The ‘Casa del Pumarejo’, an 18th century neoclassical monument functioning as a residence for low income families, has been fighting for years to survive against the gentrification of the San Luis neighborhood. Without money to fund a restoration, residents, past and present, must wait, reflecting on its historical significance, the role it has held in the community, and the uncertain journey that lies ahead.
Three women sit crouched in the corner of an entry hall, escaping the weather on a rainy afternoon. One sits quietly and keeps to herself as the other two discuss what has brought them to the front door of La Casa del Pumarejo. The older of the two begins to talk as her younger counterpart paces the room.
“We live in the streets because we don’t have jobs, therefore we have no money to pay the rent for a flat. We are here looking for something to eat.”
A man joins the group from the streets. Carrying his bicycle, he continues on through and enters the patio as the women flood him with questions.
“Is this the kitchen where we can eat without pay?”
“What do you know of this building?”
“Are we allowed to enter?”
“This is a house, but I believe you can eat at the monastery around the corner,” he tells the women, as he points them in the direction of the food kitchen.
Beyond the gate separating the entry hall from the house, an elderly woman looks out from a line of second story windows encircling the patio. Her name is doña Felisa, but within La Casa del Pumarejo she has earned the nickname of La Reina, or “the Queen”. She stands strong, observing the stir that arises below. It is a new day, but the story stays the same. Years of continuous press over this ancient mansion-turned-home have created a cloud of confusion that looms over the building. Visitors are frequent, and the residents are wary of the outsiders and their motives.
The house resides in the Pumarejo Square, in Seville’s old town neighborhood of San Luis, an area well known for its community activism and its involvement as a stomping ground for much of the city’s history, says David Gómez, an active member of the local committee.
“Aside from the churches and convents, the Casa Palacio del Pumarejo is the oldest standing building in the area. This square, which was added post-construction, is the nucleus of communication within the neighborhood,” David says.
When full, it housed 34 families. Now, only three families remain after, just this year, more were forced to leave by the City Council due to ‘safety reasons,’” he explains.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the house will not be destroyed because it belongs to the Municipality and is legally protected as a historical site. But the unanswered questions surrounding its future use (the present urban plan states that it cannot be privatized and must have a public function) leave its residents in a constant state of unrest.
After a night shopping trip, La Reina sits on the bench and lets out a sigh. This time, doña Felisa looks different. She is not standing with the same watchful stance as before in the window. There is exhaustion in her frame and suffering in her eyes.
“It’s just that it has been thirteen years now. Thirteen years of a new person, new reporter every other day, every other week, always asking the same, the same, the same. We came in 1974 and raised our family here. Here, our children were born, grew and married. Here, I still stand today.”
Like La Casa del Pumarejo, doña Felisa has been a constant presence, standing her ground as histories form around her.
Antonio Rubiales’ is the son of one of the three remaining tenants, and he often visits her to have lunch, pass the time, or drop off his bike whenever in the neighborhood.
“It has been two years since I have lived in the house, but it was my home for 30 years starting at age eight, my whole life,” he says.
“Growing up in the Pumarejo was a different experience. It isn’t just any plaza. The 80’s were very hard times here, actually in the whole barrio. Going to school, people would ask me, ‘Where do you live?’ and I would tell them Plaza del Pumarejo. Their response was ‘Uy, that is a dangerous area. Where in Pumarejo?’ and I would tell them La Casa del Pumarejo. ‘Uy,’ they would respond again. It was notorious for drug problems, crime. But it wasn’t just like this for me, my family, my siblings; it was this way for whichever person who lived in the neighborhood at the time,” he says.
“We didn’t have drug problems, but people who did were all around us. Candy was sold to the junkies who then used the wrappers to smoke crack, so in turn we never ate candy. Some people would say it was a hard childhood, but I don’t remember a hard childhood, nor do I have a problem with drugs nor do any of my friends. It was an experience I wouldn’t change, because it made you mature at a younger age, but not in a bad way,” he says. “It was very fun. If you see the house now, it’s not the same as it used to be. It is so calm, quiet. It is another world, another world entirely. There were many kids around growing up, lots of us.”
Antonio begins to count aloud, looking up as he searches his brain to recall the whole group.
searches his brain to recall the whole group. “We were six, more or less the same age,” he says. “We would kick around the ball, play baseball, ride bikes in the patio—it was a little crazy. There were many neighbors, and it was a completely different time back then. When someone would have a birthday, we all celebrated together. First communions were also always celebrated in the patio.”
The joyful smile Antonio wore while remembering the stories of his childhood gradually slips away.
“Now, the house doesn’t have life. I mean, it does, but not in the same way. Now it has life thanks to the community center, La Casa del Pumarejo Association, and all of the other organizations here. It is getting better with the help of these people, but for many years it was
really sad around here.”
“What has happened to the house is totally normal: people grow up, they marry,” Antonio continues. “But the problem remains that new families aren’t coming in to fill the spaces that the old families left. Now people look at the house as problematic, because it is expensive to maintain and needs renovations. Maintenance costs money, and no one is willing to pay.”
The City Council proposed a budget of 5.6 million euros for integral rehabilitation of the old palace in 2007, but no action has been taken. Now the local government says that the money is not available with the looming economic crisis. To this day, only partial, superficial fixes have been done to the home in order to prevent it from collapsing.
The municipality’s plan is to devote the top floor of house to people who live under precarious conditions, for example if their homes are in danger of falling in or if they have been evicted for failing to pay the rent. There will be 22 apartments if the plan ever comes to fruition, but first the City Council must make the repairs and renovations that the house so badly needs.
“I don’t know what the future holds, but it makes me scared”, says Antonio. “If they end up closing it, or if my mother has to leave, it would be hard. It would be more than just the normal trauma that one feels of growing up, of leaving their parents. Because it is a very special house, it’s aesthetically beautiful, it has life within, it has a rich past full of memories. But it’s also special for the collective efforts that have been put into the fight, everyone working together for the same end: to save an amazing house that I have had the great luck of living in for 30 years.”