20 may, 2004
As many of you know already, the Eskalera Karakola is a Women’s Social Center occupied back in 1997. In these seven years the existance, maintanance and self-management of this social space has made possible a spectrum of initiatives and political interventions: without this public space that has attempted to explore the creation of collective feminist thought and action, the experience of drawing a different political meaning from the way we inhabit our neighborhood, our lives and our bodies, none of these activities would have been possible. For us, beyond the activities and the cultural and recreational space that may arise in a social center, its is a question of experimenting with the real possibilities of creating community, as we say: weaving networks, bidding for the collective against a sad fatfree vacuum-packed life, ‘the personal is political’, generating spaces of connectivity where we can share the personal in order to create real and potent moments of collective aggregation.
For us, the meaning of a Social Center has to do with the movement of displacement that it proposes and constitutes, a movement along two distinct but inseperable lines: on the one hand, the displacement towards the collective as an exercise in the changing of normalized subjectivity which supposes a challenge to oneself, an invitation to think of ourselves in other terms, in constant questioning, as well as a bid to think about the possiblities of alteration and action in the midst of a vital space that is ever more privatized, extremely precarious and individualized. This displacement has to do with the qualitative step from “each man for himself” to “how can we generate conditions of possibility for a common good capable of articulating itself politically? How shall I put my body into this labor?”
The other movement of displacement is that which takes us from the classic division between politics and life to the irreducible experience of the politicization of existance: an experience that places us in the position of being unable to distinguish between daily life and politics, between the personal and the political. An experience which, incarnate in the life of a social center, pushes us, through a strong bid for self-management, to not being able to nor wanting to distinguish between theory and practice. As we’ve said before, as feminists we don’t like to separate word from action, nor thought from transformation. Irreducible experience: because it is a tension that runs through and produces a new and unexpected body. New and unexpected, because things, bodies, are never a given: and thus we introduce desire into the process through which we perform and construct the political body, the feminist body, the social center body, the body in the street, the writing body.
One of the unexpected bodies that has confronted us throughout these seven years is the ‘body in construction’. This experience, the terrible physical state of the house – irreducible, quotidian, political and collective – has been a wonderful and tortuous condensation of self-management, theory and action, of strategies, the collectivization of knowledge, of alliances, but above all of wood, tiles and roofing, buckets, sheets of plastic, PVC piping, cement (almost always badly mixed), weariness, dust, and of course (and here the desire that constructs the body) of hopes and strengths.
Body in permanent construction, or body doing construction work for seven years, that has pushed us to see the limits of a social center: the impossibility of forging certain alliances (who can take this cold at a certain age?) and of really opening the house fully (how if there are only two meeting-rooms that don’t have leaks?); on the other hand, the fact of remaining illegal obstructs all possibilities of more structural repairs of the house (how long will we stay here, anyway?) or grants for its full restoration.
Various desires passing through the body in construction: one, that of staying (and not just doing construction work but as a possibility of generating other political bodies), two, that of continuing to construct feminist thought and action; three, that of the leap to conflict, to visibilizing and inventing conflict, and to put the Administration, at least, in a difficult situation. Desires which in turn need to be articulated: through the sense of the project (what is a Social Center anyway?), through its opening (how, in these times of dispersion and fragmentation, can we generate alliances that last and bridge the continuous invention of space?) and through spaces of political aggregation (how can we stretch beyond ourselves, reaching for new forms of public intervention?).
These three desires (for staying, for the feminist body, for conflict) and their articulations (through questions of the sense of the project, its possible alliances, connections and projections, and how to be capable of going beyond ourselves, thinking of forms of conflict), were condensed, almost three years ago, in a bid to translate this body in construction into a potent political process, directed to generate a public conflict which might demonstrate the need and the desire for a Feminist Social Center and which, along the way (perhaps the part that most moves us), might help us generate a discourse on questions that have to do with urban space (speculation, expropiation, the role of the Administration, the reappropriation of territory), with localized space (being situated in the neighborhood of Lavapies, its resources, its lacks, its needs and the policies that effect it) with feminism (the need for spaces for women, the need for autonomy and self-management among women, potency, the possibilities of generating other representations, the visibility of a discourse and the importance of feminist networks and their intervention in daily life) and with participation (what does it mean to participate directly in the management of one’s own life? How does this conflict with the participation proposed to us by the institutions? What do we mean when we talk about self-management?).
And that is how one of the most difficult processes of these years arose, full of bittersweet skepticism, of endless time, of depression, letdowns, recuperation and passion: the “Project for the Recuperation and Restoration of Embajadores 40, La Eskalera Karakola” (public presentation of this project, and more general information on it)
This project supposed a qualitative leap. The qualitative leap which we expressed through the absolute politicization of this body in construction: we don’t just want to lay cement, we want to create conflict with that cement; we don’t just want to recuperate a Social Center, we want to open a real process which visibilizes that conflict. The best, we thought, begins now: a great battle opens before us, and the possibility of opening it is in our own strength and political passion (“Will we be able to maintain this tension the time necessary for a process of these dimensions to unfold?” was the question going around in our heads). In any case, a decision of the body: to move and to risk ourselves once again. Next, the strategy. A strategy forged through collective intelligence, directed at various fronts: institutional negotiation, the reactivation of existing networks and the creation of others, and social agitation.
As for institutional negotiation, we have opened up a path which, despite our discomforts, we have learned unexpected things: that is to say, at each moment who to talk to, how to combine immobile positions with interested subtleties, how to get information and above all, how to be very very relentless. The steps: a meeting with Sigfrido Herraez, president of the Municipal Housing Company, which took place in the Eskalera Karakola over a year ago, in which this gentleman accepted the idea of expropriation and even proposed a more rapid process: an agreement with the owners to buy at a special price, such that the building at Embajadores 40 would pass into the hands of the public, but in which the crucial point, that is, the cession of same to the assembly of the Social Center, was relegated to an afterthought. We said: we’re not just talking about expropiation, Mr. Sigfri, but also and above all about cession. We don’t see one thing without the other. And the gentlemen left, never to return. Many doubts: Why is the Municipal Housing Company so interested in buying the building? What plans do they have here? Keep the idea of a social center for women, turning it into a cultural center for women within which they might give us a room? Build apartments for people kicked out of theirs by the rehabilitation process?
And another meeting, this time with Carmen Casasmeiro, director of the department of substandard housing at the Municipal Company, who called us more than interested in the situation of the house (again? What are they working on?). And again, putting the pieces together and never making one backwards step: she talks again about buying the building and then, later, studying the possibility of cession and seeing in what conditions… she says to us: ‘the staircase is build step by step’, and we, who with our body in construction know not a few things about staircases, tell her (again, not a step backwards), the theory of the staircase: it is imposible, madame, to build a staircase without knowing where it is going, if not, the staircase falls down, and so we demand to know what are the plans of the Municipal Company for the house. And we never heard from her again, either. Dozens of meetings with many city departments (of arts and culture, of participation, of urban planning), and a new demand: that they all get together to make a unified decision about the Eskalera Karakola. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
And meanwhile, a few great moments of agitation: squatting the headquarters of the Municipal Housing Company, and the City hall, interventions in demonstrations, political acts…
Thinking it over, we decided some months ago to open another yet unexplored front: the owners. We set out, investigated, and contacted them and their lawyer, and to our great surprise they tell us that if we had never had a report filed against us in all these long seven years, it was because the property was not unified in the hands of a single owner, but that it had just finally been unified (in December 2003) and that they want to recuperate the house despite not knowing very well what they want to do with it, that they have filed a civil report against us and they don’t know why we haven’t been notified already. We told them we wanted to talk, that we had a proposal (sure, we thought, something will occur to us).
April 14th, in the next conversation, they tell us that we have a trial on the 6th of may. Situation of alarm. Not for nothing: our lawyer tells us we will lose the trial, no question. Time to design, once again, another strategy. And so we sit together with this lawyer of theirs, who comes to see us at the Karakola. A committee of us, relying upon these networks we keep talking about and which take on a precious materiality in these moments. And we tell him that, paradoxically, the denounced (us) and the denouncers (them, the owners) have something in common, and we can solve this problem through that common ground: both of us want the Municipal Housing Company to buy the building. The owners need this because: first, they would free themselves of the debt they have with the Company, acquired when the city government intervened to prop up the crumbling house for security reasons, an debt of tens of thousands of euros; second, because the structural protection of the house (dated to the 17th century) is such that the purchase by a private buyer would not be very profitable since a protected building cannot be built upon or torn down; and third, because all the paperwork required to sell the building would have to go through the city government anyway, and in this case would be accelerated. As for us, we said, if they would just allow us we could continue with the negociation process already open with the city government, for which we only need time (the administration, we told him, wants to cede us the house – yikes!). And so, Mr. Lawyer, please retract the report.
And Mr.Lawyer decided to suspend the trial for 60 days. This is a great step: we avoid a rapid trial. This is a little victory. But too little for the situation we’re in. The strong point of this strategy consists in displacing the conflict from the judicial terrain (owners vs. squatters) of a rapid trial in which we have little or no political opportunity, to the terrain of the Administration: returning the ball to the Municipal Housing Company’s court; it is the City Government that, through political will, can make a good offer to the owners and promote the creation of a Social Center. So we have 60 days to construct this terrain, which passes from empty conflict with the owners to the public domain and social debate. We have 60 days to pressure the Municipal Company not only to buy the building of Embajadores 40, but that this negotiation accepts the project presented by the Eskalera Karakola as a prioritary question.
We have to be capable of generating a political force capable of negotiating and coordinating social pressure. If not, a project of over seven years will dissappear. We have to be capable of reactivating this passion. The cards are dealt. We don’t want to think that this bid is too big for us. We want to give strength to ourselves in this battle for the reappropiation of the territory of our neighborhoods and of our daily lives. And this is why we are writing to you. Support can be materialized in a few gestures:
1) giving the greatest diffusion possible to the project and the present situation
2) putting us in contact with any public figures you have at hand
3) making three phone calls, whether as an individual or as groups, institutions, etc. demanding the recognition of the Eskalera Karakola to:
- Sigfrido Herraez (president of the Municipal Housing Company) tel: (0034) 91 588 33 80
- Pilar Martinez (head of the Dept. of Urban Planning) tel: (0034) 91 588 36 44
- Alicia Moreno (head of Dept. of Arts and Culture) tel: (0034) 91 588 10 00
Through these telephone numbers one contacts the various secretaries (there is no possibility of talking to them directly – at least not yet), so the number of calls is important: depending upon the number they will take notice or not (the ideal of course would be that the calls become really a nuisance and they begin to feel pressured from all sides). The format of the calls might be the following: “I am calling because I am so-and-so from this-or-that organization, and I want to request that (Sigfrido Herraez/Pilar Martinez/Alicia Moreno) meet with the Eskalera Karakola, as it is necessary to find an immediate solution to the situation of this organization which has been a cultural and social point of reference… bla bla bla. If a meeting is not arranged immediately we will publicize this situation from here.” If many of us call, from many different places, if we put some pressure on, we can generate a sense of alarm which will serve us well when it comes to negotiating this delicate situation.
Many thanks to all of you,
La Eskalera Karakola