It was the start of the Spanish summer, and for a boy with ambitions to be the first in his family to go to college, here was the payoff for getting through chemistry and besting Mrs. Prieto’s brutal English tests. The first day of the rest of his life.
But Alejandro Gea Vida almost didn’t bother to come.
“The future?” the 19-year-old senior said, rounding the corner to Angel de Saavedra High School. In a neighborhood that looked as if it had the wind knocked out of it, Antonio’s Photography Studio had just shut down, and even La Repera, the equivalent of a dollar store, had a “For Rent” sign on the window. “Not sure I know what we’re celebrating,” Alejandro said.
Reaching his cement block of a school, he shot up the stairs and hugged a pack of friends. “You good?” he said, slapping Álvaro Perea, a lanky graduate from last year, on the back. Perea, who should have been working as an X-ray technician by now, shrugged. He was looking for jobs in bars — and finding none — after cuts at public hospitals left him on the waiting list for an internship. No guarantees until 2018. “My brother got laid off at the power company. My father just took a pay cut,” Perea later said. “Things aren’t going too good in Cordoba right now.”
Beyond the invisible wall of his social clique, Alejandro was getting stares. In front of the school auditorium, the Class of 2013 was working it as best they could in the teenage wastelands of central Andalucia, where construction froze four years ago. The girls giggled in flea-market party dresses. The boys threw play punches, filling out their one good suit. But here was Alejandro, 30 minutes from taking the stage to claim his diploma, in a loose black T-shirt and jeans.
It was less an act of rebellion than a self-imposed reality check.
“Working-class,” he told himself earlier, when deciding to leave his suit at home. “That’s what I am, that’s what I’m going to be.”
In crisis-hit Europe, a senior’s dreams are smaller these days. Once, graduation would have been a celebration of upward mobility, a leap up toward a degree, maybe even a master’s, from a blue-collar world. Instead, it had become a study of the uncertainty gripping a continent confronting record-breaking unemployment. In a family in which no member had a full-time job, Alejandro, his parents and his older brother could almost feel themselves slipping a bit more every day. Their story is a glimpse into the new normal of lives torn apart by an economic storm.
It just kept coming. Alejandro’s application for college financial aid was rejected. His parents, Francisco and Josefa, fighting to keep the family home, were unable to pay his way. His brother, an avid fan of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ, had ditched school early to help out at home. Still jobless and scrounging odd day work in a city with nearly 60 percent youth unemployment, he wanted more for his brother.
And Alejandro wanted more for himself. But he was already weighing a Plan B: a free technical school and the long job line at McDonald’s.
As Alejandro strode up a flight of stairs, a classmate slapped him on the back. “You going to the dinner?” — an after-graduation class fete skipped by lots of seniors this year — the boy asked before disappearing in a cloud of aftershave. Alejandro said nothing, just kept walking toward the wide auditorium door.
“It’s going to cost 36 euros” — $48 — “so, no, I don’t think I’m going.”
This is life in the fallout of Europe’s debt crisis, where the No. 1 problem plaguing the continent has shifted from zigzagging bond markets and panicky investors to broken lives among the mind-boggling ranks of the unemployed. In Spain, a once-booming corner of Europe, unemployment has shot from 8.6 percent in 2007 to 26.3 percent today. Recovery here is being measured not in years, but in generations.
Seen from across the Atlantic, this is a crisis crippling a playground of American tourists and igniting worries of social instability in a part of the world counted on for troops alongside U.S. boots. But at the most micro level, it is a hope-depleting force for families such as the Gea Vidas who, like Spain itself, once believed in the European dream.
Spain, seen as a symbol of the future in the era of the euro, was reconquering lost glory only a decade ago, this time through an armada of bankers and real estate developers sailing a sea of cheap cash. Amid debt-fueled growth, anything seemed possible here. Alejandro’s grandparents grew up picking olives in the ashes of the Spanish civil war. But his mother, over the span of one magic decade, had climbed from dustbin to Main Street, leaving behind work as a house cleaner to own her own business.
Surely, the family figured, a future brighter than the Andalusian sun awaited the two Gea Vida boys. But in a bust this deep, the reality of a grim, long haul is settling in.
On the way to the bank to close out the last of her business accounts, Josefa Vida Bermudez, 47, moved briskly through the streets of Valdeolleros, a neighborhood one mile and cultural light-years from the whitewashed tapas bars and the grand cathedral-mosque of old Cordoba. She skirted the ancient walls that in the 10th-century era of Spain’s Islamic conquerors harbored Western Europe’s most populous city. “I know this route by heart,” she said. “I used to do it every day.”
She knows it so well because the bankrupt clothing store that she sold off last year sits one door down from the bank.
“Tresol, we called our store,” she said, passing an unfinished apartment block where construction stopped two years ago after the builders ran out of cash. Princelandia, where little girls escape into a world of fairy-tale dress-up, clung on amid boarded-up furniture and clothing shops. “Get it? Tres soles [three suns]. I named it that for the three stars in my life — my husband, my two sons.”
For two years, Tresol burned bright in the family’s life, becoming a source of pride for a woman who was born in a tiny village and made a living cleaning homes in Cordoba after high school. For Josefa and her husband — who married on a hot August day in 1989, after years of courtship in the olive groves that used to dot their neighborhood — opportunity knocked just before the tipping point of Spain’s economic dive. It was 2009, after a decade of willy-nilly construction had transformed Valdeolleros, and when a U.S.-style housing bust was only beginning to signal the troubles ahead. Acting on a lead from a former employer, the couple leveraged their two-bedroom apartment to the tune of $120,000 to open the shop.
But within a few months, the fire of Europe’s debt crisis that started in Greece was spreading across the continent, raging through Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain. Credit dried up. Deep, ongoing government austerity hit a municipal program for female entrepreneurs, cutting off the last financial lifeline for Josefa’s business. Locked into contracts with Spanish apparel makers, she watched as Cordoba’s cash-strapped women turned elsewhere for dirt-cheap purses from China and dresses from Bangladesh.
As she reached the display window of her former store, it all started to build.
She was steps from the bank to which she still owes $100,000. The family is borrowing from an elderly aunt to cover the $827 in monthly mortgage, a situation they know cannot go on. In a broken country where the social safety net is being gradually slashed, the family’s $600-a-month unemployment support runs out in December. After the family stopped payments on credit cards, creditors began legal action. And a day earlier, the couple and their sons piled into their 1998 Ford Orion to take Luna, their 11-year-old Labrador with a terminal spinal disease, to the vet to put her to sleep.
The act of kindness cost $65.
It just keeps coming.
In tears, Josefa touched the store window.
“This was going to be our future,” she said. “The future for our boys.”
Moments later, she was in the bank, her hands shaking as she argued with the teller. After closing out her business account, he told her of a problem with the family’s checking account.
“What do you mean, overdrawn?” she asked.
“You see here,” calmly explained the suited man, pointing out a line showing that the power company had collected a day before the family’s unemployment aid had landed. The extra charge: $40. A few days earlier, she’d found a temporary job minding an elderly woman for $75 a week, but the bank fee meant a fresh bite out of the family’s worsening finances.
Josefa looked up and touched her hands together as if in prayer, exhaling in frustration.
“God,” she said. “It just keeps on coming.”
After a 20-minute argument in the manager’s office, the bank agreed to deduct the charge. But Josefa seemed drained. “It feels like all we ever do is fight,” she said. “It hurts, and it exhausts you.”
“You can’t let it get you down,” Francisco Gea Ramos told his wife nearly an hour later as the couple walked toward an appointment. His first real job lead in a month. “Keep struggling. Never give up.”
Francisco, the family’s emotional anchor, cut his teeth on social cheerleading during years of involvement in left-wing politics. A former administrator for a wholesaler that shut down in 2011, Francisco lost his last full-time job, as a house painter, in March 2012. Until recently, he had part-time work pulling 12-hour night shifts as a security guard. Since that company went bust a few months ago, the 49-year-old, who suffers from a nerve disorder that has left his right arm partially paralyzed, has been grabbing black-market day jobs when he can get them.
“Not easy when the first thing they see is this,” Francisco said, nodding toward his bad hand, perpetually curled in a dead spider of a grip.
On most days, he alternates the job search with citizen activism, a cathartic pursuit that seems to have replaced soccer as Spain’s national sport. Traditional political parties here and across crisis-hit Europe are being deeply challenged by extreme forces on the political right and left. But they are also being tested by groups such as the Platform Against Evictions.
Two days earlier, bullhorn in hand, Francisco helped lead 2,000 protesters from the group into Cordoba’s main square. He and Josefa have joined the organization’s “escraches” — protests in front of politicians’ homes — as well as local property occupations aimed at thwarting the bank repo men seizing 1,200 homes across Spain each month. The outlet helped Josefa beat a bout of clinical depression that left her on medication for a year. But the couple’s real motivation for helping lead the protests is simple. “One day,” he said, “it might be us.”
As if reciting a mantra, he keeps telling his family, “We will never surrender.” Because he knows what happens when you do. On a scorching July afternoon last year, a friend from their anti-eviction group, Francisco Lema, walked to the rear of his fourth-floor apartment, clutching a note from the city of Cordoba. The bank had foreclosed on his home months earlier, an act that in Spain still leaves underwater homeowners on the hook for any debt not recouped at auction. On top of that, Cordoba’s tax office had just sent the jobless bricklayer a letter demanding back taxes on his lost home. On the verge of being evicted again for being late with the rent, Lema stepped out onto his balcony, letter in hand, and jumped.
But Francisco Gea Ramos had a good feeling as he and Josefa rode the elevator to the offices of Pablo Salas Sánchez, a business consultant, headhunter and friend from their Catholic Church group. The couple had stopped handing out color copies of their résumés for every other job opening months ago, once they realized the futility and recognized that the CVs were costing $3.50 each to print.
“Every job has 100 applicants, and you only get work now based on who you know,” Francisco said with a wink. “And these people know us.”
Moments later, in Sánchez’s office, Francisco cleared his throat after exchanging pleasantries. “The other day, you mentioned the possibility of a job with a wholesaler. I . . . I thought I’d bring my résumé. We also brought my wife’s, and my sons.”
“Yes, well, about that job,” Sánchez said. “It looks like they’re not hiring anymore.”
Josefa closed her eyes, then leaned in. “We’ll do anything that comes up, anything you hear about. I can cook. I can clean. I did that for years. Anything, really.”
It just keeps coming.
Francisco José, a soft-spoken 21-year-old, opened the door of the family’s fourth-floor two-bedroom apartment on Calle de Los Olivos. The lights were off to save on the energy bill. On the wall, a portrait of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows competed for space with a papal certificate from a visit to the Vatican — the family’s first and only trip outside Spain. That was in 2006.
“Those were better years,” he said.
He flipped on a mini computer that his mother got for free after doing a course on running a business. When he is not coaching soccer at his Catholic youth group or chatting up leads for jobs, he spends time here, scanning the Internet for work.
For Francisco José, school was never easy. He repeated a grade in grammar school, as did his brother. But both had buckled down and by late 2009, their grades were back on track for university.
But unlike his brother, Francisco José saw his marks begin to slip again as he watched his mother, her business failing, sink into depression and his father struggle to find work. In the summer of 2011, he quit school to contribute at home as best he could.
In a city with legions of jobless, all he could find was an under-the-table gig going door to door collecting used cooking oil. That little sideline netted him $400 a month before evaporating last year. Francisco José has been planning to take an entrance exam for forestry school but is unsure how he’d support himself if he gets in. Anyway, his first priority is here. Helping his parents. Trying to find work.
But it’s brick wall after brick wall, he said. When he applied at McDonald’s, his application went into a drawer with hundreds of others. Flipping through job sites, he saw that the most recent postings were three weeks old. One newish job — at a retailer — demands three years of experience. “My father has experience, but they say he’s too old,” Francisco José said. “I’m young, but I have no experience. And no one to give me a chance.”
But he’s rooting for his brother, who is reapplying for financial aid at the University of Granada, the closest college with a psychology program. With any luck, Francisco Josésaid, Alejandro will score this time.
It’s like their father says, even when it just keeps coming. Stay optimistic. Don’t give up.
“Maybe he’ll only miss a semester,” Francisco José said. “That’s what I hope.”
Stina Lunden contributed to this report.