Marinaleda is a self-described leftist utopia. You wouldn’t know it at first glance. It’s a tiny town with a population of about 2,600, its streets lined with the same two-story, terracotta-roofed houses as any of its neighboring towns in Andalucía, Spain’s southernmost region. But drive down Marinaleda’s single main street and you’ll see murals on many of the municipal buildings in the center of town: hammers and sickles, workers marching through fields, and swastikas being thrown into garbage cans. Take a closer look at its town crest and you’ll see a dove carrying an olive branch and the town’s slogan, “Una Utopia Hacia La Paz,” a utopia for peace. Where the slogan appears elsewhere in town, painted on walls or spelled out in rebar outside the union local, it’s often accompanied by another statement: “Otro Mundo Es Posible”—another world is possible.
The town has publicly funded housing called autoconstrucciónes, self-built houses that cost occupants only fifteen euros per month. Municipal issues are decided in general assemblies, a form of horizontal, direct democracy that allows anyone to raise concerns, debate freely and vote on everything from protests to budgets to town festivals. And in 1991, the town expropriated 1,200 hectares of farmland from a Spanish duke, and now farm the land through a cooperative that provides work to anyone in the town who needs it. They achieved this and more through two decades of near-continuous protests, occupations and direct actions waged against the Spanish government, a period known locally as la lucha, or “the struggle.”
As the far left’s electoral power has dwindled in Spain and Europe, and as the far right rises—Meloni in Italy, Orbán in Hungary, Duda (outgoing but still powerful) in Poland and the fascistic Vox party in Spain, which takes pages straight from Trump’s playbook and is steadily increasing its legislative seats—some consider Marinaleda an increasingly important bastion of egalitarian, collective commitments. This is especially true of leftists outside of Spain. For the European socialists I’ve talked to from Greece, France and the U.K., the town serves as living proof that radical politics can work. In his 2013 book The Village Against the World, the British author Dan Hancox wrote that “Marinaleda presents an anti-capitalist answer” to the question: “What’s your alternative?” “When all around is misery, Marinaleda offers a glimpse of how things might be otherwise.”
When I first heard of Marinaleda, I’d already reached the conclusion, like Hancox and so many others on the left, that what we needed was tangible examples of the world we wanted to build. The left was good at enumerating what was wrong with society, but once you’ve developed an intricate critique of capital and empire, you want to know: What’s next? What world would we actually want to live in? I hoped my time in Marinaleda would help me find out what visionary utopian politics looks like on the ground, with the hopes of making them more achievable elsewhere.
But when I came to Marinaleda, in the summer of 2022, I was disappointed. I found the mayor’s office empty and no one in the town hall who wanted to talk to me. Looking around, I saw kids kicking around a ball outside the middle school, people sweeping their stoops, a few faded awnings of bars and cafés and little else. I saw no sign of assemblies, no new affordable housing being constructed, no more of the direct actions Marinaleda was so famous for. I was confused: Where was the Marinaleda I’d heard about, the one of radical dreams and new possibilities?
I came to learn that the town had stagnated, especially in the last four or five years. Their mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, had been in office for 43 years. He had always been the driving force behind the town’s politics and their achievements, organizing and convincing and agitating. For many, he is synonymous with Marinaleda. “Marinaleda is to Gordillo what Gordillo is to Marinaleda. A total symbiosis,” writes Susana Falcón in her oral history of the town. As recently as 2016, Gordillo told an interviewer that he didn’t believe anyone else in Marinaleda was capable of doing what he did.
Then, about a decade ago, Gordillo’s health began to rapidly decline. He suffered three strokes, and is now paralyzed on his right side. Gordillo’s symbiosis with Marinaleda left the town half-paralyzed too. If Gordillo’s vision is of radical democracy, guided by egalitarianism, collectivism, self-discipline and dignity, the vision itself, or the vision-making process, was never quite democratized. For his ideal of radical democracy to really come to fruition, he would have to trust his constituents to live by his values rather than overseeing every detail of his vision.
These were the issues facing Marinaleda in the spring of 2023 when Gordillo announced, for the first time since 1979, that he would not run in the May 28th municipal election. He was, at last, too old and too unwell. Sergio Gómez Reyes, the deputy mayor, was running as Gordillo’s handpicked successor. Sergio is un hijo de la lucha, a son of the struggle—he grew up living in an autoconstrucción and participating in marches and hunger strikes. He hoped to follow in Gordillo’s footsteps, to maintain and expand the cooperative and the housing projects, to continue the practices of holding assemblies and staging direct actions, to continue encouraging collectivism and discouraging individualism. He wants to reinvigorate la lucha by fighting against the degradation of existing public health care and to modernize the town’s cooperativism by starting a solar co-op with EU funding. Running against him on behalf of Avanza, a coalition of former Gordillo supporters alongside his longtime opponents, is Cristina Martín Saavedra, who is a daughter of the struggle herself. She also grew up in an autoconstrucción and participated in marches and hunger strikes. She also wants to fight against the degradation of public health care, maintain the cooperative and the autoconstrucciónes, and create a solar co-op. But Avanza is deeply critical of Gordillo’s consolidation of power, and they want to break up the all-town assembly into a confederation of smaller affinity groups. They also want to encourage private enterprise, outside investment and a more diversified local economy.
Policy aside, what was really at stake in this election was something closer to the existential: whether this utopian experiment would live on, or needed to be put aside.
The seeds of la lucha were sown in the waning years of fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s rule. For hundreds of years, Andalucía had been one of the most impoverished provinces in Spain, marked by abject wealth disparity. The fallout of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s brutal regime only exacerbated this situation, and between 1950 and 1970, one in every three Marinaleños had to emigrate to find work. For those who remained, life was difficult. Families supplemented meager incomes by gleaning chickpeas and fava beans after harvests, children as young as eleven worked the fields, the town had dirt roads and its trash was picked up by donkey cart.
All leftist activity was illegal. In Marinaleda, in 1936, well within living memory in the Seventies, Franco’s forces executed 25 accused leftists in the streets, including the mayor, and disappeared 27 more. Despite the risks, in the Seventies a group of liberation theology priests began clandestinely organizing field laborers toward unionization in the Sierra Sur, Marinaleda’s region in Andalucía. They were known as los curas obreros—worker priests—because they worked in the fields with their parish members. When the police started persecuting men with beards for their association with leftism, some of the priests grew beards too. The curas brought together groups of workers and neighbors and parents to work toward collective improvements, achieved through the practice of direct assembly, discussion and cooperation. Above all, they were utopianists.
Utopia for them was never a messianic promise. As Manuel Flores Sánchez writes in Lucha Santa, his 2011 history of the Spanish worker priests, their ideal “was never a fixed photo, it wasn’t like Plato’s Republic or More’s Utopia. [It] was an image to inspire action.” The realization of one image should always give way to imagining the next. As Enrique Priego, one of the priests, told Sánchez, “I’m living a kind of appetizer-utopia. But a real appetizer, one that nourishes me, stimulates me, and spurs me towards the true meal.”
Within a year of Franco’s death in 1975, the priests helped form the Union of Rural Workers (the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo, or SOC). In Marinaleda, the local secretary was a young schoolteacher named Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. Gordillo was deeply inspired by los curas: he, too, grew a beard, and he shared the priests’ dreams of putting an end to the authoritarianism, poverty and degradation of the Franco era. He also adopted their iterative process of imagining and then working toward a better world.
This idea still echoes through Marinaleda, even in Gordillo’s absence. “A perfect, finished utopia isn’t possible,” an older cooperativista told me on the patio of a bar one sweaty night. “Utopia is an idea you work toward, and once you make the idea come true, it changes.” He held up both his hands, one holding a cigarette to represent utopia, the other empty to represent their efforts. Each time his empty hand grew closer to the cigarette, the cigarette floated higher. Then he lit up.
In some ways, Gordillo was the fulfillment of the priests’ project. They insisted that their privileged roles as organizers and religious leaders not entrench them in power, instead hoping to pass on leadership as soon as they could. “For me there is no greater pride,” Priego told Sánchez, “than to find people who have surpassed me, and when I hear them speak, to say: ‘They’re much more capable than me; they have clearer ideas; they’re better at realizing their projects; they’ve learned well the lesson.’” Gordillo, the priests believed, would help carry their project into the future.
But this pride in being surpassed was the one lesson Gordillo did not learn from the curas. Liberated by the end of Francoism, Gordillo was able to organize larger and larger groups of people, and by 1978, he had coordinated the first occupation of uncultivated farmland in Spain in four decades. In 1979, he was elected mayor of Marinaleda, and the next year he led a nine-day hunger strike of around seven hundred Marinaleños, with road blockages, occupations and general strikes spreading in solidarity throughout the Sierra Sur. Spain’s Minister of Labor was forced to meet with Gordillo, and agreed to his demand for more reliable distribution of unemployment funds, paving the way for the regularization of unemployment funds across all of Spain. It was not the only time Marinaleda’s lucha has had an impact on broader policymaking: the autoconstrucciónes they pioneered have also spread across Andalucía, subsidized by the regional government.
Gordillo was a brilliant orator. More than one Marinaleño I spoke to compared him to Jesus. People talk about the feeling of purpose he gave them; how his speech before a protest had filled them with righteous energy. He had a gift for making an anti-capitalist agenda matter to people on a personal level. He also had an uncanny understanding of the media and how to wield it. The hunger strike was successful in part because of its timing. Spain was only a year into democracy and the international news coverage the action received was an embarrassment to the new government’s liberal pretensions.
Already by 1979, he began organizing domingos rojos, or “Red Sundays,” inspired by his hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who’d done the same in Cuba. On any given Saturday, a car with a megaphone strapped to its roof would wind its way through every street in town, announcing over and over that there would be a domingo rojo the next day. At 8 a.m. on Sunday, townspeople would come out to volunteer, with Gordillo leading the charge, to pick up trash, maintain the municipal park, clean the schools and repaint the buildings.
From the beginning of his tenure as mayor, Gordillo held assemblies two to three times a week in a converted cinema at the SOC local. At the assemblies, hundreds of Marinaleños would gather in the union hall, seated in plastic chairs, leaning against the walls, their children running around. Gordillo, standing at the front with a microphone, would deliver his “reflections” on politics, the town and his ideas. Then he would present a decision, such as how to spend the town’s budget, whether or not to stage a protest or direct action, or how to organize that year’s party. “I would like to hear what you think, so we can decide what we want, which option is more interesting,” he’d tell the assembly. “Anyone who would like to speak, raise your hand and give your opinion.” Marinaleños would then debate the proposal until it came time to vote by show of hands, and whatever the majority decided would go.
Gordillo intended initiatives like the assemblies, the hunger strike and the Red Sundays to replace what he called the “easy route of electoralism” of most politics, which discouraged reflection and “converted the masses into mere passive consumers of a political market.” Instead, he argued, “It is deeds that transform reality and people; let’s do new deeds that question us from the inside, that break our petit-bourgeois conscience.” The experience of engaging in these radical actions, Gordillo believed, would create what Che and other communists called the hombre nuevo, “the new man,” whose thinking could be summarized as: “I work for the benefit of my class, for my community, for utopia, for the people; not in exchange for money, but simply knowing I’m fulfilling my duty, knowing I’m constructing the society of the future.”
In 1984, new Spanish labor laws centralized the administration of agricultural unemployment relief in Andalucía. Workers now needed sixty days of work certified by an employer to receive unemployment checks, managed solely by the national government without the involvement of municipalities or unions. As a result, union membership declined and some SOC locals disbanded. In Marinaleda, participation in general assemblies and domingos rojos was waning, as Gordillo would frequently complain. But utopianism didn’t disappear in Marinaleda, nor did the assemblies, the Red Sundays or Gordillo’s electoral success.
Gordillo set his sights on a new project: to expropriate a plot of uncultivated land called El Humoso from a local aristocrat, the Duke of Infantado, to set up a farming cooperative. The cooperative would give him the power to certify workdays, and once again to distribute unemployment benefits. But it would also fulfill one of the centuries-old demands of Andalucían leftists: to give the land to those who work it. For several summers in a row, Gordillo led eleven-kilometer marches from Marinaleda to El Humoso, a winding line of raised fists and waving flags in the brutal Andaluz heat. Each day they were forced to leave by the Spanish Civil Guard, only to return the next. Once again Gordillo was able to wield his canny PR instincts: in 1992, Seville was to host the world expo, commemorating the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. This was another step in affirming Spain’s place among the democratic nations of Western Europe and the EU, and the government didn’t want Marinaleños to spoil the spectacle. In the summer of 1991, they acquiesced, expropriating El Humoso from the duke to sell to Marinaleda. On the walls of the farmhouse, Marinaleños painted “This land is for the unemployed workers of Marinaleda.”
By 1997, Marinaleños had formed a cooperative to farm El Humoso. Cooperativistas worked full-time, managing the fields, factories and finances, and divided the rest of the seasonal labor equally between all townspeople that requested it. Seasonal work received the same hourly wage as work on the cooperative, a practice that continues to this day. It’s not year-round employment, but there’s enough that everyone who needs it can work at least sixty days and receive government welfare.
Marinaleños have continued to participate in protests and occupations over provincial and national concerns, but there have been no projects on the scale of what they achieved from 1979 to 1991. Many people I spoke with in the Sierra Sur, from field workers to academics to Communist Party members, consider Marinaleda’s political import to be long past. As it’s found itself increasingly mired in internal conflict, some SOC members from other towns have begun to wonder whether Gordillo has weakened the Andalucían left as a whole.
The news is hardly all bad. Over the ensuing decades, El Humoso has reinvested all of its profits into further infrastructure, including a canning factory and an olive oil factory, creating more jobs. Marinaleda’s unemployment rate of around 8 percent during the brutal financial crash of 2012 was roughly half of the rates of most of its neighboring towns, and a quarter of that of Andalucía in general. And the autoconstrucción project has continued apace, with 239 homes built so far, providing affordable housing for about one in four Marinaleños.
Still, over the years, some of Gordillo’s supporters grew disillusioned as he proved increasingly unwilling to entertain any vision other than his own. Even during the boom years of the collective, Gordillo began forcefully criticizing those in the assembly who had not participated in the latest action or Red Sunday, whom he called, according to Félix Talego Vázquez in his 1996 ethnography of Marinaleda, “renegades, insolidarios, layabouts who deny the evidence of revolutionary light.”
And those who disagreed with him were at first politely ignored, but if they insisted, Gordillo made them unwelcome in assemblies, shutting them out of El Humoso and the autoconstrucciónes. As some Gordillo supporters admitted to Vázquez, Gordillo had “burned many people” over the course of his time as mayor.
Gordillo’s last major action was in 2012. At the height of Spain’s financial crisis, when the national unemployment rate was around 25 percent, Gordillo led a group of SOC members to two chain supermarkets outside of Marinaleda, where they filled shopping cards with food, walked out without paying, and donated the items to local food banks and homeless families. The walkout garnered massive news coverage, both nationally and abroad—a bold, symbolic statement of expropriation and redistribution. Initially Gordillo rode his usual wave of favorable coverage; headlines dubbed him “the Spanish Robin Hood” and “the Don Quixote of the Spanish Crisis.” But within a year or two, as its shock value faded and the news cycle churned on, he was villainized by the right. Okdiario, a conservative media outlet, led the charge, culminating in a series of articles over the past couple years calling Gordillo a “dictator” and a “cacique” (somewhere between a corrupt politician and a mafioso). At the same time, Gordillo’s health began to decline. The struggle had started to catch up with him—the arrests, the hunger strikes, the long marches in hundred-degree weather. He had one stroke, then another, then another.
In a video of his victory speech in 2019, after he nearly lost to Avanza, Gordillo shouts that anyone who doesn’t support him is “destined for the darkness.” He looks unsettled, even fearful, that after forty years he had come so close to losing it all. The video still circulates in town on WhatsApp, and the phrase, in its peculiar, threatening poetry, has become infamous.
The political divide in Marinaleda is also a social divide. Neighbors don’t speak to neighbors. People gossip bitterly on both sides. And, depending on which bar you go to, you’ll hear drastically different interpretations of what Marinaleda stands for.
One of the bars is Palo Palo. The outside of the bar is adorned with a forty-foot guitar shaped like the region of Andalucía. The action happens out on the patio, under the guitar, where the smell of grilled pork mixes with the spicy sweetness of ubiquitous spliffs, and where two servers bustle around with tintos de veranos (coke mixed with wine) and two-euro beers. Everyone knows everyone by name. Ska-punk blasts on the speakers, occasionally interspersed with Kraftwerk or Tibetan chanting if someone too high gets on the aux.
This is where the most outspoken Avanza supporters hang out. “You see what it’s like here,” they’d tell me. “It’s a dictatorship.” They felt threatened and unsafe expressing their opinions. Some were former cooperativistas, some never supported Gordillo. Others were more moderate in their criticism. They said they believed Gordillo’s achievements should be acknowledged but that his ideas had run their course.
One night, I sat at Palo Palo with Traga, one of the organizers of Avanza, who complained bitterly to me about the hypocrisy of Gordillo’s camp, that they claimed horizontality when Gordillo was so clearly an authority. Not long after, a car ripped through the night, speeding from one end of the main street to the other and turning into an empty lot near the bar to spin donuts before shooting off again.
“Estos gilipollas,”—these dumbasses—Traga muttered, watching the dust blow away.
For Traga and many others at Palo Palo, these kids were totemic of the moral degradation Gordillo had wrought—the youth who work as little as possible so they can live off unemployment, who grow and sell weed out of their autoconstrucciones, and who don’t really believe in the politics but have been manipulated into voting for Gordillo and Sergio out of a sense of gratitude. In short, they were not the hombres nuevos Gordillo had promised.
The rápidos y furiosos, meanwhile, like to hang out at Bigotes, a bar down the street with posters of muscle cars adorning the walls and reggaeton blasting from the speakers. A shisha pipe is often passed around, and when I was there, at any given time at least one person was rolling a spliff. It’s full of kids who’ve grown up believing that their homes, their jobs, their parents’ jobs—everything that makes their town powerful—is thanks to Gordillo. “They want to take this all away,” they’d tell me. “They want to destroy our town.” Avanza is full of individualists, they’d say, people who care about themselves and their own money and no one else.
The youth of Bigotes don’t attend the assemblies as much as the older generations, but many work for El Humoso during the harvests. Some work during the peak season and then spend the rest of the year on unemployment. Others work every harvest. Others commute to nearby towns for service jobs, or own their own businesses. Some grow and sell weed out of their autoconstrucciones and drive fast down La Libertad. Others don’t.
At the end of March, the call for workers went out the same way it had for decades: an old car winded its way through every street in town, a megaphone strapped to the roof, the person in the passenger seat saying over and over again that the fava harvest would start tomorrow. We showed up before dawn, and the air was dewy and cold. Women wrapped their hair in scarves; the men donned wide straw hats. Most people were wearing kneepads—sometimes just pieces of foam ripped from old furniture and tied with twine. Many had already lit cigarettes, the tips glowing in the waning darkness, and amid the dusty smoke wafted the scent of weed.
It’s grueling labor, picking beans from foot-high plants for eight hours a day with thirty minutes for lunch. By the end of the first week, my knees, my lower back and the tendons of my hands were all stiff, swollen and angry. Over the course of the harvest, I came to apprehend a kind of bean-logic that helped me keep up with my colleagues, an inexpressible understanding of how and where the beans tended to grow and how this shifted between patches of soil and different rows. The most important asset, though, seemed to me the perseverance required to survive week after week, year after year, of this backbreaking work.
I came to realize how easy it is for people like me to talk up the idea of socialist utopia in the abstract. But the more time I spent in Marinaleda the more I understood that to practice utopian politics is the opposite of abstraction. It means attending long cooperative assemblies after eight hours of sunburn, back injuries and heat exhaustion. It means work. A cynic might say the struggles of the Marinaleños to keep their project alive attests to its ephemerality, if not impossibility. But that perseverance in the face of difficulty may be precisely the proof that it is feasible to uphold the possibility of another world.
Avanza supporters say Gordillo has deliberately thwarted the kind of outside investment that might create new job opportunities for residents. (Most prominently, another food canning company formed in Marinaleda in 2012, but had to move out in 2022 under contested circumstances.) Neighboring towns have more manufacturing plants and a wider variety of locally owned businesses. In Marinaleda, the main career choice, if you want to keep living in town, is to work on El Humoso. This lack of alternatives, critics say, is why many young Marinaleños who leave to complete a university degree rarely return for good.
Yet this is happening not just in Marinaleda but all across rural Spain, where white-collar jobs are in short supply and larger cities beckon. For those who do wish to work the land, El Humoso offers a dignity that few other field-labor jobs do. At El Humoso, you don’t have to work as fast as at other places. The cooperativistas are friendly and don’t display any of the haughtiness or condescension that often comes with being in charge. For one thing, they’re not profiting off you; everyone is paid the same hourly rate. For another, they earnestly believe themselves to be of the same class as the people who work these seasonal jobs year-round. Some cooperativistas were still illiterate when they joined the cooperative and learned to read primarily to better serve El Humoso. They don’t care if you smoke weed. The fact of the matter is that food has to be cultivated and harvested by someone, and farmhands deserve as much dignity as anyone else.
The fava harvest was much shorter than it should be, though. It lasted a total of ten days, and though people were relieved they could rest, they were and are concerned. There were fewer favas because there’d been no water that year. Climate change is drying out Andalucía. That spring, the skies seemed pregnant with rain every few days. Sometimes they’d let loose a light shower that moistened the soil, but it was not nearly enough. The cooperativistas were worried for their artichokes, their olive trees, their peppers, their futures. Every time I saw a cooperativista, I’d ask them how El Humoso was going. They’d just respond with “malo” and a shake of the head.
Campaigns in Spain can legally begin only a couple weeks before the election. At midnight, the moment Thursday the 11th turned to Friday the 12th, a group of teenagers started pasting up posters for Sergio. His slogan: “For a future full of utopia and collective dreams.”
Elsewhere in town, a group started pasting up posters for Cristina. Her slogan: Por un Cambio de Verdad. It translates best as “for a real change,” but every time I read it, I thought it could equally translate to “for a change in the truth.” By morning, many of Cristina’s posters had already been ripped down by Sergio supporters.
The next day, there was an election rally for Sergio, with a raised stage, a projection screen and a large PA system set up outside the SOC local. The meeting was supposed to start at 8 p.m., but half an hour later people were still arriving. A campaign video started to play on the screen, and the crowd shushed itself quiet. The video opened with a drone shot of the town from high above and the voice of an old woman saying, “The youth have to remember what their parents and their grandparents did. We need to preserve this in our collective memory.” The words “la lucha” wiped across the screen as the song “White Room” by Cream blared in the background, followed by quick cuts showing a montage of long marches, general assemblies, crowds waving the green-white-green striped flags of Andalucía, police dragging protesters away for arrests, masses descending on a train station to block the tracks. Sergio came on screen, promising to renew the fight. “Our past was collectivist. Our present, and our future, must continue to be collectivist,” he said. An older voice added, “Marinaleda will cease to understand itself if la lucha ends.” Some people, like Sergio, think that the values of la lucha can only be taught through more struggle, that Marinaleda needs a new cause. Sergio believes it could be the fight to maintain public health care, which is rapidly being eroded in Spain.
After the video and some introductions, Sergio dedicated a few words “to our ideological father, our referent, our mayor, Sánchez Gordillo.
“I need to make one thing clear,” he continued, “this town loves you… This has all been thanks to you, your intensity, your perseverance. We will be eternally grateful to you.” The crowd broke into applause, rising to their feet and chanting Gordillo’s name. Gordillo, who had been sitting in the front row, stood up with the help of his wife. He turned around and faced the people, waving with his left hand. (His right hand remained behind his back, perhaps to hide its violent tremors.) Though his face is partially paralyzed, he couldn’t repress a huge smile.
The following week, Avanza held a meeting on the patio of Palo Palo, barely a minute’s walk from the SOC local, equipped with little more than a microphone and a single stool for whoever was speaking.
“First of all, we want to thank you all for coming because we know it’s a brave step to take,” said Avanza candidate Claudia Martín de Juan, starting off the meeting. She’s in her early twenties, in a black tank top and skinny jeans, black and white tattoos decorating her arms. There were only fifty or sixty people present, though this is only a fraction of the popular support for Avanza within the town. People are hesitant to openly show their support for Avanza. Rumors—most of which I was not able to verify—go back decades about the retaliation people have received for openly opposing Gordillo: threats of physical violence, family olive trees cut down in the night, cars lit on fire. Certainly Gordillo cultivated a Manichean political culture, in which you were either fully committed to the cause or you were la contra, the opposition, and Avanza members are widely considered traitors by Sergio supporters. Claudia, the young woman who started the meeting, told me that all but her closest friends from growing up in Marinaleda hate her for her participation in Avanza. This was the true darkness Gordillo promised they were destined for.
The Avanza candidates took turns speaking. “I just want to say,” one of the candidates added at the end of his speech, “you can get accustomed to being in the darkness. And it’s not so bad.” Everyone laughed. They wanted an end to the social division, the silence and hostility, even if it meant an end to their utopia.
On the day of the election, it finally rained. On and off all day, slanting torrents powerwashed the dusty streets, soaked the arid trees, pummeled the awnings of the cafés and bars. Then the sun burst out and everything started steaming. Marinaleños hurried down the sidewalks with white envelopes in hand, bringing their pre-filled ballots to one of the two voting centers in town. When the rain came crashing down again, a group of lycra-clad cyclists ducked into the awning of the bakery where I was drinking a coffee. “So this is the darkness,” one of them joked.
At eight, the polls closed, and half the town crammed into the first voting center to watch the vote count begin. Because it has fewer voters, it was projected to announce the count faster. The percentage of the vote for each party would determine how many of the eleven council seats they’d hold. In past elections, IU had usually held eight or nine seats, but they currently had only six; the election could swing control to Avanza. Everyone was damp from the rain, and with the heat of the bodies, the room felt like a sweltering sauna.
The only sounds were muttering, the clinking of coins in a cigarette machine and the voices of the two vote counters reading out the ballots, droning on and on, licking their fingers to turn each page. Occasionally, when the murmuring of the crowd got to be too much, a chorus of shushing would break out. Everyone was tense, craning their necks. One of Sergio’s councilor candidates chewed her nails. Antonio, a son of la lucha, told me he was scared. He was born in El Humoso, in the farmhouse, in the early days of the cooperative when his parents’ turn in the rotation of volunteer security guards overlapped with his pregnant mother’s due date. Avanza councilors stood next to the vote counters, watching intently and marking tallies in their notebooks.
When they finished, they double-checked the counts, and the vote counter’s voice rang out: “Sergio: 357. Cristina: 170.”
The room exploded into applause, yells, whistles. People turned to each other and hugged. A Sergio supporter shook his fist at the Avanza councilors, swearing at them while his friends pulled him away. Everyone pushed out into the street, where it was raining again, where car horns were already honking.
Sergio seemed primed to win, but there were more votes to count. People piled into their cars to rush to the other voting center. The rain came down harder. People bunched together under trees, flattened themselves under the narrow awnings of buildings. Someone wore a SOC flag as a cape. I only saw IU supporters out in the streets, as word spread that the final count was about to be announced. Sergio won, a total of 1,071 votes to Cristina’s 795.
“To the union!” someone yelled, and the crowd—several hundred strong—headed over, chanting Sergio’s name. Gordillo appeared in person, helped along by his wife, hugging all the newly elected councilors. This time they’d won by a margin of 276, instead of last election’s 44. For now, at least, it seemed the people still held faith in the power of la lucha, in Marinaleda as a model for what the world can be.
Suddenly, someone inside the union hoisted a pair of speakers against the bars of a window, and Sergio was passed a microphone.
“We’re going to continue working from the bottoms of our hearts for the collective good, and never for individuals like other candidates promised,” Sergio said, and the crowd roared. “We have to pass on to the next generation of young people that we have to defend our project like the trenches, we have to go house by house, door by door, making sure they know that everything we have didn’t fall from the sky but came from a great deal of sweat and suffering.” They roared again.
“I just want to say, we should celebrate this victory, but always while respecting the adversaries,” he added. “We know how to celebrate this without provoking or attacking the adversary. In the end, we’re all from the same town.”
The party continued until dawn. At one point I jogged over to Palo, where fifteen or twenty Avanza candidates and their strongest supporters had gathered, despondent, nursing beers. For the first time I could recall, there was no music.
“Another four years of war,” I overheard someone say.
A week after the election, I sat down with Sergio in his new office. It was decorated the same as it had been when Gordillo was mayor: two clenched fists chained together on his desk; Che Guevara and an aerial photo of Marinaleda on the walls; a big easel pad in the corner where the town’s budget gets sketched out.
We talked about what he’d learned from Gordillo: the power of assemblies, of solidarity, of dreams. How did it feel to fill the shoes of someone so influential?
“Look,” he told me. “Gordillo is one person and I’m another. We’re unified by la lucha: the struggle against injustices, for cooperatives, for our sovereignty. But I’m not going to try to copy him. That would be an error.”
A few minutes later, his phone, sitting between us on the desk, lit up. We both glanced at it—Gordillo was calling him. Sergio clicked it silent.
And maybe that was all there was to it. The utopia lives on. Like Gordillo learned from the curas obreros, Sergio followed in Gordillo’s footsteps, and despite Gordillo’s unwillingness to relinquish power, age finally forced his hand. Still, the town remains deeply divided. Friends and families once united by la lucha no longer acknowledge each other in the street. Without major reconciliation, I can’t see the utopia surviving many more elections like this.
The maintenance of any utopian community is an endless and largely thankless labor. It requires more than stasis, but ongoing effort, to align and update the vision that brought people together in the first place. It relies on interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution and persuasion as much as the strength of any set of ideals. And right now, it’s not clear anyone is willing to do that work—not least those in charge.
“In every political project, there are dissidents,” Sergio told me. “Our plan is that in four years we have more adherents, more sympathizers, more votes. That will be our sign that we’ve done well.” So the plan is to win more votes, I asked, but not to make amends on a personal level with some of the people in Avanza who were burned by Gordillo?
“No,” he responded. “We have very different political projects.” Weeks later, after I left Marinaleda, someone sent me photos of a protest for public health care in the Sierra Sur. Sergio is there, of course, with a megaphone, and a bloc of supporters. Traga, the Avanza organizer, is there, too, with some Avanza members, though they never appear in the same photos.
Photo credit: Pierre Iglesias