The small Spanish city that the covid-19 has resurrected: "It was not necessary to go to China"

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The Salamanca town, where 13.000 residents live, has seen its centuries-old textile industry reactivate to respond to the demand for masks.

Until a few weeks ago, it is likely that Béjar was familiar with his famous cloths. Maybe I had ever heard the expression "live like the rich of Béjar ", an allusion to the bourgeoisie of the textile industry that in the postwar period made this town in the southeast of Salamanca one of the economic capitals of the region. Today he probably relates it to his masks, what solidarity projects and posts WhatsApp virals through, have become decades after their peak and decline in your new hallmark.

"If I am honest, I am very surprised for the good," explains the president of his Chamber of Commerce, Ventura Velasco. Currently, there are only around six textile companies and 100 direct workers left in a city where there was about 100 factories and more from 5.000 staff before the deindustrialization and competition of the Asian market wiped out everything. However, it still has something that very few places have, to say nothing: knowledge, infrastructure and a textile culture that survives. Few places in Spain were so prepareds like Béjar to start sewing masks, as they did from the first minute of the pandemic.

"While I was devastated by covid-19, what has kept me alive has been thinking that the people were doing their best same."

As they used to say, "in Béjar, the one it's not textile, it's a stranger ". That is why the Junta de Castilla y León quickly got in touch with the local authorities when, a month and a half ago, they perceived that a dangerous shortage of protective material. Masks especially, but also divers and gowns. The result has been, after weeks of altruistic work, 15.000 masks. Only in Béjar there have been more than 300 cases. One of them, Velasco himself, happily recovered: "While I was in bed wrecked with covid-19, what has kept me alive has been thinking about these projects, which have brought out the best in the people of Béjar."

Although the project 'Béjar por el textile' finished Last week, the witness was already collected commercially by Fibras Textiles Sánchez, a small firm of mattresses and pillows that has bought enough machinery to produce about 5.000 masks at the time. It is the famous 'Béjar Masks' that has reached mobile phones throughout the country. Perhaps the message will ring a bell: "Béjar has many factories closed due to this mania of taking all production to China, now they have reactivated one, let's help the Spanish industry, let's give our people a chance ". A ray of hope after difficult decades. In 1970, the city had 17.576 inhabitants. Today they are 12.961.

It almost seems like a cautionary tale. "Due to our history, the people who have participated come from that industrial-textile Béjar that has been fundamental, because apart from the machines they need people with time, knowledge and initiative and here we had it, "he explains Sergio Márquez, a 29-year-old industrial engineer from the Air Institute and a member of the BISITE research group, who has participated in the charity project. "In all areas they talk about this issue: we have a brutal dependence on producing countries, especially in terms of matter. When there is no supply, the country is knocked out. It makes no sense for money to go to China to buy cheap material that is often not of quality if you can develop policies that generate an industrial fabric. "

"We have not realized until this very tragic situation what it means dispense with the national productive means, especially in matters as strategic as medicine or textiles ", adds Velasco. Javier Ramón Sánchez Martín, Professor at the University School of the Textile Engineering area at the ETS de Ingeniería Industrial de Béjar and a great connoisseur of local history, he rounded off the moral: "This has shown that all the industry, all the livestock, etc. ", he laments." Money is not much use in circumstances like these, only to have everything sold more expensive when we can produce it ourselves if there is a small industry that allows it ".

A 'know-how' of the XNUMXth century

The teacher remembers the date perfectly. January 1, 2005, the day the World Trade Organization eliminated all tariffs, which completely opened the doors to Asian and Maghreb textile products, which the Bejaran industry could do nothing about. As Velasco adds, "in the 90s the industry was brought to the fore, with the closure of Hispano Textil in 1993, and we still haven't recovered ".

"In the town there are workshops and people, some of them unemployed, who have experience producing masks or divers."

It is almost impossible to find someone in Béjar whose family has not worked in textiles. The professor's father was a dyer. He designed the recipes for dyeing the cloths. Velasco's maternal grandfather founded Esteban Gutiérrez in the postwar period, a family business continued by his uncle and cousins ​​until also closed its doors in 2006. The Speaker of the House remembers with pride those famous clothes throughout the country: "They were unbreakable, they had a magnificent quality."

Also the family of Araceli blackberry, head of the Béjar Atélier together with Magdalena Gutierrez, who has spent the last month on the front lines in his workshop, sewing masks. "My father was a darner and my mother a weaver, the only profession they knew since they were 14 years old ", Explain. After the designer they work for paralyzed production by declaring a state of alarm, they stopped to think. "We are quite hard-working people and we could contribute many things with what we know how to do, so we put on the masks."

It all started in his workshop and, from there, it spread to seven others where for several weeks about 30 people have worked non-stop (50 in the total team), in addition to the external collaboration of the IoT Digital Innovation Hub, BISITE or the Chamber of Commerce through Marian hernandez. "The people who started the project knew workshops and people who could participate, usually workers who currently or in the past had experience with industrial sewing machines," explains Márquez. "We have received many requests from older people who wanted to help from home, and every week more people have joined." The majority, former workers of the dwindling textile industry, including retirees or who lost their jobs decades ago.

For the industrial engineer, the golden age of Bejaran textiles is far away. His grandparents were weavers, and his parents were also part of that monoculture that, for that very reason, caused so many problems when it collapsed. The AIR Institute it represents, a public-private foundation, has borne most of the expenses and managed the project. First looking material that had guarantees, something that was simpler than I thought. Sacyl, the Health of Castilla y León, gave the go-ahead: it had a degree of filtration similar to FFP2, valid size and shape, withstands sterilization and can be sanitized. Later, looking for professionals. Also, counting on firefighters or civil protection to lend a hand in distribution and logistics.

At its peak it had 8.000 inhabitants, 3.000 of whom were workers in the textile industry. Almost the same as in the entire Valencian Community.

"When help has been needed from people with knowledge, many of them without work, who come from this industry, we have complied without the Government having given us support," adds the engineer. "It has been a private initiative with money lost, giving time away to whoever might need it." Their masks have reached homes for the elderly, associations and groups of the disabled such as Asprodes, local, civil and national police, firefighters or the army. In total, about 100 organizations, starting by region, continuing throughout the province and ending with other regions of Spain such as Cáceres or Madrid.

Rise and fall

The roots of the Bejarana textile activity are found at the end of the XNUMXth century, after the repopulation of Alfonso VIII. The historical account that Sánchez Martín picked up In 'The textile industry of Béjar in the XX century and the dawn of the XXI' provides another historical-economic teaching. Most likely, the area was dedicated to clothing not only because of the proximity of raw materials or the abundance of wood and water coming out of the Body of Man river, but because the poverty of the soil forced us to look for alternatives that would end up becoming centuries later. a dangerous monoculture.

It was also another historical coincidence that turned Béjar into a textile capital during the Francoism. When it remained in national territory, while the Catalan and Valencian competition had made it Republican, it became the supplier of uniforms for the Francoist army. "The 40s and 50s were very good, Catalan families such as the Rocamora, Gilart Fite, Farrás Faus, which provided qualified labor, "continues the professor." In the 60s Spain made a lot of progress at an industrial level, and Béjar was no less, but the opening of markets to Europe hurt him, because fabrics could already be imported ".

At that time, the city, which had this category since the time of Isabel II, could be compared to provincial capitals Castilian, and came to surpass some in population, such as Plasencia. "A lot of money was handled because there was a lot of work, and from what my father told me, very well paid "remembers Mora. "In his family there were four men and with their salaries they worked very, very well." Catalans and Belgians settled in the region. 18.000 inhabitants, 3.000 of whom were workers in the textile industry. Almost the same as in the entire Valencian Community.

From the 70s, successive crises hit the city. "Béjar is beginning to feel the problems derived from machinery", could read the readers of 'El País'in 1979. "The textile industry that houses and gives life to the population is in a process of modernization and mechanization that is inflating the number of unemployed." In 20 years, 810 positions had disappeared without the production being affected. It was not the golden Béjar of years before: unemployment already then exceeded 30%. Today, I know find en one 22,64%, above the average for the province, 19,32%.

"I have not experienced the confinement, because I have worked non-stop. We are collecting what we have harvested and the orders are piling up."

"Since the 90s, young people have been forced to migrate because they could not develop their trade here, many left the industrial school ", adds Velasco. The relationship with the neighbor Guijuelo it was key to the survival of both, with daily exchanges. Since then, and as globalization brought down commercial tolls, the number of companies has been decreasing. From 2.721 textile workers in 1970 to 278 in 2012.

"The companies that remain have their field of specialization and in that way they have been able to survive and adapt to weather the storm," adds Sánchez Martín. "They will remain, but with difficulties, because the market is not easy." Hopes are pinned on the reindustrialization plan of the Junta de Castilla y León that was approved in 2018 with a minimum capital of three million euros and that the Chamber of Commerce expects to be extended a little longer due to the situation. Velasco reveals that Madrid companies have already interested in starting projects in the city under that umbrella.

"That 30 people have come together to give masks to those who needed them, working non-stop is important, and that another company has been able to start up to produce them industrially, too," Sergio Márquez concludes. The name of Béjar is on everyone's lips again. They are no longer cloths, but masks. Orders follow one another, and Velasco's phone does not stop ringing these days. Many companies and some entrepreneurs have taken an interest in the city, so it is probable that the tragedy has revived its productive fabric. "Let them come and this recovers its past luster ".

"The confinement I have not lived it, because I have worked non-stop ", concludes Mora, who has just arrived at his house from the workshop." We have come to so many places and they make us so many orders that we cannot take care of everything due to administrative issues, but we are collecting what that we have harvested. "Despite the fatigue, the important thing is the pride of having contributed a grain of sand centuries old. And enjoy, perhaps, a future that reminds us of that brilliant past. "I think about it many times, how from the worst you get more learning or greater benefits. Life puts you between your back and the wall and then it seems that rewards you ". And hang up to continue working.

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