Camp “Dignidad” (Dignity) is home to 19 of the more than 800 homeless people that live in Seville; evicted from their homes, jobless, foreign or sick. amongst them, there is also a poet, Manuel.
IF YOU WALKED PASS CALLE TORNEO this spring-like November, it is possible that an orderly and quaint camp, situated to the right of the Plaza de Armas bus station, has caught your eye. It is also possible that, while you curiously observed, a gentleman with a full white beard, asked you:
–Do you like poetry?
If you told him no, he would have likely responded by saying, “Then, let me wish you well.”
But if you said yes and stuck around for a bit, you would have hear the same story that I learnt.
On September 17th, 2015, a group of homeless people decided to establish a camp in Seville, calling it “Campamento Dignidad”(“Dignity Camp.”) Their intention was to give voice to the homeless population sleeping in the city streets this fall; the evicted, the jobless, the foreign and the sick… Some arrived at the camp by chance, some simply decided to give it a try in hopes of being a part of a family. Now, they all share this small town of tents because together, they say, they can make their existence more palpable.
The first thing you see when you arrive is the abundance of banners that hang above the tents; “RIGHT TO A DIGNIFIED PLACE OF LIVING,” following article 47 of the Spanish Constitution: «All Spaniards are entitled to enjoy decent and adequate housing. The public authorities shall promote the necessary conditions and shall establish appropriate standards in order to make this right effective (…).»
Calle Torneo, November 2015. The sound of motors and car horns is their alarm in the mornings, the traffic lights their nightlights, the shrubbery their bathroom, and the tents their bedroom, closet and living room. Pedestrians become visitors, onlookers and witnesses to the lives in the camp.
In the mornings, most of those who live there roam the streets of Seville looking for their daily bread or in search for something to simply do. Others remain in their small portion of the communal home, plastered to the sidewalk of the avenue that runs parallel to the river Guadalquivir.
Manolito-Manue, as he calls himself, or according to his national ID, Manuel Ruiza Capado, was born in Huelva in 1958. Like many of the members of the “Campamento Dignidad,” he had a happy childhood, a family, a job and dreams.
Manuel the poet, the name given to him by his many young visitors, left his teaching degree when he was 20. He then became a husband and father, combining his work as watchman at the hospital in Rio Tinto by day, with his real calling, being a poet, by night.
In his early years, he lived in Nerva, where he felt happy and integrated with the other kids, despite the disability that to this date he suffers in his legs, caused by a poliomyelitis that he contracted when he was eight months-old. He divorced his wife, “La Mari,” in 2000 and went to live with his mother in Valverde del Camino. He retired early, in 2008, because by then his disability had reached 68% of his capacity.
Two years ago, his mother having died a few years before, his house was declared unsafe after some severe storms hit the town in November of 2013. Manuel then came to Seville, where he started to live on the street. He is entitled to a monthly pension of 1,100 euros, but only receives 500 until he pays off the debt that, according a court ruling, he owes Mari after the divorce. “I could be at a shelter, but I want to be free,” he claims. “If you follow the rules you can stay there, but I am a free soul. I wouldn’t trade my liberty for a bed.”
Today, Manuel is just a poet. “Do you want to hear my poems?” he asks the passersby. “Lets go to my office,” he says, guiding his new audience to find a seat on the cement wall behind the C4 bus stop.
Manuel, or Ruiza, as some call him, moved through various shelters in Seville, such as the Municipal Sheltering Center or the Miguel de Mañara, where he successfully created a poetry workshop that lasted close to 4 months. Manuel is at home when he recites his poems. His tenor voice captivates any listener. He talks slowly and with a hint of nostalgia, frequently reciting his autobiographic poem to the young people that sometimes gather around the camp.
“My voice was born from earth and water.
Mud has always been my most trusted confidant,
And now that I am denied even my water,
My soul searches stubbornly to find the humidity in each tear.
I’ve learned to sanctify my cries.
But they’ve also shown me
That smile and laughter give voice to even rocks.
If you want to know my story…
Ask the sea, because it has my skin, my soul and my substance.
If the sea, great professional and loyal achiever,
Is occupied with other things and cannot respond,
Look to the wind, because since the first day of Genesis,
The wind joined the sea in its perfection,
And it has remained faithful.
If the wind also does not respond,
Then shout to me because I will be dying.”
Manuel re-lights the cigarette in his hand. When there is poetry, there is no room for anything else, even though he lives amidst the dust and smells of the camp. “Not cigarettes, not the cold, not cars, not horns,” he says.
The teenagers leave, and the poet abandons his cement wall office, grabs his crutches and heads toward his tent. It’s the second from the left, narrow and green. He is in possession of two empty soda boxes, stacked by the door, that he uses as support for his legs to enter his tent and rest.
Every night, he looks at the same two pictures that he always shows to strangers during the day; they are of his daughters. In one of them, Virginia, the youngest, long-haired and smiling, holds a glass. The other shows Maria del Mar, the eldest, smiling in a ballroom, wearing a wedding dress and glued to a suited man. “I heard a month ago that my daughter had gotten married. My biggest wish in life is that, one day, my children care to talk to me again.” Both pictures, printed in color, were taken from their Facebook profiles. Manuel explains that a friend brought them to him, and how he cried with joy.
Among his treasures, he also keeps the poems he has written by hand, all of which have the date and place where they were created. Manuel keeps his poems just as Mozart kept his scores, only to prove his authorship, for he knows all of them, as well as many written by others, by heart. “Antonio Machado once wrote: – the man who speaks alone hopes to talk with God one day. My soliloquy is a conversation with this good friend who showed me the secret of philanthropy.”
Manuel recites with the same passion every day, stabbing the audience with his gaze, no matter who they are. He occasionally takes off his hat (a gift from a kind passerby) or touches the leather cord of his necklace (a gift from another).
He has few friends. Jesus, a young man who cares for Manuel and visits him from time to time, is one of them. This afternoon, he has come to calle Torneo.
–Here, you have some oranges, Manue. How are you today? Yesterday I thought of you, so today I came to visit.
–Good afternoon, dear friend–, he says as tears well. –Thank you for coming to see me.
“My wish in the future is to organize all of the poetry I have written in my life, and to keep writing. But first, my objective is to contribute to this fight. We are much more than just this camp, and we are in need.”
Assemblies are frequent at the camp. Large groups of young students sit in circles together with the members of the dwelling, who, motivated by an eagerly listening audience, explain their situation one by one. This warm fall is fostering outdoor gatherings. New visitors arrive, always asking for Manuel, the white-haired poet with calluses on his hands.
–Hello. It’s me. Do you like poetry?
Then, Manuel begins to hum softly his favorite verses. Its only six, but have become a hymn for the inhabitants of the camp, whether they be poets or evictees.
“Us poets are
What we’ve never been and what we’ll never be
But nevertheless, today for today and yesterday for yesterday,
Us poets are
Those who will never surrender.
And who will continue feeding the human spirit.”
We travel through the tunnel of time; Seville, summer of 1977. The Trotanoches radio program receives a call in the late hours of the night. The famous journalist Paco Lobaton answers and welcomes a young 19 year-old who wants to recite one of his own poems. Its Manuel, a habitual caller. The poem is called Elegia a mi infancia. “Go ahead,” says Lobaton.
“Oh…human. So naïve you are!
You can see that being human is a synonym of death
And death can destroy even the child.
There is nothing but the possibility to put the epitaph
On the chest of every man and shout it to the ears of every kid:
Here lies someone alive who dreamt with my death.”