Spain: Grannies and grandads fighting the crisis

In Gijón, Asturias, June 2012.
In Gijón, Asturias, June 2012.
26 October 2012 – Le Monde (Paris)

Picking up grandchildren from school, donating cash to balance their children’s household budgets, and taking time to demonstrate against the austerity policies advocated by Brussels: Spain’s abuelos have emerged as a pillar of strength in a faltering society.

With her reading glasses swinging around her neck, Pilar Goytre, age 65, races after her two-year-old grandson. She grabs his hand to stop him getting too close to the road, then starts walking again towards the playground on the banks of the Manzanares. Every Friday, this active grandmother, whose greying blond hair is cut boyishly short, picks up Mario from the nursery in Puerta del Angel, a working-class neighbourhood in southwest Madrid. As always, she is one of the many abuelas (grandmothers) who wait outside the gates.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry for Health and Social Policy, close to half of Spain’s grandparents look after grandchildren on a daily basis, while close to 70% take charge of them during the school holidays. In Spain, grandparents have always played an important role, but now with the crisis, their help is needed more than ever. A study by the Spanish Social and Economic Council (CES), which represents both unions and employers, estimated that 422,600 of Spain’s 17 million households depended on cash from grandparents’ pensions in 2011 — an increase of 21% on the figure for the previous year.

Pilar, who retired in March, travels for 45 minutes on the Madrid metro to look after Mario until her son Miguel and daughter-in-law Virginia come home from work. At age 37, both of them are mileurists (earning only 1,000 euros a month. He works as a travel agent, she as a laboratory quality controller. On such low pay, employing a full-time nanny is out of the question. However, Pilar is not unhappy with the situation. "I’m in love with my grandchildren", she announces, as she offers little Mario a dinosaur shaped biscuit.

In the frontline of demonstrations

In Spain, there are more than 1.7 million households in which no one is earning a wage, and close to 300,000 families have lost their homes since the start of the crisis. So why has the country not exploded? Economists and sociologists both offer the same answer: "the extensive informal economy", which accounts for 20% to 25% of national GDP.

And even more importantly, "family solidarity", which acts as a critical safety net in hard times. The expression understates the role played by grandparents in the current crisis. An essential element in society, they compensate for the inadequacies of the national welfare system: in particular for the lack of places in state-run nurseries and their timetables, which are out of tune with lives of working parents. They are also there to provide accommodation for adult children who have lost their homes,and funds to cover the cost of holidays or necessities when unemployment benefit runs out.

In this context, Spain’s grandparents have been doubly affected by the crisis, first and foremost in their role as citizens who are subject to the government’s austerity policy: pensions were frozen in 2011 and increased by a meager 1% in 2012, far less than the cost of inflation which is close to 3%. They have also been put under strain by contributions for various types of medication that used to be free for seniors. Secondly, seniors have suffered in their role as parents, who struggle to help out when the crisis impacts their children and their families, who look to them for economic and also moral support.

“I am convinced that my children’s generation will not live as well as we do", says Pilar, who is saddened by sliding conditions in her country. Angered by the downturn, she has decided to fight against the crisis "by helping the family and also by protesting in the streets". Like many other abuelos, she is in the frontline of demonstrations against social injustice and cuts in education and health.

“Those who sow outrage will reap revolution”

She is one of the yayoflautas, a term that has been coined for the seniors in the indignados movement, which was born in the spring of 2011. “Yayo” is Castilian for granddad, “flautas” (flutes) refers to “perroflautas” (dog-flutes), an expression invented by the former president of the Madrid region, Esperanza Aguirre, who described the indignados as hippies who played the flute for their dogs.

The yayoflautas, however, do not look like hippies. Distinguished by their grey hair, spectacles and wrinkled faces, thirty of them have turned out in Puerta del Sol square, as they do every Monday at 7 PM, to protest against the policies adopted by Mariano Rajoy’s government. Around his neck, Martos Ruiz-Gimenez, age 74, wears a sign which reads: "Those who sow outrage will reap revolution".

The bright-eyed, round-faced grandfather, who sports a white peaked cap, proudly explains: "My granddaughter wrote it for me." With his small pension of 700 euros, Martos has to support his wife and also one of his granddaughters, Marta, who has resumed her biology studies and prefers to live with her grandparents rather than her parents who are divorced.

Since 2008, Martos has also provided a roof for his son, Marcos, age 44, in the family home which “thankfully” he has finished paying for. An independent craftsman who makes window shutters, a lucrative business during the construction boom which is now in decline, Marcos does not have the funds for a home of his own. "Don’t ask me how we get by. My wife is the one who looks after the accounts, and she doesn’t give me a euro...", affirms the jocular grandfather, before returning to the demonstration.

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

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