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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Los Inmigrantes

Spain is a lot more diverse than it was a generation ago. Or even half a generation ago. Some four million immigrants have made Spain their home in the past ten years. And those are just the ones who are here legally and therefore accounted for. There are as many as another two million people who live in Spain “off the books.” In a country with only some 35 million people, this is a genuine sea change. Especially when you consider that throughout history far more people have left Spain than have come here. Both medieval Spain and large eras of modern Spain (most prominently under Franco) were obsessed with the “purity” of Spanish blood and the purity of Catholicism. With millions of immigrants arriving from all over the world for the first time, the Spanish conception of diversity is changing; albeit slowly. While twenty years ago the occasional black person would have received stares from everyone walking down the street, now you’ll find classrooms in some neighborhoods of Madrid, Barcelona or Valencia where half the students are from immigrant households.

Spanish immigration law favors people from former colonies or descendents of people expelled from Spain. These groups can obtain citizenship in only two years, instead of the usual ten. Among the more interesting of the groups included in this provision are Sephardic Jews, the descendents of political exiles (mostly from the Franco era), Filipinos and people from Western Sahara. As you’d expect many people from the poorer Latin American countries take advantage of Spain’s liberal immigration policy. Listening to the Spanish spoken on the street in Madrid; Bolivians, Mexicans and Colombians seem to be particularly prominent. Many restaurants and bars cater to these communities and feature the sporting events and music popular in the “home” countries. Churches have received a huge boost from the immigration of Latin Americans, who are generally much more religious than their Spanish counterparts. Church pews are full every Sunday for the first time in two generations and there are more children attending church in Spain than in at least three. Spain which has been “catholic in name and irreligious in practice” since the death of Franco now has a strong catholic church again, thanks almost entirely to Latin American immigration and the immigration of thousands of Latin American priests who preach a much more energetic mass. It’s also worth noting that most priests under the age of fifty in Spain are immigrants.

Among other immigrant groups, Turks seem to be particularly prominent. There are Turkish restaurants everywhere (both take-out and sit-down, cheap and expensive). Turkish newspapers are sold in many small Turkish stores which carry Halal food as well as Turkish sodas (strange stuff I must say), telephone cards, and Turkish TV shows on DVD. I’ve been told that many stores in immigrant neighborhoods have signage in Turkish with little or no Spanish. The Turkish stores I visited were all in wealthy neighborhoods where Turks often work in restaurants or as maids. Interestingly enough many of these stores are frequented by people who are clearly not Turkish. Baklava and kebabs (spelled kebap in Spain) in particular are becoming popular among the Spanish public.

In addition to Turks, there are many Arabs in Spain. They are often mistaken for Turks by the locals, especially women who wear Islamic head covering. In the same vein, basically all Asians are referred to as “Chinos.” From what I’ve heard spoken on the street so far there seem to be a lot more Koreans here than Chinese. I even saw a restaurant in Madrid which advertised itself as being “Chinese” but actually sold only Korean food. When I asked a waiter why they said they sold Chinese food he said “well, most Spaniards don’t know where Korea is and they certainly don’t realize that they like Korean food.”

Africans are also a small but integral part of the fabric of modern Spain. I’ve talked to several Kenyans and one man from Somalia. Also prominent are “economic immigrants”, i.e. wealthy expatriates from the United States and Britain. The stereotypical English speaking expatriate lives along the Costa Del Sur in an area with a high concentration of fellow expatriates in small resort towns where English is the main language. This immigrant is stereotypically either a Yuppie who works in IT or a retiree. Several weekly newspapers in English cater to this community; some actually feature articles that explain how to take advantage of local tax laws and how to avoid paying British taxes. These immigrants often can’t speak any Spanish even though they’ve lived here for decades and only associate with their own kind. There are, however, tens of thousands of British and American immigrants who live throughout the country, speak Spanish and are generally well assimilated into Spanish society. Many of these Americans and British expatriates moved to Spain to marry and are basically indistinguishable from the rest of Spanish society. Many British immigrants who don’t live in the Costa Del Sol are academics, especially English teachers. With the strong British presence it’s no surprise that British pronunciation and spelling are taught in most Spanish schools and most Spaniards who speak English well have a British accent.

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