No Laughing Matter

¿Por qué meten los leperos la vaca en el frigorífico?

Para beber leche fría.

A former Erasmus student studying for a semester at my university used to lead our undergraduate conversation classes in order for us to be able to listen to a greater variety of Spanish voices. In this regard, her classes were an absolute success. Yet along with an impenetrable but exotic andalúz accent, she introduced us to the perennial subjects of dismissive Spanish gags; los leperos.

Estadio ciudad de lepe

San Roque stadium

Leperos occupy a role similar to that of the Irishman in “an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a pub” jokes. Their character is one of endless stupidity and absent common sense infused with a good-natured disposition. Their metaphysical existence in Spanish humour provides cheap comic relief and a vehicle for whatever unsophisticated word-play or double entendre that a Spaniard may have come up with off the top of his or her head. The lepero is never the villain of the story, given his incapacity to plan or to manipulate, but neither is he the character you empathise with. He is just a simpleton you can laugh at.

This young exchange student explained the lepero stereotype to us with a notable air of disdain.

“The Spanish make jokes about leperos all the time. But the most annoying thing is that they don’t even realise that Lepe is an actual place”.

The reluctant lepero’s ubiquity in Spanish comic tradition compensates for the ignorance the typical Spaniard has regarding the existence of Lepe town, a mere 20 kilometres from the Portuguese border. Thanks to my former language teacher’s conversation classes, the name of the town stuck with me for years. Sat waiting in the drab omnibus station in the provincial capital Huelva for a searingly hot coach to Lepe, I wondered if the people that awaited me there would prove to be the comedy-gold material that their reputation promised.

San roque bufanda

San roque de lepe stadium

Great arcs of crimson burned across the afternoon Lepe sky as I hopped off the bus. Between the Estadio Ciudad de Lepe and the station stood a dusty roundabout, a humble retail park and a large patch of scorched earth covered in strange-looking makeshift tents adjacent to the road leading to the stadium. With time in hand, I caned a warm lager and an energy drink from the supermarket and slowly circumnavigated the colourful stadium. Its entrance lay on the southern side of the complex, outside which various entrepreneurial local families were making a decent trade in the sale of candy, soft drinks, potato snacks and sunflower seeds from the boots of their cars. Not needing any more sugar, I parted with €10 and passed through the gates.

The CD San Roque de Lepe clubhouse is a charming place indeed. Retro club posters, fan scarves and associated memorabilia lined the clean white walls. Two men who had by the look of it been serving cold beers and hot coffees here since before the stadium was built around them bossed around a teenage employee as the regulars calmly sipped at their beverages. The fans milling in and out treated me with the exact bemused but shy curiosity that small-town folk tend to exhibit when an obvious outsider appears unannounced in their burg. I could feel their eyes burning into the back of my head each time I turned around.

A few minutes before kick-off, I picked an empty row of seats. As the floodlights flickered into action, the San Roque de Lepe and the visiting AD Ceuta players strolled out towards the pitch from changing facilities located beyond a large stretch of training ground. A modest round of applause greeted them, and the late summer La Tercera match got underway. As expected, the local fans bore no hallmarks of their nationally infamous dumb character. All seemed civilised, passive, anodyne and content to watch their team play at home on a Saturday night. But funny they were not. In fact, there is very little to laugh about in Lepe at all.

San roque ad ceuta

San Roque de Lepe football

For the past decade, the aforementioned patch of ground facing the Estadio Ciudad de Lepe has been a haphazardly constructed shanty town. Tents of soiled textile were scattered across the dry earth, interspersed with burnt out cars, wheelbarrows filled with collected detritus and the rusting shells of abandoned electrical appliances. Their several hundred miserable tenants predominantly worked on the farms dotted around Huelva, Seville and even southern Portugal. They are also predominantly African.

The geographic closeness and maritime connections that Huelva province has with the African continent have served as a catalyst for migration from sub-Saharan Africa in the 21st century. Lepe’s location on the highway between Portugal, Huelva and Seville makes it a choice town to use as a base for the desperate, and this stretch of flat, unused land close to the bus station has become a convenient spot on which to build temporary residences made of whatever materials can be afforded.

If the results of Spain’s recent general election are anything to go by, leperos do not have a favourable view of this congregation of immigrants. The far-right Vox won a majority in Lepe, which would suggest that anti-immigrant sentiment is rife among the town’s voting population, given the fact that anti-immigrant sentiment has been a major part of Vox’s manifesto. Indeed, many of the residents of the slum have claimed that a lack of accommodation offers in Lepe have made life in the slum an unfortunate necessity. Casual xenophobia is perhaps a normal development under these circumstances, but the residents of Lepe’s shanty town have had far greater concerns to deal with in recent times.

San roque fans

San roque ceuta

On the night of the 13th of October 2019 (a few weeks after my visit), fires erupted across the slum. Approximately 200 of the make-shift residencies were reduced to piles of ash come morning. Thankfully no deaths were reported, but an estimated 400 inhabitants are reported to have lost all of their possessions, including any form of documentation or personal identification they may have had. Cases of suspicious fires here are not uncommon; two other large-scale fires in the shanty town took place on the 12th of January and on the 23rd of May 2019 respectively. What makes the events of October the 13th so extraordinary is the fact that the site became the victim of two separate fires in one single day.

For years, the local council has made much noise about finding a solution to the situation. “Agenda 2020” originally launched in 2017 seems to have stalled in its starting blocks without having constructed a single accommodation block that it planned to. However, time is clearly a luxury that many of the individuals affected by the conflagration do not have. A short term accommodation solution has been found – one hundred metres away inside the Estadio Ciudad de Lepe. 148 homeless individuals were effectively granted temporary residency inside the stadium after the fires, which in turn has put immediate pressure on CD San Roque de Lepe this season.

Were are now in 2020 and a suitable solution to the crisis has yet to be implemented. Bear in mind that these individuals have been living this way for a full decade. The Down-and-Outs of Lepe must sometimes feel as if they are living inside a big joke.


4 thoughts on “No Laughing Matter

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