A portrait of Spain’s new poor: “I’ve never bought clothes for my son”

Single mother Lucía Cuesta has struggled to make ends meet since losing her steady job in 2009

Lucía Cuesta with her son, Ibu, in a park in Paterna, Valencia.
Lucía Cuesta with her son, Ibu, in a park in Paterna, Valencia.Monica Torres

After selling off the furniture from her rented home, which measured a decent 120m2, Lucía Cuesta, 44, also had to get rid of her car and move into a single-room apartment with her son, Ibu. “Selling the car was the worst,” she says. “I lost my freedom, and felt cut off.”

That was 2009, the year Ibu was born and the year she lost her job as a construction site supervisor. With it, went a monthly salary of €2,000. It was a job she had gone to college to study for.

Spanish families that have higher levels of education find it harder to get support,” says Lucía. “The first thing the social workers tell you when you’re left with nothing is that you should try and see how your family can help, but the thing is my family is also screwed.”

Lucía believes that the worst is over but not the inequality. “We’re not talking about economic poverty now, which there is obviously, but we’re also talking about the kind of poverty in where we can’t afford for my son to take extracurricular math or music lessons,” she says. “Or I can’t go and have a beer with friends. Before it was a case of, ‘I’m going to invest in this because I know I can pay for it,’ whereas now it’s a case of, ‘What can I afford in the short term?’”

Eight years after losing everything, Lucía and Ibu live in the family home in Paterna, Valencia

Eight years after losing everything, Lucía and Ibu live in the family home in Paterna, Valencia. “Just surviving is not so expensive,” she says, adding that Ibu knows money does not grow on trees; he understands that there is no extra for candy; he gets that the washing machine must be full to the brim before it’s put on; he accepts that they don’t turn on more than one electric light at a time; and he realizes that when his mother brings out the blankets in winter, it’s to save on heating. “Unlike me, he has been living like this since he was born,” says Lucía. “But you get used to getting by on €300 or €400 a month,” she says.

What he doesn’t know perhaps is that his mother uses the opportunity of free swimming classes to have a hot shower.

Asked if she buys her son clothes, Lucía’s answer is decisive. “Never,” she replies. “A friend lends them to me. Clothes cost a fortune.” And the expense of her cellphone is shared with her sister. “One month she pays and the other I do,” she says.

When it comes to food, Lucía collects all the free supermarket offers from Carrefour, Mercadona, Lidl and Día. “I spend €100 a month,” she says. “I do the shop with a friend and when there is a three-for-two offer, we go for it.”

Lucía also takes advantage of the cinema’s budget days when tickets cost just €2.90 but, needless to say, there are no vacations. “My son sees photos I have taken of the Eiffel Tower and says, ‘Mommy, I wonder when we can go there...’” Instead, she takes him to Barcelona for three days a year to visit his godmother. “She pays for our trip and we can disconnect, especially me,” she says.

Fortunately, Lucía has found work this month from the job center and while she completes a trial period, she is making €900 a month. Other temporary jobs have included distributing pamphlets and cleaning. But there are months when she has “absolutely nothing.” With a hint of irony, she makes clear that, bringing up the work-life balance with your employer is out of the question when you’re a single mother, and she explains that sometimes she has to accept as little as €2 an hour. “What can you do?” she asks. “You have to feed your child. I have tried to look in other areas, but if you don’t have experience, training courses you might have done don’t count. If you have never worked as a cleaner, the cleaning companies don’t want you. And if you have never worked as a waitress, the catering companies don’t want you either.”

My son sees photos I have taken of the Eiffel Tower and says, ‘Mommy, I wonder when we can go there...’

Lucía and Ibu don’t have access to the internet, which affects Ibu’s studies. “All the homework he is set is on it,” says Lucia, who adds that for a long time they had one of the bulky, old-style cathode ray tube TVs. When it stopped working, one of their neighbors gave them one that was a little more compact.

Coping on her own is now second nature to this single mother who explains that Ibu’s father, who now lives in Sweden, left when their son was just 18 months old. She says that she herself has had work offers abroad but that a court order prevents her from taking her son out of Spain. She also says that if it weren’t for organizations such as Save the Children, her family and close friends would not have been able to survive when the going was really tough.

It seems those days might be behind her, but Lucía is not keen to imagine where she might be in eight years time. Meanwhile, her son dreams of becoming a fireman. “His favorite food is chicken in Coca Cola. He makes it himself. He cooks really well, but we buy the supermarket brand, which is cheaper,” she says.

English version by Heather Galloway.


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