By Susana Vera
I remember the first time I saw Milagros Echevarria. She was in her house slippers, battling with the rubble piled up outside her home, with only a simple broom as a weapon. It was like watching David face Goliath.
The short, sturdy woman was working doggedly. She would only stop to remove rotting garbage from the debris and toss it into a nearby dumpster. “If I don’t do this every day, rats are going to eat us alive”, she told me. In the months that followed, I witnessed the same scene over and over, even when the rubbish threatening to invade her home had become the actual remains of the house itself.
Milagros moved to the Spanish gypsy settlement of Puerta de Hierro in 1974, as a young girl of 12, still wearing pigtails. At the age of 13 she married her cousin Antonio Gabarri and by 14 she was pregnant with their first child, Carolina.
Gabarri’s parents were some of the first settlers in Puerta de Hierro, an area north of Madrid bordered by trees, a busy road and a sewage treatment plant on the banks of the Manzanares river. Like their parents before them, Milagros and Antonio decided to make a house for themselves where their family could be raised. “We had to sleep in our van for months while we were building it. Some of our relatives used wood in their houses, but we built ours out of brick. We wanted it to be permanent”, said Milagros. And so they did. It took them years of hard work and every penny they had to fulfill their dream.
Milagros’ life came full circle on July 17, 2012, when she found herself sleeping next to her husband in their cramped van once again. But this time they were 37 years older and they were not alone; their four children, the children’s spouses and their twelve grand-children were with them. The whole family had become homeless when a bulldozer demolished the only roof they had over their heads.