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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Immigration, Integration, and Acceptance


Spain is quickly becoming a country of immigrants: Chinese, Moroccans, Sub-Sahara Africans, Romanians, South Americans, and a sprinkling of other nationalities. In 1980, immigrants made up less than one half of one percent of the population of Spain. In 2008, foreigners are something like 11.3% of the total population. The big waves of immigrants didn't really start arriving until this century. This means that Spaniards have had less than a generation to deal with this country-altering phenomena. Traditionally, people come to a new culture and they don't speak the language, or very little. Their children learn both the language of their parents and that of their adopted country. Their children, in turn, learn very little or none of the language of their grandparents. Spain is still, for the most part, in the era of these grandparents who have only recently arrived in the new country.

Without a doubt, the most notable group of immigrants in Spain—at least in Valencia—are the Chinese. I have mentioned before that different immigrant groups seem to dominate certain aspects of the economy. The Chinese own just about every variety store in Valencia. They also are moving into the neighborhood bar and café industry. In many of these businesses you will find the parents and children working together. At this point in Spain's wave of immigration, there are few grandparents in the equation. Often the parents speak very little Spanish. If they have teenage children, the kids usually speak perfect or near-perfect Spanish. Although these kids may have been born in Spain or have spent most of their lives here, they seem to have at least one foot in the world of their parents. They socialize with other Chinese kids, they listen to Chinese music, and they watch Chinese movies and television shows. In the immigrant formula stated above, this is normal. The children of these teenagers will be much more Spanish in every way and many may not even speak Chinese.

The Spanish attitude towards the Chinese here is mixed. On the one hand, most Spaniards see the Chinese as very hard working, industrious, and well-behaved. To say that someone “works like a Chinese” means they are a hard worker. It's rare to read in the paper about a crime committed by a Chinese immigrant. On the other hand, I think that most Spaniards are a little mistrustful of the Chinese community here. The Chinese aren't exactly famous for integrating into Spanish society. There seems to be a powerful underworld controlling the Chinese business interests in Spain that only the Chinese understand. Most Spanish people see the Chinese as totally separate from Spanish life. It is rare to see anyone of Chinese descent participating in Spanish life in almost any way. You almost never see Chinese people even drinking coffee or having a beer, except in a Chinese owned café that is also frequented by Chinese people.

Other than the Chinese, there are very few immigrants from other far east countries so the Spanish lump them all together as Chinese, something that, as an American, makes me cringe a bit. The Spanish will refer to a variety store owned by a Chinese immigrant as a “Chino.” Cafés are also getting this label applied to them as the Chinese move into this market. For the most part, the Chinese are a bit of an oddity for the Spanish. There is a matador known as the “Torero Chino” in sort of a freak show fashion. It is rare to see Spanish and Chinese adults in mixed company. It's still a bit soon for that. I have seen only two Chinese-Spanish personalities on the television. One of the Chinese personalities is a female host on a comedy news program and the other is young man on a drama series. I remember watching the drama series with a Spanish friend who was a bit shocked to see a Chinese actor on a Spanish series. The Spanish don't look at a Chinese immigrant and consider them to be Spanish.

The black African immigrants are not as wealthy or as organized as the Chinese. Many Chinese immigrants are something akin to economic colonists who have been sent by the Chinese government to live abroad and peddle Chinese manufactured goods. The Africans come to Spain because of the relatively porous borders and the abundance of undocumented employment available in agriculture and the construction trades. With the recent economic downturn, these jobs are in scarce supply and there have been tensions brewing between different immigrant groups and Spanish locals as they compete for jobs. As unemployment rises in Spain, locals are returning to jobs that once were outsourced to immigrants. There haven't been too many incidents thus far but things could get worse before they get better.

I sort of fall between the cracks as far as my immigrant status. As an American, most Spanish people consider me to be nothing more than a tourist. I suppose that I am a tourist. The same can be said of most of the other foreigners from European Union countries living in Spain, at least the wealthier ones who work in white collar jobs. Strangely, Europeans and Americans are more accepted by the Spanish than Latin Americans who speak Spanish.

It will take a few years of adjustment for Spain to become comfortable with the new additions to the national make up. It will take a few years for the immigrants to accept Spain as their home. Racism and xenophobia are present everywhere there are different races and nationalities living together. I don't think that it is fair to expect Spain to get everything right after only a few years of dealing with these problems.