Madrid's Renegade Picnics


Photo by Maggie Schmitt

To view a slide show featuring images of the picnics in Casa de Campo, click here.

Immigrant picnics, like immigrant lives, are enjoyed on the run from ever-more repressive police. In Casa de Campo, Madrid's biggest park, Ecuadorian families come together every Sunday despite harassment by the authorities.

One moment there are hundreds of people thronging the field, music playing, everyone laughing, plátanos frying in skillets of fat, matrons ripping off generous hunks of roasted pork and piling them onto plates with mote (a sort of hominy), avocados and salad...and then suddenly they're not there. The skillets have disappeared, the butane stoves have vanished, there is no sign of a whole roast pig anywhere, only a certain concentration of mostly Ecuadorian people looking defiantly nonchalant as they wander away. A few women wheel conspicuously large babies in covered carriages. It's a weekly magic trick.

Soon the municipal police saunter onto the scene, looking like Wyatt Earp amid the tumbleweeds. Those picnickers still hanging around the area chew their pork impassively and look the other way. The police give a disinterested kick to the one skillet left behind, adjust their Ray-Bans and mosey back to their patrol car. In moments, the whole party is on again, the empanadillas bubbling away in boiling oil, guitars strumming, vendors shouting.

Great for everyone: income for the families and marvelous food cheap for the hungry and the nostalgic.

Every Sunday over 1,000 people, mostly recent immigrants from Ecuador, participate in this bizarre cat-and-mouse game. They gather in the park to enjoy Ecuadorian food, music, company and shared homesickness. Traditional musicians stroll through the crowd taking requests for a modest price; haircutters set up their stools, dangling a hand mirror from a branch, and provide inexpensive haircuts; vendors hock piles of CDs with nostalgic titles like "Ecuador de mi corazón". In times of crisis when recent immigrants are bearing the brunt of cutbacks in employment and in social services, these little entrepreneurial ventures are vital supplements to puny incomes.

Perhaps more important, in a city often hostile to recent immigrants the picnic is a place to share stories and all manner of tips for survival: how to navigate complicated immigration bureaucracy, who has an affordable room for rent, how to report an abusive employer, where to get discounts on textbooks for the kids. And for a few hours to celebrate and not feel so far from home.

VIEW SLIDE SHOW>> schmitt_oct19_food_post.jpg

Photo by Maggie Schmitt

And celebration means food, lots of it. Vats of encebollado (fish and onion soup), and guatita (tripe stew); great platters of roast pork; mountains of fried empanadas (meat pies) and plantains. Families team up to prepare the foods in advance at home, then set up small tables from which to sell them in the park. Great for everyone: income for the families and marvelous food cheap for the hungry and the nostalgic.

But the police are under orders to prevent large concentrations of people and the sale of food in the park, so the gathering has adapted accordingly: butane tanks are embedded inside inverted plastic stools so that, turned right-side-up, they appear an inoffensive seating area, and whole sides of pork are swaddled in pink blankets and stuffed into baby carriages.

After chasing similar gatherings out of several smaller parks, in 2000 the Madrid city government came to an agreement with the National Coordinator of Ecuadorians in Spain and other immigrant groups, promising to provision an area of the Casa de Campo with stalls for vendors, running water and bathrooms, thus legalizing and regulating the weekend picnics. These installations have never been built, however, so the picnic continues in all its improvised charm. Several advocacy groups are pushing to stop police pressure on these gatherings. Though the police claim it's a question of unsanitary food service and rambunctious concentrations of people, from the picnickers' perspective it is clearly a discriminatory way of regulating the use of public space. And their way of fighting back is simply continuing to enjoy their renegade picnic.

If you happen to be in Madrid, go join the fun any Sunday: take the metro to Lago, then follow the sounds of cumbia across the parking lot to the picnic area.