The very top of Cebolla is on the edge of what seems like an endless plain of farmland broken in the very far distant horizon by the Gredos Mountains. They are a solid and majestic range, often snow-capped even into June. To the left we beheld some of the nicest and most modern homes in town. Some are somewhat standard run-of-mill semi-detached units, but others are quite elegant. Handsome porches; plush gardens; a refreshing pool. A stroll through their streets might give the impression that Cebolla was a community undergoing a period of true bonanza. Wealth and ostentation. Somehow, the hard times Spain had endured the previous years had passed over the town, as if someone had painted a mark of lamb’s blood over every front door. That might have been true for some, but not for most. The harsh reality would be found elsewhere. Not far off at all.
Like Scrooge’s speechless Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Fernando pointed silently to the unfinished remains of a massive Almazara housing development which had been abandoned years ago when the economic bottom fell out. There must have been easily one hundred condos on the cusp of being occupied and owned by excited families hopeful to start a new life. Instead, they had turned into a monolith to disappointment and broken dreams. This went far beyond just letting a few dozen people down. This was pulling the rug underneath nearly half the town and ruining whole lives. It was tantamount to canceling the Olympics two weeks before the opening ceremony and telling athletes who had devoted their lives to preparing for them that they can no longer go. Thanks for your efforts. Screw you. Go sell running shoes at a sports outlet. You just don’t do it. You just don’t do those things. But there are those who do, and we saw the work wrought with our very own eyes.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, the units themselves were nothing to write home about. Sharp, square structures cemented together with millions of bricks, the building material par excellence in that region and American high schools alike. Their design sorely lacked proper illumination, a defect so very rampant in homes in the center of the country. It’s a question of tradition, I reckon. In the past, this made sense when houses could resort to little else when trying to combat the intense summer heat; but in today’s world of air-conditioning, there seems to be no excuse. All that light. All that beauty. Closed out. It was an utter shame. But that wasn’t the point, here. They were homes. I kept thinking about this over and over as we walked around the edges of the complex. Homes for people eager to say were theirs.
Fernando rubbed his belly and scratched his head, which is what he always did when he was overcome with despair. “Doesn’t this just suck! Imagine all those people who got screwed over.”
“It’s just awful,” agreed Laura.
“Where are they now?” I asked.
“Who knows? Some are gone. Others, I couldn’t tell you. These,” he walked up to me so close I could smell his aging breath. “are the people no one talks about. These are the nameless victims. Living people living in a living common grave known as poverty and anonymity. No one cares about them. They don’t give a crap. A living memory of a living history. A living death with no gravestone. Where are the politicians now?”
“How many of these goddamn corpses are there?” I asked.
“Here? Who knows! But in Spain, it runs into the thousands. Tens of thousands. These are all over the country. Not just Cebolla. How many? A lot,” replied Fernando frankly.
A lot, indeed. You see, what we were staring at was not an isolated example of a town paying the price for its own private foolishness. This wasn’t a one-off case of some naïve community suffering the embarrassing consequences of a breakdown in a fragile system bound to crash at any time. This had nothing to do with a local group of greedy individuals with euro symbols in their eyes hoping to make a killing on the real estate market. Nor was it just some gang of regional banks taking advantage of young couples and families who were desirous to call themselves homeowners. It was all of them put together; and not just in Cebolla. It had happened all over the country, spreading like an uncontrolled virus; like the flu of 1918 or the plague of 1348. A virtual scourge. It became known as the Great Spanish Real Estate Bubble, and by the time it reached a breaking point in 2008, it was a humongous but delicate sphere about the size of a planet just waiting to explode. But it’s a far more complex story than just rampant speculation. It’s not just about understanding a crisis. It’s about understanding Spain.
You see, possessing property in Spain is a tradition that goes back a long way, and it became especially popular during the latter years of the Franco dictatorship. The regime promoted home-owning and prices were accessible. Very accessible. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they were giving them away, but they were as close as you could get. Units back then went for 200 euros a square meter, which meant a lovely-sized 150m2 place in downtown Madrid could be acquired for a laughable €30,000. On top of that, the government offered incentives, like tax breaks and subsidies, to encourage private ownership.
It worked. Not only was it possible to buy and own an apartment or house, purchasing more than one was not unthinkable. I can personally vouch for this. I can’t think of a friend in Spain whose parents from that generation didn’t own more than one property. Some were proud proprietors of half a dozen, snatching up a flat in Madrid for their kids, a condo in the Sierra de Madrid, grabbing a beach apartment for next to nothing in order to flee the sweltering summer city heat. And you didn’t have to be a millionaire. A taxi driver might be the owner of two apartments. A fishmonger, three.
The most amazing thing was that, in most cases, families pulled it off on just one salary per household, as many women did not have steady employment and many more were stay-at-home moms. Just how was this possible might you ask? I struggle to put my finger on one sole explanation, but I can think of a number contributing factors, in addition to all the governmental enticements; they mostly have to do with how the Spaniard thought and behaved back then.
First of all, though salaries were lower, life was cheaper too. Schooling and university were practically free; socialized medicine made paying directly for private healthcare an afterthought; supermarket food was (and still is relatively speaking) economical, and people tended not to engage in the intensive social life that they have for the past 30 years. This last point cannot be stressed enough. People worked long hours and for the most part stuck to dining at home and saving money. Utilities like phones and electricity were used with a frugality that would have made Scrooge moan with pleasure. If you left a room, you turned off all the lights. And if you could get by with just one lamp where you were sitting instead three, then all the better. People saved, scrimped, economized and optimized to near OCD levels. It was admirable the way they could expel superfluous waste from their lives; consistent with those who have suffered the hardships of war and post-war scarcity. But kind of sad, too. It never hurt to live it up now and again.
The systematic penny-pinching went on throughout the year, even at times when people generally splurge, like summer vacation. As August rolled around, the height of the holidays, the Spanish would close their shops and offices, jump into their miniature automobiles, regardless of the size of the family, join interminable miles of the worst traffic humanity has managed to bestow upon the lowly vacationer and, in hordes, head for one of two main destinations: the “pueblo” or the “playa”. The former was normally the hometown where one of the spouse’s family was originally from. This could have been just about anywhere, but I have reached the conclusion that for some paranormal reason an inordinate proportion of them came from the province of Avila. I don’t know why, it just happens to be that way.
Hanging out in the pueblo may not have compared to sipping a caipirinha poolside, but it had its enviable advantages, there is no doubt. Accommodations were generally larger and better and, more importantly, free. People stayed in for most meals and costs were often shared with the family who lived there year round. The food was tastier and the nights were cooler. Any special events, like joining in the festivities at the local fiestas, or a dinner at the finest restaurant in town, were often a far cry from what you’d shell out back in the capital. The savings literally ran into the thousands every year. It makes for one damned cheap summer vacation, I can assure you.
Then there were those who substituted it for a beach apartment. Purchasing a place on the coast may sound extravagant, but much less so than one would think. Game shows would give away flats valued at $20,000 in the 80s. And because the consumer’s taste for owning grew more and more insatiable, developers kept building at an insane rate. Today there are so many available that you can practically pick one up at a supermarket cash register next to the power drinks and chewing gum.
Traditionally holiday habits at the beach were no different from how the Spanish conducted themselves at home or in the village, but were in stark contrast to the way foreign visitors’ were used to spending their cash. For the British, Germans, Swedes and the rest of mainly northern Europeans, it was no holds barred when it came to living it up along miles of beach along exotically named shores like the Costa del Sol, the Costa Blanca, and the Costa Brava. They celebrated life in a way they could rarely do back home, a habit that has carried on to this day.
Many holiday-makers are families enjoying the most of their break through plenty of harmless fun in the sun. This includes swimming and tanning, mixed in with low-cost shopping and easy dinners at friendly pizzerias or tapas bars, and capped off with a little flamenco music before retiring. But other visitors have plans in mind that are decidedly more hedonistic in nature. Activities that fall into this category include: extended meals out, drenched with liters of Spain’s seemingly endless supply of beer, wine and sangria; late night clubbing ‘til dawn; passing out on anything that supports your weight and engaging in different forms of extreme raging like leaping from balconies into a pool below. Resort towns like Magaluz, on the island of Mallorca, have earned a dubious reputation for allowing, almost fostering, unfettered moral conduct. It brings in plenty of cash, mind you, but a good deal of trash too, not to mention your fair share of tragedies. Google “Brit killed in Spain” and chances are some recent item of news within the last month will satisfy your search, and usually in a way related to boneheaded behavior.
Decades ago, this conduct was associated almost exclusively with foreigners, while Spanish families continued their parsimonious ways. They ate all their meals at home, and if they spent a day at the beach, they would pack sandwiches, beer and fruit for a sandy midday lunch by the water. On special occasions, they might indulge in a paella at a chiringuito, wash it down with the house wine and gaseosa, or order a Rioja if they were going all out. Evenings featured turning the lights off to a minimum, opening the windows to encourage a draft, complaining about the heat and the mosquitos, batting hand fans, sitting in front of the blue hue of the TV and watching variety shows or track and field championships, playing cards or Parcheesi on the terrace table or going for a stroll along the boardwalk and getting an ice cream at one of those seasonal plastic kiosks.
And that was about it. Families had invested enough in the apartment. The rest was business as usual. Kids were told they should be lucky they had a place to go to in the summer. And kids of all ages understood that. They splashed and screamed in the water, patted down their sand castles, buried their siblings up to the neck, hunted for crabs, snorkeled around the coves, kicked around the soccer ball, hung out with their gang of summer friends, fell in love, and worried little about anything else.
But it was this very same generation of youngsters who, once grown up, no longer shared their parents’ liking for austerity. They liked the idea of owning property, but they were also keen on enjoying the coast the way the foreigners did. Unfortunately for them, the world was changing.
The first sign of trouble came in the late 1980s when housing prices increased notably. Far faster and higher than the economy could keep up with. The asking prices tapered off during the Spanish recession of the early 1990s, but then the real big hike kicked in almost immediately afterwards, between 1996 and 2007. During this eleven-year period, the cost of a humble abode in Spain utterly skyrocketed. Apartments that had gone for €120,000 in 1995 were being signed away for €600,000 12 years later, just months before the markets crashed. Yes, that’s a 400% mark up. Salaries, as you can imagine, didn’t even come close to that, and the switch in 2001 from the peseta to the euro raised the standard of living even higher. Suddenly becoming a homeowner, despite two incomes, was looking like a near insurmountable challenge. But since the new generations wanted to emulate at all cost what their parents had done, they had to find a way to finance their dreams…at all cost.
That’s when the banks got in on the fun, and made things worse. A lot worse.
In order for families to take on overpriced properties with underpaid jobs, huge amounts of money had to be dished out, often with nothing down, and for horrifically long-term loans, some reaching 30, 40 and up to 50 years in duration. Do the words “indentured servitude” come to mind? In some cases, the mortgages were gobbling up to 50% of a household’s monthly income by the first day of the month. They practically imprisoned people financially. Common sense dictates that no sane person would take such risks, but the Spanish’s need to own a home was so deeply ingrained in their psyche that people took the dive and hoped for the best, which, of course, did not come. In fact, the exact opposite entered the scene.
On top of that, consumer habits changed radically in Spain. Saving, never an easy thing, became next to impossible as the Spanish ate and drank out more than ever, and spent bundles on lavish vacations, expensive electronics and ever-fancier cars. Should times get hard, what would be left to tide people over?
Then came greed. Many individuals started investing in up-and-coming properties for speculative reasons. Flipping, in short. Property developers were more than happy to provide the goods for the voracious appetite to buy and sell and make a quick buck, so they started ripping up land all over the country and building condos and communities at a frightening speed. Immigrants from developing countries flocked to Spain to accept the menial construction work that no one here wanted. All this unbridled construction led to a boost of employment and, as a result, cranked up Spain’s economy to a dizzying pace. At one point, GDP growth stood at nearly an astounding 6%. The country was enjoying a degree of prosperity it had not known since its return to democracy. “¡España va bien!” was Prime Minister José María Aznar’s catch phrase during his eight-year tenure. Spain is doing great.
But there was another catch: the economy had swelled thanks to the good fortunes of one very volatile sector that was sustained by tens of thousands of workers whose employment situation could not have been more precarious, and was financed with a ton of money no one really had. And all to build and sell units no one really needed or had any intention of buying. Spain had added some 5 million units to its arsenal of real estate between 2003 and 2007, a delirious increment that translated into more homes than Germany, Italy and the UK combined. I’ll leave the ensuing disaster for you to envision. All it would take was for something to go wrong and the house of cards would tumble to the ground. That something took place in the fall of 2007 on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a place called Wall Street.
Though things began to fall apart very quickly with the stock markets, Spain continued with the delusion that it would somehow resist collapse, unable to accept the impending catastrophe that awaited it. It took about a year for the true effects to be felt, but once they came, they proved devastating. By 2013, housing prices had plummeted by an average of 37%, and in the areas with less demand, even more. Spain still leads all Eurozone nations with unoccupied units, over 3.4 million (at least) are vacant. And that’s not counting the ones that were half-finished, or nearly completed, like the forlorn Almazara Apartment complex of Cebolla.
The developer of the Almazara homes, I might add, was so up the yin-yang in debt, rumor has it he basically had to flee before they lynched him. He had already been working on his own home, a fancy three-story corner building in the center of town. It’s been rotting ever since. On the plywood board of the first floor window is another slice of memorable poetry in the form of graffiti that in a word sums up how much he is missed: ¡¡¡ADIO$!!!
Having satisfied my pang for a few impassioned verses on the gray wall of a house, I told our tour group we could continue. Once at the summit, we paused again before moving on. The church loomed to our left; it was an impressive spiritual fortress, but delivering our souls to spiritual exercise was not what we had in mind at that moment, so we veered right and moved on down the typical quiet Manchego streets, so characteristic of these towns. These are places full of opportunities to discover local charm. This one was fairly narrow, so we ambled down the middle. Here, the sidewalks were mere slivers, symbolic tributes to the pedestrian. A mount for cars to pull their wheels up on, more like it.
The doors to the homes are covered with curtains of all different types. Designed to keep the flies out but allow the air to pass through at the same time. They are trademarks of Spanish towns. You can find them all over the country and they come in all material, shapes and patterns. Some are made of colorful cloth like Mexican serapes, some are strings of beads like the entrance to a hippy hashish den, and others are just plain strips of plastic. Each flimsy barrier possibly saying something about their owner, like the faces of dogs. Hardly an entryway goes without one.
We continued our stroll to nearly the highest part of Cebolla, where we approached a corner brick building with unquestionably characteristic signs of decay. There was a gated and shut down coffee shop with muddied windows, old signs hanging perilously on just one hinge, forgotten odds and ends strewn on the floor. I rubbed a hole in the grimy pane and peered in. Chairs were arranged haphazardly around the room, tables still harbored used napkins and forsaken dishes. It was as if some impending catastrophe had triggered the patrons to bolt with whatever belongings they had on them or face being vaporized. Next to shop was a small ticket window all boarded up, and to its left, dusty glass encasements with old posters still inside, toasted and faded by the daily exposure to sunlight.
“There used to be a…” began Fernando.
“Don’t tell me,” I stopped him in mid-sentence with a half tearful voice. “Not another one! Don’t tell me it’s another one!”
“Yeap,” said Fernando unmoved. “That’s it, my friend. This is one of the saddest places in the world. The end of all civilization. Nostradamus predicted this would happen. Revelations, too. As did my seventh-grade teacher after we broke his full-size skeleton in Biology. Damian from The Omen, which I happened to see here for the first time. Another movie theater bites the dust. The world is now a much more dangerous place.”
“You’re telling me! I loved these places. They’re magical. They’re dropping like flies. I saw one in Pedro Naharro last year. All that was left was this beautiful old movie projector. It was surrounded by rubble. Looked like a goddamn bomb went off. It would have given Marie Kondo a stroke.”
“It’s a shame, isn’t it? All the memories. My first R-rated film. My first naked scene. Throwing popcorn at the lovers behind us and diving for cover. And the dates. Heck, I felt up my first girl in this one!”
“I felt up my first girl in a movie theater too.”
“Of course! That’s what they were built for!”
“I felt up my first guy in a movie theater!” confessed Laura.
That I hadn’t expected. “Ok. You win.”
The movie theater, a building which had brought so much joy and memories to generations of Spaniards was now on the verge of extinction in most small towns. The Italian classic, Cine Paradiso, brought this reality home to us in 1988, and companies like Netflix and HBO have pretty much done the rest of the damage since then.
And the cities weren’t doing much better. Not long ago, each neighborhood in Madrid had its own local theater. You used to be able to find one every couple of blocks. Didn’t matter where it was. You could step outside and be in line just a stone’s throw from home. Have a drink afterwards and discuss the pros and cons of the movie and be back in your living room in no time.
These were often local family-run businesses. Mom is sliding the tickets over to you; dad tears them in two and welcomes you as if you are entering his front hall; the kids serve the refreshments because they know how to use the new-fangled electronic cash register. Worn-velvet seats, fresh popcorn blooming inside an old machine, walls that rattled in battle scenes. They were wonderful. But time goes by and who wants to pick up the business? The place needs a facelift, maybe they should reconvert into a three-screen venue. Who has the money? Or the patience? And who is going to get those people in on a Tuesday nights?
Now the barrios have been all but stripped of the local cinema. The trend has shifted towards multiplexes on one hand and downsizing the number of locales on the other. Little by little the theaters have been boarded up and turned into electric stores, sportswear boxes, low-cost fashion outlets and food courts.
The total number of movie theaters in Spain has dropped by over 10% in the past decade and there is no relief in sight, with small town theaters taking the brunt of the downspin. Some village cinemas rear their heads from the grave every August in the form of a “cine de verano”. They liven up the evenings and give parents a chance to send their kids to the movies so that they can take a break from the summertime monotony. But most are in no shape to be used anymore. Now open spaces of any kind, like the main square or a community center, serve as an inferior but practical substitute. For the most part the real theaters are gone. Really gone. Those days are gone.
The three of us were treated to a sneak peek at what Cebolla’s used to look like. The building had been chopped in half, or maybe it had just collapsed on its own. You could never tell with these things. It looked like one of those surreal World War I pictures where the family still lived in the living room and dined at a table even though the building had been blown open. In the summertime, the films were projected on the wall of a patio lot around the back. You can still hear the voices of the excited youngsters as the credits roll, and the tapping and scraping of the plastic and wooden folding chairs as they fidget with restlessness. You can still pick up the chorus of reactions to the Seventh Art: the bursts of laughter; the gasps of wonder; the shrieks of fear; the sobs of pain and sadness.
The locale doubled as a dance hall, and after the film, music would kick in and people of all ages would be up on their feet and moving to the lively rhythm. Girls in short dresses and young men sporting dapper attire glided on the floor, while townspeople sat around tables, drank beer or soft drinks and looked on. Even uniformed guardia civil officers would join the celebration for a little while and take a break from their humdrum beat. The bar was on the far end of the lot and above everyone was the starry summer night sky. It must have been magical.
At one point the owners must have tried to diversify their offer by installing a DVD rental vending machine and making it available to the public 24 hours a day, but the decision must have come a little too late. And it would not have mattered anyhow. Streaming killed off what little hope there was even for movie rentals. It was a brilliant business idea that barely lasted thirty years before succumbing to utter obsoleteness.
Sadly, though, when the movie theaters close, the town is left with little more than a few bars and a main square. Beer, balls and pigeons.
“Well that was pretty depressing,” I concluded. “What else do you have to show me? ‘Cause I’m about to slit my wrists.”
“Hold off on the knife,” said Fernando. “You haven’t seen the worst yet.”
“Thanks. You’re a real sweetheart. I tell you.”
7:15 Death and Dying
We hung out to dry the towel with care on a clothes line in the patio. With the extreme heat and the low humidity, most homes don’t bother with a machine dryer. The climate does it for you and for a lot less, as long as the government doesn’t concoct a way of coming up with a tax. While I tended to the clothes, I listened to the local radio blare out over the garden, giving tips on how to keep holiday beach homes sand-free. That kind of radio talk, I thought, most certainly would discourage birds from feasting on the fruit. So, relieved to know that the food was safe from flying vermin, we sat down at the table for an evening beer and a chance to plan the rest of the day. The craft beer fad that had taken the world with money to spare by storm had now established itself firmly in Spain. Just about everyone I knew with five gallons of water on hand, a boiler and a handful of hops lying about had suddenly become a master brewer.
“Try my new beer! Try my new beer!” It was so annoying. I’m surprised I haven’t keeled over from alcohol poisoning by now. On really hot days, I still preferred the mass-produced Madrid brew, Mahou, served ice cold. Most people from outside of Spain have never heard of it, and yet ironically it is the most widely sold lager in the country. Mahou (pronounced as in Chairman “Mao”) comprises about a third of all the beer consumed. The national total is around 40 million hectoliters, or about 8.5 billion pints of beer. That’s a 177 pints for every man, woman, child and infant. We should probably throw in the dogs too. And this is a wine-producing country, mind you. Drinking is big business, needless to say.
After that advertising spot for which I will receive no remuneration, let’s move on. As Victoria sprayed down the terrace floor with water and cooled the air, we looked at our options for next couple of hours. Basically two came to mind: stay home and continue to drink beer or walk around the town to see what’s up. The former was tempting, but the latter was what we wanted to do. Cebolla may not have the stunning beauty of places like Santillana del Mar, Medinaceli, Urueña, Pedraza, Vejer de la Frontera, Albarracín, Morella, Ribadeo, Alberca, Viana, Ronda, Besalú, or Cudillero, to name just a few, but nor did a lot of places in Spain. In Cebolla’s case, other than its curious name, there is very little that would lure a visitor in from a strictly touristic point-of-view. It doesn’t take a seasoned traveler to reach this conclusion; the locals themselves will tell you the same. “Pero no hay nada aquí!”
But in the end, that is exactly why I am inextricably drawn to them. I have a soft spot for them. Their plainness, their ordinariness, their thrill-less, frill-less world. Their quiet desperation. Small town life. It is what most places in Spain tend to be like. It’s what most places in the world tend to be like. Everyday worlds. Everyday living. Towns like Cebolla have managed to survive every major period in Spain’s history since the days the Emperor Hadrian –who happened to be from Spain, I’ll have you know. Didn’t that fact in itself make them deserving of our greatest respect and admiration? Well, that depended mainly on the weather.
“I don’t know.” I pondered for a second. “Naw. It’s too hot. I think we should hang out.”
“Come on!” urged Laura. “It’ll be fun.”
“Honey, your understanding of what defines entertainment never ceases to amaze me. I don’t get a kick out of heatstroke.”
“And your ability to sit on your butt for extended periods of time never ceases to amaze science. I thought you loved the Deep Spain?”
“I do, but not in the deep heat.”
She took my beer away and poured it down the sink. “We’re going. It’s decided.” Well, that battle was lost.
“I don’t want to cause a rift,” intervened Fernando. “You can take it out to the pillory, if you’d like.” The pillory, or picota, as it is known in Spanish, was a large stone column usually placed in the center of town to exhibit punished individuals and, in passing, give the locals a taste of just what the full force of the law is capable of doing when it put its mind to it. In other words, in addition to showing off dangling bodies and rotting limbs, it also served as a deterrent for future crimes. Saying you had a pillory in your town was a major status symbol statement. That also may explain its phallic shape. Nowadays your town can do the same by opening a high-profile museum or hosting a tennis tournament, but back then, owning a granite post for public sanctioning did the talking.
As one of the few surviving historic monuments adorning the town, the elders have gone to great lengths to preserve it. They just can’t think of the ideal place to put it, so it gets moved around every now and again. Currently it’s located on the side of one of the roads that lead out of town, where no one will ever notice it again. Someone, I tell you, needs to get into the tourist board and shake things up a bit.
Anyhow, despite Fernando’s suggestion, I figured the dispute could be settled peacefully at home, so I replied.
“Not necessary. I guess we can go around and catch up on the latest.”
“There’s no such thing as the latest here,” chuckled Victoria. “But you go ahead. I have to stop in my niece’s house; don’t worry, dinner is ready, so when you come back, we can eat.” True to the standards of most Spanish mothers, the meal had been prepared hours in advance and was on standby for consumption at the snap of a finger.
We walked out the door and looked around. Life began to stir in the pretty main square. Young kids gathered, hung out, hovered over smartphones, joshed and giggled. The youngest ones booted around a soccer ball, using the low wall that formed the periphery of the square as the boundaries of the pitch. The older ones shared Instagram pictures and videos and remarked on whatever was going on in their world. An older couple melded into a bench and quietly observed. Three retired couples had picked up a game of petanca (bocce ball) on the other side. The town was emerging and gearing up for the night, the same way every town in Spain was doing at that very moment.
“You see that?” Fernando pointed to the damaged street sign high up on the wall in front of us. “What do you think of that?”
“Vandalism,” I replied.
“Nope. That’s history in the making. And it happened today. On this very day.” He went on to tell us about the now infamous Battle of the Law of the Historic Memory and the fall of one of the last symbols of Francoism in a tiny, forgotten street of La Mancha. He provided some details about the skirmish that morning between David and the workers, though doubtfully with the same intensity as the events themselves transpired. When he finished recounting the tale, he summed up with a “Now, don’t tell me nothing happens here.”
“But you’re the one who always says that!”
“But now we know I’m wrong!”
“You’ve got me there,” I conceded. “Maybe I’ll take a picture of it. I’ll probably just delete it in a few weeks, but what the hell.”
“Let’s take a selfie,” suggested Laura, revealing one of her favorite hobbies.
“You want to take a selfie of a broken street sign?” I asked.
“Of course. It says we were here at a historic moment in this town.”
“It says that we’re bored out of our minds, that’s what it says.”
“She has a point,” said Fernando. “This doesn’t happen often.”
“Well, damn,” I cried out. “Now that we’re at it, why don’t we do a boomerang, or whatever they call it.”
“Honey, you don’t take boomerangs of things that aren’t moving.” She looked at Fernando then back at me with pity. I sensed that would be on the receiving end of that gaze as I get older. “He wants to be with the times but he gets confused about these things.”
“I’m very much on top of what’s in!” I protested. “I have a Google Drive cloud account and everything.”
“If you want, Laura, I can do a surfing pose in front of the sign and sway back and forth. Would that work?” suggested Fernando.
“That would be hysterical!”
“What are you talking about?” I cried. “What does that have to do with the Franco period?”
“It’s conceptual art, my friend. It has nothing to do with it. You decide what it means.”
“Listen,” I balked. “We’ve taken just two steps from the house and I’m ready to go home. There’s a six of beer in the fridge.”
They weren’t listening. Instead they were scrutinizing the picture and laughing with approval. “I have to post it,” said Laura.
“Sounds great!” I agreed impatiently. “Now, can we go? I don’t want to miss anymore historic moments in this town. Apparently, they are a dime a dozen.”
“Lead the way, sir. Lead the way!” He bowed.
“It’s your town. You lead the way.”
We took a left at the corner and headed up the street towards where the church was. The road has earned a degree of fame locally for its steepness, and I can personally assure its veracity. As you climb, there is a sense that you are performing severe penitence before mass. “Fernando, you don’t happen to have a cross,” I asked as I panted. “Just so I can get the full Calvary effect.”
“Nope. But if you want to carry me, I wouldn’t mind.”
Half way, I paused to catch my breath and take a look around. My chest heaved as I looked down the hill to admire the distance we had progressed. At least 150 feet.
It was at that very point that my eyes fell upon a message scrawled on the wall of a house to our right.
“Now, take a look at that.” I was very pleased by my discovery.
I’m a sucker for graffiti. I really am. I get a real kick out of wandering through the streets, especially the towns and villages of this country, and checking out what is going down on the murals and shop shutters. And not just the work of some local Banksy, but rather the everyday Juan García, normal kid, scribbling thoughts with poor penmanship and shaky spelling. They tell us a lot. These used to be local social networks of yesteryear, the ones that shared information before the days of internet. They may not have the impact they used to, but their presence persists. They’re probably the work of mostly young males, posting their opinions on the walls and roll-up shutters on the storefronts. Some want to rebel, others decry injustice; some demand passion, others bemoan unrequited love; some call a neighbor out for screwing them over, others simply engage in primitive trolling; then there are the artists, the creative ones who just can’t seem to find a canvass big enough or a gallery spacious enough to harbor their visualized emotions. All of them live out a longing to be anonymous and visible at the same time.
They can be poetic and creative, but also just plain base. Crude. Short and to the point. Lacking finesse. But it’s their brevity, their terseness, their stark honesty that enthuse me. They are urban haikus. Rural epithets.
I remember one day walking at the edge of a town in the province of Madrid, along an ancient wall separating me and a stunningly beautiful field of wild flowers and shivering white poplar trees with the proud Carpetano Mountains in the background. My eyes suddenly zeroed in on a harsh metal lamppost and spotted a word painted on it. Dried streams of paint slid down the tips of the letters. The paint was not designed for that surface. But there it was in all its glory: “Puta”. A word as isolated as an atoll. Incredible. “Puta” has a whole array of meanings. From “Bitch”, and “Whore” to even an exuberant “Awesome!” or an exasperated “Fuck!” It’s such a versatile word that it’s hard to judge from the context just what the author meant. That’s what good poetry is all about.
As I caught my breath I read this new piece of literature to add to my collection. It was a real jewel:
Mi mejor amiga Lucía
(My best friend, Lucía)
That was the original text, at least. But it wasn’t exactly how it was worded anymore. More recent corrections had been made.
mejor amiga guarra Lucía
best slutty friend Lucía)
Clearly there had been developments in the relationship between the author and subject from the original draft to the revised one. The change of heart not only added depth to the text, it raised a number of questions. Just why, for example, “amiga” was kept in but “Lucía” crossed out is a mystery whose answer I don’t have. Intriguing. Who wouldn’t find this tiny bit of street poetry worthy of a few minutes of observation and analysis?
The migrant dilemma continues to be one of Spain’s, and Europe’s, greatest humanitarian challenges. The “Open Arms” crisis is just the latest episode in a long history of confusion and frustration (on occasion tragedy) set amid glimmers of hope for a better life.
Just what was shaking down in Cebolla all this time? This is never an easy matter to tackle for most small towns in La Mancha because, first of all, not all of them existed yet, and those that did, apparently kept few records of life there. The scant information represents a major obstacle for anyone trying to dig up some interesting facts about these places. It’s often necessary to latch onto a sole fact or resort to speculation based on general knowledge of the times and land.
One thing we know is that locals eventually abandoned the former Roman and Visigoth village of Los Merillos. The reasons are unclear, but the predictable problems of inhabiting a low-lying town next to a slow-moving river in a hot region seemed to be behind the decision; i.e. flooding, pesky mosquitos and, with them, malaria. Higher ground was a more sensible and healthier idea in many ways. It also made them less vulnerable to attack.
In 1184, Cebolla gets mentioned for the first time in writing. Hooray. Finally a little recognition. It was known as an alquería back then. Nowadays, alquería (also from the Arabic) refers to a typical farmhouse in the region of Valencia, but before the 15th century, it also denoted a group of small rural communities. In this case, there were several quite close to each other: La Aldehuela, Villalba, Sanchón and Casas de Cebolla. They would eventually meld together and became one. The first settlers were said to be a mix of Arabs, Jews, Mozarabes (residents of Hispano-Visigoth descent), Leonese, Castilians and Navarrese.
By 1252, most of the Islamic invaders’ possessions in Spain had been reduced to a minor kingdom in Granada. The knights of the Order of Calatrava handed the castle over to the legendary Order of the Knights Temple, who took up residence there until they disbanded.
In 1477, Cebolla earned the title “Villa”, which many readers may associate with their holiday Airbnb, but in those days was a designation of genuine honor. Only the highest authority could award a municipality with this distinction. Bonuses included special jurisdiction rights and commercial privileges, such as hosting their own market fair, the creation of governmental officials – known as regidores – and the authority to administer justice; in other words, lay down the law. In the Middle Ages, that was a big deal. The crown that tops the town seal is allowed to be there thanks to this distinctive status.
Twenty-five years later in 1502, the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella (of Columbus fame) made what would come to be their farewell tour of the kingdom. Leaving Sevilla in February, they took the royal road through Guadalupe in the province of Caceres, and turned northeast towards their final destination, Toledo. There they would meet and stay with their daughter, Juana, who would go on to be dubbed “the Mad”, and son-in-law, Felipe the Handsome, before the young couple moved back to Brussels. The entourage stopped in Cebolla on April 19 and spent at least one night in the now broken-down palace next door to the Ruiz house. It was the town’s “Washington-slept-here” moment.
Little is known about the Cebolla for the following centuries, but it continued to have brushes with history; though not always pleasant ones. In 1809, Napoleon’s troops (though not Napoleon himself) dropped by in preparation for a battle against the Duke of Wellington and nearly razed the town to the ground. It is also assumed that many of the documents associated with Cebolla went up in flames as a result, which possibly explains the dearth of historical papers. The ruins apparently remained for decades and, in some cases, generations.
The Duke, known at the time as a more mundane Arthur Wellesley, also mentions Cebolla in one of his letters, informing of a visit the brash Spanish general and allied commander, Gregorio de la Cuesta, made to the town in hot pursuit of the French. Cuesta tended to be in hot pursuit of all his enemies, regardless of the reasonableness of his actions, but this time he found no one and departed the next day. It is even possible the future Duke himself passed through, but that has not been confirmed.
The Battle of Talavera took place a few days later on July 27. It was a hard-fought, sweltering late-summer clash. Once again, leaders failed to take the adverse climate into account before engaging in these kinds of operations. The standoff lasted just one day, with the British and Spanish forces repelling repeated assaults by the French. What appeared to end essentially in stalemate actually spelled victory for Wellesley’s side, as the French soon backed off and retreated towards Madrid. Wellesley did not chase the opposing force down, preferring instead to return to Portugal for fear of overextending his supply lines, which were essentially inexistent by then. He accused Cuesta of not affording the provisions he claims he was told the Spaniard would give him and departed, leaving behind some 1,500 wounded British soldiers in the care of the Spanish. Rumor has it Cuesta let him down in this task too, a show of negligence that infuriated the British to no end. Wellesley seems to overlook the fact that he was the one who abandoned his sick and injured in the first place and placed the burden on the Spanish. Oh, well, let’s not go there.
Anyway, as a result of the triumphant day, Wellesley’s rank was upgraded to the noble rank of peerage under the title “Viscount of Wellington”. Later success would promote him further to Duke. So it was but a stone’s throw from Cebolla that one of History’s greatest military minds earned his now timeless name for the first time. Not bad. Not bad, at all.
Cebolla must have endured many years of hardship as it tried to get back on its feet after the trudging it took from the French. By years, I mean decades. Such was the setback that knowing just what life was like at that stage seemed a product of a lot of generous guesswork. The legendary Madoz Dictionary, however, published in 1845, provided extensive and comprehensive information on essentially every community in the country at the time. Just what we needed. It is here that we can come upon some insight as to what a visitor might have found in the middle of the 19th century:
Located between two hills which slope down to the valley below; the climate is mild though a touch humid due to the abundant water around (this is still the case). It has 400 houses, a town hall, where the jail is located, a palace owned by the Duke and Dutchess of Frías, and inn, a shelter for the poor and other vagrants. This used to be a hospital. There is also a well-equipped drugstore; 2 schools with about 80 pupils in each; a church called San Cipriano with a chapel honoring the Christ of Health. It used to belong to the castle. There are also two fountains for the residents to use and a stream that runs through the center of town. Many of the homes were destroyed by the French during the Peninsular War and many are still in ruins. The Frías family owns a large olive grove and a poplar wood, as well as a spring with excellent water. There is a castle known as Villalba which stands up on a treeless hill overlooking the valley and the town of Malpica nearby. It used to belong to the Knights of the Templar. The surrounding lands are plush with groves and fertile farmland which take on a magnificent and delectable appearance in the spring. There is also a fountain dedicated to San Illán whose waters are said to possess healing powers for certain illnesses. The hermitage next to it also honors the Virgin of the Antigua, the patron of the town. The soil is for the most part sandy, but also clayey. Mail is sent to the town post office. The roads are in average condition. Products from the town are: exquisite wine (golden color) and highly regarded, olive oil, grains, seeds and fruit; there are some sheep for wool and small game is raised. As for industry: 1 flour mill, 8 olive oil mills. Adult male population: 400. The rest: 1,400. Annual budget: 14,000 reales, of which, 3,500 went to pay for the town secretary (clerk?), and 7,000 for the local doctor.
Well, I’ll be damned. A lot of what’s there is familiar to me. Not all. The golden wine which was so greatly admired is no longer produced there. Red can be found, but a little further away. Fruit is mentioned, but not figs, so it probably didn’t stand out for it. The jail has been done away with, too. And the stream…well, we’ll get to that in good time. But you get the sense that what Madoz mentioned in 1850 is not far off the way life existed there for quite some time.
After that, Cebolla quite probably underwent another extended period of languishing in anonymity, surviving on its agriculture and the quiet existence that embodies life in any small town. It continued to grow, incorporating a nearby village, La Mañosa. The two keys on the seal represent the bond between these two communities. La Mañosa eventually became a ghost town. The only active vestige is the church dedicated to San Blas. His feast day is February 3, and on that day people make a procession up there and have a celebration with bonfires and everything.
Other than that, progress was slow, excruciatingly passive. Much of the society in those parts was entrenched in caciquismo, the great blight of rural Spain at the time. Large landowners controlled the properties, the economy and local politics, thereby ensuring they always came out on top. By the end of the century, however, with the rise of the working class movements, tensions increased as more and more individuals denounced these abuses. Conflict soon led to outright violence.
News of Cebolla from those years suggests that the town was anything but removed from these tense and abusive times. At the turn of the century, several periodicals called it out for improper management of government and misappropriations of public funds. One paper singled out the town for “existing in a state of utter abandonment, where the repeated complaints by the residents go unattended, unprotected…where not a soul, if only out of compassion, bothers to provide peace and tranquility.” Attempts to turn that around were met with resistance.
On April 7, 1903, four days before the local elections, the former mayor of the town, Escolastico Resino, was gunned down at the train station near Illán de Vacas as he waited for an official from the Provincial Government of Toledo to arrive and supervise the vote so that all went smoothly. You could say the purpose of the visit was off to a bad start. The perpetrator, Salomon Figueras (his surname appropriately translates as “Fig Trees”), had not acted as a lone wolf, but upon request by a political foe. Exactly who, has never been discovered. Figueras got the death penalty, but it was commuted to life imprisonment four years later by King Alfonso XIII, a monarch who, along with his wife Victoria Eugenia, was no stranger to terrorist acts himself. Just a year before, in 1906, the couple had been nearly blown to smithereens in Madrid by an anarchist on the very day of their wedding. They were parading through the streets from the church to the palace when the bomb went off. The artifact was hidden in a bouquet of flowers and tossed from a second-story window on the Calle Mayor, but on its way down it bounced off the streetcar cables and strayed from its intended target. 25 bystanders and soldiers were killed, and over a hundred injured. Blood from nearby victims was said to have splattered on Victoria’s bridal gown.
These were turbulent times, indeed. Spain had just given up its final colonies in America to the United States in 1898. The Spanish-American war, or the “Disaster”, as the Spanish acerbically and accurately describe it, spawned the great literary movement, La Generación del 98, commandeered by writers and poets who wept for the Spain they had lost and despondently criticized the Spain they saw around them. Nationalism was on the rise, too. And once again, there was Cebolla; suffering just as much as the rest, if not more. A 2,000-year-old town familiar with the trials and tribulations of survival. It was a tough time for both the town and the country. It wouldn’t be the last for either.
Pamplona is not the only place in Spain where you can see the running of the bulls. In summer, bulls are chasing brave and crazy people all over Spain! Find out a little more about the the San Fermin fiestas and some other “encierros” on this Spain Domain podcast. Enjoy!