MADRID, Spain -- Maria Jose Mateo's midday routine is a daring act of defiance against a force that has ruled Spain for centuries. The 29-year-old bank employee tries to stay awake.
Up at 6 a.m. after six hours of sleep, she works from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., has a heavy lunch at her parents' home and dashes back to the office by about 5 p.m. to work till 9 p.m., leaving her father dozing on the couch and feeling quite drowsy herself.
As hard as she resists, the 40-minute subway ride usually lulls her into submission. At the end of the line, the stop beneath her skyscraper office, she wakes up slightly embarrassed, though she's rarely the only one on her car who has fallen asleep.
This, for most working Spaniards, is what the siesta has come to. With Spain under pressure to adjust to richer neighbors' timetables, the ritual three-hour break for lunch and a nap is disappearing. But the historic urge to nod off keeps fighting back.
Spaniards say they are working harder these days and sleeping less, feeling at once more prosperous and fatigued. Their economy has awakened in recent years to become one of the liveliest in Europe -- in part because of more industrious habits that, according to one nationwide survey, have reduced regular siesta-takers to 24 percent of the population.
The siesta is losing ground in other Mediterranean strongholds as Portugal, Italy and Greece also rush to catch their more advanced partners in the 15-nation European Union. It suffered a blow in Mexico last year when 50,000 public servants saw their long midday breaks cut to one hour.
But only here, in the country that gave the siesta its universal name, is the trend bemoaned as an assault on a national symbol. As Spain's corporate culture spurns the idea of daytime dozing as unproductive, a vocal minority -- led by a few sleep researchers and a nap salon entrepreneur named Federico Busquets -- has rallied to its defense in the name of tradition and good health.
More than save the siesta, Busquets is trying to reinvent it. His Barcelona-based chain Masajes a 1.000 offers victims of shortened lunch breaks a fast-food version of the siesta: a five-minute massage and a half-hour nap for 1,000 pesetas, or about $5.80.
With 16 franchises, the 2-year-old chain is growing sluggishly. For many Spaniards, the siesta is inseparable from the custom of going home to the family; the habit of napping anywhere else would be a change as radical as simply staying awake at midday. But Busquets is a relentless salesman.
"We are Spain," he says. "Losing the siesta would be like losing bullfights or sangria or paella."
The siesta still dictates the rhythms of towns such as Plasencia, population 41,000, where construction noise several years ago prompted the mayor to decree silence between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
But in sprawling, traffic-clogged Madrid and Barcelona, few working people have time to go home for a nap, even during the three-hour breaks that some privileged public employees still receive.
In private business, breaks longer than an hour are getting rare as Europe's single currency, the euro, draws Spanish companies, stock traders and multinationals onto similar schedules with clients across the continent. Also, Spain has its share of Internet start-up wizards and wannabe millionaires who seem to work day and night for weeks on end.
"We used to put on the answering machine and leave for a two-hour break, but clients started calling more often and hanging up on the recording," says Gloria Garcia, a lawyer at a Barcelona company with international clients that is now open all day.
Big city department stores stay open from 10 a.m. to 9: 30 p.m., forcing smaller shopkeepers to skip the siesta. More shops and offices have air conditioning to beat the summer's midday heat, which often tops 100 degrees.
At the Madrid branch office of TotalFina, the French oil company, managers and salespeople are given coupons for nearby fast-food outlets -- an incentive to take quick working lunches.
But the siesta's biggest setback is an exodus of women from the home. Spain is creating 400,000 new jobs a year, the highest rate in the European Union, and women are taking the bigger share, which leaves fewer at home to cook the hot meal that traditionally precedes the siesta.
With so much conspiring against the siesta, employers and labor leaders favor contracts calling for earlier starts and shorter, more intense workdays. Instead of a 9 a.m.-to-8 p.m. day broken by a 2-p.m. to-5 p.m. siesta, for example, they prefer a continuous 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. shift with a brief coffee break but no lunchtime. Workers facing long commutes like the idea of finishing the day earlier.
In many cases this means less rest, not more, for the weary.
For one thing, Spain refuses to compensate for the earlier start by giving up its late-night habits. Most restaurants continue to wait until 9 p.m. to open for dinner. Soccer matches begin as late as 10 p.m. , political rallies as late as 11 p.m. Prime time on television is 10 p.m. to midnight. On Thursdays, Madrid's discos are crowded long past midnight with people who must be at work in a few hours.
Per-capita consumption of coffee has risen 10 percent since 1988 as Spaniards struggle to stay awake. While Mateo nods off on the subway, other well-dressed men and women slip away from the office to doze on park benches or in parked cars, usually seated with their heads tilted back.
With Spain's corporate bosses firmly against the siesta, few people, even those with private offices, dare to sleep at work.
"It's viewed as a sign of weakness," says Alfonso Jimenez, director general here for Watson Wyatt, a multinational business consulting company with 300 Spanish clients. "In Madrid's professional environment, the siesta is for weekends only."
But Masajes a 1.000, the sleep parlor chain, has found soft spots in the corporate hard line. More than 20 companies, it says, have taken its offer of group discounts for their employees.
Maria Begona Perez and three of her six law-firm colleagues are midday regulars at a parlor in Barcelona, where dim lights and soothing music help them snooze face-down on the padded cushions of lilac-colored, ergonomically correct chairs.
"I can't sleep with my head on the desk because the phone never stops," says Perez, a 32-year-old office manager, who is often up nights with her infant son. After 30 minutes at the sleep parlor, "I'm more relaxed and rested than I was when I left home."
Sleep-disorder specialists such as Dr. Antonio Vela have launched a campaign for broader acceptance of the siesta as a need, not just a custom. The paradox, in their view, is that Spain has undervalued its own famous tradition, leaving foreigners to explain its true benefit.
Vela and a colleague, Dr. Eduard Estivill, are publicizing U.S.-pioneered research indicating that body and mind function better when allowed to shut down twice a day -- for a long stretch at night and a short one in midafternoon. The Spanish daily El Mundo devoted a 10-page section to the subject last year, marveling that Americans call siestas "power naps" and that some U.S. companies have "nap lounges" for employees.
"Oh, Lord, all our lives being ashamed of our alleged national laziness, and it turns out that what we've been doing is complying scrupulously with our genetic code," columnist Fernando G. Tola wrote in the newspaper. This awareness has come too late, he added, because "the men of profit have killed our sleep."