In Cañada Real Galiana, about 14 kilometers from the center of Madrid, the capital of Spain, more than 4,000 people, of which 1,800 are minors, have been living without electricity for two years. Neither the Covid-19 pandemic nor the worst snowfall in decades made the authorities comply with the commitment reached in 2017 to maintain basic services while a solution is found for this neighborhood, built illegally in the 1970s.
On October 2, 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, electricity ceased to be constant in two of the six sectors that make up the Cañada Real Galiana. An area of Madrid, the capital of Spain, in which some 8,000 people live, of which more than a third are minors.
The electricity supplier company naturgy decided that day to install power limiters. His reason: an alleged high consumption that the Government of Madrid links to illegal marijuana plantations. These limiters make it practically impossible to maintain an adequate supply for more than 4,000 people in sectors 5 and 6 of this Madrid neighborhood.
Not even a need as basic as keeping food in the fridge is possible for these neighbors. Gladys Zambrana Terrazas has to go to the butcher shop in the neighborhood next to her and ask it to store the food in her refrigerator so that it does not spoil. She, along with her four children and her husband, live in sector 5 of Cañada, in a house they bought 10 years ago.
According to Gladys, who works as a nursing assistant in a nursing home, the situation is inhumane. “Light is not a luxury, it is a right that we must have. The light is not for rich people, it is also for the poor”. For her, the hardest thing is to see how her children are growing up in this situation. And she laments the invisibility to which they are being subjected: “What a pity that Spain does not see its people, because children are the future of the country.”
The same frustration is felt by Rosario Roldán, 82, who, despite confessing that “she doesn’t want more reports”, finally agrees to tell her story. He has been living in sector 5 for five decades with his wife, who is diabetic. Since the light came and went two years ago, they never know if the insulin that his wife has to inject twice a day is in good condition. “If one day something happens to her because we puncture her insulin and she is sick from lack of cold and we have a problem… the thing is very fat!” She exclaims.
Gladys and the rest of the residents of the sectors affected by the power outages have already stocked up on firewood, candles and gas cylinders to prepare for the reality that winter is coming in less than two months and the high probability that they will continue having no electricity.
Decades claiming contracts and accountants to legalize their situation
This neighborhood was built illegally on what used to be one of the cattle routes, which in Spain are known as royal ravines. According to Spanish legislation, these roads are owned by the State and cannot be built on. But in the 1960s this law was made more flexible and the construction of orchards and small buildings was allowed so that the shepherds who transhumanced their cattle could rest. From there, the constructions expanded and many people went to live in the area.
For years public administrations did not put obstacles for these people to build their houses. In the face of this silence, the neighbors created electrical infrastructure in the 1980s to be able to have electricity in their homes. Since then they have been asking for the facilities to be legalized and for individual meters to be placed so that each house can pay for public services, but they have received nothing but refusal.
In 2017, an agreement was reached whereby the mayors of the three regions of Madrid through which this settlement passes committed, among other things, to find an alternative housing for the 3,000 inhabitants of sector 6, the most precarious, and to guarantee the provision of basic services for the rest of the inhabitants until definitive solutions are found for rehousing or legalizing their homes.
Pedro Navarrete was the drafter of that agreement while he was Commissioner of the Madrid City Council for the Cañada Real. Now he is part of the Civic Platform for Light in Cañada Real, an organization that asks for the supply to be restored, for the residents to be given contracts and for the creation of a monitoring table to assess the situation in the neighborhood. He wonders why since the political color changed in the mayor’s office of the Spanish capital in 2019 this pact is not being fulfilled: “Something has happened since the signing until now that has radically changed the idea that was had,” he laments.
Power outages as a way to put pressure on neighbors
According to Navarrete, “these families get in the way” of the new Administration, which has urban interests in the area. That is why, in his opinion, the governments “are doing everything possible to make life impossible for (the neighbors), so that they accept rehousing no matter how bloody they are… cutting off their electricity, cutting off their water supply” .
The same is the opinion of Nacho, a resident of sector 2, as he points to the buildings on both sides of the Cañada: “It is very clear, it is a form of pressure from the real estate companies and extortion from the construction companies so that people leave the here”.
For their part, the residents of sector 5 assure that, despite the precarious situation to which they are being subjected, they will stay at home. Neither is willing to accept a rehousing.
In sector 6 the neighbors have had no other alternative. In the pact signed five years ago, the total eviction of this area was agreed upon. Since then, some 130 families have been relocated and it is expected that there will be 300 before 2023. But the relocation process may take several years, considering that more than 800 families live in this sector. So what the residents demand is that the electricity be restored as soon as possible. That should be the priority, they say.
A neighborhood marked by stigma
In Madrid, the name Cañada Real is associated with drugs. And, although it is true that it is the largest heroin sale point in Spain, of the 14-kilometre-long neighborhood, drug trafficking occurs in a very specific section of less than 1km in sector 6.
Gladys recounts how every time the neighbors ask for a job, the companies, by telling them that they live in Cañada Real, ask them for their criminal records. “Because they think if you live here you’re into something weird. But it is not true,” she claims. “In Cañada there are prepared people, there are working people, there are children who go to university.”
She recounts how not even at the nearest subway station, a five-minute walk from her house, they let her plug in her cell phone to charge the battery. Not in the library either.
Nacho also expresses his frustration at the fact that “everyone who lives in Cañada is put in the same bag.”
The crucial support of humanitarian associations in Cañada Real
Crossing sector 6, where they advise us not to take out the camera, the smell of burning garbage is persistent. Full of small houses built with very basic materials and with a permanent transit of people, it is the way to follow to get to the Red Cross day center.
The entity has been working in the neighborhood for 16 years with a mobile unit. However, as the social needs of La Cañada intensified, the Red Cross decided that its presence in sector 6 had to become permanent. In 2021, this center was opened in an old furniture factory, where it shares a location with other humanitarian associations.
Gonzalo Herrera, Red Cross project coordinator for Cañada Real, explained to France 24 the reality experienced by families in that sector, especially women and children.
According to Herrera, this sector is a reflection of the phenomenon of the “feminization of poverty.” The lack of light, which makes it necessary to wash clothes by hand or cook with firewood, has made women see themselves much more “enslaved in that role of caretakers that they exercise”.
For the minors who come to the center, their greatest concern is that their deficiencies are not seen. For this reason, the Red Cross tries to create play and study spaces for children and youth that “in Cañada they have a very important digital gap. The lack of light makes it difficult to have access, not only to social networks, but to the networks through which they do all their tasks,” says the project manager for the sector.
In addition, the organization tries to cover the basic food needs of young people. The Red Cross coordinator explains that “many ask us not to have a snack so they can save the snack to eat it the next day” and thus not suffer discrimination at school.
Gonzalo Herrera is aware that this center is not the solution to all his problems, but at least he feels that it is a place where both children and adults find a more welcoming space away from the hostile environment in which they live.
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