As we road down the main road where we were greeted by images of Che Guevara and a welcome sign that read, ‘MARINALEDA, EN LUCHA POR LA PAZ (MARINALEDA, FIGHTING FOR PEACE), we instinctively stopped to ask two guys that were speaking casually in front of a house where we could park our camper. I am not exaggerating when I say that both of them looked at us as we were from the moon… ‘Cualquier lugar libre’ (‘Any free spot’), one of them answered with a semi-toothless smirk. ‘OF COURSE, ANYWHERE!’, we repeated like parrots (from the moon!)… we weren’t in the big city anymore. There were no parking meters, private, parking lots or blue lines anywhere!
We would soon discover that Marinaleda, a once normal, tiny town was transformed into a socialist dream by its population who occupied the land (about 1700 hectars) that belonged to a Duke (Duca de Infantado) in the early 80’s… with strong ideals which emphasized equality above everything else, it was transformed into an utopia where people can live simply and simply live. After only 15 minutes, we were literally picked up on the street by a car passing by. Pepe, the driver, asked me where I was from in a broken, but impressive English. After telling him that we were from Italy and that my husband was a writer he immediately expressed how eager he would be to show us the new, residential section of town (I think he would have been just as eager even if we were travelling salesmen). As he drove past a dozen or so blocks, he spoke about Marinaleda:
The houses in Marinaleda are self built and cost between 15 and 20 euros a month. The materials to build the homes are supplied by the local government. Over 80% of the population works for the towns’ cooperatives which produce mainly extra vergin olive oil and other agricultural produce. Everyone, no matter what their role, earns 47 euro a day; more than enough considering that the taxes and insurance costs are kept intentionally low.
At Marinaleda, the cost of food is extremely economic, and so are all services. The few, privately owned businesses are considered a service for the benefit of the entire town, and therefore not opened or run with the purpose of making a fortune for the owner. There are 2 small supermarkets and a handful of pulperia (small grocery stores), 1 pharmacy, 2 banks, a driving school, a mechanic, a hair salon, a post office, a small, health clinic, and a doctor’s office. There is an elementary, middle and high school, a beautiful park with a playground and an exercise circuit, and a large, public sports complex with pool, gym, tennis courts and a soccer field. There are more than a dozen cafes/bakeries and many restaurant/pubs where you can sit down and be served a capuccino + a crossiant, or a liter of beer for only 1 euro (about a dollar and 25 cents). In this town, you can buy a large loaf of freshly baked bread for 50 cents, and organic, extra-vergin olive oil for a mere 4 euro per liter. There is no hotel, no B&B. No souvenir shop. There are no advertisements on the road. My favorite ‘ad’ is written on a stone wall on the main road: ‘Turn off your TV, turn on your mind’! There is no crime. There is no police. There is zero unemployment. The divorce rate is also close to zero. There are no homeless people, no beggars on the street, no traffic, no lights, no rushing, no stress.
The people who live here have modern cars and modern clothes (although there is no car dealer or clothing store in town). They also have smartphones which they use only when necessary. NO SELFIE ADDICTS HERE! Unlike in almost every other place that we have visited, people are not touching and swiping all day long. Not even the teens. People meet in the park, in the cafès and pubs, on the street, and they actually talk… they also play cards, darts, pool and other games in the many public meeting centers around town… PEOPLE HAVE TIME!
Sounds a little like heaven, doesn’t it?…
ALMOST A WEEK LATER…
Nobody seemed to notice. Nobody seemed to care. They were invisible… except to us. We had just spent 5 days at Marinaleda where justice ruled and were now smack in the center of Seville, a place that I had dreamed of visiting for years, a place people have raved to me about, a place that I have seen in travel magazines -represented by gorgeous photos of flamenco dancers, arabic-inspired squares, tapas bars filled with beautiful people having fun – over and over again…
And yet, street after street, there they were… some with their entire lives spread out before them and others, with everything neatly packed up in a small cart or wagon. Some were alone, others with a dog or two, others still with an instrument as they strummed out their sorrows in a song. Some had signs, others just hats where you could throw your spare change. ‘Please help me raise some money to buy myself a villa on the beach and a Ferrari, one sign spiritly read.
I approached Plaza de Spagna in complete awe. It was everything the magazines claimed it to be… simply magnificent. Like all the other tourists, I snapped one photo after another. The color, the dimension, the energy. It was travel magazine picture perfect… if you didn’t bother to see them… square after square, street after street my daughters stopped to smile, look into the eyes of the homeless and the nameless, and drop their coins.
‘I miss Marinaleda’, Havana said after just a half a day of roaming around the romantic, history-packed city. ‘This place is really beautiful, but there are so many poor people. At Marinaleda there wasn’t even one! Why does the city have to be so sad?’
She wasn’t aware of what wise thoughts her young mind held. To most, this too would have remained invisible.
How could I explain this unfair reality to a 10 year old when I, after so many years, still couldn’t explain it to myself?
Journal Entry, June 5, 2015, Newark Port Authority, 5:45am
Our flight came in after midnight. Instead of asking my parents to schlep to the airport in the middle of the night, we decided to stay there until the morning. We were headed to Ithaca and would catch a Greyhound the next day. Early morning, Andrea, I, and our daughters were at Newark Port Authority. Even though I was born and bred in NYC, where at one time nothing could have shocked me, after over 20 years abroad I was no longer prepared for what I saw once we passed through the heavy entrance doors. Lines of wooden benches with homeless people still tucked in from the night, abruptly awaken by the sticks of several cops on duty, merely doing their jobs. One by one, they packed up their ‘tents’ and went on their way, forced out of their nighttime abode to a brutally cold wind that howled fiercely from behind the high, glass windows. My family and I moved slowly towards the scene. There were drunks and disabled, old and young, black and white. Some left with dignity, others fought until the very last threat. I saw the eyes of my daughters open wide as they counted as an elderly woman loaded down 16 packets of sugar (her breakfast) before she limped off, carefully fixing her hair and buttoning up her ragged overcoat as she walked out the doors. I just sat there and quietly weeped from within. Kenia wiped a tear from my cheek. Never in all my travels – north, south, east or west – had I remembered seeing such sadness, such hopelessness, such poverty.
Why did I never see all this when I lived here? How could I be so utterly insensitive and blind?
The city is a lonely place, and the type of poverty it produces is like no other poverty in the world. My daughters just finished school in Costa Rica where they were friends with children that lived in wood sheds, that had broken shoes, very few possessions, and some even horrific family conditions, but this was entirely different. This poverty had a different name. This poverty is called Injustice and Indifference and most of all LONELINESS. Rich and poor, co-existing back to back. Men and women, children… trying to survive their poverty as they observe too much richness, and everyone else forced to become completely immune to survive the sight of too much poverty.
So there we were, the four of us, in Seville, a city that was all that everyone said it would be, all that I had imagined, including the real side… the poverty, certainly not its best side… the side that the travel magazines don’t photograph and deliberately leave out.
While other tourists were grabbing their forks and smartphones, we were grabbing for the sense of it all.
‘I have some change’, said Kenia after our daily max had run out. ‘We can’t give to them all,’ I reluctantly answered. ‘No, but I still have the money that Nonna gave me’, she answered. ‘Look at that man over there, Dad, he only has one leg. Kenia went over and dropped 50 cents in his cup. When she came back she said, ‘I can tell that he felt good about someone acknowleding him, especially when I said Hola and smiled.’
‘You know, you are completely right’, Andrea said to her. Every little thing you do makes a difference. Remember Ernesto in the movie ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’? He couldn’t look away either.’
How could I not let her continue giving? Sure, our little money wouldn’t make a difference in the world. It couldn’t possibly change the existence of the man with one leg, or the woman with no arms… of the guy with the spirited sign. We weren’t in Marinaleda. Injustice is the global reality. There seems to be no cure.
All day long, as we played tourists, I couldn’t help thinking about my daughters’ words. We walked around the city for hours that day. There was the bright sun and the colorful markets and the flamenco performers. There were talented street artists and one massive piece of history after another… and then, there were the men and women that nobody saw… people snapped photos on horse driven carriages, they sat outside of Starbucks and sipped their overpriced, gourmet drinks, they held shopping bags from Zara and Oshyo…
and, I observed the indifference, including my own, as I thought, How could I justify spending 3 and a half euro for soy cappuccino or almost 6 euro for 3 scoops of ice cream on a cone…10 or 15 euro for a useless souvenir that will collect dust back at home, when there are so many people that have nothing at all? It would be easier to look away, become once again immune, or would it be? Obviously, we won’t be able to change the world, but in the end, either will our indifference.
As my daughters stopped to drop the last pennies of the day, I wondered, How much is a smile worth to a person that is homeless and nameless to the entire world? And even more, how much is the smile and the ‘Thank you’ received in exchange worth to my daughters?
Before closing my eyes that night, my thoughts went back to Marinaleda, my daughters’ impression of a place with no poverty… I thought of the words of the town’s mayor, a modest man who has been fighting for peace and justice for the past 35 years:
‘The bigger the city, the smaller the heart. The bigger the heart, the smaller our world’, he said looking intensely into my husband’s eyes when he interviewed him one afternoon.
No one is worth more than anyone else. No one is worth less. This is what I want to teach my daughters because this, whether it makes a difference or not, is the only possible way to cure a broken, global heart.
Sending these words to reflect on and all our love from a less beaten track,