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Spain's lost children are coming home — in droves

Descendants of political exiles and emigres rush to reclaim Spanish nationality while they can.

Norberto Luis Diaz of Cuba shows his Spanish passport at the Spanish embassy in Havana, Feb. 5, 2009. Diaz was the first Cuban to receive Spanish citizenship under the Spanish "historic memory" law, which makes grandchildren of Spanish immigrants eligible for citizenship. (Claudia Daut/Reuters)

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.