This is Lola Rubio Montes’ portrait, a fighter who gives life to calle feria and to her city.
THE NIGHT GROWS DARKER and soaks into our bones.
In Lola’s hoarse and raspy voice, a song by the 70’s rock band from Seville Triana, that could eat away at your soul.
Then, the divine silence that is only broken by the crackle of the open fire.
“How beautiful! What is this one? Is it by Roberto Carlos?”
Lola bursts out in laughter. The woman who spoke is one of the many people who come to the Garrapatería each day in order to find the true essence of the neighborhood. She has just committed a sacrilege. She is lucky that the only sacred thing here is life.
I climb the rickety stairs.
On the roof, a couple of boys sit smoking and enjoying the last rays of sunlight.
The view of the rooftops of Seville is astonishing. From up here you have an incredible panoramic view of the Corralones, where chairs await the night and the flamenco singers that will come with it. A few cats start climbing the rooftops at the promise of some leftovers and, who knows, perhaps even some flamenco.
I ask for Lola.
I access the back room through a makeshift curtain, crafted with all types of scraps of cloth.
A night table.
A rack full of clothing.
A Western movie on the television.
Photos hung on the walls.
A small kitchen where an enormous piece of fish defrosts. When Lola grabs it, she seems like a Paleolithic woman intending to feed a hungry tribe.
Lola, flower dress, woolen jacket and a hair up in a bun; 50 years of age wrapped up in the most breathtaking and modest of beauties. Her manner of speaking makes you feel at home. Her words reveal her spirit, her air of wisdom, and her youthful fire. From a plastic bag, she gathers objects that she will sell next Thursday at the flea market. She puts aside a polka dot cigarette case for herself. Everything she does, she does with ease, which is surprising in someone who has always lived fast and out of step.
“When I was 14 years-old, I was already pregnant; at 12, I had married but it was a different context back then. I was ready. At eight, I had already started to work and look after my five brothers.”
Lola remembers from this short childhood her tireless mother going to clean and whitewash houses, pregnant and holding her other children in her arms. “She arrived to the house and started working, even after we were put to bed, and when we woke up, she had already been up for hours. In the morning, outside the door of our little house in the Polígono Sur, she had prepared an open fire with coffee and milk. We ate breakfast, and my father took us on his bicycle, one by one, to school.”
She also remembers when her family emigrated to Barcelona in search of work, like many other families in the early ’70s. “For a few months, we were living in a convent with some nuns. We were welcomed there until we found a house. We even spent many Christmases with them. I remember the supreme happiness I felt when they gave me a gift: a small brass kitchenette, which was totally cool.”
When she was 12 years-old, she learned to read and write in a night school for adults. “I had the itch to learn, so after working, I went to school. I left very late, and was picked up by either my father or my husband. After all, I was still a girl.”
In Barcelona, she worked in the hotel business, in the fields, and even decorating pottery, first to help her parents and her siblings, and later to support her own family. Her husband, influenced by the famous urban thieves of the time, like el Torete or el Vaquilla, started to rob jewelry stores. “He thought that I would tolerate that because I am half gypsy. Luckily, I come from a family of gypsies who have never resorted to illegal practices in order to survive. I am very proud of this.”
Lola came to Seville after she abandoned her husband, where her mother had already returned. “We occupied an old building in the neighborhood of San Bernardo, and little by little it started to fill up with gypsy kids with problems. My mother turned into a commander, and told them that they could settle there as long as they didn’t cause much of a fuss.” She remembers the eight months they spent there as a treat. “We gave life to the area. And given that around that time I had become a local representative of the Socialist Party in the city council, I received support to set up a school for gypsy children. We baptized more than 30 children.”
She returned to Barcelona, convinced by her sister and aware that she could have a better quality of life there. “There is a big difference between living here and in Barcelona. There, everything is easier, there are more opportunities, and they pay you more for doing the same work.”
She reluctantly returned to Seville for good with her second husband. “We packed the whole house in suitcases: the motorcycle, the cat… everything, and we boarded the train. Me with a daughter and pregnant with my youngest.”
The first few months of her new family life in Seville do not bring happy memories. “My husband started to change, started to ignore us, to abandon us.”
Misfortunes always happen in twos. The family home soon flooded, leaving them on the street. “There I was, alone again with my two little girls. We were living in a shelter for six months because the authorities did nothing. There was a curfew; we could only leave between 8am and 8pm. One day, my daughters and I stayed in the street. I had to be firm and demand changes. After that, they gave me a key and a room with a bath so that I could bathe my baby. In exchange, my oldest daughter had to live closer to school, so she stayed with her grandparents. I spent the day going and coming from the other corner of Seville so that I could see my girl.”
In view of the city not responding to her situation, Lola had to look for another solution. “They gave me the opportunity to live in a shack in the neighbourhood of El Cerro del Águila and I accepted it. We had to completely renovate it, because it seemed to have previously been a butcher shop. We were there until 1991, when they gave me a house in the neighborhood of Las Letanías.”
With a more settled life, she learned from her mother that the florist trade, along with that of the lottery, could be something she could do from this point forward. “My mother taught me to make bows and collect jasmine. It doesn’t seem like it, but it’s very hard. During jasmine season, you have to dedicate your body and soul to it. You have to put in a lot of hours. My mother also taught me to deal with the public and, little by little, I was picking up my own style. And in certain bars and cafes they knew and respected me, and people in Seville were very fond of me.”
A rumble of heels comes from the flamenco class downstairs.
“She also taught me how to dance ‘sevillanas,’” even tough gypsies are said not to be particularly good at that one style.”
She was in her shack in Las Letanías until it was destroyed by a short circuit fire in 2003. Lola began to fight the city government so that they would pay for the materials and labor. She fixed what she could, but it was not sufficient. “In 2007, I was given a small apartment, where I currently live, quite near there. But that was not what I was fighting for.”
Then, she gained support from many of her friends, above all from Manuel, her current husband. “He courted me for a while, but I didn’t want anything to do with him. Until finally I fell in love.”
Since then, she spends her days on the roof of the small apartment where Manuel lives. Both are vendors at the El Jueves flea market on calle Feria, where they sell the unimaginable.
The humidity of the night soaks through to the bones. With a hoarse and raspy voice, Lola sings a song by Triana, that could eat away at your soul.
“…In your mind you’ve already put everything as it should be,
continue fighting, and you will find
at last your way, finally find yourself.” •