pictures illustrating the ballad. His guide would point to each scene as the story unfolded (Sutherland, 1991).

Romances de ciego were always controversial; their printing was specifically enjoined by Charles III on July 21, 1767.8 The Church objected to their dissemination of doctrinal errors and unsubstantiated miracles (García Blanco, 1944). Yet these publications were hard to suppress. Individual chapbooks were slight and easily hidden. As the case of El Cachirulo shows, censorship could be evaded and printers sometimes resorted to trickery in order to make money and avoid discovery. A final irony is that, although the enlightened railed against them, romances de ciego (rather than of cartillas de leer or 'primers') were often used in the schools to teach children to read, probably because they were cheap, and easily purchased (Sutherland, 1991).

Brotherhoods of the Blind

The blind in Spain began to organize for mutual aid and protection as well as charitable and pious reasons during the Middle Ages.9 Through these organizations they defined themselves as professionals and distinguished themselves from beggars and other unfortunate souls who filled Spanish streets. They were also able to take legal control of occupations that had been theirs traditionally. One of the earliest organizations of this kind was the cofradía (confraternity) established in Toledo by blind veterans of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, which was fought in 1212 (Fernández Iglesias, 2009; Álvarez Ruiz, 2001). By 1329, a cofradía existed in Valencia (Gomis Coloma, 2010, 2015). Brotherhoods (hermandades) were later founded in Barcelona in 1338 (Botrel, 1973), in Seville around 1450 (Marcos Alvarez, 2001), and in Zaragoza in 1537 (Rumeu de Armas, 1944). In 1581, the Hermandad de Nuestra Señora de la Visitación y Ánimas del Purgatorio was established in Madrid (Rumeu de Armas, 1944), and in 1588 a brotherhood was set up in Murcia (Díaz Cassou, 1897). A similar organization existed in Córdoba (López-Guadalupe Muñoz & Arias de Saavedra Alías, 1998). My focus here is on the brotherhoods in Valencia and Madrid.

The first by-laws (ordenanzas) of the brotherhood in Valencia were approved by Alphonse IV of Aragon in 1329. As Gomis Coloma (2010, 2015) notes in an extensive study of this brotherhood, these by-laws addressed three topics: the religious and charitable duties of the members (e.g., feeding a poor person on the Tuesday after St. Martin's Day), the dues each member was required to pay (12 dineros annually), and the mutual aid they would render one another (such as helping other members who were ill and sharing alms with them). Gradually, this organization consolidated control over the singing and reciting of prayers in Valencia and, by 1502, any blind or otherwise disabled person who supported him/herself in this manner was required to join the cofradía and pay the weekly dues.

Additional ordenanzas from the eighteenth century show the procedures for joining, how new members were apprenticed to older members in order to learn prayers, and the rules women members had to follow. The eighteenth-century ordenanzas also show that by the middle of that century the confraternity was engaged in the sale of chapbooks.

The requirements for joining included being at least ten years of age, demonstrating that one was either completely or nearly blind, and being of good moral character. In addition to weekly dues, the applicant paid an initiation fee that varied depending upon where s/he was from; members from Valencia paid less than those from elsewhere. The cofradía had a catalog of 100 prayers that new members were expected to learn over a period of about three years. New members were apprenticed to established members who served as their teachers; the teachers received ten libras and gave the apprentice two lessons a week. The by-laws provided for what happened under various scenarios—for example, if a pupil did not show up for lessons, the teacher was still paid; if a teacher died part way through the apprenticeship period, his widow would continue with the lessons, provided she was able to do so.

The eighteenth-century by-laws also speak to the role of women members. Like their male counterparts, they learned and recited or sang prayers, but could only work during certain hours of the day. The rules also stated that there could not be more than three of them on each side of the door to a church at the same time.

In 1581, three blind men formed the Hermandad de Nuestra Señora de la Visitación y Ánimas del Purgatorio in Madrid. Madrid was not a large or particularly important city until Philip II made it the capital in 1561. This fact probably accounts for the relatively late date of the founding of a brotherhood there. By 1614, membership had increased to 18 (Rumeu de Armas 1944). While the Hermandad was set up to do pious works such as burying deceased members or ensuring that masses were said for the souls in Purgatory, it soon became engaged in more lucrative activities and, like its counterparts in Valencia and Zaragoza, functioned much as a guild.10

Three aspects of the membership of the Hermandad de la Visitación merit noting: First, although members lived and worked in Madrid, a number had come from other parts of Spain, where their families remained. The three founders were from Galicia. Second, membership appears to have been open to blind women, just as it was in the cofradía in Valencia. The text of papal indulgences granted to the organization in July 1608 describes it as a "devota Cofradía de fieles cristianos ciegos de uno y otro sexo" [devout confraternity of faithful blind Christians of both sexes] (as cited in Botrel, 1973, p. 422).11 Third, the brotherhood admitted sighted members. These hermanos de vista or hermanos rezantes each paid 50 reales to join and annual dues of 16 reales. What they purchased with their membership was, in effect, burial insurance. When they died, the hermandad took care of all funeral arrangements, including the coffin and candles as well as a habit of St. Francis in which the deceased was dressed. In addition, 17 masses were said for the soul of the departed. By 1767, there were 57 hermanos de vista as opposed to 26 blind members. The blind members, the hermanos ciegos, paid a much higher membership fee of 200 reales and annual dues of 24 reales. They and their wives received the same burial benefits as the sighted members. In addition, they received a subsidy of 60 reales if they fell ill and dowries of 100 reales for their daughters. Of course, they also were allowed to sing and recite prayers and litanies and to sell literatura de cordel.

In 1727 and again in 1739, the monopoly the Hermandad de la Visitación enjoyed over the sale of literatura de cordel in the capital was reaffirmed by Philip V. By this time they were also selling official leaflets and newspapers such as the Gaceta and the Correo de Madrid, which as a result came to be known as the Correo de los ciegos [The Blindmen's Post]. Since the privilege of selling these cheap, popular publications insured the economic well-being of its members, it is hardly surprising that the brotherhood guarded that privilege and fought any attempts to infringe upon it. Between 1680 and 1755, the brotherhood was involved in disputes with a number of printers in Madrid. Specific concerns that the Hermandad raised and asked the Consejo de Castilla to adjudicate included the kind of paper on which the chapbooks its members sold were printed, the day and time the printers were to have the chapbooks ready for them to pick up to sell, and the prices the printers were to charge the blind (Espejo, 1925). The printers were the Hermandad's main competition, so the members were understandably concerned if the chapbooks produced for them were of inferior quality to those the printers sold themselves or if the printers had a head start in selling the new publications.

Two sets of documents from the eighteenth century show that both the authorities and the members of the Hermandad viewed the sale of literatura de cordel in Madrid as an occupation reserved for the blind. In 1748, the Consejo de Castilla decided that the preparation and sale of relaciones de reos, that is, poetic accounts, usually in ballad form, about the lives of criminals executed in Madrid, were to be "para el socorro de los pobres ciegos" [for the aid of the poor blind] (as cited in Botrel, 1973, p. 440). Members of the Hermandad sold chapbooks containing such compositions during and after executions.

Later documents from 1789 involved the Gaceta, one of the official papers the Hermandad had been given the privilege of selling.12 The Gaceta was also sold in the shop where it was printed (the Real Imprenta), and the Hermandad believed its members were operating at a competitive disadvantage because the printers put copies up for sale to the public before they printed any copies for the blind to sell and deliver to their customers. On January 21, 1789, Pedro Pérez, lawyer for the brotherhood, presented a request to the Consejo de Castilla asking that the members of the Hermandad receive their copies of the Gaceta at the same time the Real Imprenta made copies available to the public. His petition began with the explanation that his clients' blindness made it impossible for them to work in many occupations: "Que es estado en que la Dibina Providencia los ha puesto, los ha hecho tan infelices que no pueden ganar el sustento en las labores y maniobras que los demas hombres, y aun en los Hospicios, y otras Casas publicas son un vitalicia carga y gravamen del estado" [It is a state in which Divine Providence has placed them, it has made them so unfortunate that they cannot earn a living through work as other men do, and even in the hospices and other public refuges they are a lifelong burden to the state]. In 1782, the petition continued, Charles III gave the blind an occupation appropriate to their situation ("una industria proporcionada a sus circunstancias") through which they could support themselves and their families, the sale of papers such as the Gaceta. In other words, the king had set aside a form of employment exclusively for them. However, since the print shop had not had the copies for the blind ready at a consistent time, the Hermandad turned to the Consejo with the request that they receive their copies at the same time as the Gaceta went on sale at the Real Imprenta.

José Antonio Fita, a lawyer for the Consejo, looked into the matter and submitted his findings on February 20, 1789. He found that it would be impossible for the presses dedicated to printing the Gaceta to produce the number of copies required in order for the blind sellers to receive their copies at the same time the Real Imprenta, which had the duty to sell the Gaceta to the public, began to make its copies available. New type to print the additional copies would have to be bought and the press would not realize any profit from this investment. Taking these considerations into account, Fita recommended that the Hermandad's request be denied: "En estas circunstancias entiendo que deve denegarse la solicitud de la Hermandad [de] los ciegos y que solo por equidad podria encargarse al Administrador de la Imprenta que procure despacharlos con la brevedad que sea posible para que hallen este socorro en la infelicidad en que se hallan" [In these circumstances it is my view that the request by the Brotherhood of the blind should be denied and that, to be fair, the manager of the press could be charged with seeing to it that the blind are attended to as quickly as possible so that they may find this aid in the misery in which they find themselves]. Once again there is an acknowledgement that the sale of literatura de cordel was an occupation reserved for the blind and specifically for the members of the Hermandad de la Visitación.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, Charles III instituted a number of enlightened reforms in order to eliminate guilds. In 1767, the Consejo de Castilla broke the Hermandad's monopoly over the sale of official papers and literatura de cordel by declaring that all the blind in Madrid could sell these publications (Botrel, 1973). So the privilege was still reserved for the blind but was no longer restricted to members of the Hermandad. In 1774, the Consejo made three more decisions regulating the Hermandad: first, the number of sighted members was limited to four. Those who belonged could remain but, as they died, new sighted members were not to be admitted beyond four. Second, all blind people in Madrid could join the Hermandad. Third, members were to wear a distinctive medal when selling chapbooks.

The privilege accorded the members of the Hermandad and their widows of selling official publications and literatura de cordel was reaffirmed by Charles III in 1782. At the same time, the brotherhood was placed under the control of the Sala de Alcades de Casa y Corte, an administrative and judicial institution that functioned as the city government in Madrid. From this point forward, blind people wishing to join the Hermandad registered with the Sala de Alcaldes and the members of the Hermandad voted on whether to admit them. New members paid a membership fee of 100 reales. Membership increased from 26 in 1767 to 82 in 1787 and 91 in 1791 (Botrel, 1973).

Botrel (1973) has argued that the members of the Hermandad sought to restrict membership for their own economic advantage. These restrictions also had to do with self-image and the distinctions the members of the brotherhood made between themselves and others. Those who belonged to the Hermandad considered themselves professionals who practiced a trade; those who were not members were, in their view, little more than beggars. The authorities, however, held a different view. To them, all the blind were the same, and on at least two occasions, once in the seventeenth century and once in the eighteenth, the authorities rounded up all the blind in Madrid and placed them in the Hospital General (Álvarez Barrientos, 1987). The Hermandad was able to secure the release of its members.

In the nineteenth century, as Enlightened ideals and the principle of the free market took over, guilds were dismantled, including the brotherhoods of the blind. The War of Independence (1808-1814) led to a fracturing of the ranks as some members were loyal to Spain and the absent monarch Ferdinand VII while others sided with the French. The Hermandad de la Visitación was dissolved in 1836.

The Nineteenth Century, the ONCE, and the Blind in Spain Today

With the disappearance of the brotherhoods and the support, both economic and social, that these organizations provided, the blind were largely reduced to begging. William Hanks Levy, an Englishman who was himself blind, described the situation in his 1872 book Blindness and the Blind: "The number of blind mendicants in Spain is very great, and visitors to Madrid state that the streets of that city swarm with them" (410). This reality is also presented in literary works of the time, most notably in the novels of Spain's great realist Benito Pérez Galdós.13

Garvia (1996) discusses Spanish society's response to the growing numbers of indigent blind: "To prevent the blind from becoming totally destitute … [nineteenth-century Spanish] society offered two solutions. The first consisted of the creation of special schools for the blind, in which they could learn a vocation, and the second was the seclusion of the blind in poorhouses or asylums" (493). Neither solution proved successful. Slowly, local groups (some of which ran lotteries and raffles) and informal organizations of the blind came into being, followed by the founding of groups such as Esperanza y Fe [Hope and Faith] in 1882 and the Federación Hispánica de Ciegos [Spanish Federation of the Blind] in 1932 (Garvía, 1996, 1997). During the Spanish Civil War, the local and regional organizations of the blind urged the Franco government to create a national organization. The task of convening the various organizations was turned over to Ramón Serrano Súñer, Franco's right-hand man at the time, and in December 1938, just a few months before the war ended, the Organización Nacional de Ciegos was created by decree. This action was also a step towards resolving the problem of how to deal with the blind veterans created by the conflict (Álvarez Ruiz, 2001; Gámez Fuentes, 2005).

For decades, the ONCE has run a lottery and supported itself through the sale of tickets or cupones. The blind sales agent—man or woman—standing on the corner or sitting in a kiosk selling tickets is a common sight in all Spanish cities. According to its annual report (Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles, 2012), the ONCE employed 8,123 blind or visually-impaired members as sales agents in 2012. In 2014, the organization had 72,044 members, approximately 21% of whom were completely blind. In that year, the lottery and all other games of chance run by the ONCE brought in a total of 1,765 billion euros (Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles, 2014). With these earnings, the organization not only pays salaries to the sales agents, it also supports schools, training centers, libraries, guide-dog training, and other social and cultural services for the blind and visually-impaired. In recent years, the ONCE has expanded its scope to encompass other disabled groups as well.

As an apparent result of the activities and services of the ONCE, the employment rate and standard of living of blind people in Spain are higher than those of most developed countries. Worldwide, the unemployment rate of the blind and visually-impaired is far higher than that of the general population. In developing countries, where an estimated 90% of blind people live, the unemployment rate often nears 100% in rural areas, while in developed countries unemployment and underemployment rates generally range from 50 to 75% (Rowland 2004; World Health Organization, 2013). In the United States, the National Federation of the Blind's website reports that, in 2011, "for working-age adults reporting significant vision loss only 36.8% were employed." In the United Kingdom, an estimated 33% are employed (Douglas, Pavey, Clements, & Corcoran, 2009). A 2013 report to the European Blind Union that studied "economic inactivity" among the blind and visually impaired in seven EU countries—Sweden, Germany, Romania, the Netherlands, Poland, France, and Austria—concluded that "None of the member states reviewed, apart from Sweden, has secured anything approaching a 50% rate of economic activity [for those who are blind or visually impaired], and most are still struggling to achieve or maintain a rate approaching 33%" (Simkiss & Reid, 2013, p. 5). The situation in Spain—where the 2001 unemployment rate of the blind was 4.2% (versus the general unemployment rate of 13.61%; European Blind Union, 2001)—stands in sharp contrast to these other countries.

Is there any connection between the modern ONCE and the hermandades and cofradías of past centuries? Certainly the similarities among them are striking: the organizations worked to secure a monopoly over certain occupations with the goal of providing economic support for their members. Garvía (1997, p. 76) goes so far as to say, "[L]a Organización Nacional de Ciegos no era otra cosa que un nuevo gremio, adaptado a la situación revolucionaria Nacional-Sindicalista" [The National Organization of the Blind was nothing but a new guild, adapted to the revolutionary National-Sindicalist situation]. There is no question that the involvement of Franco in the foundation of the ONCE and the role of his regime in its activities and governance prior to the transition to democracy makes for a complicated history. As a result, some have seen the ONCE only in its twentieth-century context as an organization created to help blind veterans of the Spanish Civil War (Gámez Fuentes, 2005). The idea of a long, discontinuous tradition (tradición discontínua) proposed by Álvarez Ruiz (2001, p. 121) probably comes closest to characterizing the relationship between the institutions of the past and the present. The brotherhoods survived well into the first half of the nineteenth century. It would be interesting to know if there is or was any memory of them within the blind community, whether now, or in 1938 when the ONCE was founded, or in, say, 1882 when Esperanza y Fe came into being. A question for future research might be: to what extent (if any) did the long history of the blind in Spain inspire the blind community's involvement in the creation of the ONCE in 1938?


The history of the blind in Spain shows how the impact of a disability on an individual or group of individuals can change over time. In a period like the Middle Ages, in which cultures and the relations between individuals were largely oral/aural, the situation of the blind was quite different from what it is in times and cultures like our own that are dominated by print. In early modern Spain, however, as technologies of printing became widespread and the presence of—and emphasis on—the written word increased, the blind adapted successfully. While they continued to sing or perform ballads and other compositions just as they had for centuries, they moved into and, with the help of the powerful brotherhoods they created, eventually dominated the sale of chapbooks, newspapers, and other genres of literatura de cordel. This process of adaptation continued as time went on and, now, on the streets where they once sold chapbooks, the Spanish blind have a profitable niche in the sale of lottery tickets.


  1. In addition to the work on blindness just mentioned, recent scholarship on disability in Spain has focused on several other topics, including the history of the deaf, aging and disability, and representations of physical and intellectual disabilities in contemporary Spanish film. For example, Teresa de Cartagena, a fifteenth-century author and nun who became deaf as a young adult, has received considerable attention from scholars interested in medieval literature, converso writers (conversos were Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity), and women's studies; recently her work has been viewed from a Disability Studies perspective (Brueggemann, 2005; Juarez, 2002; and Rivera-Cordero, 2009). Plann (1997, 2007) has written on deaf education and the Spanish National School for the Deaf and Blind. Fraser (2007, 2009, 2010) has worked extensively on the history of deaf education and the culture of the deaf in Spain as well as on representations of disability in Spanish film, novels, and public exhibitions (Fraser 2011, 2013). Aging and disability have been studied in early modern Spanish literature (Juárez-Almendros, 2010) and contemporary Spanish film (Marr, 2013). Minich (2010) and Rivera Cordero (2013) have also written on disability in contemporary Spanish film. Conway (2000) has studied contemporary politics and representations of disability.
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  2. Manuel de la Cruz's drawing may be seen on-line: http://www.kalipedia.com/historia-universal/tema/fotos-i-ciego guitarra.html?x1=20070822klpartmsc_92.Ies&x=20070822klpartmsc_100.Kes The paintings by Bayeu and Goya are in the Prado Museum in Madrid: http://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/galeria-on-line/galeria-on-line/obra/el-ciego-musico/ and http://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/galeria-on-line/galeria-on-line/obra/el-ciego-de-la-guitarra/
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  3. This painting is in the Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/28067?search_no=5&index=0
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  4. This painting is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=10301
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  5. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are by the author.
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  6. This chapbook is in the Biblioteca Nacional (Madrid), signatura R/31364/18 and can also be found on-line: www.bne.es
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  7. Cachirulos and zorongos are adornments women wore in their hair. In English, the title of the second song is "The Zorongo's complaints and the Cachirulo's defense."
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  8. Novísima Recopilación de las leyes de España (Madrid: 1805-1829), Book VIII, Title xviii, Law 4.
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  9. There were similar organizations in Germany, England, Italy, and France (Garvía, 1996), and in Russia and China (Vaughn, 1998). Farrell (1956) discusses blind guilds established in Padua in 1377 and Palermo in 1661.
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  10. In 1614, the members pooled their resources and bought a house on the Calle de San Antón, which they later rented out. By 1767, the brotherhood owned four rental properties (Botrel, 1973).
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  11. The role of women in these organizations, both the women who were members and those who were the wives and widows of members, is topic for further study. In an 1834 report to the Economic Society of Madrid regarding the by-laws of the Madrid brotherhood and arguing in favor of dissolving the organization, Salustiano Olózaga noted that the female members of the brotherhood were assigned certain lucrative spots to sell literatura de cordel. They would lose this privilege, however, if they married men who could see. Their stands would then be re-assigned to the widows of blind members, regardless of whether they were blind or sighted (Olózaga, 1871).
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  12. These documents are in the Archivo Histórico Nacional (Madrid), Consejos Legajo 11279/65.
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  13. Galdós himself suffered from diabetes and became blind in the final years of his life.
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