Above: A flier at a bus stop in Madrid. In English, it reads, “Thank you immigrants, for coming to a country that robs and kills you from hunger, for honoring us with your presence.”
By Narisa Silver
As you walk around the streets of Madrid, save for the dramatic European architecture, it would be easy to confuse it with any of America’s urban cities. Since the 1980s and the creation of the Spanish Second Republic, Spain has changed from a place of emigrants to a place of immigration, to which people from all over the world come to live and find work. I will explain patterns and trends of immigration in Spain since the end of Franco’s dictatorship into the current day.
In 1975 Francisco Franco, military dictator of over 40 years, died of natural causes, and power was handed over to the hereditary king of Spain. The government then decided that Spain would transition into a liberal democracy. Like most Western European countries, Spain has an active Socialist party, and the country has extensive social welfare developments. Due to the recent financial crisis, immigration has recently slowed down, but the country’s immigrant population continues to increase.
For over forty years, Francisco Franco’s regime imposed on the people of Spain ideas of cultural unity, based upon an extremist conservative nationalist perspective. Youth were educated to believe that Spain was the spiritual leader and champion of the Christian world, and that there could only be a single Spanish culture. For this reason, education was required to be strictly in the Castellano dialect of Spanish – linguistic minorities such as the Basque and Catalan people were forbidden from education in their native tongues. Religion and the state were tied closely together, and children were taught Catholic doctrines in schools. Although Spain is now an essentially secular state that teaches universal human rights in schools instead of Catholicism, traces of Franco’s Spain still remain, especially among older generations.
The only general trend linking all immigrants to Spain is their search for work and their desire for a better quality of life. The largest single group of immigrants in Spain, both legal and illegal, is Moroccans. This is because the two countries have a shared and complicated history, and also because of the country’s proximity to Spain. Notably, there is a large African immigrant population in Spain. Nearly all of the Africans in Spain are first-generation immigrants from countries in West Africa, such as Ghana and Nigeria. Migrants from these African countries usually come in boats across the Strait of Gibraltar, either from West Africa or from Morocco. Because they often lack education and language skills, they generally end up working manual labor, especially in the agricultural southern region of Spain.
In urban regions of Spain, there is a very different type of immigrant population. Particularly successful have been mainland Chinese immigrants. These immigrants have dominated the mini-mart and convenience store industry, and have also successfully established many restaurants. However, the Chinese are among the least integrated into Spanish society: Because their communities are very tightly knit, many do not need speak Spanish, only knowing enough to run their stores. Another large immigrant population in cities is Eastern Europeans from the Former Soviet Union, particularly Poland and Romania. Because many Central and Eastern European countries have recently joined the European Union, these people have the right to seek employment and benefits in Spain. Finally, a third large group is Latin American immigrants, namely from Ecuador and Peru. These groups typically seek work in large cities, where there are already established Latin American communities.
The migration of millions from across the globe to Spain has not occurred without some backlash. The xenophobia that was instilled into Spaniards for decades under Franco’s regime still has its hold on some members of the population. Additionally, there has been a reactive movement of white supremacist neo-Nazi gangs outside of Madrid, namely in the city of Guadalajara. Although these gangs are small in number, they still visibly leave their marks on public buildings, generating fear and anxiety. However, the greatest challenge that these immigrants face is overcoming the language barrier and ignorance regarding other cultures. Immigration has slowed due to the recent financial crisis, and sadly, many immigrants are stranded in the country with no support network or connections to help them. In fact, many of the homeless people in Spain are actually from other countries. Because of this, there has been controversy and debate in the country over the extent to which welfare programs can help immigrants, and to what extent immigrants have rights in a country that they could be staying in illegally. In a policy similar to that of the United States, if a child is born in Spain, she will be a Spanish citizen, regardless of her parents’ citizenship status. Spain has debated changing this law from jus sanguinis to jus soli, meaning Spanish citizenship would be conditional to being born in Spain. (Indeed, Germany made a similar change in 2000.) Despite the many challenges that they face, Spain’s diverse immigrant groups have contributed greatly to the cultural and economic diversity of the country, and continue to grow and become a permanent part of the country.