February 2021

Women as guarantors of life in shacks, La Línea (Cádiz, Spain)

La Línea de la Concepción, in the southernmost part of the Iberian Peninsula, had 63,000 inhabitants in 2017. The city is located on a small sandy area of 19 km², which joins Gibraltar (currently a British colony or overseas territory) to the eastern side of the Bay of Algeciras (Spain). This bay became a destination for migrants from all over Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries, who were attracted by «the smell of Gibraltar». Its inhabitants traded around the border, tended vegetable gardens to supply the military and civil population of Gibraltar, and provided leisure, culture and care for the colony. La Línea and Gibraltar make up a cross-border community with intense interdependence and mutual support.

The first systematic population census of La Línea, which was carried out before the closure of the border (in 1969), revealed that tens of thousands of people lived in overcrowded slums (barracas, as they are known to their occupants) built on the sand. The walls of the shacks were built with wooden planks, lined with cardboard and pieces of oil drums. All the materials came from Gibraltar. Inside, the slits were covered with agave (Agave americana) sacks and were then whitewashed. The women interviewed for the Oral memory of life in the huts and shacks project provided key information about life in the barracas in the 1930s to 1980s, because they remember the emotional perspective and the circumstances better than the men, as women take responsibility for care.

This photograph is from Maruja Gil’s family album. Born in 1928, as a young woman Maruja worked as a servant for a rich family in Gibraltar. She also helped the meagre family economy by taking part in the matuteo ( black market). Starting from the left, Maruja identified the following family members and neighbours from the patio Tagarnina: Mercedes la Tagarnina, Maruja herself then pregnant with her son Pepe; in front, her daughter Beli and her brother Manolo, the same age as her daughter. Beli would die from an undiagnosed disease at the age of four. To Beli’s left, two «patio grandchildren». Next to Maruja, two of Tagarnina’s sisters, Rafaela’s boyfriend and Rafaela, Maruja’s sister. In front of Rafaela, Paco el Tagarnino, Mercedes la Tagarnina’s son. Behind Rafaela, are a neighbour (with sunglasses), Antonio el Tagarnino and the Tagarninos’ mother. The last group is made up of Hortensia, Maruja’s sister, Victoria Lozano, Maruja’s mother and, in front of her, Pepe and Africa, Maruja’s other siblings. Behind Africa, another neighbour, Dolores.  

Women were responsible for the upkeep and insulation of the shanties to avoid pest infestation, and many of them took on the repairing of the roof and in digging wells. In addition, they took charge of the rubbish. Maruja remembers that at dawn «we would go to throw the rubbish in the sea. Later we would leave it in some vacies». The vacies or tips were next to a vegetable garden whose owner used the waste for compost. The women ensured that there was food, whether there was a regular income or not: They kept animals and searched the nearby fields for snails and wild plants. The popular tagarnina thistle (Scolymus hispanicus) gave its name to the patio where Maruja lived. The women took charge of traditional healthcare and passed it on. Maruja explains: «In all the patios we would prepare chicken broth for women who had just given birth, and, if visitors came, they would bring you a bar of chocolate from Gibraltar or an egg». 

For fuel, they would use low calorific types of coal, which were cheaper: cisco (the dust and small bits left after taking the larger lumps) and picón (coal made from twigs and small branches). The brazier or stove was lit outdoors using cisco and then picón was added. Once there were embers, it was taken indoors. Large wooden tea chests from Gibraltar were used to prevent spattering and to collect the ashes: The brazier was placed inside and people stood before the open part of the chest. The ashes were used for doing the washing: «My mother used to put the ash in a pitcher of water and would strain it after two or three days. When we did the washing, we laid the clothes in the sun and splashed it with that ashy water», Maruja recalls. 

Maruja also used to prepare clay and ash tablets to put in the brazier:

«Several girls and me would go to the river Cachón and get clay with a spade, which we then put in a bucket and mixed with coaldust. Some people also added straw. We then put two metal rings, one bigger than the other, on the floor, and put the paste inside. We flattened it out with an iron mallet. We took off the rings and dried the tablets in the sun. When we lit the stove for cooking, we added these tablets broken in pieces.»

The clay, mainly aluminium silicate, can endure high temperatures: when the clay is mixed with cinders or coaldust, the residual coal is used and this improves combustion and conserves the heat. 

The women also guaranteed the water supply and management, personal hygiene, the making, washing and repairing of clothing, and care at childbirth, care for children and the elderly. The patios were supportive spaces where any inhabitant provided certain care to another person, even if he or she was not related to him or her. That is why Maruja says «patio grandchildren» to refer to two children whose names she does not remember. Women were the protagonists of a way of living based on the community, on resistance, self-management, and responsibility, which allowed them to survive in hard times.  


Beatriz Díaz Martínez, graduated in Biology from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain), she is specialised in Environmental Biology. She works as a freelance writer and researcher. She has a wide experience of Oral Memory through interactive group workshops and in depth life stories. She also specialises in everyday life and survival mechanisms: support networks, informal learning, community health, repression and criminalisation, and immigration.  From her work we should highlight the audiovisual archive Herri Memoria, with life stories from the Basque Country (2014-2016), funded by the Basque Government’s Human Rights and Cohabitation Department; her research together with Belén Solé for the Asociación Elkasko de Investigación Histórica (Elkasko Association for Historical Research) Mujeres y memoria de la represión franquista en el Gran Bilbao (Women and the memory of Francoist repression in Greater Bilbao) (2014); and her freelance research Maestros de Campo y Escuelas Particulares: la enseñanza no formal durante los siglos XIX y XX (Tarifa, Cádiz) (Travelling field teachers and little private schools: informal teaching in the 19th and 20th centuries) (2012-present). Her last work is Sumario 301 contra Milagros Ruiz López y trece más (2021).

The sources for the information presented here were two.The first is the research project Looking at the past to explain the present, carried out in La Línea (Cádiz) in 2010-2011 with the support of the Consejería de Salud de Andalucía (Andalusian Health Department) and coordinated by Antonio Escolar (Cádiz University). The findings of this research can be found in the book Camino de Gibraltar; dependencia y sustento en la Línea y Gibraltar (Road to Gibraltar; dependence and livelihood in La Línea and Gibraltar), which includes the life story of Maruja Gil. The second is the project Oral memory of life in huts and shacks (2012-2018). By the author, you can read at the Virtual Museum of Human Ecology Walls of stone and roof of bulrushes, Stone oven, nutritional autonomy and communal living, and Urbanization Ecology.