Marinaleda is a town of 2,700 people in Andalucia, Spain that since the first election of its major Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo in 1979 has adopted a cooperative approach to employment, housing and food production. It is often negatively described in the Spanish national media as the 'Communist Village'.

The writer, Keith Payne, whom I travelled to Marinaleda with, wrote the following article, which first appeared in The Stinging Fly, Issue 37 / Volume 2, Winter 2017-2018. 

https://stingingfly.org/


Marinaleda: A town less ordinary

In 1991 the village of Marinaleda convinced the Andalusian government to cede them 1200 hectares of land from the Duque del Infantado’s 17,000-hectare estate. The estate included a 56,000-acre shooting range while the rest was a spread of olive trees. The drive into Marinaleda is a low roll of parched land planted with rows of olive trees in eye-blink time under a wide, cyclopean blue sky.

That summer I was waiting for my Inter Cert. results to come from the C.B.S.  at Drimnagh Castle. I did ok; a B in Spanish and the same in Geography.  The geography teacher was obsessed by the Dutch polders: ‘If you take nothing else from here, lads, remember this: the Dutchman reclaimed the land from the sea, he just took it.’ So when a question on the polders and the Zuider Zee showed up on the exam paper, I knew exactly what to say.

In the run up to the Inter Cert. we also heard about Red Hugh O’Donnell and his escape from The Castle to the Wicklow Hills then on to Spain where he died near Valladolid where according to Thomas MacGreevy: ‘all Valladolid knew / And out to Simancas all knew / Where they buried Red Hugh.’ We discovered quadratic equations, the modh-coinniollach and the EEC looming to the east. The economics teacher revealed the world of micro- and macroeconomics with graphs chalked across the board that explained the beautiful simplicity of how supply and demand works beautifully. But no one mentioned the olive groves of Andalusia. There was no lesson on Marinaleda from Lips Lenehan, the geography teacher, as he glorified the glorious Dutch for reclaiming the land from the sea, no talk of the small Andalusian village reclaiming their land from the vast sea of aristocratic estates that surrounded them. The only hint we got that there was an alternative to the X and Y-axes of the economics’ graph came from Bogart, the accountancy teacher. Sandaled year round, Bogart spent his summers driving through Europe living out of his yellow Ford Escort van. He warned us every day not forget the E&OE at the end of the invoice slips we filled in from the back of the book. He must have known, and he wanted us to know, that Errors and Omissions will always be Excepted.

Ángel, who was born in Marinaleda, didn’t hear monologues on Geography, Economics or Spanish at Drimnagh Castle. Instead he was born to the sound of Franco’s death rattle. The Minister for Information and Tourism at the time, Manuel Fraga, had earlier opened up the Costa telling everyone that Spain is Different! All the while Marinaleda wilted on the Duke’s olive grove estate.

A village like any other across Spain, Marinaleda is a town of 2700 people some 110km east of Seville. The olive picking season lasts two months. For the rest of the year Ángel’s cousins, uncles and aunts took the conveyor belt north into the Siemens factory in Munich or tray-swooped cheap Sangria and tapas to sunning Europeans on the Costa. Not fit for factory fodder nor having the mouth for broken English, the rest of the village stayed and starved. ‘There’s only two months work a year; the other ten months, the dole,’ writes Marinaleda’s mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, El Gordo, in his memoir Andaluces, Levantaos (Andalusians, Rise Up). During those months on the dole you could scuttle through the fields at night and scavenge sunflower seeds, left behind after the harvest. But when the mounted Guardia Civiles caught you, the choice was a stretch in the carcel or an amputated finger.

So when Franco finally died in 1975 and the popping Cava corks fell back to silence, the so-called ‘Transition to Democracy’ began. By 1977 Spain had its first democratic elections since before the ‘long night of stone’, by ‘78 a new Constitution, article 47 of which guarantees every citizen the right to a ‘vivienda digna y adecuada’ (a decent and adequate home). In ‘82,  as the World Cup kicked off in Barcelona, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party won the elections under the leadership of Felipe González who would continue to rule for the coming thirteen years. The red flag was catching the breeze again. There’s a photograph of that night at the Palace Hotel in Madrid when González won the election. Beside a table laid with four large pizzas stands González, plain-suited and tall, staring at the camera. There’s the torero Luis Dominguín sat at his side, two members of the Columbian House of Representatives and sat among them all, mustachioed and avoiding the camera, is Pablo Escobar. Escobar was anchoring ‘mother ships’ full of cocaine off the Galician coast.  As the breeze from the south was catching the red flag, there was a wave of white powder, la marea branca, washing ashore that would smother Spain and make of it a lost generation of Adam & Pauls. In Marinaleda however, there was a different wave on the rise.

Marinaledans had decided they’d had enough of not enough work, of not enough to eat and no homes to live in. And so began La Lucha, The Struggle. In 1979 they held the first post-Franco elections with the Colectivo de Unidad de los Trabajadores (the Workers’ Unity Party or CUT), winning 9 of the 11 seats. They replaced street names; Plaza de Franco became Plaza de Salvador Allende, Sanjurjo changed to Federico García Lorca and Avenida 18 de Julio y Quiepo de Llano became Avenida de la Libertad. After the  small victory of winning irrigation for the area through protest, they occupied a field outside the village. The Guardia Civiles came and drew their batons. Bruised, some bloodied, they marched back up the next day. The Guardia Civiles came again and drew batons again. And on and on they occupied and were beaten back, occupied and were beaten back. At one point the Guardia Civiles cut down the trees so the protestors would have no shelter from the Andalusian sun during the occupations. No one outside Marinaleda paid much heed to this ‘local row’ over ‘a half a rood of rock.’

At the head of this row was the charismatic Mayor Sánchez Gordillo, El Gordo, a Spanish version of what Hemingway imagined himself to be as he marched on liberated Paris with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. El Gordo called an assembly on the 14th August, and not having enough to eat anyway, proposed –which was unanimously passed– La Huelga contra el Hambre, the Hunger Strike against Hunger. The following day, 700 Marinaledans went on hunger strike and as the day wore on the temperatures rose to 43 degrees. If you’ve never been to Andalusia in August, this is road warping heat, it’s scorpions at your doorstep heat, it’s flying too close to the sun wing-melting heat. And the Marinaledans, while on hunger strike in this heat, went on a march. They went to Seville where there was nobody to receive them. So they went to Madrid to speak to Salvador Sánchez-Terán, the Riojan landowner and Minister for Employment at the time. He wasn’t there. August is the month Spain goes on holidays –it’s too hot to do anything else, unless you’re hungry. So they followed him across the country to his holiday home outside Salamanca. The minister was at his estate in Ciudad Rodrigo but came to meet Gordillo who delivered his demands. They were simple: land to grow food and create jobs. The same land their families had worked for centuries but could never own. They wanted the dignity of work, not starvation-level dole. On the 23rd of August, the hunger strike ended and El Gordo came home. This time, the camera crews were waiting for him.

The occupations continued; 30-day occupations, 90-day occupations, occupations of farming land, occupations of estates, of government buildings, of public institutions till finally, after 10 years, the 1200 hectare tract of El Humoso was handed over to Marinaleda in 1991. The first thing they did was plant labour-intensive crops, shortly afterward they built a processing plant for the olive oil and a cannery for the peppers and artichokes. Walking around Marinaleda in the evenings you can hear the loudspeaker from the van announcing the following day’s times and work: ‘Work teams 3 and 4 harvesting peppers tomorrow. Work teams 3 and 4 harvesting peppers tomorrow.’

And this is where we landed in May 2015 in order to see for ourselves what Marinaleda was about. We’d read about the ‘Red Sundays’, the ‘Anarchist Village of the South’, the ‘Road to Utopia,’ the ‘Communist Model Village,’ the Manu Chao concerts, the supermarket raids during the recession; a convoy of shopping trolleys filled with oil and flour, milk and sugar marched out of Carrefour while the papers burst and bristled with ‘Commies in the Sun’ and ‘Red ‘cause their almost dead.’ And so down we went, myself and the photographer Finn Richards –whose idea the trip originally was. I took the bus from Vigo and stopped for poetry readings on the way in order to cover the cost of the journey. When we met in Seville, we realized we were both expecting a village with citizens in Lenin hats debating Gramsci and Marx, games of chess in the revolutionary café and peeling posters of Civil War propaganda. What we got was an ordinary town. A town alike any other across the peninsula; one road in and one road out, a mayor, a couple of bars, a riff of stray cats and shutters that close everyday at 2 o’clock for the afternoon siesta. But in order to have this ordinary town, with somewhere to work and somewhere to live, and a cultural life around it, Marinaledans had to go to extraordinary lengths.  

This is where we met Ángel in his print studio. It’s another blistering day. He’s running off a hundred and fifty anti-eviction t-shirts for a protest in a nearby village for a mother of three who has been threatened with eviction by the bank. ‘This wouldn’t happen in Marinaleda…not yet anyway,’ Ángel tells us. ‘In Marinaleda we have the advantage that, well, I have a house that I helped build, and thanks to the system of government that we have here...well, I pay €15 a month, which is the cost of construction; the bricks, the materials and all the rest, and for that I pay €15 a month. Ángel lives in one of the self-built homes in the village, perhaps the most revolutionary act to come from Marinaleda yet. ‘The system, and I think it’s exportable to other parts of the world, is simply the Council buys the land, and offers it to the people who don’t have a home. If you’re on the dole, you work with the crew in building the houses. If you can lay blocks, you lay blocks. If you can mix muck, you do that’. With the regional loans that every village, town and city in Spain is entitled to, Marinaleda turned €500,000 into 20 homes. They worked out that it costs €23,500 in materials to build a two-storey, four-bedroomed house with either a garden or an interior patio. The Andalusian government supply architect’s plans and consultation, the head builder gets paid and then a volunteer work crew build the houses. If you want a house, and you’re on the dole, you sign up to work on the building and at the end, when the houses are built, you are handed the keys. The number of houses built like this in Marinaleda, each for €23,500, is now up to 350 homes. Over a third of the population are housed for €15 a month each. 

As he talks, Ángel spins the four arms of his silkscreen press and runs the message Homes for All across the front and back of the t-shirts that are then laid onto the old baker’s grille he bought second hand in Seville. ‘If someone walks into the council and says ‘here, listen I’ve got a family with four kids, and I’ve just been made unemployed…’ well I think that in a democratic state in the 21st Century, the council needs to grant that person their fundamental right, no? My father had a job so I was sent to school. I remember someone came up to me in class and said ‘here, you’re from Marinaleda, aren’t you? I see your people are occupying the reservoir.’ The first thing Marinaleda did was fight for water. ‘I started college soon after but I gave it up. That’s when I started to grow up. There was a clear objective, there were assemblies and it was transparent. They started to occupy big farms and so I joined the fight.

The jornaleros, the landless day labourers, knew the land, and so the objective was clear: look to the land. And since here in Andalusia 65.7% of the land is owned by 2% of the people, you naturally have to fight against the system that is the Spanish system of democratic capitalism that belongs to very few people. And you have to occupy, to demand from those types of people, the Duchess of Alba, the Duke of Infantado, the Monarchy, the friends of the King. You have to say, ah here, ah c’mon now, let’s get real. You lot are engaged in a type of farming that doesn’t create any jobs and here we are, a community where there’s lots of people unemployed, and we have to eat, and we need homes. And so, thanks to that clarity, we organized and we fought. But of course, we committed the unforgiveable sin; we removed speculation from housing. No one makes a profit from our homes; they’re homes, homes for living in, for having a family in, if that’s what you want. Listen, you can do whatever you want in your own home, but you won’t make money from it, not in Marinaleda. And that’s why everyone here has a home.  

I’ve no doubt they’re going to write in the history books in years to come about what we did. That your kids are going to read about this in history class in Dublin.’ Ángel stops spinning his silkscreen for a moment and looks straight at me.  ‘You come here and you write about us and you’re going to publish, ok, go ahead and publish, but I’ve got to work to be here. I’ve got to make these t-shirts, and then I’ve got to go and march, stop the evictions in the villages around here, feed my daughter and fight for my community. One thing is what you say and the other is the reality.

I’ve a 5-year old daughter called Carmen. There’s Carmens all through my family. But who I named her after is Carmen Libertad which is the name they gave to a lot of people assassinated during the dictatorship. I remember my mate’s granny whose name was Carmen but her full name was Carmen Libertad, Carmen Liberty. At that time the people called her Carmen, but still, she was free, I’m going to stay here and I’m going to continue the fight and continue to make things better.’

Before we left Marinaleda, we spoke to the mayor El Gordo once more, and when I asked him if he thought their housing model could be exported he told me ‘if the will is there, it can be done anywhere.’ As I write this all eyes are on Barcelona. Is that conflict making things better? There’s a lot of shouting and flag waving. ‘In-de-pend-ence,’ or from the other side ‘One nation, indivisible, under the sun.’ And from Ireland too the shouts are coming: ‘Independence for Catalonia,’ ‘Let them choose.’ And yet what have we done with our independence? Are we all free here in Ireland to choose? We’ve got the land, or most of it. And since we’ve got the land, surely the obvious step is to house all who live on it. Yet tonight 3000 children won’t sleep in their own beds. 3000 children won’t sit at their kitchen table in the morning and read the food pyramid on the side of the packet of cornflakes. And after school tomorrow 3000 children won’t go home. And I wonder, if instead of supply and demand chalked across the board in Drimnagh Castle on The Long Mile Road, if we had spent those weeks and months learning about Marinaleda, about La Lucha, would those children have somewhere to sleep tonight?

Keith Payne

Oct. 7th 2017