It is a tough time to be a clown in Jaraíz de la Vera, a country town surrounded by cherry orchards and tobacco fields in the western region of Extremadura, where a third of residents are now unemployed.
Sonia Rodríguez used to have no problem finding work as a clown. “Normally by this time I would have up to 15 bookings for first-communion parties,” she said, leaving the local unemployment office. “I’ve put up posters in several towns, but this year I don’t have a single one.”
Where parents in Jaraíz de la Vera and elsewhere in Spain once budgeted up to €1,000 (£812) to buy and hire fluffy white bridal-style dresses, pint-sized admiral’s suits, presents and clowns for a child’s first communion, this year’s festivities are marked by economic gloom and austerity.
The time for celebration is long over. This week government statistics confirmed that Spain had tumbled back into recession – its second in three years.
Record-breaking unemployment of 24% means one in three of those without jobs in the eurozone – 5.6m people – are Spaniards.
Spain’s spending cuts, totalling €42bn or so this year, are inflicting further short-term damage and forcing unemployment still higher.
As concern builds up over the impact of “toxic” real-estate loans on Spain’s banks, the Madrid stock market has collapsed to 2003 levels. The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Spain’s debt two notches last week – and then did the same to 11 banks.
In Jaraíz de la Vera, at the heart of a rural province suffering 31% joblessness, the feeling of despair is absolute, especially among the young. Unemployment among the under-25s is now 52% nationwide, with 3m jobs lost within four years.
“I haven’t worked for almost two years,” said Daniel Cruz, 23, who left school at 16 to work on building sites. “At this rate we will all end up emigrating, like our grandparents did.”
Even school-age children are downcast. “What is the point of studying if you are not going to get a job anyway?” suggested Rashid, 16, who had bunked off school for the day.
The short-term future is bleak. Spain’s economy will shrink this year and next, according to the Funcas thinktank, with unemployment rising above 26% in 2013.
Anger is increasingly focused on the demands from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the European Central Bank, for maximum austerity. About 8,000 Spanish police were drafted into Barcelona on Thursday to protect the ECB’s board as members met in the city.
Mariano Rajoy‘s conservative government has vowed to slash the deficit from 8.5% of GDP to 3% in just two years, and the welfare state itself is under threat.
Members of Jaraíz de la Vera’s immigrant community will be among the first to be excluded from basic services such as healthcare.
“Friends of mine have already left Spain. Two are in France,” Rodríguez said. “Others have started going to pick grapes in France in the summer, just like in the old days.”
The feeling that the clock has been wound back to before Spain’s decade-long economic boom – fuelled in part by a residential property bubble that burst in 2008 – is everywhere in Jaraíz de la Vera.
Roberto Antonio, who runs a furniture shop, Vera Muebles, said: “When we opened eight years ago, there were 40 or 50 new homes built every few months. That meant the same number of new kitchens, and we always fitted some of them.
“Now building has stopped and lots of new homes are still empty and unsold. There are no flats to furnish and no kitchens to install. The most we get are people changing the mattresses on their beds.”
Down the road at the Comercial del Automovil used-car showroom, César Hernández had switched from selling high-end estate cars to secondhand hatchbacks and small white vans.
“Sales have fallen by more than 50% locally,” he said. “A few years ago people wanted flashy BMWs, Audis and Mercedes cars, for €20,000 or more. Now they just want something utilitarian. Even those with money are too scared to spend.”
Last month car sales in Spain slumped to 1993 levels. Many unemployed Spaniards have used up their dole allowance, payments that last two years, and so now subsist off regional government handouts that can be as low as €426 a month.
Caritas, a charity run by the local Santa María church, says the number of families seeking help to buy food in this town of 7,000 people has leapt in recent weeks.
Nieves Tovar, a Caritas volunteer, who hands out rice, sugar, cooking oil and other essentials, said: “A few months ago we were giving food to about 80 families, but two weeks ago it was almost 120 and now it is 137. Some people are ashamed to be seen coming to us, or turn up crying.
“It hurts your soul to see them. They can’t pay their rent, and the families with young children are suffering worst.”
At the unemployment office, Michel Jímenez and Vanesa Pérez fretted about the future for their nine-year-old child.
“Until recently Michel worked on building sites and I would get seven or eight months’ work in the fields, picking cherries, strawberries and peppers or stripping tobacco leaves,” Pérez explained. “But now building has stopped, tobacco subsidies are down and many jobs are being done by machines. At least we have 30 olive trees, so we don’t have to buy oil.”
About 15 years ago Moroccan immigrants began arriving as local farmers in this fertile valley at the foot of the snow-capped Gredos mountains found themselves short of labour. Now the immigrants make up almost 10% of the population.
But many are jobless and, under health reforms announced last month, they will soon forfeit the right to use the national health service, except in emergencies.
“Immigrants are even more screwed than Spaniards,” said Omada Aynaou, who has lived in the town for 11 years. “My mother fell sick in Morocco so I went to visit her. Now they say I must pay back some of my dole money and can’t get more until next year. How can I pay the rent? Normally I could start picking cherries this month, but the rain has spoilt them.”
Fearing that this summer cash-strapped local towns and villages will not be able to afford any clowns for their annual fiestas, Rodríguez is also contemplating farm work. “I picked grapes when I was younger,” she said. “Maybe I’ll have to go back to that.”