Spain's immigration petri dish

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.

Until recently, Spain remained a fairly homogeneous country, where only Spaniards lived, barring a small number of foreigners — mostly Europeans from colder climes in search of sun.

Ten years ago, immigrants made up less than 2 percent of the population. Today immigrants represent 11 percent of Spain’s inhabitants, with Moroccans the largest group. More than 2.5 million immigrants arrived from 2002 to 2007, according to the National Institute of Statistics.

Two out of three neighbors in Lavapies are immigrants, Ibarra said. Seven out of 10 students in Lavapies schools are immigrants — the so-called “one-and-a-half” generation immigrants who were born in their countries but are growing up in Spain.

“Here you can sense a determination to build a common lifestyle in our diversity,” said Jose Enrique Ema Lopez, who lives in Lavapies. Ema participates in Ferrocarril Clandestino, one of many neighborhood platforms and associations.

The network is composed of Spaniards and immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and those who take part exchange favors based on reciprocity — one who receives help one day then gives back. For example, a participant accompanies a non-Spanish speaker to the doctor, and the latter babysits another day in turn.

So far, unlike in other European countries, Spain has no political parties with an anti-immigration agenda in the national parliament, nor have there been significant anti-immigrant demonstrations.

But Ibarra, who was born here 54 years ago, is worried about the future. “Police reports don’t reveal the motivation behind a crime, so we don’t have specific statistics,” he said. A recent survey by the Institute of Youth found that 14 percent of Spanish high school students said they would vote for a political party with a racist ideology. “Xenophobia is growing everywhere,” Ibarra said, including in Lavapies, though less than in other neighborhoods.

“Lavapies’s strong social fabric acts like a shock absorber against the neighborhood problems,” he said.

And there is no lack of potential trouble. After the Madrid terrorist train bombings that killed almost 200 people in 2004, the police arrested several Moroccans in Lavapies, some of whom are still in prison. There is crime in the streets, particularly from Moroccan thieves, according to residents.

Ibarra said his and other groups work hard to prevent this from stigmatizing the general Muslim population. A few years ago another group of Moroccans targeted Chinese shop owners to steal their money. “We saw the beginning of an inter-ethnic conflict,” Ibarra said, “but, thanks to police action and the Moroccan neighbors’ hostility toward these delinquents, they are not here anymore.”

Lavapies's central location and relatively inexpensive housing stock attracts immigrants. But tensions can boil over among people with serious economic difficulties crowded into small apartments. Spain’s 17 percent (and growing) unemployment rate is putting more pressure on neighbors, and so are continual police raids.

Neighborhood associations encourage law enforcement to focus on criminals and leave undocumented immigrants alone. Ibarra argues that arresting those here illegally portrays a criminal image of immigrants, feeds xenophobia and “causes tremendous psychological damage to kids who see their parents taken away.”

The neighborhood has no parks and few squares or sports facilities, and Latino gangs are luring some teens looking for a sense of belonging.

Sports or cultural activities, such as rap singing classes, said Ibarra, could facilitate integration instead and help defuse the generational time bomb of immigration that threatens the fabric holding Lavapies together.

Ibn Batuta, a cultural integration association, holds activities like photography contests, video workshops and soccer tournaments.

A Moroccan who works in the association, Samira Oukhiar, said, “It’s a way for these kids to feel valued by society.”

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