The success of a sausage factory, La Hoguera, stops depopulation in San Pedro Manrique
Since 2000 it has gone from 487 to 655 inhabitants in one of the most uninhabited areas of Europe
The company wants to create 30 more jobs, but there are no empty houses: "We still have to put a minibus to come from Soria"
Ana, a music teacher in her 30s, savors a succulent Castilian soup in the dining room of the Pili Restaurant, one of the two eating houses in San Pedro Manrique, in the Tierras Altas region of Soria.
The pot has so many bumps that you can hardly see the soup. The television in the living room spits out images of Jose Luis Martinez Almeida and Novak Djokovic, the last lap of the soap opera of the week. The volume of the device is low, almost imperceptible, but the images distract the seven guests in the rustic room.
-Today is my first day, and I have to look for a house, but he hasn't given me time. I'll stay at the hotel for now.
Ana, a temporary teacher who has just been assigned to the town school, chats amicably with the manager of the restaurant, that warns you that it will be difficult to achieve your goal. "It's just that there are no empty houses in the town, not one."
This phrase would not be surprising if it were pronounced in many other parts of Spain. But not here. At the epicenter of Spain emptied.
The Atlas Lands have a density of 1.9 inhabitants per square kilometer, only slightly higher than Lapland. It is one of the most uninhabited regions of Europe together with areas of Cuenca and Teruel.
However, there is one Gallic village that resists depopulation. This: San Pedro Manrique.
Since 2000 it has increased its registered by 26%, from 487 to 655 inhabitants, while the vast majority of the towns in the province have experienced a continuous diaspora.
"More than a hundred social houses have been built in the town, but right now you can't find a house; more houses are needed", confirms the mayor, Julián Martínez, of the PP, while he has a mid-morning coffee on the terrace of Bar Cipris on the main street of the town, which overlooks one of the three churches.
The temperature, in the sun, is pleasant. The thermometer marks seven degrees, seven more than when crossing the city of Soria, the result of the temperature inversion being in the mountains: San Pedro, nestled between mountain ranges on the border with La Rioja, is 1,177 meters high. There are several parishioners having something on the terrace taking advantage that - let us say - warmth.
"Now we have given a piece of land to the Council, to build six more houses, about 90 square meters, and we have another plot that we have offered them for free, let's see what they say," says the mayor, who regrets that there are quite a few houses that are abandoned and fall due to "inheritance issues": "It's a shame to see the collapsed houses."
"Here who is unemployed is because they do not want to work", he pronounces while pointing in the distance to the warehouses of the factory that has helped make San Pedro an exception in the area: Embutidos La Hoguera.
The factory employs 109 people and its entire history is linked to the rural exodus. born in 1975 to fight against the first waves of depopulation, when young people and families went to the Basque Country or Catalonia to work in the industry.
"After finishing the military service, three other kids and I set up a union group", remembers Carlos Martínez, founder of La Hoguera, in his office, where he has photographs with Adolfo Suárez, Juan Carlos I or Felipe VI.
Carlos Jose. Agustín and Marcos, then young, planted the seed with a small pig farm that ten years later it became a "small processing industry". It has gone from being an austere, almost family business, to billing 30 million euros a year, exporting to numerous countries, among them to Australia, where its ham is highly valued [al año producen 300.000 jamones curados durante 18 meses].
Its product -ham, chorizo, pork loin, torreznos de Soria...- can be found in food chains such as El Corte Inglés or Salva Más.
It was not an easy road. Carlos Martínez, who, in addition to leading La Hoguera, was mayor for several legislatures, fought for years with the Board so that the town would not be deprived of services and to bring those that were missing, like the gas station.
Given the passivity of the Administration, 32 years ago he even installed pirate antennas on one of the hills that surrounds the town so that Antena 3 or Telecinco could be seen. It was not profitable for the telecoms.
A problem, that of telecommunications, which is still suffered. Teo, his son, CEO of the company, has even had to go up to the port of Oncala to have a 4G connection and be able to receive orders.
"There are times when there is no service, you have no signal, it doesn't matter what company you have," explains Teo, who studied Business Administration and Management and Marketing in Madrid and returned to town, like many of the workers at La Hoguera.
"Here we have always tried to generate a type of employment where the family gives quality of life, stability. We have always tried to facilitate family reconciliation, housing and a decent salary," says his father, co-founder of the company and who is also president of the Caja Rural de Soria.
The salaries of the factory are marked by the agreement of meat companies: between the 16,045 euros gross per year (1,146 euros per month) that a laborer receives to the 25,652 that a superior technician receives (1,832 euros per month).
walking on hot coals
The company takes its name from the centuries-old tradition that permeates everything in the town: the Paso del Fuego. Every June 23, the bravest inhabitants of San Pedro walk barefoot on a carpet of embers after burning a pyre "2,000 kilos of oak firewood".
"The last years before the pandemic we had to put up screens to follow it from outside the premises. This was very full," recalls the mayor, who has seen how gradually the people has been growing in population.
Some are immigrants -"they are around 30% of the residents, from different places... Romanians, Bulgarians, Moroccans, Ecuadorians..."-, but also from other parts of Spain. "The only thing that determines the population here is employment," the mayor appreciates about something that is left over in this town.
From the Hill of the church of the Virgen de la Peña you can see some of those dilapidated houses mentioned by the first mayor and the hollow where the Linares river flows, tributary of the Ebro and that marks the end of the municipality, raised in and around a sort of trough. Many of the houses are built of brown or blue stone. "They are from quarries in the area," explains the mayor while showing the area of stands adjacent to the church.
The town retains services. There is a nursery with ten children, a school up to the second cycle of ESO with almost 60 students, a gas station, the Civil Guard headquarters, a mechanical workshop, a bank -Caja Rural de Soria-, a hostel and a nursing home "that when it is full it employs 30 people".
There is also a health center that was recently expanded and where another ten doctors and nurses work, most of whom come to work daily from the provincial capital, 40 minutes by car. They must climb twice the complicated port of Oncala, of 1,456 meters and where you have to walk with a thousand eyes.
"I am in love with this project, it is very genuine, the company's workers are part of the company, it is a project of the people and for the people. We offer people a life project. We give decent work to the whole family", explains Teo during a visit to the factory, where thousands of hand-hung hams can be seen maturing in room after room.
They are Duroc pork hams, located between the white and the Iberian and which is considered one of the best value for money. "They are very infiltrated hams, with a lot of bouquet".
"In the end, the secret of success is to provide a product of the highest quality, to adapt to the market. We have launched organic product lines and we are known in the sector for having natural products without additives. That also gives meaning to where we are from," says the director general, who asks politicians for a "clearer discourse" on rural Spain.
"In the end we get lost in the forms and do not address the substance. To live in rural areas, people need employment, and everything that is around, services, reliable internet, infrastructure, housing... Many towns in Soria would have more people if there was housing," says Teo, cYour company is already planning an expansion with another 3,000 square meter warehouse that will provide employment for another 30 people.
But, of course, without housing, where will they come from? "We are even thinking of setting up a microbus that comes from Soria," Carlos, his father, slips in, saying he feels somewhat hopeless after so much struggle for years and that he had one of his biggest disappointments when the Board removed two courses from the ESO of the school of the municipality in spite of having more than one hundred students, the moment that more children had attended school.
Young people, to continue studying, had to go to Soria every day. And the bus goes up the port day after day both on the way out and on the way back. Many times with snow. "What you encourage like this is that people leave."
"It's that the buzz we have in the rural world is like indirectly trying to get the industry to go to the cities, which seems to be the worldwide trend for being cheaper," appreciates Teo, who, along with his father , and many entrepreneurs from the emptied Spain, they ask for a lower taxation that attracts investment and employment.
"What we ask is to know what the plan is for the future. If they really want all of Spain to live in Madrid or In the big cities, 30 or 50 years from now, what we do doesn't make sense.", confirms Teo, who like the rest of the neighbors has seen how they have been left out of the expansion of the 5G network. "Living in the rural world everything is complicated and in the city it's easy", laments Teo, which reports that in recent years, in some cases during the pandemic, several families from other parts of Spain have come to the town to work in the factory from Madrid or Mallorca, which has helped increase the number.
In fact, in recent years La Hoguera has created around 20 jobs, and each person who comes to work comes with their family, making three or four registered more with each hiring.
"It is that indeed there are people who are attracted to the rural world; we must encourage companies to go to the towns, that companies and workers have fiscal improvements. It would structure Spain in a different way. If you want to reverse the problem, it can be done," says Teo. His father speaks in the same line and insists on retaining the talent: "It is that each young native who leaves is a treasure that is lost."