When we bought the ruin that eventually became our Spanish home, the former owner did not know how to write her name on the sales contract. Granted she was over 90, but I had not expected to find illiteracy amongst the older populations of southern Europe. Was this still a common phenomenon in these parts, I wondered?
We live in a small town in rural Andalucía. The local community was primarily agrarian just a couple of generations back, but after the building boom of the late 20th Century most rondeños today work in the service industry. Our part of town, the Barrio San Francisco, is a typical multi-generational neighbourhood with nearly as many nonagenarians as new-borns. While 99% of the children growing up here today start school at 3 years old, some of the older generation, particularly the women, were never taught how to read or write.
Wanting to know more about the history of rural education and the changing role of Andalusian women over the past decades, I decided to have a chat with a family on our street where three generations live under the same roof: the 85-year-old grandma, her 52-year-old daughter and the 19-year-old granddaughter.
Level of education: Illiterate
Antonia was born in Alpandeire (current population 260) in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
“My father died when I was three months old, leaving my mother alone with my brother and myself” she tells me. Her mother gave birth to five children, though the first three didn’t survive, which was not unusual here at the time. As a widow with two youngsters, she had to take whatever job she could to make ends meet. She would walk nearly 19 km to Ronda to work as a farm labourer for a few days, after which she would walk back again in her Alpargatas, the typical Spanish rope and cloth sandals. “We walked everywhere, says Antonia. There was no other way”.
Although there were schools in most villages and travelling teachers visited larger rural farms, her mother had to move around so much that the children never attended school. When Antonia was four years old, they moved into a cave called la Cueva del Albanico located on the trail between Alpandeire and Ronda. Her mother had by this point met a widower, whom she later married. Antonia remembers her stepfather as un buen hombre (a good man), even building a bread oven for their cave-house. He worked for a landowner, receiving part of the crop as his only renumeration. Life was not easy by our standards, but at least they had food.
“The four of us would walk to the farm where we would work all day. There were no machines, so everything had to be done by hand”.
Some years later the family moved to Ronda where Antonia became apprenticed to a dressmaker. From the age of 12 until she became widowed at 62, Antonia sewed clothes for the families in our neighbourhood, most of whom paid her only when the completed outfits were delivered. Some didn’t pay at all. Although she was illiterate, Antonia learned how to scribble down basic numbers and letters and developed her own code to remember her client’s measurements. She would bring her old sewing machine under her arm if the clients couldn’t lend her theirs. Antonia clearly remembers the day when she finally had money to buy a sewing machine with a manual foot pedal – a great improvement. Only decades later would her daughter buy her an electric sewing machine.
Antonia married a football player and carpenter in 1961 and they had three children. “I would have liked to have more, but there was simply no space” she says. The whole family, 12 people – her mother (again widowed), her brother with his wife and four children, as well as herself with her husband and their children lived in a small two-story home. Her brother’s family had the only bathroom, so her own lot had to make do with a honey-house in the courtyard with a curtain serving as door.
Since her husband’s income mostly disappeared in cigarettes and alcohol, Antonia was the family’s main breadwinner. Like her mother before her, she worked herself to the bone. She fed her family and even bought a house through her own labours. When she became a widow in 1996, Antonia finally stopped sewing and moved in with her daughter and family. I ask her what she likes to do now. “Nothing. I sewed a lot, and I am tired” says Antonia. At 85 she can finally allow herself to rest a bit.
Talking of resting, Antonia’s mother died at 93, never having had any serious illnesses during her long and hard life.
Name: María del Mar
Occupation: Self employed jeweller
Level of education: Primary
Like mother like daughter they say, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Antonia and her daughter.
María del Mar was born in 1969, when Spain was still under Franco’s autocratic rule. While tourism had started on the coast, life in inland Andalucía was still quite harsh. “There was no social security then” she tells me. “We had no money to pay for doctors or medicine, so we simply couldn’t allow ourselves to get sick”. María del Mar had to leave school after her primary education and start work to help support the family, while her brothers helped their father in his carpentry business. “I would have liked to study and become a secretary, but it wasn’t possible” she admits.
At 13, she got a job in a shop in our neighbourhood – one of those tiny corner stores that had everything from fresh food to house paint. She worked from 9 in the morning until 11 at night tending the shop, with only a short lunch break in the afternoon. Although they were long days, she loved dealing with the public. Luckily, her boss was a fair man, even paying for half her wedding dress when she got married. In the morning before work, María del Mar had to pick up a pail of milk for the family, and to earn a few extra pesetas, she also prepared a doctor’s young son for school. “We bought only what we needed for each day, if there was money. We ate what we had and NOTHING was ever thrown out”.
Every cent she earned went directly to her family.
“I picked up the milk every morning until I was 21 and even then, it came straight from the cow”.
” What!” I exclaim.
“I mean that the milk came directly from the cow’s udder and into my bucket straight in front of my eyes” she explains.
Life was very different in Andalucía compared to Northern Europe in those days. This was just back in the 1980s, when we, the kids up in Scandinavia, were worried about learning the latest Disco moves…
María del Mar married in 1992 and had two children, but she never stopped working. She would go to nearby villages to sell jewellery during the day and sew toys by the unit after work late into the night. Through her and her husband’s thriftiness, they managed to save up enough to buy a home and a property in the country where they grow olives. “People do not buy as much jewellery as in the past” she tells me, but she still sells, makes and repairs jewellery 25 years later. When her husband lost his job a couple of years back and needed retraining for a new profession, María del Mar, then 50, became the family’s sole breadwinner. Nothing seems to stop the women of this family!
Name: María del Mar
Level of education: in 2. year at University of Seville
When María del Mar Jr. was born in 2001, it was a whole new era in rural Andalucía. Primary and lower secondary school has become compulsory in Spain. Boys and girls receive the same education and have equal chances at attending university. Just like the other kids in the hood, she began school when she was 3. Even though she always helps her mother with social media for her jewellery business, she has never had to help support her family.
I do not worry about our young neighbour. She is as hardworking as her mother and grandmother, the only difference being that she is dedicating her time to her studies. She completed her Senior High School or Bachillerato with top marks, and speaks English and French, in addition to having learned ancient Greek and Latin. Due to her superior grades and the fact that her mum is the only one who is presently employed, her university education is partly covered by government grants and scholarships. At present, she is in her 2nd year at the University of Sevilla where she is taking a Bachelor of English Studies. Though she has never travelled to an English-speaking country, she is the only one in her year who has received an Erasmus grant for a year at Bristol University starting this September!
With an illiterate (but very capable) grandmother, and a mother with only a basic primary education, María del Mar Jr. will be the first person in her immediate family to get a university degree.
“I have offered to teach my grandma how to read and write, but she says it is too late. More than anything I think grandma likes to sit and enjoy a meal with the family, because she experienced so much hardship in her childhood”.
María del Mar Jr. is not alone in achieving higher education: 45% of young Spaniards today have attained a higher educational level than their parents. Spain is now amongst the countries with the highest levels of upward intergenerational mobility in education, particularly when it comes to young women.
75% of her high school classmates wanted to go on to university, especially the girls. It is rare to have stay-at-home mothers nowadays, even in remote and rural Andalusian villages. María del Mar tells me that most of her friends’ mothers work outside the home, but the gender roles are still quite traditional. Whereas the fathers tend to be employed in retail, auto industry, transport and own restaurants, the mothers tend to work in education, health services, house cleaning and secretarial jobs.
María del Mar has always wanted to be a teacher. I ask her whether the fact that she grew up with a grandparent who couldn’t read or write affected her career choice.
“Perhaps…” she smiles shyly. She is after all only 19.