Seville's Squatters: No Light, No Water, No Fear
Jan 3 2013
Molly Crabapple, who you may remember from her previous posts, The World of a Professional Naked Girl, and Rubber Bullets in the Streets of Madrid is now officially doing a monthly column for us that will feature original writing and illustrations on a variety of subjects. Here's her first one. Hopefully it will help ease the pain of your first day back to work (or whatever it is you're doing).
"You never think this will happen to you. But life changes fast."
Anna, 36, is a cleaner who has been unemployed since Spain followed Greece into the vortex of the Eurozone crisis. Once homeless, she now lives at Corrala Utopia, one of Seville's many squatted buildings. When we spoke, she was keeping watch over half a dozen children who also live at the squat, whilst their parents were out protesting in front of a local bank, IbjerCaja, which owns the building. The squatters wanted to pay for utilities, but the bank wouldn't let them.
Corrala itself is an ugly, boxy apartment block, in the architectural style of all building booms, humanized by a blanket of graffiti. "Stop Evictions. No Light, No Water, No Fear." Thirty families live there. When we walked up their pitch dark stairways, It felt like climbing seven flights of unlit stairs to my own New York apartment, which a week before had had its power knocked out by Hurricane Sandy. Anna's apartment was filled with toys, a flat-screen TV, sofas. The relics of a middle class life.
The squatters I'd known in the US had been stoned crustpunks or dedicated activists, but most of them squatted by choice. In crisis-crushed Seville, squatting was necessity. Blue collar moms in neat lace collars acted like the most hardcore radicals. Because they have no money, they could do nothing else.
The city of Seville is so broke that it hasn't paid its civil servants for six months. Nonetheless, it spent ten thousand euros digging up the sidewalk and cutting Corrala's water main to try and force the squatters out. Now, Anna's kids have to make five trips a day to haul water jugs up those dark stairwells.
"Life is hard here." said Anna. "You see 10-year old kids gathering water from the fountain, like it was the 19th century. I'm ashamed for my country."
This is Seville, the capital of Andalusia- the land of bullfighters, flamenco, rural poverty and rebellion. Traditionally tenant farmers slaved for scant wages on latifundio estates. Anarchism hit in the 1870's, and despite state repression, it never left. After the Spanish Civil War (that deadly romantic struggle between fascism and the leftist Second Republic), Franco shot Andalusians en masse. The Second Republic's colors are yellow, red and purple. They blanket every protest. Eighty years have passed, and thousands of people been murdered, but Andalusia hasn't forgotten.
Andalusia bears the brunt of Spain's financial crisis. More than one in three adults are unemployed. Bilingual kids from Madrid can go bus tables in Germany, but the construction workers and cleaners who lost their jobs when the bubble burst are stuck here, to survive how they can. So they make places like Corrala Utopia.
Tanya Rodriguez, 41, is a healthcare worker from one of city's poorest neighborhoods, with a 13-year old son and blue tattoos snaking up her arms. When she lost her job, Tanya moved back in with her parents. For the past two years, families have been making up for slashed social services. Adult children and and their own kids move back home to live off their parents' pensions. But pensions aren't meant to support so many people. Soon Tanya, her son, and her parents were homeless.
Tanya was helped by members of Spain's anti-austerity movement, M15, to occupy the buildings at Corrala Utopia. She had never been political before. Now, she told me proudly, during the past week's general strike, she had blocked roads with her body.
That afternoon, I'd been standing in the sunlight in Somonte, an occupied farm. In March 2012, the Andalusian Fieldworkers Union, sick of the government's rigged land auctions, took over 400 unused hectares. Three hundred special forces officers threw them out. They returned. The farmers grow lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers, which they sell at city cooperatives. Somonte's whitewashed buildings are decorated with an art selection that looks like all of the left mashed together. Che squaring his jaw next to Jesus, Second Republic flags and giant anarchist A's. In the silkscreen lab I spotted a tiny stencil of Stalin.
It's an unspeakably romantic place. Soft light. Orange trees. Handsome farmers. The sort of thing to make an effete city person go soft in the head.
Lola Alvarez, 44, is one of Somonte's main organizers. Lola has been farming since she was 16. She is beautiful, which is the sort of thing one shouldn't mention, but it’s impossible, looking at her thick black hair and giant, mournful eyes, not to. Hers is the beauty of good bones and battle scars; the sort of beauty that can only be earned. Lola gives directions easily and swaggers when she walks. Before I interviewed her, she was intervening on behalf of a group of female farmworkers, who were being edged out of their jobs by men. Their own jobs under threat, the men didn't want women's competition.
"Farmers have always been in crisis." Lola said. "They have no money, never did. Now that the crisis has reached the middle class, its suddenly important. But what happens with the people who have always had nothing? You won't see flags from political parties here. All the people on our walls have fought with their actions. Politicians may be revolutionary in their words- but not in real life."
I wandered around ruining my heels in the mud, sketching chickens and trying to lure over a small dog, who was having none of it. "She's an anarchist" one of the workers, Marco Bellido, told me.
Marco is a 37-year old comics writer with broad shoulders and dirt encrusted boots. We were drawn to each other as those in the comics ghetto always are. Marco was working on a a graphic novel about Marinaleda, a town organized by its mayor, Sanchez Gordillo, along socialist principals. He came to Somonte as research. The people there reminded him of his family, so he decided to stay. Marco works 11 hours a day, seven days a week. At the end of each day, he writes.
We smoked a joint in front of a photo of Che smoking a cigar, like some fractal of revolutionary kitsch. In incompetent Spanish, I asked Marco what the end goal of his, and Somonte's struggle was. "It's like the myth of Sisyphus," Marco said. Sisyphus was one of those ancient Greeks who were too clever for the gods' tastes. The gods sentenced him to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. When he got near the top, the boulder would roll down again.
"But Sisyphus loses." I answered.
"I don't have a date in mind for the revolution." Marco said, drawing in his smoke.
Dinner was yellow chicken stew, with bread and wine, eaten at communal tables. I tried to help with the dishes, but, as with most practical skills, I failed. Instead, I wandered around taking reference shots of Somonte's stone-walls, hung with shiny dried peppers; their tractors; their photos of work-lined Central American farmers. If in the US, people doubt pinko-commie-anarchists can get anything done, Somonte proves them wrong.
As I left, Lola kissed me on both cheeks and asked me where I'm going back to. "New York" I told her. She shook her head skeptically. "Too polluted. Too many people." Juanjo, the writer who was taking me around, drove us through the green rolling fields. We sang half forgotten Spanish civil war songs. A Las Barricadas indeed.
At Corrala, night was falling. They had generators, but very little gas, so the nights went unlit. I spoke with Javier, one of the squat's kids. He's a handsome, floppy-haired 15-year-old who wants to be a heavy metal drummer. When Javier asked me where I'm from, I pointed to a poster: "New York, New York" written in skyscrapers. We talked about Sandy and seeing the neighborhood I was born in decimated. "The crisis is our hurricane" he said.
I thanked Javier for his time. He shrugged. "Once its dark, there's nothing to do. Night lasts forever here. All we have is time."
As the light faded, Juanjo showed Anna an article about Corrala's bank demonstration. It was illustrated with a photo of a riot cop. Instead of guarding the bank, this cop was lifting his visor and signing the squatters' petition.
Perhaps that's what Marco meant by Sisyphus. The old world's machines are breaking. In 2011, millions noticed: in Spain and Greece and New York and Cairo, they sat down in public squares, and said the machine was defunct. Those squares are empty today. Spain's protest movements are now doing the slow work of building spaces to help each other, while the world decides what it's going to become.
All illustrations by Molly Crabapple.