Without fear in Utopia House

Manuela Cortés vierte agua, recogida en una fuente cercana, en una palangana para poder fregar los platos / KATHRYN BOYD-BATSTONE

photo: Manuela Cortés pours water, collected from a spout down the street, into a container to rinse her dirty dishes / KATHRYN BOYD-BATSTONE

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HER CHARCOAL-COLORED EYES, like the inside of a cave, reflect a soul hardened by life. The lines in her face are like the cave’s crevices, each one formed by her environment, shaping her identity. The lines narrow around her eyes and widen around her tight mouth. She sits in a dark room and brings a cigarette up to her lips. She inhales slowly, calming her nerves, her thoughts, her worries. Exhale. In a cloud of smoke, she releases them into the world.

IT IS 6 P.M. AND THE SUN IS SETTING. The room grows darker and darker, but still she does not turn on a light. She sits at wooden table with her eyes fixed on her son. He stands on the other side of the glass window on the balcony of the apartment. His eyes are fixed on the road, looking off into the distance, watching.

THIS HOUSE IS NOT THEIRS. There is no running water or electricity. A small generator provides energy to charge their cell phones. The woman is 67 years old. Her name is Manuela Cortés Lombardo. Most called her Manoli. She, along with 35 other families, have been squatting since May 2012 in an apartment complex now know as “Corrala Utopía” (in memory of the Corralas de vecinos, old Sevillian buildings, many of them now gone, which used to reunite families around a communal patio).

IN 2010, WITH RISING UNEMPLOYMENT, Spanish banks and courts started evicting families from their houses due to increasing debt from the financial crisis. More than 100, 000 families have lost their homes, according to the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform of People Affected by Mortgages). At the same time, government budget cuts have reduced social welfare spending, which assists these newly homeless people.

THE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE IN SEVILLE IS NEAR 30 PERCENT. Lombardo and her children are at the mercy of that statistic. When the crisis hit in 2008, Lombardo lost her job of 19 years as a house caretaker. Without the means to pay rent, a recent divorce from an abusive husband, and three children to take care of, Lombardo was desperate for a solution. “Time was flying by and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a husband, I had to be alone. A great depression overtook me. I had kids. It’s just that I didn’t sleep. I didn’t live,” Lombardo says.

HOW CAN ONE DREAM WHEN THEY CANNOT SLEEP? How can one look to the future when the guiding light is getting smaller and smaller? “I was in a very, very, very dark tunnel that I could not get out of,” she remembers.

MANY GIVE UP AT THIS POINT. Spain has seen suicides directly tied to the crisis and evictions. Suicide rates have increased in Europe among those 25 years old and younger, a group that composes more than half of the unemployed in Spain.

In 2012, the Spanish government changed foreclosure rules due to a series of public suicides that occured as foreclosure agents walked in to evict dwellers. Now, households of families with young children and an income of less than 1,597 Euros per month cannot be evicted by the banks.

image_2_kathryn_boyd_mm21MANUELA CORTéS, who has been worn and weathered by the hardships of life, spent many days depressed searching for a solution. Social Services repeatedly denied her welfare or a
new place to live. The scars of that sadness and struggle are evident in her deep charcoal eyes. The day she joined the civic movement 15M at the Corrala Utopía something changed. The Corrala Utopía is a group of 36 families composed of 118 people, 34 of which are minors, who occupy four blocks of empty apartment buildings, which the crisis left unsold. After the bankruptcy of the real state company that promoted the complexes, its creditor, Ibercaja bank, is now the owner.

THEY ARE LIVING THERE WITH NO RUNNING WATER OR ELECTRICITY. Manuela Cortés asked the organizers of the occupation for a room and was accepted. The light at the end of the tunnel started to grow. Suddenly, she was part of a community of people struggling like her, but struggling together. “I know that it’s not mine. I know that I will not stay here in this apartment, but I now have peace of mind because there are many people here who support me. I am very happy. It’s very hard because I don’t have water, they cut it, but yes, I am happy,” she affirms.

IN THE COMING WEEKS, the judge who is dealing with the case after the bank denounced the occupation may choose to evict all of the families living in Corrala Utopia. For Manuela though, living in the streets is not an option. “I am persistent. If they evict me from here, I am going to find another apartment someplace else because I will not live on the streets,” she says.

SHE OWNS FEW CLOTHES so to easily wash them in the sink instead of having to go to a laundry, and owns few possessions. She does not own any of the furniture in her apartment. She bought the generator for 200 Euro. There are no blinds on any of the windows or lampshades on any of the lights because in the back of her mind she knows this situation is not permanent. The families are asking the bank to allow them to remain here paying a small rent. But soon now, she must once again relive being evicted. This time, however, her perspective has changed. “I don’t have any fear. I don’t have it because when you don’t have anything, what do you have to fear?”

MANUELA MAY HAVE NOTHING, but she is able to provide for her family once more. She shares her apartment with her unemployed son, she was able to allocate a room for her daughter right above her, and her other son lives right down the street with his daughter who she watches every evening. The pride she holds for having kept the family together is evident. At 67, finding a job is not an option. Yet Manuela has made supporting her family possible—a value that, despite 43 years of fighting against an abusive husband or for a home, has stayed with her. “I have a feeling that something good is going to happen. Maybe in the future or now in the battle I will obtain it,” she says.

SHE PUTS DOWN THE CIGARETTE and looks to the wall on her left. On it hangs a picture of nine women standing on an apartment balcony holding up a sign. It reads, “Without Water. Without Light. Without Fear. Resistence.” The lines of her eyes crinkle and sparkle as she lets out a deep, throaty laugh and smiles.