Depictions of Substandard Housing During the Spanish Hunger Years

Date of news: 8 June 2021

Gloria Román Ruiz

As is the case for other European famine contexts such as the Great Irish Famine, during the Spanish Hunger Years (1939-1952) hunger, malnutrition-related diseases, and substandard housing went hand in hand.1

An illustrative example can be found in the village of Garrucha (Almería, Andalusia), where on 22 January 1940 an old man died as a result of "hunger and cold". The man was found lifeless in his cave after having perished from the hardships of winter and the avitaminosis he suffered from because of malnutrition. Cecilio, as he was called, had already shown signs of weakness a few days earlier, when he was picked up by a municipal ambulance and treated in various charitable establishments. He was given an injection of vitamins and a cup of broth. That same day, this elderly resident of the Almeria suburbs was taken back to his cave, where he met "a tragic death". The local authorities estimated that there were at least fifty other people of all ages in the municipality who were ill due to lack of food.2

This terrible story reflects the scale of the housing problem during the Francoist post-war period. At that time, survival was not guaranteed with the plate of food provided by the dictatorship's care institutions such as Auxilio Social. After passing through their canteens, people like Cecilio, reduced to starving bodies, returned to their caves, where they faced a reality of misery, cold, and disease that could lead to their deaths. Or they became victims of structural collapses, as happened in the city of Almería in January 1944, when heavy rains resulted in tragedy as a woman and her young daughter died when the cave they lived in collapsed.3

Woman preparing breakfast for her children in one of the Quemadero caves (Almería) in 1943

Photograph 1. Woman preparing breakfast for her children in one of the Quemadero caves (Almería) in 1943. FET de las JONS. Jefatura provincial de Almería. Biblioteca Digital Diputación de Almería, 729.

These photographs (1-5) are part of an extensive report on the caves of Almería written in 1943. It was commissioned for paternalistic and populist purposes by Falange, the single political party during the Franco dictatorship. The report’s overall aim was to reinforce the official discourse of 'social justice', which advocated the rehousing of cave dwellers in new homes to be built by the regime. This goal was to be achieved through several specific aims. The purpose was, firstly, to secure better hygienic conditions for these people in order to avoid a public health problem. Secondly, the aim was to provide a moral education for these people, since the overcrowded circumstances in which they lived, with children and adults, men and women, sharing a room together, was considered immoral and unchristian. Thirdly, the aim was to 'beautify' this area of the city, which was located not that far from the city centre and conveyed a grim image of poverty and misery. And finally, this social policy was meant to improve the image of the dictatorship among the population4.

But the reality was that new housing would not be built in significant numbers until the 1960s, and that it would be insufficient and of poor quality. Far from what was proclaimed by Franco's propaganda, the housing problem was aggravated by the insufficient attention paid to it by Franco's regime. The British Ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare pointed in this direction during his visit to Andalusia in 1943, when he stressed that the authorities focused their efforts on eradicating any political dissent but forgot the material conditions of the population. Thus, he stated that in this region ‘no new houses are being built and families were crowded into caves and cellars’.5

Caves could house entire families and were the most terrible habitations within the context of post-war substandard housing. Faced with the destructions caused by the recent war (1936-1939), the scarcity of available housing, the rising cost of living, and miserable wages, many poor families ended up in these caves. In Almería in 1940, 18,200 people lived in the 2,520 caves of the ‘poverty belt’ surrounding the city centre. This represented 29 per cent of the population of the capital.

The Falange photographs immortalised everyday and domestic scenes such as the preparation of food (photographs 1 and 2). The nature of these photographs therefore explains the prominence of women and children in them, as women and children were traditionally associated with the private sphere and the home – a home, which in these cases was reduced to the walls of a cave that barely protected the inhabitants from inclement weather conditions.

Woman peeling potatoes with her children in one of the Polvorín caves (Almería) in 1943

Photograph 2. Woman peeling potatoes with her children in one of the Polvorín caves (Almería) in 1943. FET de las JONS. Jefatura provincial de Almería. Biblioteca Digital Diputación de Almería, 741.

The cave dwellers belonged to the poorest classes, those who suffered most during the Hunger Years. Many of them were widowed or single women as a result of their husband's imprisonment or exile after the civil war, unemployed day labourers, or old people and children who could not work. These caves were tiny, often with only one room. Hence, as shown in photograph 2, these families had to prepare food outdoors. In this particular scene, the mother is peeling potatoes under the impatient gaze of her children; the youngest looks into the jar as if hoping to find some food.

Old woman and child inside one of the Quemadero caves (Almería) in 1943.

Photograph 3. Old woman and child inside one of the Quemadero caves (Almería) in 1943. FET de las JONS. Jefatura provincial de Almería. Biblioteca Digital Diputación de Almería, 809.

Photograph 3 shows a grandmother with her granddaughter, two women from two different generations, both walking slowly towards their cave, one because of her advanced age and the other because her foot is injured and bandaged. The girl carries a small jar in her left hand and in her right hand a piece of black bread, a bread made with poor quality flour, which was the only bread that most of the impoverished population could eat, while those better-off were able to eat white bread made with wheat flour that they bought at high prices on the black market. During the post-war period, black bread became the symbol of the Hunger Years, while white bread became the most longed-for and desired food. In the following decades, this longing would reinforce the centrality of bread in the diet, shaping embodied memories among those who were children in the post-war period, and who still suffer today when they see a piece of bread being wasted, or who kiss the bread when it falls on the floor before putting it back on the table.

Family at the entrance of their cave. Barranco caves (Almería), 1943.

Photograph 4. Family at the entrance of their cave. Barranco caves (Almería), 1943. FET de las JONS. Hunger Years. Biblioteca Digital Diputación de Almería, 700.

Photograph 4 shows members of a family at the entrance of their cave. Hunger and disease have had an impact on their starving, half-naked, and dirty bodies. This can be seen in the emaciated bodies of the father and the naked child. Moreover, the image shows one of the girls delousing the youngest of the siblings. These starving bodies are reminiscent of those depicted in memorials to commemorate the Great Irish Famine or the Ukrainian Holodomor. Because of the conditions in which they lived, the image of the derogatory 'ancient troglodyte' was attributed by the Francoist authorities to this family. At other times the authorities drew parallels between the cave dwellers and animals.

Family at the entrance of their cave. Barranco caves (Almería), 1943

Photograph 5. Family at the entrance of their cave. Barranco caves (Almería), 1943. FET de las JONS. Jefatura provincial de Almería. Biblioteca Digital Diputación de Almería, 760.

As can be seen in photograph 5, these caves were holes dug into the rock, tiny, unventilated spaces, poorly insulated from both cold and heat. According to the original description given at the time, everything this family owned, all their belongings (including their furniture and kitchen utensils), were in this room. The overcrowded conditions in which these people lived, together with the lack of sanitation and hygiene, as well as their malnutrition – here again very evident in the child's body - explain the proliferation of contagious and malnutrition-related diseases.

Another medium of remembrance in which the caves of the Spanish Hunger Years have been depicted is literature. In novels which combine real reporting and fiction such as La Chanca by Juan Goytisolo, numerous convergences with photographic representations can be traced. La Chanca takes its name from the Almeria neighbourhood where most of the caves were located and it was published in France in 1962, after Goytisolo's visit to the caves. Tellingly, its publication in Spain was prohibited until 1981; nevertheless, the text circulated clandestinely. In this work, the image of the hungry and sick bodies reappears, which Goytisolo describes as 'deformed figures of old men, women and creatures', haunted by madness or diseases such as tuberculosis. The author expressly refers to the ‘Cerro del Hambre’ (Hill of Hunger) where several of the photographs in the 1943 report were taken, and whose toponym is in itself enormously revealing. Moreover, in an implicit allusion to the authorities' neglect, he describes this Dantesque landscape as 'godforsaken'.

The images of the cave dwellers and the substandard housing conditions of the Spanish Hunger Years that reach us through photographs and literature refer in various aspects to other European famines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is the case in the depictions of landscapes which, like the caves in Almería, refer to misery and hunger; paradigmatic and highly symbolic foodstuffs such as bread or potatoes; illnesses such as madness; or the starving bodies of the famine victims.


1. Gloria Román Ruiz: ‘Ni un español sin hogar. La política de construcción de viviendas sociales en el campo alto-andaluz durante el franquismo’, Historia Social, 92, 2018, pp. 63-80.

2. The National Archives, Foreign Office, 371/34752, Ambassador Report to Eden, 15-3-1943.

3. Miguel Ángel Del Arco Blanco and Gloria Román Ruiz: ‘La casa se cae sola. Infravivienda, hambre y enfermedad durante el franquismo’, in Daniel Lanro Táboas (ed.): De la chabola al barrio social. Arquitecturas, políticas de vivienda y actitudes sociales en la Europa del sur (1920-1980), Granada, Comares, 2020, pp. 75-94.

4. Archivo General de la Administración (AGA), Presidencia del Gobierno (PG), Delegación Nacional de Provincias (DNP), 51/20495, ‘Partes mensuales Almería’, 1940.

5. AGA, DNP, 51/20634, ‘Partes mensuales Almería’, enero de 1944.