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Story of Spain

When word went round of plans to demolish some houses, the women of the neighborhood linked arms and made a human shield

The night before, Saturnino and Maruja couldn't sleep.

They got up early and ate in silence. They were both thinking about the same thing: a mud street, steep and just as poor, but somewhat uglier, than the one they had left behind when they came to Madrid from a village in rural Badajoz.

They had made the journey in a van with an acquaintance who drove a sales route to and from Madrid. The trip would have been easier and shorter by train, but Maruja, just married, didn't want to leave her meager furniture in the village, and convinced her husband it didn't matter if the cheese salesman stopped in every little town. They arrived tired, but unfortunately on reaching the city, the pig was planning on leaving them downtown, unless they paid a little more to be taken to the address Saturnino had written on a piece of paper. That's out in the boondocks, he said, and he was right. In the mid-1960s, not only was El Pozo del Tío Raimundo on the outskirts of the city, but it hardly existed at all, and the divisions traced on the barren tract of land could hardly be called streets, or the scattered shacks along them, houses. Maruja began to weep at the sight of the place. Saturnino managed to keep his cool thanks to his friend Paco, who had settled there before, and explained how things worked.

They had planned their trip according to the phases of the moon. It was full, and there was not a second to lose. They raised the four walls of their house with the help of other neighbors who had settled there before, and worked for free -- just as they, too, would do for others who would arrive later. Dawn was breaking as they hefted a sheet of corrugated Uralite atop the walls. That's it, they said, you've got a house. An old bylaw forbade the demolition of a dwelling with a roof on it, however precarious or illegal. Indeed, early that morning the municipal police came by, and merely took note that the population of El Pozo had increased by one man and one woman, who happened to be a few months pregnant. Saturnino went off to work with Paco in construction, while Maruja continued her weeping. But she soon found better things to do.

This woman, so tearful, turned on the police like a tigress. You can turn around now, because you're not coming in here... When word went round of plans to demolish some houses, the women of the neighborhood linked arms and made a human shield, several ranks in depth. Ladies, break it up or you will have to face the consequences. OK, shoot us if you dare. In subsequent years the women marched to the Housing Ministry, time and again. There they gradually achieved many things -- water, sewers, asphalt, streetlights -- and the pioneers, those who had been there for years, got flats in a housing project. Saturnino and Maruja's apartment was in Carabanchel, a new quarter, with trees and multi-story blocks: the same flat they left early this morning.

Entering the Metro, Maruja felt like crying again. It seemed so impossible, incredible and sad what she and her husband were going to have to do. But, arriving at the street, they were amazed to see the noisy gathering in front of the door.

The crowd that gathered to stop the eviction of their eldest son, born in a shack in El Pozo del Tío Raimundo, amazes them because they know none of these people, just as they knew none of the people who helped them put up their house. The crowd comforts them as they advance toward the door, where their grandchildren wave to them to approach.

But don't stand there grandma, says a tallish boy, with one of those funny dreadlocked hairdos they wear nowadays. It could be dangerous. You could get hurt.

At this Maruja turns and smiles back at him.

Who? she asks. Me?

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