The legacy of the grandmothers against drugs, a life on foot

Neither Manuela Ramajo, nor Emiliana García, nor Paquita Sanjuán appear in the history books of our country, but they should. These three women, who have already passed the age of 80, are a living memory of our recent history. Three mothers, today grandmothers, united against drugs, the poison that flooded neighborhoods and cities throughout the Spanish geography, which left the door open to another pandemic, that of AIDS, and which generated significant social alarm.

“This problem entered my house fully. My little brother, my daughter and my son ended up on drugs”, Manuela breaks the ice, sitting next to her companions to begin to remember those dark years of pain, but also of fighting against this scourge. "We were very united and organized," she points out, proud, to always make clear that group spirit in which they collectivize their problems and share their successes, and that characterizes them so much.

According to data from the study 'More than 30 years of illegal drugs in Spain: a bitter history with some advice for the future', published in the Spanish Journal of Public Health, heroin overdose caused a significant increase in youth mortality over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, reaching its peak between 1991 and 1993, with more than 1,700 deaths.

But behind these numbers there are names like, for example, Marifé and Félix, the children of Manuela and Emiliana. There are also stories: those of these and many other mothers (and fathers) who stood up against drug traffickers, prisons, social stigma and institutional abandonment. They did it by locking themselves in the Banco Popular, in the Almudena Cathedral, camping in front of the Ministry of Health, protesting near the courts or planting themselves at the doors of different prisons. On one of those trips, on the way to the Zamora prison, Emiliana composed a song that, although today she apologizes because she says she can no longer sing, Manuela encourages her to share.

“The mothers from the hills can be heard shouting / Jailer, jailer, they are not bandits / It was the damn drug that brought them here / Jailer, jailer, do not stop them from listening / To the voices of the mothers who come to support”. This is how those verses say so many times sung in chorus among courageous women, who defended a form of struggle that has set a precedent for other social movements.

Wearing gray hair and displaying a particular humor that serves as a raft in a sea of ​​misfortunes, they recall a past time that is still very present. They do it sitting on a bench in the Madrid parish of San Carlos Borromeo, a meeting point, trench and refuge, for decades, for these ladies standing up against drugs and in favor of so many other just causes.

In all these years they have not lowered their arms. Precisely, in 2007 they fervently defended the Madrid parish to avoid the closure that Archbishop Antonio María Rouco Varela had announced. Among the most recent struggles to which they have joined are the protests against the bookmakers deployed in the most humble neighborhoods and that remind them so much of the years in which drugs sneaked into their homes. Nor is it strange to find them raising their voices at the gates of detention centers for foreigners or remembering with dignity the dead in the Mediterranean Sea, in their flight to a better life, at the gates of the institutions that are complicit in current migration policies.

“Human beings are all equal before my law. All the same. White, black, whether from here or from there. Borders and prisons only serve to separate a poor world from another poor world. Everything that is happening at the borders hurts me as much as the deaths in prison and drugs”, says Manuela energetically and holding back tears, while pointing to the photos of an exhausted young man perched on the Melilla fence and another where you can see a mother with her daughter recently rescued at sea, who shine next to the Christ of this temple.

Manuela, who defines herself as a woman who has always been very active and involved in social movements, acknowledges that she began her journey in this group of courageous mothers, now grandmothers, when her Marifé “was knackered”. She lost her daughter in 1992; She had been hooked on drugs since she was 17 years old. She went through jail, was in a detox center and became ill with AIDS. Three decades have passed since Manuela buried Marifé and she continues to remember her with pain, but also with dignity and much love.

“In 1986 my son died, he died alone,” says Emiliana, emotional and with a certain feeling of defeat after fighting until the last breath so that Félix could be admitted to a prison hospital. "Those were years in which my husband and I were here to fight and fight," she says with a broken voice.

"I came here [al grupo de Madres Unidas contra la Droga que se juntaba en Entrevías] because they were the only ones who understood me; At that time the people, the neighbors, the family... they blamed you”, she laments while her partner Manuela agrees with her: “Not only do you blame yourself, but the people also blame you”. To which Emiliana replies: “Do you know what I told myself and what I keep telling myself? I must have done something wrong."

It is at that moment that Paquita, who until now had been listening attentively to them without interrupting, breaks her silence. "No, that's the last thing you have to think about," she replies with great affection and complete emptiness. Of the three, Paquita is the only one who, as Manoli says, "has not experienced this problem" among her children or her relatives. However, her fight has been tireless. That is why she has repeated ad nauseam that message that seeks to remove the guilt and stigma that weigh on the families of those affected by drugs, a problem that still persists today.

Paquita's unconditional support was forged when she became a widow, in 1981, and became involved in the La Elipa neighborhood association, where she began serving drug addicts. In this way, she met her great friend, Manuela de Ella, who is full of praise for this sister who, she says, has given her life.

“Drugs is a subject that I was completely unaware of at that time, but I soon realized that the same ignorance that I had was also shared by those affected, and also by the Administration. There were no trained professionals; social workers, psychologists, and even doctors have all learned from the experience of our boys,” she notes.

Paquita thus points to a historical moment in which misinformation was the first barrier that had to be jumped to face the horrors left by drugs and the AIDS disease.

And that was one of their tasks: document themselves, learn and share their knowledge with the rest of society. Another task was much more human, on the front line, accompanying relatives, but also those young people who were struggling between life and death, wandering on the margins of society. "They are like my children," she says proudly.

Paquita says that she still treasures many of the letters she exchanged with young drug addicts, who wrote to her from prisons or from detoxification centers. “There were boys who told me: 'Paqui, my roommate doesn't have anyone to write to him,' and then I would start writing to them. When they got out of jail they wanted to meet me. I keep them like gold in cloth; Of course, I have already warned that the day I am missing they will burn them because those letters are part of their memories, their fears, their intimacy. With these words, Paquita defends, down to the last detail, the dignity of that sadly lost generation.

Thus, between endless anecdotes and a lot of humility, Manuela, Emiliana and Paquita share in first person the path they have traveled. They are fireproof, but they are also aware of the weight of the years. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken them further away from their activism than they would like and, as post-war daughters, they cannot tolerate this health and social crisis being compared to a war. They are already tanned, they lived through the epidemic of heroin and AIDS. But they are still standing and have a message for the younger generations. "Mutual support is the only way for the world to prosper."

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