No Country for Young People

Road to Jaen that crosses the village of Las Infantas splitting it into two. / CELIA ARCOS

The depopulation of many rural areas of Spain is creating as many challenges as it is offering new opportunities for those who have not joined in the exodus to the cities. Several residents of Las Infantas, in the province of Jaén, describe their tribulations and hopes living in a village of no more than 400 inhabitants. 

Wide, a very wide space, in summer hot and in winter cold, very cold: Las Infantas is a place crossed by the route of the train that leads from Cadiz up to Barcelona. This place is a neighborhood or even a station; it is the town where sometimes nearly 400 people live, sometimes less. “We don’t die here,” sighs Mari Muñoz, resident of Las Infantas for half a century, resigned as are the rest of her neighbors to the lack of infrastructure for this town in the province of Jaen. Such a lack, the lady points out, that there is not even a cemetery. Las Infantas is surrounded by olive trees at the foot of the Sierra Mágina mountains.  The 400 people who live there dedicate themselves to the olive, to the agriculture, to the land. Some of them are employed in Jaen, and they come and go every day to work. Also, some live in the capital, but keep their house in Las Infantas because they prefer to have their home in that village.
Depopulation is one of the most pressing problems Spain is facing nowadays. A rural exodus has led to thirty percent of the peninsula being taken over by ninety percent of the population. In villages like Las Infantas, the lack of infrastructure, means, and employment is the lever that propels the youngest community members towards the big urban areas, although that’s not always the case. Mari disagrees, “more people ar coming here. My neighbor was living in Jaen before and is now living here.” Mari is seventy-two years old and she’s living in Las Infantas for 50 years. This woman, with light eyes and golden hair, lives nextdoor to her daughter and her cousins. From Monday to Friday, she devotes herself to helping with the domestic and olive-related work. Her experience working in a school cafeteria draws many of her neighbors to her house, looking for any leftovers or sweets she may have made. Mari lives with her husband and his brother. On weekends, she goes to the “hogar,” where she has learned to do divisions and where she she also plays bingo sometimes. Mari knows every place in Las Infantas, sometimes she advises the mayor on how she should fix the classes, and, in the festive periods, she organizes the celebration. When someone asks her how the village has changed since she was a young woman, she shrugs her shoulders and laughs. “It hasn’t changed much,” she explains, a bit surprised.

A resident of Las Infantas waits to cross the road with a Spanish Republican flag on the background. / CELIA ARCOS

In Las Infantas, the evening is slow; the time is not measured by the clock, but by the shadows the sun loses to in every corner. There are no high buildings, well-paved streets, or even a stoplight. A small slope rises toward the village’s main square, and the first sight at the top are two stone benches with grey back rests, a table with a chessboard, and a small plaque that commemorates nothing but the town itself.
Four times a day, the town geometry is broken by the whistle of a train. The neighbors stop, let it pass, and continue their routine. “This town is very well connected, buses go by all the time,” explains Ángeles Crespo, a 23-year-old woman, resident of Las Infantas since she was born. Ángeles’ house is on the same street as Mari’s, and the young woman is part of the cast of neighborhors who comes to Mari’s house attracted by the smell of her cooking. Ángeles is currently studying to be a teacher. “No, it has not changed at all,” Mari continues assuringly. “Well, the greengrocer used to come here, but now he doesn’t.” A neighbor passing by hears the conversation, and adds, “before there was no drinkable water. The firemen had to come, fill the cistern, and then we had water.” Mari opens and closes the kitchen faucet so often that one time she forgot that the water that calms the thirst is running without mediation.
Mari’s house is big; it has two floors that are connected by a staircase that juts out of the facade, as well as a wide white patio presided by a well at its center. Mari has two kitchens: the official one, where she prepares the dishes that she offers to her neighbors; and the other one is the “little kitchen,” where she meets her friends during the winter to play cards and to drink Anís del Monoclose to the chimney. In the first kitchen, among the shelves there is a container replete with recently gathered olives, which she dresses herself. In Las Infantas, eighty percent of the neighbors devote themselves to olive production. The olive trees have been passed down from parents to children. “Okay, you don’t remember? Every pitcher of water cost us a peseta,” Mari’s neighbor concludes. Mari lived in Las Infantas throughout Franco’s regime. She shrugs her shoulders again and smiles remembering the times of the dictatorship: “Everything was calm here,” she seems to say to herself. Nevertheless, some graffiti bandit has left the recollection of history on the walls of the neighborhood. A red, yellow, and purple flag monitors the train’s journey, but no older person wants to talk about the flag that represents the Republic. Of the 400 people who live in the seventeen square kilometers that Las Infantas occupies, many of them are young people like Ángeles, who have decided to speak with the walls and to express their feelings about what has silenced their parents and grandparents. Ángeles likes her village. She has a child and feels lucky to be able able to raise him so close to nature, among the greetings of their neighbors. Her son spends more playing outdoors than if he were living in the city. Growing up in a rural and small environment, the child is taught without fear.

Mari, a resident of Las Infantas, at her home’s kitchen and sitting room. / CELIA ARCOS

Depopulation is born of prefix and of absence. The mayor says that in summer the population increases, but Ángeles responds ironically to that statement. Las Infantas is not breaking hotel occupation records because it does not have hotels. Traffic jams are something seenon TV, and the rush hour of summer’s “operation return home” is never marked by their clocks. Those news titles never refer to this semi-unknown place. While Ángeles goes to Jaen every morning, her mother takes care of her son. When the boy reaches third grade, he will have to change schools and begin class in Jaen, just like she did in her day. Ángeles affirms that the employment opportunities in Las Infantas are scarce. “Yes, there aren’t many opportunities, but there are some people who have decided to move to our village. For example, a family came from Jaen and opened here a pharmacy,” says Mari, while showing off a jar of olives from her garden.
The local amenities of this extension of Jaén can be enumerated without difficulty: two bars, a shop, a health center, the new family’s pharmacy, respectively staffed by a few waiters, a shop assistant, a doctor who comes two times a week, a pediatrician and a pharmacist. “To make money, we have to go to the nearest village,” Mari makes clear. Ángeles knows that her son would have more work opportunities living in the city, not in the country. There are many young people who have studied in the capital and who then combine their studies with some work, generally in the olive harvest.
Despite the 50 years that separate them, Mari and Ángeles are equally worried about the depopulation of Las Infantas. “Will my friends’ grandchildren want to remain here?” sighs Mari. Ángeles, meanwhile, finished putting her son to bed after watching an episode Pepa Pig on her cellphone. “We are well connected; we are in the best place, not only to grow, but to mature and to coexist.”