Not many tourists know this, but Madrid is a capital city of squatting.
In all societies, in some form or another, there are young people who live in abandoned properties without the consent of the property owner. Political squatting, however, only really started after 1968, and arrived in Spain in the 1970s.
Kasa de la Muntanya, Barcelona, has squatted since 1989. Image via Wikicommons.
Since 1995, there has been a legal and cultural split between housing squats and squatted “social centers” (centros sociales okupados, or okupas for short) in Spain, as a result of a change to the penal code, which dictates specific punishment in the form of daily fines if squatters intended to reside in a property. While live-in squatting has largely become a clandestine activity, political squats that use occupied spaces for various social activities try to make themselves highly visible, as models of alternative lifestyles and radical approaches to private property. Barcelona has historically had more squatted spaces than Madrid, but the capital city has been quickly catching up as a swath of new sites have been taken over in recent years. Miguel Ángel Martínez, a sociologist at the Complutense University of Madrid who specializes in this topic, says squatting in Madrid is currently experiencing “a sweet moment.”
At the moment, there are more than thirty social centers in Madrid occupying entire buildings. These spaces are used to organize concerts, practice yoga, teach new dance steps, rehearse theater shows and plan demonstrations. Counter-cultural leisure goes hand-in-hand with neighborhood services and political activity. The guiding principles of these okupas have to do with self-management and assembly-based decision making. Anarchy and autonomy are the prevailing ideologies but many people involved reject political labels, and prefer to build their own theory through actual modes of operation within the okupas.
A concert held in okupa Casablanca, for the space’s first anniversary. Image via.
The squatting movement has been very influential in the structure of protest in Madrid. Several of the forty people who decided to sleep at the Puerta del Sol (Madrid’s central square) on May 15, 2011—the event that gave birth to the 15M movement, Spain’s precursor to the Occupy movement—were already part of the squatter scene. The protest camp that subsequently formed and occupied the square for nearly a month followed the self-management methodology of the squatters’ social centers: in okupas, people come together in working groups that form committees to discuss issues. Decisions are made at general assemblies, and are based on consensus. Members of the squatting community brought these organizational principals to the 15M encampment, where they were widely popularized, becoming the structure of Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park occupation. This use of okupa culture in mass protest, it turned out, also generated a renewed impulse to appropriate empty urban spaces.
After the Sol encampment ended, many working groups and committees began to meet at the squatted social centers. Others decided to squat for themselves. Martínez says that the number of social centers in Madrid has doubled since the emergence of the 15M movement.
Indeed, expansion was always a central goal: one common squatter slogan calls for “Ten, one hundred, one thousand centros sociales!” Here, we will look inside some of Madrid’s best-known squatted social centers:
Casablanca: The company which owned this building, situated near the Reina Sofía Museum in central Madrid, was involved in a corruption case nicknamed “Malaya.” Activists entered the property in 2010 to find the luxury apartment units unfinished and abandoned.
Casablanca was one of the squats most involved in the protests of 15M and inherited most of the Sol encampment’s resources. These included its library and archive, which contains thousands of banners. After the social center was evicted on September 19, 2012 as part of a preventive repression against the 25S call to surround the congress in Madrid, activists decided to transfer Casablanca to a new building. Raíces (Roots), recently squatted by people from the Lavapiés neighborhood assembly, may be Casablanca’s new home.
Patio Maravillas: The first iteration of this “Wonder Courtyard,” which began in 2007, presented a different kind of squat: one that was more inclusive and open than its predecessors.
Graffiti in Patio Maravillas’ first site. Image via Escrito En La Pared.
The beautiful old school on Acuerdo Street was covered with particularly interesting graffiti, stencils and paintings, and unlike some of the other squats, one didn’t have to be part of the punk subculture to feel comfortable there. After its dislodgement in 2010, Patio Maravillas moved to Pez Street, also in Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood. As their motto says: “For every eviction, another squat!” [“¡Un desalojo, otra okupación!].
Eko: This space in the Carabanchel area of southern Madrid is in a former wholesale store, with a wide, open layout and few internal walls. First squatted in 2011 by members of Carabanchel’s 15M neighborhood assembly, this social center has become an important cultural spot, where young people from the local working-class neighborhood get together and collaborate. One of its most interesting projects is the Popular University of Carabanchel (Universidad Popular de Carabanchel), which offers free German lessons, script-writing workshops and computer programming classes.
“The place is always full of people, doing all kinds of different things,” one squatter named Nacho said.
The “Free Shop” in Eko. Image via.
La Morada: This building in central Madrid was taken over in 2012 by members of the Chamberí neighborhood assembly. Among other activities, there are weekly screenings of films (which are selected collectively) and regular dance lessons. Many assemblies meet there, and the feminist festival Ladyfest is using the center to prepare this year’s venues.
Kairós: This closed bookstore of the Autonomous University of Madrid, one of the city’s main universities, was squatted by a group of students on February 18, 2013. Already, some professors have decided to give free lessons there, while the campus authorities have left the squatters without electricity.
Kairos, an okupa within the former campus bookstore at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid. Image via.
According to a squatter named Marta, hers and her peers’ efforts to maintain these okupas revolve around the “right to the city,” a phrase used by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre to describe the demand for “a transformed and renewed access to urban life.” The squatters feel the need “to fight the privatization of public space,” and to assert their capacities for “self-organization and cultural self-management,” Marta said.
These projects—and similar centers elsewhere in Spain—have found a new legitimacy in the current environment of economic crisis. More than ever, as a traditional squatters’ slogan says, there are “many people without houses and many houses without people.” The fight against the evictions of people who cannot afford to pay their mortgages has reopened the question of the relationship between housing as a human right and the damage done by real estate speculation.