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Spain's immigration petri dish

Lavapies is praised for successful integration — but will second-generation immigrants upset the balance?

A woman from Morocco stands inside a store in Madrid's neighborhood of Lavapies, Feb. 8, 2008. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

MADRID — “Don’t shout,” ordered a Spanish policeman. “I’m not! We Latinos happen to talk loudly!” retorted a young Dominican woman. She was angry at the dozen cops called in to break up a street fight.

As the police frisked one man, some Senegalese men gathered to watch. Two Pakistanis poked their heads out the door of their belly dancing garment store, while a Moroccan woman, wearing a head scarf and pushing a trolley with a toddler, strolled by without breaking stride.

This is an everyday scene in Lavapies, a quintessential Madrid immigrant neighborhood. It is just one facet of Spain's modern-day experience with immigration — an influx that started a decade ago when the construction industry driving Spain’s burgeoning economy drew Moroccans and Latin Americans to fill vacancies.

The culinary offerings of Lavapies are a guide to the nationalities of those who flooded in: Senegalese, Pakistani, Indian and Moroccan restaurants abound in this downtown neighborhood. So do terrazas, or outdoor cafes, always crowded with visitors who come looking for the neighborhood’s bohemian ambiance. The terrazas and visitors help dispel any air of a ghetto.

“Lavapies is a laboratory," said Esteban Ibarra, president of Movimiento Contra la Intolerancia, a pacifist group that works against intolerance. "It can become a showcase of multicultural meeting point.”

Indeed, the neighborhood is often used as a successful example for the peaceful coexistence of immigrant groups.

Yet it is second-generation immigrants — not the first-generation arrivals like those in Lavapies — who have traditionally presented a problem in other European countries, including the U.K., France and Germany.

“The second generation will feel they have more right to demand things,” reflected Abdul, a Moroccan electrician sipping coffee at a Lavapies cafeteria, who did not want to give his last name. “We tolerate things they won't."

Spanish authorities and immigrant community leaders are aware of the experience in those countries, and hope proactive social efforts can preserve the current successes in integration.

The demographics of this country have changed intensely and rapidly with the massive arrival of immigrants. The Moors, who were here for 800 years, left an indelible mark on the language and the architecture of Spain before the Catholic monarchs reconquered the Spanish territories in 1492 and eventually expelled those who stayed.