Errekaleor is a former working class neighbourhood that is situated in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Autonomous Community and of the province of Araba/Álava in northern Spain. During the economic crisis, the public services were scaled down as part of severe austerity measures and the barrio was for the most part abandoned. However, in 2013 it was squatted by students, as a reaction on the sky-high rental fees in the region. Gradually Errekaleor became a thriving common and an example for similar initiatives, based on the shared values of solidarity, self-management and radical democracy, despite the opposition of the right-wing mayor and the Basque government. We talked with Iñaki Lo Pepe Foronga, among others responsible for the networking with other commons.
‘Okupas’: social movement, squatting, to live in an empty building or area of land without the permission of the owner.
‘Barrio’: neighbourhood, population next to a city, place outside the city, group of houses.
‘Errekaleor’: a barrio in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz Euskal Herria: old name for the Basque Country in Spain.
‘Portal’: a big door, or main entrance or door of a house from where you can enter.
‘Colectivo’: collective, a group unified by professional work ties.
‘Bloque’: a building with houses with the same hight and similar characteristics.
“[Errekaleor] has always been a very united community in this barrio, very conscious of their social status.”
“I am Iñaki Lo Pepe Foronga and in Errekaleor I do different things, mainly external relations with other colectivos. I build networks and I look what we can offer to other movements and how they can help us back. I’m not alone, though, this is a working group. The story of Errekaleor starts in September 2013, during which the first occupation of the first bloque of Errekaleor happened. At the beginning of the project there were only around ten students, the majority from Vitoria surroundings. These students had to pay an enormous rent in the city in order to be able to study there and they wanted to solve that problem, so they came here. However, it was not only to occupy, they had the intention of looking for a bigger objective, beyond only solving their own housing problem. Then, one day, they arrived to this neighbourhood, they met the neighbours that were left here and they got to know its history.
Errekaleor is a working-class neighbourhood, built in the 60s in Vitoria to host migrant families from all regions who came to work in the factories located in the city surroundings. It was built by church cooperative El mundo mejor which was a charity association with the purpose to help working people that could be at risk of getting socially excluded or depressed due to the lack of housing facilities. They built 32 portales, what we see now in Errekaleor, the sixteen bloques and the church. Then years passed, and it has always been a very united community in this barrio, very conscious about their social status. Proof of this is the 3rd of March of 1976, the moment the working class movement in Vitoria rose up, when the Spanish police killed five workers from Vitoria and one of them was Romaldo Barroso, who was the nineteen years old son of an important working union man who grew up in this barrio.
“Then, in September 2013, in came the students. They entered the first portal with the keys of an old neighbour who had left.”
Some years passed, and the next generations, the children from Errekaleor’s people started moving to other areas of the city, especially during the beginning of the 90s. The barrio started to get new people in the houses again. People, now with different profiles, more migrants, especially from Romania and gypsies. At the same time it was just when real estate became a profitable business, since the government created new barrios all the time. They decreased our public services so people would move away from it, so they could tear everything apart and start building again, but now newer and in their own control. However, things started to get worse at the beginning of the year 2000 and came to a halt by 2009, when the economic crisis hit Spain. There was no point to continue the process. Even though during all those years, some people were holding on because this barrio has a tradition of resistance, but bit by bit, they had to agree to leave because they left them no other options. Then, in September 2013, in came the students. They entered the first portal with the keys of an old neighbour who had left. In the beginning, there were ten students cohabiting with some of the old neighbours, who stayed as okupas.
At the beginning it was a small project because there were only few people, but it got stronger when new people came who were evicted from San Fran 23. These people decided to come and live here provisionally. Before there was only one house, but now with two bloques, the General Assembly of Errekaleor arose. The first year was a start-up year with all the additional growing pains. From the second year in summer, new people came and they were about 50 people. They started to get to know of Vitoria’s government and police force, more people moved here, public spaces started to be restored such as the movie theatre, el fronton, la gasteche, etcetera. And now they can offer culture to the city.
“Here is a coordination moment between working groups, every week, with one or two leaders of each group.”
As the years passed by, the barrio grew. Right now we say we are about 150 people. Obviously, with more people, more things can be done as well. Workload is divided. Our General Assembly takes place every two weeks, either Tuesday evening or Saturday morning. There is a coordination moment between working groups, every week, with one or two leaders of each group. And then there are the working groups itself: the first working groups are the ones necessary for the barrio’s normal issues and activities, and there are other working groups created voluntarily with specific tasks and interests but these ones are not that necessary. The necessary working groups (or the ones that do not change) are Infrastructure that works on rebuilding buildings and other technical issues. Another group is Nourishment which is divided in an orchard, a bakery and a hen house. The orchard is now stronger than ever, the last year it has grown with good productivity, especially in summer.
Then there is the Communication Work Group, who do relations with media, makes videos etcetera. Also, there is ‘Engoetorri’, which we call a welcome group. In this group, if there is someone who would like to join the project, or to move to the barrio, they have to go there. People in this group know which houses are empty, which ones are occupied and whether there is chance of cohabitation and whether issues play out where. Then we have Economics and Culture, these groups organise cultural events such as concerts, theatre and some activities to bring more life to the neighbourhood. Lastly, we have smaller groups. These small groups are External relations, The film club, The dancing group, The printing group and the The boxing group, things like that. Additionally, we have an important group, which is not a working group, but is an important one, is the Women Assembly named ‘Errekarneak’, composed by the assembly of women from the barrio, and they have their own place to meet, and that’s it.
Relations to the outside are quite important, certainly our relationship with the town hall. There have been two phases in our relationship with the city hall. The first one was with Javier Maroto, who was a Major from the right-wing Popular Party, the one that has been governing for two legislatures, from 2013 until June 2015. Afterwards, due to his racist policies and xenophobic political discourse, a popular movement, Gora Gasteiz, arose against Maroto and in favour of a plural, non-racist, anti-fascist base which resulted in the union of the two parties from the left. However, these two parties were not able to govern. The only solution to remove Maroto from the city hall was to give it to the Basque right, the PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco), so to Gorka Urtaran. Until that moment he was the opposition, so he was more or less nice to us. He came to the barrio to have breakfast, to see how things were going and to have an opinion.
“People came together and showed solidarity with Errekaleor and in that sense it was a good thing because it gave a little bit of ‘noise’.”
Before he was on duty, the first electricity cut happened in 2015 (the famous one was the second one) but the first one was in 2015, it was fixed very quickly and it only had an impact outside, people came together and showed solidarity with Errekaleor and in that sense it was a good thing because it gave a little bit of ‘noise’. Urtaran was elected and suddenly was against us. His arguments are not only “you are occupying these properties and you cannot live here,” but also that “those are old houses and in bad condition,” “in Errekaleor you cannot live”, “It’s dangerous.” He offered us to continue the project in a different barrio in Vitoria, which also suffered an expropriation process and its inhabitants were moved from there because, allegedly, it was not possible to live there, and they built new houses. This barrio was Aretxabaleta. Then he offered us to continue the project there on a regular basis and with a social rent that is zero euros but in which we pay with our restoration work. But from the beginning we said “no, our project is in Errekaleor.” If he really wanted to offer Aretzabaleta to students with a social rent, he could do it but not with us.
It stayed like that until 2017, let’s say we were not in danger. With Maroto we were, since there was an official complaint towards the first occupied portal. We won the trial, because the judge said that while there is not a feasible project for this barrio in the meantime the young people living here could stay and not under the condition of okupas, but as young people in a vulnerable situation, which is a different legal status. They appealed, and now it is in a higher court and for the moment all is blocked and they cannot do anything to kick us out.
Therefore, since the trial is blocked and the legal ways are done, they continued to make our lives miserable with technical issues and with the argument that those were not proper living conditions, etcetera. Then, in May 2017, not the town hall but the Basque government, while doing an assessment of the alleged ‘danger’, decided to cut the electricity power for security reasons. They did a deployment, we heard about this the night before they came. We organised a resistance the way we could, people stood in front of the electricity radiator where they were supposed to cut the electricity, we placed a lot of debris around the scaffold and a human wall.
“Even though we had no electricity, we organised three days of festivities nevertheless.”
That was passive resistance and one by one, they were taking us out, they hit us, but it gave time for people from Vitoria to arrive to cheer us on, to put pressure on the police. The firemen refused to cut the chains between the people and police had to find other ways. It was all a lot, but in the end, they got it done. However, what we got from this was a big social impact and then in all Euskal Herria and a lot of places in the state they noticed what Errekaleor was. Even though we had no electricity, we organised three days of festivities nevertheless. A lot of people came with electricity generators, it was very cool.
Then, we decided the 3rd of June (two weeks later), to organise an enormous mobilisation. There were around 10.000 people. The idea was that if they attack Errekaleor, they are attacking everyone who believes that something can be done in this world. Following this idea, twelve columns were organised: the column for the defense of the earth, the feminist column, the occupation column, the Euskara column, the young people, the workers movement, students, diversity… a lot of stuff. It was very exciting, it was very good. That day we made public the decision of a co-founding campaign. Our objective was to get 100.00 euros in 40 days to get renewable energy here in the form of solar panels. And we got it: we received 108.00 euros and now we are in the installation process, only it’s going quite slow.
“If they put us down, the news will spread all around. It is worth stating that [Errekaleor] has become an occupation reference and other projects have followed in our footsteps.”
Now we are in a moment where the town hall is fully against us. They just approved a demolition plan, and gave money to a company to draft the demolition plan of this barrio. However, for the eviction of the people, they need a legal order that they don’t have it yet. So we stand there, the demolition plan is moving forward, but the legal phase is stopped. They say, however, they will move forward. A lot of people know the project and at state level it is also known. So, whatever happens, not everything will be lost. If they put us down, the news will spread all around. It is worth stating that this has become an occupation reference and other projects have followed in our footsteps.
It is important to say that this barrio is property of Ensanche 21, this is a public-private company from Vitoria, a company with 51% public participation and 49% private. This company manages the urban planning projects, renovation projects and new barrios in Vitoria. Therefore, even if the political parties decide something, it can be stopped, but at the same time there is the condition of the interest of that 49% of private participants, who are the ones who invest the money. At the end, this company expropriates properties, kicks out people, they give them money and then, they demolish the entire barrio, and build something else and they get money from this.
Our values unite us and transcendent labels. We don’t say we are anarchists, Marxists and feminists, but we agree on our values, which are anti-capitalism, feminists, euskaltzales, the occupation itself and autonomy, and self-management. We are open to have a dialogue with the town hall, even to reach an agreement, but our ‘red line’ stands regarding our autonomy, our self-management and we will always decide what should be done here. Another one would be fairness, horizontal organisation in all areas. We try to be as much participative and egalitarian as possible.
“We’re already full of hope right now. Look at us. Despite everything, we’re still here and we’re thriving.”
When people ask me which hopeful legacy I would like to leave behind, I tell them we’re already working on it. Because this project is giving a lot of hope to a lot of people, in the city, in Euskal Herria and at state level and it is seen as an example in many ways. But we also don’t believe this is the only model that will function to reach the future we all want, which is a true democratic co-existence.
There are two scenarios for the future: the first one is a victory of our enemies. The efforts of the town hall and the institutions to kick us out are achieved if they actually manage to destroy the barrio, then the legacy would be the memories, the anger and resistance that would be created. The second scenario is the legacy we can leave behind if we continue with us being an example and continue with what we’re doing. We’re already full of hope right now. Look at us. Despite everything, we’re still here and we’re thriving.”
Interview and photos by Victoria Deluxe
Translation by Claudia Colmenarez-Ortiz