She realised when she was nine years old that her childhood was over. It wasn’t her choice, but circumstances meant she had to leave school to work on the land; swap the four ‘R’s for lessons of life. Her parents, who had six children to support, needed her help. Her shoulder had to be put to the wheel outside and inside the home and studies set to one side. Playtime was over for good for Juani Guerrero del Río, who is now 57.
Juani grew up in the heart of the Serranía de Ronda, looking after the livestock and seeing how her mother never stopped working: first, alongside her husband picking olives, almonds or chestnuts, depending on the season, and then in the house.
“There were no domestic appliances or disposable nappies in those days. The women did the washing by hand and before they could cook a meal they had to collect wood for the fire. They weren’t supposed to get sick or to complain, or even be pregnant. Many of them miscarried while they were working on the land, and they hadn’t said anything about their pregnancy through shame or fear,” Juani says.
The description she gives of her mother is that of a rural woman who, despite her hard life, still managed to find time for others. “She learned from the doctor how to give injections and acted as a midwife. People used to have a lot of children in those days, so I think the contraceptive pill has been women’s best achievement because it has given them the power to decide about their own body,” she says.
Juani says she can’t begin to describe the good her mother did for the family and the village, but at least now she has been able to place a plaque in her name in the doorway of her home. It reads ‘Antonia Gargo’. “That is how she was known in the village, but she was really called Antonia del Río Rubiales,” she explains.
This tribute to Juani’s mother is part of a project started last summer by Atajate council to recognise the “forgotten” work of rural women. As well as Juani’s house, another 200 of the whitewashed houses in this municipality of 168 inhabitants (91 men and 77 women) display tiles bearing the name of the women who live there, or their mothers, grandmothers or aunts who formed part of the history of that family. Like Juani’s mother, some of them feature their nickname.
“She was called Gargo because when she was little she was late to start talking and when she said her first words my grandfather ran to tell everyone that his daughter had said “something” (‘algo’ in Spanish). Over the years, that ‘algo’ became ‘galgo’ and then ‘gargo’, says Juani.
Vicenta the postman’s wife, Pepe the teacher, Anita from Jubrique, Raquel the soldier, María with the squint... “each family decided what name to put on the plaque. Most opted for the nickname, but some decided on the official name or accompanied it with a masculine name. It’s a project which aims to recognise the selfless work of rural women in very difficult times and the decisive role they played inside and outside the home. This doesn’t mean we want to denigrate the efforts made by men, just to pay tribute to those who have never been recognised before,” says the mayor of Atajate, Auxiliadora Sánchez.
"We need to raise awareness"
Lorena Peña, a youth and cultural worker, assisted her with this. She acted as intermediary between the town hall and the people. “Women have played a vital role in history, but the books have often failed to recognise that. We need to raise awareness, and this is one step towards doing so,” says Lorena.
The mayor, who has been in office since 2007, has rubbed a few people up the wrong way with this project. Some men have criticised it. Some think they have ‘thwarted’ the mayor by adding the name of the woman’s husband to the plaque as well.
“Do they think women are worth nothing without their husbands?” demands Juan Carlos Téllez, who agrees that their admirable work should be remembered. “They made all the difference,” he insists.
He only has words of admiration for his own mother, Bárbara Sánchez: “She was the butter that greased the machine that was the family,” he says. Her name is now displayed on a plaque outside his house.
Others don’t hold back in saying they think this is a ridiculous idea. Vicente Sánchez, who everyone calls Enri, has said so directly to the mayor, who is his aunt.
“Nowadays, it’s all about women but the men here have worked really hard too. My mother did more than anybody, but this tribute should be for the whole family, not just the women,” he says. The plaque outside his home says ‘Paqui la de Enri’. Paqui is his wife’s first name, but she wanted his name there as well, so it reads Paqui, Enri’s wife
“Everyone here knows me as Paqui la de Elías, who is my brother, but I didn’t want to put that because it would upset my husband,” she explains to us outside her house in Calle Alpandeire.
Just opposite, the gate to the payground of the only school in the village is ajar. There is no fear here, nor the distrust you sense in towns. It is play time and the shouts of the 16 pupils, together with the horn of the fishmonger’s van announcing his arrival, is all that breaks the perpetual silence of the empty streets.
Atajate is a 20-minute drive from Ronda. It looks over an endless valley of oaks and olive trees, scattered with pink almond blossom at this time of year, and birds of prey soar overhead. You rarely see a soul in this, the smallest village in Malaga province. Maybe, in the afternoon, a child riding a scooter up and down Calle Nueva, pushing with one leg to get up the hill.
Nearby, Paqui’s mother also has a plaque. She is Anita la Jubriqueña. “When there was no doctor’s surgery or chemist in Atajate, my mother used to let the doctor, Diego Guerra, use her living room to see patients,” says Paqui.
Now, there is a pharmacy in the main street, owned by 39-year-old Carmen Sánchez. The plaque outside says ‘Carmen la de La Parada’. That nickname comes from her grandfather Vicente, who for many years ran La Parada bar in the same building. Her father and his brothers later took over the business, and they used to urge the customers to drink more: “Come on, drink up, this is a bar, not a pharmacy,” they would say.
Carmen remembers that clearly. “It’s funny that there is a chemist here now,” she says. She also followed the family tradition and opened Audalazar, one of the three restaurants in Atajate, which is well-known for its home-made dishes (spicy breadcrumbs, tripe, pork cheek in sauce...) and almond cheese.
In the Plaza de la Constitución, outside number 1, is the plaque to María la telefonista. She celebrated her 90th birthday on 29 February, and has happy memories of the years in which she ran the local telephone exchange. That was her job for over 20 years.
“Every time a call came in for somebody, I used to have to run and tell them. Unfortunately, when there was bad news I was always the first one to know,” she says.
María Carrasco Téllez, which is her real name, hesitates when asked why she was chosen for the job, rather than anyone else. Her husband is not as reticent. “She has always known how to stand up for herself,” says Francisco Franco. Unlike some of the local men, he is delighted with this project and approves of its aims. “It’s only fair that women should be recognised,” he says.