Madrid’s Shanty-Towns: Cañada Real

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


In large part the absence of drugs may be put down to Evangelical Protestantism, which has made sweeping conversions throughout Madrid's chabolas. One can understand the consolation it provides. Among the prayers and chanting in the makeshift chapel, the pastor declaims noisily. "Even if the government will not give you a house on this earth, the faithful will inherit a palace in heaven."

The shanty-towns sprouted after the Spanish Civil War, when they were made up equally of rural immigrant workers and Gitanos in the final stages of abandoning rural life.


Cañada Real is arguably the most infamous chapter in the story of Madrid's shanty-towns, but there have been others. The shanties are some of the worst of any major western European capital. Known by social workers as 'the fourth world', they are split into 45 pockets where some estimated 2,500 to 3,000 families live. Only recently have they become largely Gypsy enclaves. Initially, when they first sprouted after the Civil War, they were made up equally of rural immigrant workers and Gypsies, then in the final stages of abandoning itinerant life.

Even in 1980, a national government survey found that only 55% of Madrid's chabolistas were Gypsies. By the next census in 1986, that figure had risen to 95% according to the local government consortium set up then to rehouse all 12,000 censused shanty-dwellers within four years.

But a new census, in 1991, found there were still over 8,000 people in the shanty-towns and today that figure may still be rising. In part, a high birthrate - average Gypsy family size in 5.7 - and a steady trickle of new arrivals explain why they have mushroomed.

But the figures also reflect the failure of housing policy to address Gypsy needs. In 1994, the consortium's outgoing director, Julio Fernandez Mato, told the press the main problem was not money but lack of political will. He cited the chabolistas’ lack of a vote and racism as relevant factors. Certainly, none of the men in Valdemingómez who work with non-Gypsies will appear in photographs for fear of being identified.

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