MARINALEDA, Spain — It was a sweltering summer day at the height of Spain's economic crisis when the longtime mayor of this hardscrabble village decided it was time to grab the nation's attention.
Most other politicians were on vacation, which looked a bit decadent to many, considering that the unemployment rate in southern Spain's Andalusia region was pushing 40%, among the highest in the nation.
So Mayor Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo of Marinaleda — population barely 2,700 — led his trade unionist friends on a march to a supermarket in a neighboring town.
"Aren't you all hungry?" he yelled through a megaphone in the grocery parking lot that morning in August 2012. "Let's go shopping!"
The cheering crowd pushed its way inside, piling chickpeas, rice, tomatoes and other food into carts, then rushing out without paying. Police met the mostly first-time outlaws outside and arrested Sanchez Gordillo, although not before he managed to transfer his loot to representatives of local food banks to distribute to the poor.
Sanchez Gordillo, 62, a member of Spain's United Left party, was first elected mayor in 1979. He's built a reputation as a rabble-rouser: a communist who's been arrested and fined several times for expropriating land that belonged to wealthy but absent ranch owners, or for squatting on military land. But his supermarket heists — he led several that month — made him a household name in Spain, the modern-day Robin Hood of Andalusia.
No doubt he looks the part, sporting a Che Guevara-style beard and a Palestinian-style scarf. Spanish hipsters in Madrid wear T-shirts bearing his image.
But in an interview in his town hall office, Sanchez Gordillo appeared more diminutive and softer-spoken than he does on TV.
"My philosophy is that power — even the tiny little bit my town hall has — should give voice to those who don't have one," he said quietly.
He spoke with barely a hint of the thick Andalusian accent that morphs into peasant slang when he yells through his megaphone to the crowds.
"It should transform reality to be more fair, more humane, more equitable — and spread peace," the mayor said.
Sanchez Gordillo says he's attempting to do that in his hometown, a small-scale communist utopia. Signs at the entrance to Marinaleda invite visitors on a "struggle toward peace." A huge portrait of Guevara stares down at the town from the wall of a municipal sports arena on a hill.
Marinaleda offers residents free English or Spanish classes and Internet service, heavily subsidized child care and $5 memberships to the town's Olympic-size swimming pool. There are no municipal police, which Sanchez Gordillo said saves the town nearly $500,000 a year. (Service is provided instead by volunteers and the national Civil Guard.)
"When we first arrived here, we had domingos rojos — red Sundays," recalled Chris Burke, 62, who retired to Marinaleda from Britain four years ago.
"They'd come around and say, 'It's a domingo rojo!' and they would expect you to go out and sweep the street or mop outside your neighbor's or something," said his wife, Ali, during an interview at the couple's row house near Marinaleda's center.
Unlike much of Spain, where half-built houses have littered the landscape since the 2009 construction collapse, there's a waiting list in Marinaleda. The town offers building materials and an architectural plan to those who want to construct their own 900-square-foot row house, with yard and garage — casita, or little house, as it's known here. Once the house is completed, residents pay about $20 a month as a mortgage to the town.
Such programs strike a chord in Andalusia, where landed gentry still control huge swaths of the countryside, and landless laborers are crammed into villages. One of the landowners is a woman Spaniards know simply as la duquesa — the Duchess of Alba — who's said to hold the greatest number of noble titles of anyone in the world. Her full name is Doña Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva.
Spaniards say you can walk 600 miles from coast to coast without ever leaving her property. That irks Sanchez Gordillo. He and his supporters have occupied swaths of her family's land, protesting the agricultural subsidies she receives from Madrid and Brussels and the area's general income inequality. Two years ago, after a very public spat with the duchess' son, Sanchez Gordillo hosted the count on a tour of lands he owns but had never set foot on.
"Marinaleda and its anti-capitalist philosophy is shining like a beacon in Spain right now," said Dan Hancox, a British journalist who wrote a book about the community. "That's partly why Sanchez Gordillo has become more controversial than ever. Because Spain's elites, in which corruption is sadly all too rife, are slightly scared of the fact that the left is saying, 'Well look, their situation seems to work!'"
The unemployment rate in Marinaleda hovers around 5%, compared with more than 35% in the rest of Andalusia. That's possible because the town has a huge farm — part of it on expropriated land — and factories that are run as collectives. Workers canning olives and artichokes earn about $65 a day, twice Spain's minimum wage.
"These are crops that require more hands, less machines, so they create jobs," said Annie Miranda, who has worked at the artichoke factory for 13 years. "We have more solidarity here than in other villages. If there's any problem, we hold a general assembly and discuss it with the whole town. This factory is for the people of the village."
Critics say Marinaleda's communist experiment works only on an extremely small scale and only with vast subsidies from the left-leaning regional government in Seville. For some, the town reflects a cult of personality that can't survive without its charismatic mayor.
"The incredible irony of all this is that Sanchez Gordillo is a very powerful leader, and while he purports the values of everybody having an equal say … even his most loyal friends and supporters in the village would disagree with you if you call this a popular struggle where all are equal," Hancox said.
That popular struggle may soon be tested. The law has caught up with Sanchez Gordillo.
One of the supermarkets he stole from in the summer of 2012 later agreed to pay for the food itself and donate more to the poor. But another big chain took him to court for playing Robin Hood at one of its stores. Sanchez Gordillo is now awaiting a sentence that could include jail time.
"They want to make an example of me! It turns out my rebellion was a crime," the mayor said. "But sometimes when there's injustice in the world, you have to rebel and take the consequences. What's important is that in Marinaleda, we have shown that there's another way to do things."