Sister Writes: The Plumber Heroines
That’s the story I wrote for the literary magazine Sister Writes, from Toronto, Canada.
The Plumber Heroines
I remember the day when we came back to school from our vacations and we were old. Old enough, I mean, to sit on the metal bench during the morning break and not play like children.
I remember perfectly: the boys wearing jeans for the first time, the foil sound when we opened our tomato-bread sandwiches, and the lively conversations about the summer. The Barcelona blue sky dazzled my eyes and I dreamed about the future.
I thought that when you got older, you became free. And I thought that metal bench was leading us to that freedom. A few days later, however, I realized that neither the metal bench nor leaving childhood was liberating me. And even the jeans and the aluminum foil began choking my breath.
That is the story of how we, the Plumber Heroines, liberated ourselves years later.
The Writing Course
It all began with a script-writing course. Our class consisted of eight women in the Ribera Quarter of Barcelona following the directions of the most chaotic teacher in the city, Carmen. She entered the classroom dragging her travel-bag full of VHS tapes. Although it was 2035 and we already lived in the Digital Age, Carmen had all these film fragments she wanted to show us in her bag. We never knew exactly what she was teaching in that class, but her words activated our dreams.
It was the time when water was being privatized all over the world. The time when all our ancestors advised us that maybe privatization was excessive and crossing a line. Dangerous. We cared, like we cared when they augmented the cost of public transportation, or when they built the useless high velocity train. We cared, like we cared when we discovered exploited hands in Cambodia or Morocco were making our clothes. We cared, like we cared when thousands of families couldn’t pay their mortgages or when sexual assaults continued to be committed. We cared, and we thought of solutions, but we could never look at the terrifying big picture. And we laughed together; running in the Barcelona narrow streets while the city was sleeping. And we reinvented our souls in forbidden places at impossible hours. That night some of us ended up in a hidden spot called The Gladiator. Conversations freed our imaginations and we conspired together against patriarchy and collective stupidity. We cared about ourselves and about others. We decided to succeed in our activist and personal life. You pulled me by my jumper and I kissed your lips hard…
“Get up!” I didn’t know what time it was and my brain was still seeing the images from the night before. The washroom line, your shoulder, the weird man, the guffaw, your eyes, the smoke, the screams, outside again…Run! Pepa was touching my legs though the eiderdown: “Come on! It’s raining let’s go and get water!” Pepa was my roommate and my best and most powerful friend. She was also an impressive plumber. She and three other neighbors had built a system to collect rainwater from the roofs of five buildings in our neighborhood. If Pepa’s invention worked, we could stop thousands of liters of water from ending up in the hands of Water-Waterer, the most important private water corporation that stole our common good with the complicity of our city council. Crossing the city in Pepa’s car made me felt like Thelma and Louise. She made me drive quickly while she reviewed the material we had with us. Pepa had plenty of recycled pipes, plastics sheets, and hoses. “A group of threads well twisted is a rope” she said, laughing, quoting the Catalan poet, Miquel Martí i Pol. Pepa reused, recycled, created. She was my goddess. “Its gonna be a funky good night!” she said. I turned up the music.
White-men see rivers as streams of money. “No money, no water, ” they said, laughing, in an International Water Forum. And last year, in our neighbourhood El Carmel, they decided to test the pre-paid water system. The water pre-paid system meant an increase in price and if we didn’t pay in advance, we had no water in our tap. The city council says that “This will encourage water-usage awareness,” but the system does not apply to the owner’s of private swimming pools, or the golf courses in the rich part of the city. In El Carmel, we live in an old house rooted in a very high slope, just north of the Park Guell with incredible views of the city and the sea.
The hacker community, located in the BetterSpace basement, was working for the water-liberation. They were creating cards that would trick the system and issue families’ false pre-paid water cards. I loved walking through their space and getting cards for my neighbors. It was my monthly gift to them.
Barcelona has two mountains and one sea. The center is invaded with floods of tourists that come from cruise ships and airplanes. Barcelona is a cool European spot and our city council announced happily years ago that we were “Barcelona, the best shop in the world.” We, the locals, don’t shop in the center and we never drink sangria in Les Rambles. I loved painting the view of Barcelona with a big paintbrush. From my calm neighborhood every big picture seemed peaceful and full of colour. I had multiple undefined jobs. I had decided to be a creative soul and intertwine myself with others.
That evening we were waiting for our teacher, Carmen, in class when she entered with a troubled face. “Girls, you have no idea what happened to me yesterday” Carmen opened her huge eyes wide and began to tell her story
The DV Tape
We decided to cancel the class and take the subway to my house in El Carmel. The night before, the police had confiscated Carmen’s bag looking for DV tapes, but had found nothing. Now Carmen had brought all the DV tapes she had found at her house and wanted to check them all in a camcorder. What were the police searching for? “Girls aren’t you afraid?” asked Lluïsa a seventy-year-old woman in the class. “No,” we all said. She smiled: “All of this reminds me the time we fought against Franco’s dictatorship.”
In the subway we found hundreds of PAH members (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages). PAH was founded 30 years ago to protect families that were going to be evicted and now they manage many collectively-squatted buildings they share with priority families. We talked to them inside the subway and some decided to come with us to El Carmel.
We grew up in a democracy that taught us not to drink water from the sky or the tap. A “democracy” that told us to buy houses to feel safer and to buy goods as often as possible. Some of us forgot we were social creatures or that life could be simpler and more fulfilling. We forgot about DIY. Do It Yourself. That day in El Carmel activists of water and housing, neighbors, the hackers, my classmates, and other great everyday heroines gathered together freely on our terrace. Some checked the DV Tapes, others explained new discoveries in pre-paid water cards, some started peeling potatoes and cutting vegetables, and the PAH-crew listened while Pepa explained her new “pipeline-roof-liberating-system-based-on-trees”. The sound and smell of the embers cooking our home-grown food, the smell of strange imported spices, the voices of peers, and the Barcelona blue sky dazzling, again, my eyes. I was breathing deeply once again. We had become the Plumber Heroines.
*Part of this plot was designed with filmmaker Elena Molina in connection with the Catalan Network for a New Culture of Water.