The Tents in the Middle of Madrid
I see them on my way to the Prado Museum. Tents — an assembly of bright red tents, maybe 20 or so, pitched in the centre of a small strip of greenery, with cars speeding up and down either side. But the chaos of the Paseo del Prado, the road that borders this rectangular island of park land, doesn’t break through the wall of trees to these miniature pyramids of red. No, this seems a serene break from the manic metropolis of Madrid.
Various handmade signs hang between tall, leafy trees and bushes, each crying out different messages and slogans in Spanish. A white banner, hung between two trees directly in front of the tents, acts as a sort of gate to this campsite. I stare at it intensely, trying to decipher its message with my extremely limited knowledge of the Spanish language.
I glimpse a figure moving towards me out of the corner of my eye. A stout man with a long beard has emerged from the crowd of tents. His sunglasses are tucked into his hair, which is tied up in a ponytail.
I smile at him. “Holá. Inglés?”
He shakes his head but gestures at a sign adjacent to the banner. Written in English, it says food, water, clothes, please.
He begins making wild hand gestures, swinging his arms around and muttering in Spanish. I nod my head and smile, barely able to make sense of what he’s saying as the sun beats down on me, until he utters a word that my brain is able to comprehend.
I stare out at the field of tents behind him. A small cluster of people stand huddled in a group, some shirtless in an attempt to bear the heat.
To my left is a bench stacked with copper pots and pans amongst other various cooking utensils: the shared kitchen. To my right is a cul-de-sac of triangle tents which almost replicate those Italian-style terracotta rooftops.
I follow the man to the group of people, who all cease chatting at once to stare at me. I smile at them nervously. Two more men arrive, one walking a dog and the other wearing a grey t-shirt, dark jeans and thongs.
“Buenas tardes!” Grey T-Shirt smiles enthusiastically.
We end up sitting next to the pots and pans, overlooking the tents. The branches of surrounding trees brush against my skin as the smell of cigarette smoke wafts through the air. Grey T-Shirt gets up a Spanish-to-English translator app and motions for me to repeat my question into the microphone. Once the translator does its job, he readjusts himself and faces me.
“My name is David Mendoza. I’ve lost my apartment. Part of a vulture fund,” he tells me. “We’re all here for the same reason.”
I observe the men and women surrounding us who have been thrown out of their homes; the rooms they’d been renting were sold by banks to big investors who crave money and care little for anything else.
“We have the right to a roof over our heads, but we’ve been evicted because we can’t afford our rent anymore. It’s too expensive now. The prices have gone up.”
He casts his eyes downward, solemnly. “You don’t want to be afraid the day of eviction might come. They force you out. They beat you. We don’t get help from anyone. But we always need donations, food, clothes.”
I ask if David has any family. His eyes crinkle and he chuckles. Motioning to the people standing around us, he exclaims, “This is my family!”
Then he looks down at his hands, clasping them together. “I have a daughter, here in Spain. With what little I have, I give it all to get a room for her and her mum. I’ve been camping here for two months. For the future, I hope everything is solved and that our voice is heard.”
I speak directly into his phone, attempting to thank him for his time, but the translator incorrectly interprets my question as asking David if he has a swimsuit.
We both laugh; I can hear David’s confusion in his creaky chuckle. The words “muchas gracias!” clumsily spill from my mouth.
We shake hands before he points behind me, drawing my attention to a slogan scrawled across his tent in large, black letters. It reads negociaremos la forma pero nunca los principios.
“See my tent?” David asks proudly. “It says we will negotiate the way with principles of love.”
I bid the group of campers “adiós” before exiting their modest campsite and continuing along the Paseo del Prado.
I stop to take one last look at the terracotta tents: bright roofs clearly visible amongst the leafy green. I shift my gaze to the right of the campers’ makeshift accommodation. The Ritz is just a few hundred metres down the road.