For years now, Vasile Antonescu has lived surrounded by poverty. But, sat on the little hill from which he can see the other shacks in the Madrid shanty town of El Gallinero, he has always felt like a pharaoh, surrounded by his feline court.
Vasile, 59, takes care of a pack of cats who follow him as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamelin. One NGO has estimated that he has more than 100 animals under his care. Today, Tuesday, the day that his rickety wood and corrugated iron shack will be demolished, he will have to choose just one of his cats – the only one that will be permitted to accompany him as he begins a new life.
Vasile says the cats comforted him after his mother died
The local council is planning to start work on Tuesday to raze the shanty town, which is right next to the Valdemingómez trash dump, on one side of the A-3 freeway. For two decades, Romanian Gypsy families have lived here in deplorable conditions. Vasile’s family will be one of the 25 that will be relocated in different parts of the city. For now, the authorities are opting not to reveal the locations, so that neighbors do not receive them with prejudice.
Vasile’s shack is divided into two spaces: a bedroom, and a slightly bigger area that sometimes serves as a kitchen. He explains to his sister Florica and nephew David the guidelines that have been given to him by the social workers. They have requested that they do not make excessive amounts of noise, that they don’t fish around in the trash for junk, and that they keep their houses tidy.
And they’ve requested that they don’t fill up their new home with cats. The conditions are that they can take one with them. It’s a choice that brings a lump to Vasile’s throat. “I think it’s going to be this one,” Vasile says eventually, while holding a white kitten with brown spots. What will happen to the rest? He explains that he has tried to give them away to friends and acquaintances who he knows will take care of them, but it’s not been easy. He also thought about sticking them in a box and offering them to passers-by in a busy area of Madrid, but he suspects that would be against municipal rules.
Vasile is worried that the cats could end up being mistreated by local hooligans
The most likely outcome, municipal sources say, is that they will be sterilized and released into the countryside. This uncertain and somewhat primitive solution is costing Vasile sleep, after having been in charge of their care ever since he built his shack in 2010. Every two days he would travel to nearby Rivas-Vaciamadrid to buy them milk and chicken with the money he earned begging. He needed greater and greater quantities, as the cats started to increase in number, until there were some sleeping on the roof of the construction.
He is also worried that the cats could end up at the mercy of local hooligans, who have in the past enjoyed mistreating them. They have cut their ears with knives, thrown boiling water over them, pulled their tails off…
Vasile will be leaving on the first of the three days that the relocation operation will last. By Friday, once all of the shacks have been demolished and the cleaning services have cleared the site, El Gallinero will be history.
Vasile, a builder who, at nearly 60, has more and more trouble finding work, finds his relationship with the cats therapeutic. He says that they helped him get out of the hole he found himself in when he found out his mother had died. He was unaware that anything had happened to her until 2006, when he went back to his city of Drobeta-Turnu Severn, located in the east of Romania, on the Serbian border. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t find her. His family had kept the news from him.
Every two days, Vasile traveled to buy milk and chicken for the cats
That, he explains, saw him fall into a deep depression. Once back in Spain, he slept all day, ate erratically, and did not take the medication he’d been prescribed. He says that he found peace and comfort from the first cat that approached him one day in the shanty town. He gave her no name, but loved her just the same. She sired five generations, all of which, like the shacks, have their days numbered in El Gallinero.
The shanty town – one of the most miserable places in the city of Madrid, after the dismantling of drug zones such as Las Barranquillas – is a magnet for fate. And the family of Vasile has not escaped misfortune. His sister suffers from an incapacitating disease and his nephew, who is 27, has a mental disability and obesity that makes it hard for him to find work.
But Vasile will now have the chance to live in an apartment, thanks to a deal reached between Madrid City Hall and the regional government to demolish El Gallinero once and for all. He hopes it will open up new possibilities. Given that they will not be living in a place that carries such stigma with it, and that they will receive a basic income from the state, they may have a better chance to find work. It will be a step from an underground and marginal existence to one that is more conventional. But he will cross that threshold today, with just one of his many cats under his arms.
English version by Simon Hunter.