[ Original Spanish ]
I’m going to tell a story. According to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, the word “story” means, among other things, the telling of past events worth remembering. Elsewhere it allows the possibility that this narrative doesn’t have to be based solely on authentic facts, but also on products of the writer’s imagination, or a mixture of reality and fantasy. Certainly, what I am going to tell you about would appear to many people to be events worth remembering, and to others, the alternative definition - and both are right. Because, as the poet said, “Nothing is true or false; everything depends on the colour of the glass you see it through”. Anyway, I’m going to go on with the story, seen through glass coloured with fondness and sincere gratitude to those who made possible my happy childhood in that street, good honest people who wrapped those years of my life in a blanket of affection and warmth.
The story concerns life in an Alcalá street in the late 1960s and early ‘70s; a place like any other for many, but not for me, and certainly not for all those who were born or grew up in it. All those for whom its white walls have borne silent witness – if only walls could speak!!! – to their day-to-day existence. Because all sorts of things went on, and still do, in the Calle del Sol. Today when I walk down that street, I seem to see and hear, smell and feel, touch and even taste the essence of those years. I should say that I wasn’t born there, but in another street nearby – la Despeñadero – though my heart and my memories will always belong to the Calle del Sol.
Why “Street of the Sun”? I don’t know – I suppose it is because it is flooded with sunlight from dawn till sunset, starting near the Alameda and ending in the Calle de la Salada (Nuestra Señora de los Santos). This light produces a tingling deep inside me. Whitewashed facades gleam in the rays of natural light, reflecting a culture which still inhabits our deepest roots – Arabic. Vestiges of that culture could be seen on summer evenings, when the neighbours sat in their doorways and watch the sun slip down between the eucalyptus trees on La Coracha. Men and women, boys and girls; humble, if not poor, with no more riches than the hands they worked with. And they worked hard, because the house would soon fill up with children and the daily wage wouldn’t be enough to go round.
The street was cobbled, restored like many others thanks to the community employment funds at the beginning of the 1980s. A narrow street, which protected us from the sun. You knew what was being cooked in each household by the smells which emanated from the little kitchens, which were often in a separate room alongside the house. The street was so narrow that you could have a conversation with someone in the house opposite just by leaving the doors open.
The houses were small but had to accommodate so many children - an area of barely forty or fifty square metres, where by day you had to pack away the children’s beds to provide enough space to carry out the domestic tasks. Everyone slept in the same room, two or three to a bed, depending on the size of the bed. The room, if you can call it that, where the parents slept was separated from the rest only by a curtain. With the passing of time, the living quarters might be enlarged by adding another room alongside or, with great effort and people young and old lending a hand, another floor might be built on top. We might lay the bricks one day, and the next, God willing, render it and then give it a coat of whitewash ... and so little by little these tiny houses expanded to provide shelter for however many offspring there were.
The houses were humble, like their occupants, but they had a certain charm: that sepia-coloured photo of the grandparents hanging on the wall, or that wedding photo, or the one of the eldest son taking the oath of allegiance. In those days people didn’t have photo albums - there was no spare cash for such things - let alone a video of the wedding banquet. You could watch television surreptitiously in the Bar de Arroyo, or in the house of Manuel Cuesta and Manuela Arana, who where the first in the neighbourhood to have a TV.
The houses may have been cramped, but there was warmth in them. A genuine homely warmth; the family all together with some or other visitor, gathered around the fireplace on cold, wet winter nights. Social gatherings when the old folk told the children scary stories about hens and chicks wandering through the countryside at night, or a priest in a cassock who was said to appear in front of the Black Rock. We children sat with our eyes out on stalks, more through fear than curiosity. More than once we would go running home, in the darkness of the night, fleeing the shiver of terror which ran down our spines.
The street had its own trades, like Pepe Romero’s carpentry workshop, el Pichi, at the end where Paco Pimpinela had his little shop later on. There Pepe had a little wooden horse with its rider, stirrups and all the harness, and my childhood dream was that he would give it to me. I didn’t get it, however hard I tried, cajoling him and running errands. Another carpenter’s shop belonged to Pepe “the Long” as we called him; a man who appeared one fine day, looking for new horizons and settled himself in. I believe he came from a town in the Sierra de Malaga. The workshop was one room, very narrow, where Pepe had his workbench and furnished only with a folding bed, put away by day and extended at night, a washbasin, and a chair. We never understood how he could earn a living mending the broken legs of tables and chairs and wooden washbasins... He ended up making beehives with the planks which we children gave him in exchange for a few coins.
There was a piglet in a wooden box, which Juana Mendez raised with a feeding bottle until it was big enough to take to the pigsty at La Coracha. Juana supported herself – today we would call it the “hidden economy” – by breeding pigs in those caves and feeding them on leftovers collected from the houses. Later she would sell the animals to the butchers in the food market, making enough for a few plates of food, or pay another instalment on the little gold chain which she was buying for Paca’s communion. In those days we stashed any coins we had in the little cups which hung on the dresser or in the larder. Putting money in the bank was for other people. La Levita, Catalina, another neighbour , had a cave in the same place where she also bred pigs and attended to various other matters ... I can still smell those stews she made, into which along with a few chickpeas she put a piece of cow bone to give it a bit of substance. More important than substance, it gave it flavour. Then she would add a handful of fat noodles and that, for her, was a feast.
Then there was Petronila’s “Carboneria”, making charcoal for cooking and carbon kindling for the brazier. I can still see her, with her son Jacinto, Catalina la Levita and Manolo Poley with his mother, going off every day to the Gómez’s cinema. Poley was an authority on that. And there was Maria Martinez’s hairdressing salon, before it moved to Santo Domingo. In the entrance patio we played “bull”, according to the customs of that time.
And what can you say about Francisca Ramirez, and the teacher Perea? It was said of him that, when an amnesty was declared at the time of the foundation of the Second Republic, under the influence of wine he liberated his caged goldfinches. There was a carnival song about it, which went:
And [the birds] came out singing
And so the ideas of that good man, Antonio Perea, lived on.
Most of the men kept pack animals. Mountain people - Cristóbal Ríos, José and Antonio Bermejo. Juan Romero Torres - ”Chaparro” - who became the street’s builder when the teacher Perea abandoned that office because of his age. He took responsibility for all those odd jobs which needed doing, and left my house “like a dovecot” after it had been touched up with whitewash. Good people like Quico, Juana Mendez’s brother, who worked with Visglerio in Patrite. Quico found room in his heart for everyone, and he ended his days with his sister in the Calle del Sol.
The women, like Micaela and Maria Antonia Bermejo, Quica and María Cabrera, raised their children by juggling the budget when a day’s work was scarce. Those were the times of shopping “on the slate”; the bill was settled when the money came in from work in the fields – gathering kindling, working on the cork, etc.
We grew up amongst people who set us an example of honesty and hard work: people who would use the fruits of their labour to extend their houses, putting in bathrooms - the only people in the neighbourhood who had bathrooms were Vicente Marchante and ourselves.
Then there were the street kids - the Chaparritos, the Bermejos, the Cabreras - first cousins. They were hardworking, and good footballers; La Coracha was a handy place to have a good game. They were full of mischief – there was not a single birds’ nest in those trees, however high, that they didn’t investigate. The wild figs, with which we stuffed ourselves like sparrows, left our mouths covered in sores and our bodies itchy. There were the gang wars with the kids from the Plaza Alta, which they always won because from the castle they could pelt us with stones.
People on their way back from burials would take a shortcut through our street, burdened with their mourning and their pain.
And my mother would stand at the top of La Coracha to remind herself of better times in my father’s mill down in El Prado...
Calle del Sol was a street full of dreams for a better world, for a better life, which was the aspiration of all who lived there. It was a street of mutual support, where no-one had to go a day without eating, thanks to the neighbours. People left their doors open all day, so anyone who wanted to could pop in for a chat. Today, when life for some has taken many unexpected turns, it pleases me to see how the standard of living has improved for these hardworking families. But it saddens me when I look back and see how many are missing, those we thought would go on forever. Calle del Sol, from above, is the first thing to be seen in Alcala, and I know they are looking down on us from on high. Because, in spite of being such a narrow little street, its white walls have a special luminosity, shining over the cobbles and turning the street into a mirror in which we can be watched by Juana, Chaparro, Bermejo, Poley, La Levita, Quico– all those who made that street distinct from the rest.
I could carry on and fall asleep remembering a time which will never return, but which stays latent inside me so I can reawaken it at will. I could make this a never-ending story, but that is not my intention. This narrative is a snapshot photo of Calle del Sol in another era. Anyone who wants to can carry on with it, but they must take care when touching up the photo...
José Sánchez Romero, September 2007
Translated by Claire Lloyd, January 2009
Crónicas del ambiente alcalaíno (III)
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