You could be a victim, like María, of (gender) violence and poverty (after being evicted twice). And, like María, you could also escape from this vicious circle. She made it through a love story without borders and thanks to the crucial help provided by the Altamar association. This new offering in our Neighborhood Superheroes series takes us into Malaga’s El Perchel and La Trinidad neighborhoods
TEXT: FRANCISCO JAVIER SANCHO MAS IMAGES: LEAFHOPPER
We could sum it all up by saying, for example, that “we visited an academic support project for the social integration of people from a neighborhood at risk of exclusion, in the center of Malaga.” But really, just like love, people’s stories are built up from little hopes and dreams and, one day, we can finally put a face to them. Summarizing them would be as unfair as missing out on the story of María (38). Her longing to get ahead knows no limits. The Altamar project has meant a tremendous leap forward for her four children (16, 14, seven and five years old) and for herself. The personalized lessons for her children, as well as the support she has received from Altamar’s director, has helped her deal with and, even, overcome the emotional impact of the violence suffered in a prior relationship.
Calle Mármoles marks the diffuse frontier between La Trinidad and El Perchel, neighborhoods people actually identify as one with the very same history. We are in one of those small enclaves that are like a whole universe. María was born in one of the few streets still resisting the inexorable advance of urban development plans that blur the neighborhood’s traditional image – with social housing, higher apartment blocks and huge shopping malls – and join it to the center of Malaga with small bridges over the Guadalmedina river
María talks about her life in which neither the circumstances nor the neighborhood have ever made it easy. She has been evicted twice and needs rental assistance grants in order to make ends meet. But Altamar’s help has also been key. A group of women set up this association in 2005, offering support and integral education to nearly 100 children to date, as well as attending to the needs of their families at risk of exclusion. María and her children are an example of the project’s beneficiaries. As on the moon, small steps can represent giant leaps.
This project is highly important for ensuring many children can mentally escape from the confines of exclusion and crime
Small steps, minimal gestures. An afternoon snack, perhaps one of the few meals that day; someone helping María’s son with his homework; or a cooking or road safety workshop. María says that she once attended a workshop given by a beautician who came from Marbella to help the Altamar project. “I used to neglect my appearance,” she says. “No makeup, I dressed badly and didn’t even fix my hair.” And now? “I’ve learned how to pluck my eyebrows.” She did not use makeup because, if she did, jealousy. María started normalizing her fear. Not even when he was out did she dare to look out the window at the street below.
Today, María lives in Avenida de Barcelona. It is no more than a 15-minute walk from Calle La Puente to Avenida de Barcelona. This place is just a little better. But that move only came after many years of struggle and a history of violence followed by a love story. Many lifetimes to go from one street to another. And if the rental costs continue apace, and her assistance grant is not extended, she will not be able to pay for the apartment she lives in now, not very far from the neighborhood. A long corridor and more spacious rooms than where they used to live.
“You’re going to meet him now,” she tells us. She is talking about Christian. She had her two youngest children with him. He has also been a second father to Ainoa and Germán, the two María had with her former partner. Christian arrived from Nigeria 13 years ago. He has not known anywhere else in Spain apart from Malaga. And he occasionally finds jobs doing manual work. They met at a wedding. Christian transmits tranquility. He is a man with gentle eyes and gestures. He is not yet fluent in Spanish, but they understand each other.
Ainoa, the eldest daughter, does not remember very well, but she found out what her mother had been through when searching in a box for a photo of when she was little. Among those keepsakes, she came across a complaint filed for domestic violence. Ainoa was one of the first girls to come to the project and, today, she is studying to get ahead. Her mother María also studied, but only finished basic education. “And I got really good grades,” she adds. “But, as I was the eldest child, I had to start working when I was 14.” As we walk around the neighborhood, Ainoa answers our questions while texting with someone at full speed. We ask her who her guiding light is. “My mother,” she replies without hesitation. We ask her what she learned from her mother. “To never give up.”
But let me tell you another love story. That of Victoria Marín, although no one here calls her that. She is the director of Altamar and, to a large degree, the life and soul of this project since she joined in 2005. Let’s stop calling her Victoria. She is “Peque”. That is how she is known in the district. And, in her large family, with her parents going through various names before getting hers right, it was easier to use that nickname.
She could be taken for a local; only her accent betrays the fact that she came from Madrid ten years ago, in love with a Malaga man with whom she has already had six children. Peque is an educator and, from a young age, worked on volunteer educational projects. She knew no one in Malaga and Altamar was the key to the city for her. Today, not only is she the director, but she is also a friend and companion of many families that have passed through its doors over the years, like María’s.
On the second floor of the San Pablo Nursery, in a building belonging to the Santa María de La Paz Foundation, where Altamar is based, Peque opens a photo album depicting the project’s history. It offers an overview of the facilities and the changing faces of the children who have now left their adolescence behind, like Ainoa. With “the personalized schooling support, the children make much greater progress, especially those who cannot afford private classes. We currently assist a total of 44 children aged 5-16, who belong to some 25 families,” Peque explains.
Evenings at Altamar
“Here they come,” Peque warns us. A racket can be heard coming up the stairs and the temperature rises every evening Monday through Thursday in this part of the neighborhood. Tenyear- old Ezekiel comes in, his open notebook revealing a grade within a circle. It is 6.5. He makes faces to draw attention to himself. He is clearly proud of his Language exam.
The evenings at Altamar are simple, in three phases, Peque explains. The first is the afternoon snack at 5:30. “For some of these children, this is one of the few meals they receive each day.” They alternate between fruit, sandwiches and, occasionally, pastries. The second is the academic support, at 5:45. “The key is that it is personalized,” Peque stresses. And, thirdly, the workshops, which begin at 6:45. Today, they are going to a cooking workshop run by another association – Alacena del Corralón – which, with the energy of a group of nine women, is rescuing the culinary heritage of Malaga and these neighborhoods. Its president is Yolanda Batalla. And, with her energy, she lives up to her surname (battle in Spanish). With her girl-like face, she is barely over 30. No one knows the neighborhood’s anecdotes better than her and she relates them to the tourists, especially in the fairs and cultural weeks.
“It’s a question of responding to needs,” Peque explains, regarding the other sorts of assistance the project offers. “For example, we have a small store of foodstuffs and household products to make up for what these families cannot obtain from other organizations. Olive oil, for example, toothpaste or detergent. Other times, we need a podiatrist for the children and we just go out and look for one. We seek solidarity. And, luckily enough, this is a charitable city.”
Many of the families Altamar serves have one or more members in prison or suffering from drug dependency. That is why this project is so important for ensuring many children can mentally escape from the confines of exclusion and crime. And that is why that tremendous 6.5 in Ezekiel’s Language exam is like a 10 for him and for all those who collaborate here.
The La Trinidad and El Perchel neighborhoods form part of today’s Spain where, far from the front-page headlines, thousands of people are struggling to deal with multiple forms of violence brought on by social exclusion, unable to continue their studies or even enjoy three meals a day.
Altamar also has to get by with the bare minimum. Its annual budget is just 37,000 euros, which it receives thanks to contributions such as that from Fundación MAPFRE, through its Sé Solidario program. But, were it not for the enormous passion of the volunteers and monitors, many of the 100-plus children and their families helped over these years would be living in a more difficult neighborhood. Today, there are no frontiers for its inhabitants. Here, love never surrenders. It proves its worth, achieving miracles by turning around the lives of those abandoned by society. And this is accomplished by everything that money cannot buy.