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OPINION

Mardeleva

Readers' clubs are one of the things that are now at risk due to the cutbacks on cultural spending

For years these women have been meeting once a week. Back in the first days, a few joined up, not knowing exactly for what. A neighbor had told them of an adult education center where, among other teachers, there was a woman from Valladolid who taught basic reading skills and so they looked in one afternoon. Some had never been to school; others had left as young girls, to work in the fields or get married. Only a few had got through elementary school. They had to begin at the beginning and learn to read and write, then a bit of math, geography, grammar, history, kitchen recipes and manual skills. The latter definitely hooked them, and while they learned to make lace and macramé, paper maché and colored beads, they told each other of their lives, discovered they had problems in common, and looked for solutions.

There were women with various problems - maltreated, unemployed, abandoned, alone, with unemployed or drug-addicted children, single mothers of single mothers with grandchildren to care for. Some, who had been humiliated, beaten and despised even by themselves were on the edge of spiritual exhaustion. But you should see them now. You should see my girls, and some boys, of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, when they gather in a courtyard for a literary event. You should hear them reading things they have written, and taste the snacks they prepare. Isabel's confité peppers and meat pies are as extraordinary as the light in Mari Pepa's eyes as she passes them around. Ifigenia Bueno, still called "teacher" after all these years, has good reason for pride, but not as much as the girls do, who know where they are coming from, and where they have arrived by reading books. This is why they call their club Mardeleva, which is a local fishermen's term for a long groundswell. Because Mardeleva, like so many other readers' clubs throughout Spain, is much more than a readers' club. It is an opportunity for women without opportunities, a reason to get out of the house, dress up, talk, be useful, be wanted...

Many years ago, in the library of a small town near Guadalajara called Azuqueca de Henares, I met another group of admirable women. Then, in 1989, I had just published my first novel, and these women's grace, talent and eagerness to learn moved me more than any other aspect of the literary world, that strange world in which I had just arrived. Since I visited the Azuqueca club - the original one and the model for many others throughout Spain - I have felt the same emotion whenever I am invited to speak there. But the one in Sanlúcar, where I spend the summers, is special too. Summer after summer, a visit always brings me the same joy and pleasure as it did the first time. But this summer I felt a touch of fear as well.

Because - don't fool yourself - such clubs are one of the things that are now at risk due to the cutbacks in cultural spending. Quite apart from the cynicism with which the same politicians who are closing hospitals, tell us that healthcare spending is more important than subsidies for Spanish cinema, what is at stake here is the dignity of many unfortunate women, and of many men who in the reading clubs and adult centers have found a miraculous chance to educate themselves, to relate to others and to regain faith in themselves. Here too, and perhaps more than in the schools, education is not an expenditure, but an investment.

You should see my girls in Sanlúcar, and in Azuqueca. You should talk to them, hear their stories. They more than suffice to demonstrate to anyone that nowhere else can you get so much profit from so little money - the salary of a part-time monitor and a couple of dozen books which they exchange with other clubs in the province.

Just with that, more than one woman has been born again.

Some had never been to school; others had left as young girls, to work in the fields or get married