Madrid’s Shanty-Towns: Cañada Real

Big Issue  London, Edinburgh & Dublin, 1997, 1,350 words; extracts
Version de langue française  

I visited Valdemingómez with Manuel Martinez Ramírez of Presencia Gitana, the organization that took up the case of this shanty-town. From that visit came this article. By then the European Commission had begun to investigate. Juan Goytisolo, the novelist, took up the issue, petitions followed and, in 1999, the residents were resettled. The problems in Valdemingómez remain interesting years later because they refigured those to come elsewhere in Europe as economic recession brought pressure upon Gypsy or Roma communities. See update.

At first glance, Cañada Real looks similar to any of Madrid's several dozen shanty-towns: a scattered huddle of shacks, children playing outside in the mud and a few pick-up trucks parked at the entrance next to a plywood and cardboard chapel.

But there are differences.

Each family was given a plot, a few plywood sheets and corrugated roofing, then left to build a shack. They were given no tools and no help with the building work.

One is that the 56 Gypsy families who live here didn't choose it as their home. They were brought here by the city council one May morning in 1994 after watching council workers demolish their previous shanty-homes, up to 35 years old, but standing on land recently sold for development. Five weeks earlier, 15 non-Gypsy families living alongside them had been moved on, but given keys to new council flats. At that time Madrid's conservative (PP) mayor, Álvarez de Manzano promised the Gypsies new homes. For a month their hopes ran high.

Then, at first light one morning, the council's demolition trucks turned up unannounced. A few hours afterwards, the Gypsies were taken in lorries to a treeless field 15 km / 9.3 miles east of Madrid, close to the NIII motorway and just off the Cañada Real, a shepherds’ droving track. On one side, stood a towering heap: the city’s biggest rubbish dump, Valdemingómez. There were no homes, just council workers marking 30-metre plots with white paint on a field. Each family was given a plot, a few plywood sheets and corrugated roofing then left to build a shack. They were given no tools and no help with the building work.


These were the Gypsies’ promised new homes. Today they have doors and window-frames improvised from scrap, but winter weather has damaged the flimsy structures. There are no bathrooms, toilets or running water in them; the 300 residents make do with three communal standpipes and squat in the bare field. Even on a dry winter day, flies buzz around the children. On summer days, the stench can be overpowering. Looking around, you understand why. On one side is a pig farm with a 2,000 square metre / 2,392 square yard urine seepage tank; on the other, 400 metres / 437 yards away, is the rubbish dump with two incinerators designed to deal with the majority of the city's 3,600 tonnes of daily rubbish.

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