Peddlers and Problems: Immigration in Madrid

The street vendors set out their wares for sale as the day begins.
The street vendors set out their wares for sale as the day begins.

Story and photos by JELENA KOPANJA

After two weeks in Madrid, I no longer rush to my window to confirm the frantic shouts and the incessant patting of feet on the cobblestones. I recognize the sounds: the police have raided the sidewalk. Vendors of pirated movies and fake Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses dissipate into the narrowest alleys. They seek refuge in the negligence of the neighbor who may have left the hallway door cracked open.

Most of the peddlers are from Africa and China. The Africans sell the knockoffs. The Chinese sell the small wooden abanicos, traditional Spanish fans, for two Euros each. “Hola, guapa,” they call out to me and every other woman who passes by. Hello, beautiful.All prostrate their goods on square pieces of cloth, their diagonal ends tied with two strong strings that cross in the middle. At the earliest sound of the police who, on motorcycles, sneak silently through the crowds of the tourists in the city’s center, the vendor grabs the point where the strings intersect. The knockoffs clamor as they fall into the middle of the cloth.

And then he runs.

Spain has experienced a large influx of immigrants just in the last 15 years, as its booming economy attracted workers in the domestic service and the construction industries. The majority of them come from North Africa (predominantly Morocco) and Latin America, both of which have strong historical ties to Spain. Moors who arrived from North Africa had, through conquest, donated much of their culture to southern Spain. Latin Americans are the descendants of the sword and cross diplomacy of the conquistadores. While inconvenient histories are better left in the past, living in Spain in present makes it impossible to let history go unobserved.

Residents of the Lavapies district in Madrid, home to many of the city's immigrants.
Residents of the Lavapies district in Madrid, home to many of the city's immigrants.

The sudden demographic change has come as a shock to many of Spain’s inhabitants. The current economic crisis – the bust of a housing bubble that has left many in the construction sector unemployed – has fed into the dimly masked xenophobic rhetoric of the opposition. Manuel Aruas, an activist in Moviemiento Cultural Cristiano, says, “In Spain, immigrants find themselves in a country that is tremendously unsupportive. One just has to look at the conditions in which they work. I know that they feel they are still better off here than in their countries, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t una canallada (a despicable situation).”

To be fair, the government of Spain has granted several large amnesties, the last of which, in 2005, legalized the status of about 700,000 immigrants. Yet, under the pressure of its worried constituents, it is now looking for ways to “alleviate the burden” of unemployed immigrants. They are hoping the “problem” will literally go away.

By offering them their unemployment benefits in two large lump sums in return for their residency permits, the Spanish government would like to entice these people to go home. Home for many of them, however, is Madrid. And it is jeopardy. The sub-prime loan crisis has brought as many as 1,150 immigrant families just in the Madrid area on the brink of foreclosure. “People are taking any jobs that they can get, working 12 hours a day. But it is not enough,” stated legal advisor Gustavo Farjardo.

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