Spain's lost children are coming home — in droves

MADRID, Spain — Spain’s Law of Historical Memory aims to make up for persecution or violence suffered during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War and Franco's ensuing dictatorship.

One of the provisions extends an offer of Spanish nationality to descendants of political exiles and migrants who left due to economic hardship — a right grandchildren of Spaniards who migrated before the war have also claimed. Despite the red tape, consular and registry offices have reportedly been overwhelmed consistently by the number of applicants since the law came into effect in December 2008.

According to Spain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of mid-January, more than 160,000 applications have been received, of which 95 percent came from Latin America.

Cuba is among the nations with more descendents applying for Spanish nationality. The Spanish news agency Europa Press reported that the Spanish consular office in Cuba receives 325 applicants every day. The law originally established a two-year period to present applications, with the possibility of a one-year extension — until December 2011 — which the Council of Ministries approved on Jan. 22.

What motivates the children of emigres to claim Spanish citizenship understandably varies.

PL, a Cuban who preferred not to reveal his full name, explained in a phone conversation from Cuba that his reasons were as sentimental as they were practical.

His grandmother arrived in Cuba in 1902 with her sisters. Her fiancee followed in 1904, having traveled as a stowaway on a ship to Havana, hidden inside a barrel. “They came looking for ‘El Dorado’ dream, to ‘do the Americas’ and succeed in life,” PL said. His grandfather found a job on a tobacco plantation, eventually came to own a small "sitio" or plot and marry his grandmother.

When PL's grandmother died in 1925 from pregnancy complications after having had seven children, however, her sisters returned to Spain. And it was them that PL went to visit in 2001.

He traveled to Spain’s Canary Islands in 2001 to resolve a family inheritance and meet members of his family whom he had never known. “I felt like a foreigner in my grandparents’ home,” he said, “that’s why I decided I wanted to have Spanish nationality.” 

It wasn't all heartstrings, though, that motivated PL. While working in Spain without papers during that first stay of several months, he sometimes had problems collecting his paycheck, he said.

Finding the required documents and even determining what documents are required constitute a nightmare for many applicants.

Ludivina Garcia, president of the Association of Descendants of Exiles, said that the grandchildren of political refugees usually have it easier. If an emigre left for political reasons, and “[i]t was a very dramatic family exile, and members kept papers as part of their family history," then their grandchildren might have an easier time going through the citizenship process. Or, if "an exile’s grandchild knows the name of his grandfather, where and when he was born,” she added.

But economic migrants were mostly single men who often married women in other countries and lost their connection to Spain — their descendants do not even know where to start looking for their grandparents’ birth certificate, she said.

Enrique Gonzalez, a delegate from the justice trade union, Sindicato Profesional de Justicia (SPJ), explained that the courts and civil registries in the Galicia region of northwest Spain, where many emigrants came from, are flooded with petitions.

Handwritten requests come by ordinary mail, “full of conjectures,” he said, such as the birth place believed to be “somewhere in Galicia” and the year “more or less in … .” Records are not computerized, and the initial torrent of petitions overwhelmed the few staff they had employed in villages. An increase of personnel has helped ease some of the pressure.

Some emigres' birth certificates were lost; or they never existed since birth certificates weren't issued in Spain before the 1870s. Baptism certificates are accepted instead, but how many people abroad know in what parish their grandparents were christened?

A passport, a political party’s affiliation card, a passengers’ list at the port of entry, a foreigners’ registry — all can support an application. But papers have often deteriorated over time; or the migrants simply never registered. “Many were illiterate,” said PL, “they got off the boat and were not concerned with procedures.” Others wanted to remain under wraps, hiding for political reasons or determined to start a fresh new life — many changed their names for those reasons, which further complicates claims to recover Spanish nationality.

OIDE is a volunteer group helping Spaniards’ descendants living abroad by providing information and legal advice through its website, group chats and meetings. Its president, Edgardo Quintas, complains that requisites to apply for nationality are not standard, which PL confirmed through his own experience. He was asked to present his parents’ marriage certificate while his siblings were not. Documents accepted by some consular and court offices are rejected by others.

Quintas also reports gender discrimination — Spanish women who married a native from another country often had to adopt their husband’s nationality, and their descendants have more difficulty in obtaining Spanish citizenship. "We estimate about 40 percent of applications presented all over the world have problems, mostly due to the issue of grandmothers having lost their nationality," Quintas said.

The law is expected to grant nationality to some 300,000 new Spaniards. Half have been approved. It is not known how many will leave their homes to try anew in Spain’s crippled economy.