Lalo and César welcome us with two dogs wanting to play with our coats. They accompany us along a path of just over 20 meters that leads to the entrance of the communal house, where we meet several other young people. They invite us to a coffee and show us the town they have rebuilt. We have just arrived in Fraguas, a town lost in the Sierra Norte de Guadalajara, after an hour and a half drive from Madrid. A road of just over an hour on the highway after passing the capital of the province and reaching secondary roads dotted with gorse and oaks that pass through small towns, many of them half depopulated, others already dismantled, as was also Fraguas until it began to be rebuilt nine years ago, after nearly half a century in oblivion.
Now Lalo and another five persons face going to jail for two years and a half if they don’t pay nearly 110.000 euros. This is the money that the court of Guadalajara says it will cost for the demolition of the houses they have rebuilt with the same stones with which the original houses were built.
—How did the project to recover the town of Fraguas come about?
—When I was in Madrid I participated in squats and in the housing movement. Then I went to live in the countryside, in the Tiétar Valley [in Ávila]. There, a small group of people who had concerns regarding self-management and food sovereignty, decided to find a place to develop a project based on these values. We did a search for towns throughout the State and this one seemed to be the right one..
The speaker is Lalo Aracil, 36 years old. He is one of the dozen young people who in 2012 decided to leave the city and start a project of living in a community in the middle of nature. They have not been the first. It has been more than 30 years since the neo-rural movement began to gain supporters in Spain and since then there have been dozens of towns returned to life with projects that have created networks of mutual support to escape capitalism.
Fraguas was the chosen place, a town destroyed by Franco in 1969. The Spanish dictator expelled 80 people who lived in this town at that time, demolished the houses, leaving the rubble there, and declared the area a public forest, reforesting it with pine trees. Years laters, the Spanish government used the place for the army to practice shooting, until now it is possible to find some bullets on the soil.
Since his arrival in 2013, they have rebuilt several of the old houses in this town using the same stones that were still scattered around the area, in his original style, called “black architecture”, typical decades ago in the area due to the abundance of slate.
But their project has not been well received by the government of Castilla-La Mancha, which in 2017 denounced the people of Fraguas for crimes against the territory, usurpation and crimes against the environment. In 2019, a court in Guadalajara sentenced Lalo and five other young people who arrived in Fraguas to one year and nine months in prison for land planning offenses and usurpation, although they did not go to prison because the judicial system in Spain contemplates the suspension of entry into prison for sentences of less than two years in prison if the convicted persons do not have a criminal record. But the court also sentenced them to pay for the demolition of the town that they had rebuilt for five years with their work as a public liability and if they don’t pay it, they will go to jail not for a year and a half, but for two years and a half. Last June, the Court confirmed the amount of the demolition works: 109.840,87 euros. They have a last chance to appeal the decision of the Court, but they have no hope that the judge will change her mind, so they have launched a campaign to ask for donations and help them to pay the 110,000 euros to prevent their entry into prison. But meanwhile, Lalo and some of his companions continue to live in Forges.
—How long have you lived in Fraguas? We asked César, 34 years old, another of the young people who received us.
—I came here four years ago. I used to come here often, because I knew people from here for a long time. One day I found them in Madrid selling creams and some beers that had no gas, with cork stoppers. I came here, and the way of life I saw here surprised me a lot, I had never seen it before.
Next to him is Andrea, in her early twenties. She also learned about the project through people who know her because of her activism in social movements.
—Since August 2020 I’ve been coming here biweekly, to be able to combine life in Madrid, but I would like to spend more time here. What motivates me is everything I can learn here, it contributes a lot on a personal level.
Carlos, another of the residents of Fraguas, arrived from Argentina with the return ticket in his backpack, but he did not use it.
—I arrived here almost three years ago. I came for a week and it’s been three years. And I’m super comfortable. The truth is that collective life was a pending task in my life and here that develops super well. We work fine. The collective life of the people here, and also of the people who pass through here, because it seems essential to me that the project transcends us.
The history of Fraguas dates back to the 12th century, according to the historian from Castilla-La Mancha Enrique Herchhoren, who has gathered the history of the town in an extensive report based on the testimonies of the residents of the area. It was always a small town of nearly 20 houses, the town hall building, a church and a cemetery. All are built in the style of black architecture, typical of the area due to the abundance of slate. Most of the little more than 80 inhabitants that there were in Fraguas in the 1960s were dedicated to cattle raising. In 1968, the ministry of Agriculture of the Franco regime ordered its expropriation and elimination as a town to dedicate the area to the reforestation of pine trees and its inclusion in the Sierra Norte de Guadalajara Natural Park. Later, in the 1990s, already under democracy, what used to be a town became a military training area for several years.
When Lalo and his companions arrived in 2012, some parts of the stone and slate walls that had previously been houses were still standing. Also dozens of bullets that testify the passage through the area of the military. They saw it clearly: they wanted to create their community there. The first thing they did was request authorization from the Government of Castilla-La Mancha to put into operation their town reconstruction project, but the answer was negative. They did not give up. A year later, in 2013, they decided to move to Fraguas and begin its reconstruction. They started with the building that would become the communal house of Fraguas, Casa Cándida. It had barely a meter of wall still standing, built with slate stones, as the traditional architecture of the area marks. Dozens of other large stones that were previously part of the wall were scattered on the ground. They dedicated themselves to rebuilding those ruins, maintaining their original style, collecting and reusing those same stones. It took six months to convert it into a house where today is the community kitchen and living room. The kitchen is connected to a circuit that brings the heat generated to the rest of the building, a mechanism that has been applied to the chimney in the rest of the houses. In the following years they managed to raise three more houses from the foundations that still remained.
Shortly after arriving in Fraguas, they received a visit from some of the former residents of the town, who encouraged them to continue with the project and explained to them that, underground, the old Fraguas road was still alive.
“When they told us that there was a cobblestone road in the whole town, we began to dig and throw buckets of water. We have been able to recover it in some parts of the town already, but in most of the town the road is still buried by the earth. This recovery of the streets is a very nice activity, but very hard, we are doing it little by little”, says César.
While they worked to build a roof that would protect them from the cold in the following winter, they also started to work on another of their basic needs: food.
“When we arrived, we made a small subsistence garden, with twenty tomatoes, some peppers, pumpkins… It was testimonial, to feel that we were beginning to manage ourselves, to sustain our food, because food sovereignty is one of the pillars of our project” Lalo explains.
Now the extension of the orchard of Fraguas occupies almost half a hectare. The rows of red cabbages are followed by those of brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, garlic, onions.
“We are preparing the land to plant potatoes again, and we have to clear that piece of land for tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and all the summer vegetables,” explains César, pointing to a piece of land in the center of which there is an old plow machine . “The mechanic of the saw, who is trustworthy, has taken a look at it, but it seems that it only works when the mechanic is here”,
explains Cesar laughing when he sees us looking at the machine, which also has its own history. As they explain, the machine was bought by the inhabitants of Rala, an abandoned Navarrese town that in the year 2000 was also occupied by some young people. From there it went to Perales de Tajuña, a municipality in Madrid where in 2000 the Bajo el Asfalto Está la Huerta (BAH) collective began to grow crops to produce vegetables under the consumer group model, in which the consumers themselves are the ones who organize to produce their food or purchase it from producers. “The machine spent ten years in Perales de Tajuña, and then it came to Fraguas”, recalls César. They also have beehives and a chicken coop with 15 hens.
They all work in the orchard, and they also all work in the elaboration of products that they sell to finance their life project. “In summer, when there is a lot of fruit production, we make plum, fig and tomato jams”, explains Lalo, who proudly shows the fruit trees that stand between the houses. Right in the center, in front of the entrance to Casa Cándida, César points to a huge mulberry tree. “It is a hundred years old and bears mulberries all summer, the best on the entire planet,” he says.
Right on the other side of that mulberry tree stands the second building that was rebuilt by the settlers of Fraguas: the workshop. It was one of the buildings that were in the worst situation, with only one part of the wall raised that did not reach a meter, but it was the one that was closest to the communal house.
The workshop is the center of the economic life of Fraguas. There they make with the plants that grow freely in the Sierra, medicinal products such as oregano tinctures —anti-inflammatory, analgesic and natural antiseptic— and echinacea —which strengthens the immune system—, propolis, hypericum and rosehip ointments, lavender oils and rose for massage. They also produce craft beer in huge barrels that occupy half of the workshop building.
—We all participate, it is a collective work —says Lalo.
—And how did you learn?
—With the trial and error system. Here there are people who know a little about everything. Now we sell through consumer groups, in squats, direct sales to people we know, through WhatsApp chains. It’s working. The entire economy of Fraguas depends on it.
In addition to the sales of the products they make, mainly in Madrid, César and Lalo detail that they also carry out product exchanges with other towns in the area such as Santamera —a town located 65 kilometers away in which there are currently only 13 registered inhabitants—, Cañamares —160 kilometers away, with 467 registered people— or Albendiego —67 kilometers away, with 46 registered people—. They are towns with which they have established a network of mutual support and with whose population they meet every month, each time in one of the towns, to carry out community work.
“We go to a town and that town decides what work needs to be done, whether to clean a ditch, build a chicken coop or whatever,” explains Lalo.
In addition to the work in the orchard, the preparation of products for sale and communal work together with other towns in the area, the people of Fraguas have other tasks for recovering the native vegetation of the area. Because, although in the 1960s the Franco regime eliminated the town for reforestation, it did not do it very well, since, instead of replanting native vegetation, it decided to fill the area with a type of fast-growing tree for exploitation of lumber.
“The reforestation that Franco did was with resinero pine, which is not native. The only pine that is native to the area is the pine silvestris, which continues to exist in the highest areas of the mountain”, explains César.
Before arriving at Fraguas, César learned about reforestation in Sierra de Gata (Extremadura), where he worked with the Reforest Action association on plantations of native vegetation. When he arrived at Fraguas, reforestation was already being done, and he joined the work.
“We are doing reforestation every year, especially gall oaks, holm oaks, oaks and junipers,” he explains. The reforestations works are carried out, above all, in an area of the mountains that suffered a fire in 2014. “The entire area in the fire had resin pines and we are reforesting it little by little with native trees. About a hundred people got together, we spent the whole day reforesting and then we ate chanterelles with potatoes,” explains César.
The sun is beginning to burn. Going through the five buildings of Fraguas does not take much time. Among them you can still see the foundations of other old houses that could have come back to life. They know that soon they will have to leave.
We sat in the shade to drink one of the beers they produced in Fraguas. It tastes very good.
“Well, now Fraguas beer does have gas, and it’s also very good,” we tell César.
Teaser photo credit: author supplied.