Villagers of Peñarrubia. / E. MIRANDA

Keeping the memory of a sunken village alive

In 1972 the inhabitants of Peñarrubia in Malaga province were forced to leave their homes because they were going to disappear forever under the waters of the Guadalteba reservoir

ROSSEL APARICIO / ENRIQUE MIRANDA

'This was the street where the boys used to go for a walk with the girls they liked. The hours we spent there!" Antonio Mora reminds his wife, María Ortiz. They both grew up in the village and have been together for 50 years. There is nowhere to promenade now, no fountain, no stone cross, no cinema or school. Peñarrubia was a small village, with about 1,700 inhabitants, but it had a town hall and Guardia Civil building whose archway still stands, defying the passage of time. The present level of the Guadalteba reservoir is so low that the remains of houses, bars and shops can be seen. Below the water lie this couple's roots, childhoods and happiest memories. They speak fondly of what they remember, but are sad as well: "They wiped it off the map, but they can't erase it from our hearts," they agree.

Peñarrubia became independent from Teba in 1857, and in 1973 it was submerged after the reservoir was built. A year before, exactly 50 years ago, all the residents were forced to leave their homes, businesses and land behind and start a new life, many of them in nearby villages or the Santa Rosalia district of Malaga city.

Although so many years have passed, they and younger family members are trying to keep the memory of their village alive. They have created the Rosario de Peñarrubia association, they organise a pilgrimage in the area every five years and have just built a chapel to mark what used to be the entrance to the village. It will also serve as a meeting place for those with links to Peñarrubia.

People had to start again from scratch in other places and many went to the Santa Rosalía district of Malaga"They may have wiped the place of our birth off the map of Malaga, but they can never erase it from our hearts"

Juan Mora is known as the "official historian" of Peñarrubia because he has moved heaven and earth to find photos and documents to show the history of his beloved village. He has an excellent memory for exact dates, data and anecdotes, but it is his personal experience that helps others to understand how emotional local people feel about what they have lost.

"I was 21, and I moved to Malaga. When the village had been abandoned and the water was only about 200 metres away, I came on my motorcycle one day after work. It was a ghost village, deserted. I slept all over the place, in the threshing areas, in some of the houses. I needed to be there, I was really upset," he said. He is one of the few lucky ones whose present home is close to what used to be Peñarrubia.

Two-week ultimatum

"When I hear someone say they are going home for the annual fair, I ask myself where I'm going to go. I have nowhere to go back to," said Cristóbal Ríos, 71, almost in tears. "It's sad to remember what happened and it still hurts, even today. We live in Santa Rosalía, but Peñarrubia is home and always will be," he said, firmly.

"I didn't want to leave, but we had no choice. When I got on the bus that last day, I couldn't stop crying. It felt like the end of the world," said his wife, Salud Bandera.

The people we spoke to said they all felt something valuable had been stolen from them. For years there had been talk of the village disappearing because a reservoir was going to be built, but nobody actually thought it would happen. "Even my father heard people saying that when he was a boy. There was a plan for a reservoir at the beginning of the century, but it wasn't built until 1975. Some people even worked on the construction but they still couldn't bring themselves to believe that the village would be submerged," said Juan Mora.

The rumours about Peñarrubia having to be evacuated went on for so many years that the administrations gradually stopped carrying out improvements or repairs to infrastructure. Some people accepted that this was to be their fate and started to move elsewhere in the early 1970s, but it was in mid-1972 that there was a mass exodus. With the works completed and the water approaching the houses, the Southern Hydrographic Confederation gave them a two-week ultimatum: 28 October was the cut-off date. After that, nobody was allowed to live there any more.

Documents from the time show that the last to leave were two town hall employees, the postman and two Guardia Civil officers, along with a few residents. They were given houses to compensate for the ones they had had to leave, and some people also received money. Soon after, the houses were demolished so nobody could occupy them again. The last buildings remaining were the school, the Guardia Civil station and the church. The cemetery was covered with a layer of cement. Then the land was flooded and in periods of drought the belltower of the church - which was demolished years later - used to stick out of the water of the reservoir.

For Francisco Durán, one of the oldest former residents, this was one of the worst experiences of his life. "It was like someone had stabbed you, it hurt so much. The feeling of having lost everything, your house, your land, the place where you were born...it was terrible," he said.

When everyone left, there was just desolation. "The cats used to gather by the church door and people used to give them food, but then there was nobody to feed them," he added, sadly.

However, despite 50 years having passed since that awful time, the memories of his village are as vivid as ever.

"Peñarrubia will never die as long as we, its people, are still alive," he said.

The chapel is a smaller version of the village church. / R. APARICIO

A chapel and a pilgrimage to maintain a community spirit

On a piece of land in Peñarrubia, which now belongs to Campillos, a small chapel has become a meeting point for the 'peñarrubieros', as local people are called. It is a smaller copy of the village church and the association has spent years building it, despite the financial challenges and the bureaucracy involved. "The first stone was laid in 2015, then the building work began in 2016 and it was finished on 21 April this year," said José Durán, the president of the Rosario Association. Beside the chapel are reproductions of the stone cross and the fountain which once stood in the village. There is a pilgrimage every five years, with the image of the Virgen del Rosario, the patron saint. Another image from the church is also carried in the Malaga Easter processions, under the name of María Santísima de Nueva Esperanza.