Under the first beam of sunlight on 3 October, diggers began tearing through people’s bedroom walls. By mid afternoon, around 50 makeshift homes had been razed to the ground, and around 80 people had been moved on.
A journalist sent to report on the Delicias slum clearance asked one former resident where he was going to go now, and he replied:
To a park.
The people who had been living in the quietly growing shanty town behind the Museo del Ferrocarril were not left destitute, however; they were offered sheltered accommodation. The city council acknowledged that these people were legal EU migrants and entitled to social housing, but many refused it, opting instead to pick up their belongings and begin searching for somewhere else to build a home.
ONE YEAR AGO
It was a still afternoon and columns of smoke were rising from a row of houses made from doors, cardboard, plastic sheeting and scavenged planks of wood.
A teenage boy with a shopping trolley skipped out of the bushes and into the illegally occupied land he called home. Several children ranging from toddlers to teens scrambled excitedly towards him, pulling out sheets, old appliances, packaged food and wires.
Some objects were quickly designated by the kids as their new toys, while the rest of the items were siphoned into what appeared to be the family home. Suddenly, music began to play – it sounded like Balkan folk music – and lunch was served.
It’s believed that the majority of people who’d been living here were ethnic Roma who had recently migrated from Eastern Europe. Some left their country of origin with optimism for what lay ahead – jobs, education and integration – while others fled discrimination, exclusion and unlawful persecution. However, what awaited them in Madrid may not have been much different to what they had left behind.
For centuries, the Roma community have been excluded from mainstream society. Their culture, family structure and way of earning money often clash with the world around them and integration, even if wished for, is usually a struggle.
Some, including those who were living the Delicias slum, opt for a nomadic lifestyle, however unconventional it may seem. Living in apparent transition is a long-standing way of life and an increasingly popular movement across the world. But the Roma community living like this are a relatively misunderstood group, and what appears to be reluctance to follow the rules may well be a generations-old defence mechanism.
Prejudice towards the Roma community seems as much part of mainstream society’s DNA as living an alternative lifestyle is part of theirs, but many Gypsies are in limbo, seeking shelter and stability until they can figure out a more-accepted way to survive.
As the slum grew, the landowner of these disused railway tracks – the rail infrastructure company Adif – began drawing up plans to dismantle it in cooperation with the municipal government.
Following the decision to clear the Delicias slum, some of the former residents were allocated flats, but others stuck to what they knew best, wrapped what belongings they could carry in bed sheets and disappeared into the cityscape.
The slum has been cleared, and former entryways to the previously occupied land have been fenced off.
What’s left behind is a dusty open space littered with broken glass, scraps of furniture and toys, and remnants of habitation, such as coat pegs and picture frames.
A ukulele with a strap in the colours of the Spanish flag lies dumped on top of twigs, rubbish and broken glass, just as the diggers left it.
In the photo below, you can see parts of a concrete wall blackened by old fire pits. These are where food was cooked and where heat from the fire would billow into the homes in front.
The Delicias slum may have been cleared, but many of its former occupants simply stepped out of the diggers’ way and set up camp elsewhere. We often don’t notice where they live because their homes are under bridges, behind neglected monuments and in disused industrial spaces. These areas are notoriously difficult to access by foot, but are often visible from overpasses and train lines, and they’re all over Madrid.
Many Roma continue to live a controversial nomadic lifestyle in Madrid, but the world is their oyster – and not playing by the rules undeniably has its place. We must remember, though, that the Roma community often live in slums as a result of exclusion by mainstream society. Being aware of this, and understanding their world, will ultimately ease us toward one another.
The next time you spot one of Madrid’s hidden city slums, just spare a thought for why it’s really there.