Inside Spain’s Utopia
Is a communist village in Andalusia where most villagers work for a cooperative really as utopian as it seems?
Marinaleda, Spain – At first sight, Marinaleda appears to be a typical Andalusian village with white-washed houses and streets that do not come alive until after the sun goes down.
But if you look closely enough, there are signs that things are different in this small town of 2,700 inhabitants: there is the portrait of Che Guevara that adorns its sports centre and the notable absence of commercial billboards.
Marinaleda has been governed by Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, its self-declared communist mayor, for more than 35 years. And while the unemployment rate in the rest of Andalusia is 29 percent, it barely touches five percent here.
The majority of Marinaleda’s inhabitants work for the village’s agricultural cooperative and earn the same salary – 47 euros (about $54) for a six-and-a-half hour working day. This equates to a monthly salary of 1,200 euros (about $1,370), which might seem low, but it is significantly more than the Spanish minimum wage of 764 euros a month (about $870).
Life in the village is also much cheaper than in the rest of the region. For 15 euros a month, inhabitants can pay off their mortgage. The same price gets them membership of the sports centre, or a kindergarten place for their child. The local government provides three free school meals a day. As a result, even the small number of unemployed inhabitants are able to make ends meet with the 400 euro jobseeker’s allowance provided by the Andalusian government.
The secret of Marinaleda
Marinaleda’s “secret” lies in the 1,200 hectares of land just outside the village.
A message written on the wall of an old farmhouse sheds light on the village’s history and ethos. “This land belongs to all the unemployed labourers of Marinaleda,” it declares.
Twenty-five years ago, the El Humoso farmhouse and its estate belonged to a wealthy landowner, who left the land uncultivated for most of the year while more than 60 percent of Marinaleda’s inhabitants were unemployed and living in extreme poverty.
Then, in 1979, after being elected mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo started campaigning for land reforms to benefit Marinaleda’s unemployed and landless labourers. Twelve years of strikes, during which villagers would occupy the land surrounding Marinaleda, followed.
In 1991, the regional government finally awarded the farm and its 1,200 hectares of land to the village. The village’s agricultural cooperative was established soon after.
The cooperative aimed to grow those crops that required the greatest amount of labour, such as red peppers, paprika and artichokes, so as to create as many jobs as possible.
A few years later, Marinaleda built its first processing factory, to can and jar the cooperative’s produce.
For the past 24 years, the farm and the factory have provided employment to Marinaleda’s inhabitants, while all of the cooperative’s profits are invested in the creation of new jobs. The village’s mayor and members of the local council work voluntarily at the cooperative but have other jobs through which they earn a wage. For many years, the mayor worked as a history teacher at the local high school.
‘What else could I wish for?’
The factory, adorned with huge paintings of a pepper, a chili and an artichoke, is located on the edge of the village.
Inside, around 30 women wearing mint green vests are lined up along a conveyor belt, de-stemming peppers one by one.
Among them is 48-year-old Asencion Torres, who works here each day from 6.00 in the morning until 2.30 in the afternoon. Nowadays, she earns enough money to make ends meet, but as a young girl her family could barely afford to buy food.
“Although my father sometimes did small jobs for the landlord, he barely earned any money,” she says. “We never had enough to eat. Having a job was a real privilege.”
Asencion’s colleague, Isabel Montesinos, 47, has worked at the factory since she was 29, and for that she is grateful. “I am so happy with this job. Before I started at the factory I harvested the crops. That was much tougher,” she says.
Montesinos was also one of the first of Marinaleda’s inhabitants to receive a house from the government. Now, there are 250 government-owned houses in the village.
The government provides or pays for the building materials so that the members of the cooperative can build their own house. But while they build them themselves – often with the help of other cooperative members – and pay a mortgage to cover the building costs, the houses are essentially government-owned, and inhabitants aren’t allowed to pay off any more than 15 euros a month. The aim is to prevent property speculation.
And Montesinos says she couldn’t be happier with the situation. “I have my own house and two cars. What else could I wish for?” she asks. “I owe that to the mayor.”
‘We have a better quality of life’
Montesinos isn’t the only one who is grateful. Sanchez Gordillo has governed Marinaleda for more than 35 years and continues to be re-elected with an absolute majority.
Even many younger residents who have not lived through the hardships of the pre-Sanchez Gordillo era seem to be content with the mayor’s policies.
Virginia Sanchez, 32, sits at the bar of one of three cafes in the town. She was born and raised in Marinaleda and says she wouldn’t change it for the world.
“In Marinaleda, we have a better quality of life than people in the rest of Andalusia,” she explains.
Every day, Sanchez works on the Humoso farm from 7.30 in the morning to 3.30 in the afternoon. When asked whether she likes her job, she shrugs her shoulders and answers that it’s fine. “I quit school when I was 16, and I was glad that I could finally start working,” she says.
Maria Jose Bermudez, 21, and Yamira Prieta, 21, are sitting on garden chairs outside the factory, enjoying their 30-minute break. They have worked here since they were 16.
“If you want to complete high school you have to transfer to a school in Estepa, the nearest village,” Prieta explains.
They say they don’t know anyone who finished high school.
‘If you do not work, you do not earn anything’
Indira Garcia, 22, is one of the few in the village who did finish high school. She is now studying food sciences at the University of Granada.
She has returned to Marinaleda for a month to manage the factory’s product control and registration process. Dressed in a lab coat, she makes notes in a log book. She doesn’t mind missing lectures for a month, she says. “I like working in the factory,” Garcia explains.
When asked whether she would like to work in Marinaleda after finishing her degree, she answers hestitantly. “Of course,” she says. But Garcia is ambitious and would like a full-time job in product control. She is unsure if such an opportunity exists in Marinaleda.
And while most of Marinaleda’s inhabitants have a job, they do not necessarily have a 40-hour work week, and Garcia admits that there is often no work between harvests, a period that lasts for around a month. “If you do not work, you do not earn anything and are dependent upon the 400 euro allowance,” she explains.
Without full-time employment, many 20-somethings spend much of their time sitting around outside one of the village’s three cafes. When asked if they shouldn’t be at work, one of them shrugs his shoulders and responds: “Not today.”
They seem to prefer not to talk about it. And they’re not the only ones. When asked her opinion on the mayor’s policies, a waitress in one of the town’s bars replies abruptly: “I prefer to keep out of that.” Two young pharmacy assistants do not want to talk either.
Miguel Gomez, 29, is sitting with friends at the terrace of a bar. He works at his father-in-law’s cattle ranch, but used to be a freelance electrician operating in nearby villages. Then the economic crisis started and he began losing clients. He was eventually forced to find other employment.
Gomez falls silent when asked why he doesn’t work for the cooperative. He eventually admits that he used to. Between the age of 13 and 18, he worked on the farm for free. “Voluntary work is sometimes the only way to secure employment at the cooperative later on in life,” he says, tapping his fingers nervously on the plastic table.
Meeting the mayor
Mayor Sanchez Gordillo lives in one of Marinaleda’s government-owned houses. It is typical of the others, but his is located directly in front of the large, austere-looking town hall.
At 67, the mayor looks a little frail. It is hard to imagine that this is the man who has called the Spanish king a thief in interviews and, in 2012, led members of the Andalusian Workers’ Union in a raid on a supermarket in a nearby village so as to “re-distribute” wealth from the rich to the poor.
While he still fulfils his duties as mayor, he explains that, because of his poor health, he retired from his job as a history teacher two years ago,
From speaking to Marinaleda’s inhabitants, it seems that the mayor was one of the few to enjoy employment beyond the cooperative.
But he paints a different picture. “There are plenty of job opportunities beyond the cooperative, such as teaching at the local high school, but also working at the kindergarten or doing social work,” he says, although he does acknowledge that finding work at the cooperative is easier than finding highly-skilled work in the village.
People can also start their own businesses, he says. At the moment, there are about 20 small companies in Marinaleda, including three cafes, two pharmacies and a bridal shop. Although large franchises are not allowed to establish branches in the village, the mayor says he doesn’t want to stand in the way of entrepreneurship – “as long as their businesses do not become too large”.
He doesn’t explain what “too large” might look like and says he cannot recall how many business licences he has granted in the past couple of years, although he says everyone who applied for one got it.
In a large restaurant just outside the town, 27-year-old Antonio Saavedra is taking orders. He works here for six half days a week and earns 1,100 euros (around $1,258) a month. When he isn’t at the restaurant, he is helping his father at the family’s poultry farm. He says he is happy he doesn’t work at the cooperative.
“Have you seen these guys hanging around the village?” he asks without waiting for an answer. “That is because a 40-hour work week does not exist in Marinaleda. Because the work in the cooperative is divided between all inhabitants, many people do not get more than six days a month.”
Saavedra and his father say they have not been granted the business licence they applied for three years ago. Their poultry farm was built long before Sanchez Gordillo became mayor, but three years ago they decided to open a second business for which they needed his approval. They say they are still waiting.
“The mayor simply does not want inhabitants to undertake any entrepreneurial activity,” says Saavedra.
“If you try to make an appointment, you are being told the mayor is not around. That is the excuse we have been hearing for over three years now.”
Saavedra says that, if he could, he would leave Marinaleda and start his business elsewhere.
“But I cannot do that,” he explains. “My father is ill and I am the only one in the family who still lives here. I have to stay here to take care of him.”
When I return to the restaurant to speak to Saavedra again, the boss says he doesn’t have an employee by that name.
But five minutes later Saavedra walks in. Explaining why he’d given a false name, he says: “If the mayor hears what I told you, he will never give me the licence we have been waiting for for so long.”
He isn’t keen to talk any more, so makes his excuses and returns to work.
‘Revolutionaries and troublemakers’
The owner of a small shop just outside the town explains: “Anyone who says something negative about the mayor or his policies ends up on a blacklist and will not receive any more work from the cooperative. This happened to someone I know.
“The girl openly criticised the mayor. She has now been out of employment for a whole year,” says the shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous.
She says that the few people who continue their education after high school usually move away from Marinaleda. But even they struggle to find a job upon graduating, she adds. “Companies in villages and towns neighbouring Marinaleda are reluctant to hire people from here. You see, inhabitants of this village are stereotyped as revolutionaries and troublemakers. So if you are from Marinaleda, you start your job search with a disadvantage.”
Many of Marinaleda’s buildings – including the town hall, the sports centre and the school – display the town’s slogan: “Marinaleda, a utopia for peace.”
Opinions seem to be mixed on just how true that is.
“Some of my friends from nearby villages envy me for living here,” says villager Virgina Sanchez.
The shop owner who asked not to be named agrees. “People in Marinaleda generally have a better quality of life than many others in the rest of the country,” she says. “That is, as long as you do not criticise the government and aren’t ambitious.”