From Barcelona’s birth at the decree of Carthaginian warlord Hamilcar Barca to Catalonia’s ‘marriage’ with Spain, the city has fallen into the clutches of various agressively inclined foreigners, such as Romans, Visigoths or Arabs. Some outsiders tried to win its favours with gold, but, as the experience of the local Jewish community shows, this approach didn’t always work, especially in the Middle Ages. Essentially, though, Barcelona began to acquire a serious reputation as a cosmopolitan city in the 20th century with its successive great upheavals and migration became the main driver of a sharp increase in the number of Barcelonians. In the 21st century that tendency has only increased further. Today the Catalonian capital hosts 262,233 officially registered foreign residents, over 16 per cent of the city’s population.
Incident on the boulevard
On 28th July this year tourists strolling down the Passeig Maritim witnessed a strange event; a middle-aged woman up on a stage making an impassioned speech. More accurately, trying to make one, hunched over two microphones simultaneously, because the crowd down below was yelling back: ‘Racist!’, ‘Hypocrite!’. For anyone who recognised the hapless orator as the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and knew a little Catalonian, what was happening would have seemed astonishing. A well-known advocate of migrants’ rights, Colau was saying that Barcelona should remain a tolerant, welcoming city, open to people of all races, cultures and nationalities, and calling for an end to a policy of closed borders and thanking those of her fellow-citizens who supported her views. The reason for the gathering on the city’s main seaside promenade was the unveiling of the ‘Countdown of Shame’, a steel column showing the number 3034, the number of migrants drowned so far this year in the attempt to cross to Europe. Overcoming either her emotion or anger, or maybe both together, she handed the microphone over to exiled Syrian poet Mohammed Sirigu. His poem about the crimes of the Assad regime didn’t make the crowd any happier. Neither did a performance from Jordi Savall, who played a short solo on an Afghan instrument to show his solidarity. ‘Shame on you!’, the activists yelled through a megaphone, and the crowd picked it up – ‘Shame on you!’ So what was behind all this? Well, that very morning seven ‘manteros’, as the locals call the illegal street traders selling stuff from a piece of fabric spread on the ground, had been arrested in the Sant Antoni neighbourhood. The charges of intellectual property theft were not plucked out of thin air. A dawn police raid on an apartment in Caller de Calàbria uncovered a veritable factory producing fake designer label handbags, shoes, clothing and accessories. On top of that, one of the seven arrested was directly implicated in an assault on police officers earlier this summer during an operation to break up an informal street market organised by several hundred ‘manteros’ of African origin on the Passeig Joan de Borbo. However, since all seven of those picked up in the apartment came from Senegal, their friends and human rights activists immediately suspected intolerance and even racism on the part of the forces of law and order. Not just the police, the mayor, or ‘alcadessa’, was in for it, too, and for her the problem of illegal trading has become a real headache this summer. On one hand she has proclaimed a policy of open doors and humane treatment for migrants, on the other she can’t afford to ignore the opinion of locals. A letter demanding measures to stop the ‘manteros’ taking over was signed by the Historical Museum of Catalonia, the Residents’ Association of Barceloneta, the Textile Producers’ Association and around a hundred other respected business and public organisations of the Old City.
The Spanish wave
As an important Spanish industrial centre, Barcelona has always attracted migrants. In the mid 20th century these were basically ‘locals’ – people from Andalusia, Murcia, Estremadura, who saw they had no future at home and looked for opportunity in other regions. Among the measured, light-haired and generally prosperous Catalans, the migrants – swarthy, dirt-poor and swallowing the letter ‘s’ – were immediately visible and audible. Native Barcelonians disparagingly dubbed the incomers ‘charnegos’. From the 40’s to the 70’s the city took in more than 400,000 ‘charnegos’. Many of them adapted quickly and painlessly to their new home, learned Catalan, contributed to the region’s industrial development, and the offensive nickname has almost completely fallen out of use amonst the aboriginal population.
Interesting numbersEvery year Barcelona’s department of statistics publishes data on various aspects of city life on the internet. These at first sight boring tables of endless numbers and charts are, in fact, a treasure-trove of fascinating information. Including data relating to residents who are not Spanish passport holders. It turns out, for example, that Senegalese, the source of the passions described earlier, are by no means the largest foreign diaspora in Barcelona. Figures for 2015 show only 1182 of them. And in general the number of Africans registered in the Catalonian capital barely reaches 19.5 thousand. By contrast, there’s a whole army of Italians, 25,707. Silver and bronze go to Pakistanis and Chinese, and these nationalities have been in the top three for several years now. But why the citizens of Montenegro should shun Barcelona so completely is a mystery. In 2010 just one solitary Montenegrin was on the register, but since that individual left the clerks have had to enter a sad-looking zero for five years running. Obviously, the tables only include ‘newbies’ who have registered their place of residence officially, but they do, nevertheless, show the general picture and answer a host of other different questions. Are the foreigners mainly men or women, for example? Men, as it happens. As far as age goes, the biggest group is younger people between 25 and 39. The elderly, 65 and over, are in a minority. Foreigners who didn’t manage to complete schooling number around 5 thousand, while the highest proportion of university graduates is among the Japanese. The distribution of foreigners by neighbourhood is a separate topic. The Eixample district leads by the number of resident incomers, but in terms of the density of the foreign population, then the Raval neighbourhood is the undoubted champion, with 47.6 percent. The majority of Raval residents with foreign passports are from Pakistan, which is obvious to anyone who has walked down its noisy lanes, the aroma of Asian spices in the air.
The Barcelona of Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Towards the end of the 1960’s Barcelona unexpectedly became a magnet for Latin American writers. And so in 1967, number 6 Calle Caponata witnessed the arrival of the newly published author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, plus suitcases, wife Mercedes and two small sons, Gabriel Garcia Márquez. The Colombian genius spent six whole years here and, clearly, it was a very productive period for him. We know that Gabo wrote his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch, gathered material for Strange Pilgrims, and was often to be seen at the legendary Bocaccio club on Muntaner, the favourite watering hole of Barcelona’s intellectual elite. Márquez’s neighbour in the Sarri neighbourhood, and closest friend, too, was Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist and playwright, who was, like Márquez, to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and recognised as a classic in his lifetime. Their friendship did end, though, with a scandal on 12 February 1976 at the premiere of the Mexican film Survive!, when Márquez came over to greet Llosa, and Llosa punched him in the face and floored him. Observers of this bizarre scene reported that Llosa said just one sentence after delivering the knockout blow: ‘What else am I supposed to do to you after what happened with Patricia in Barcelona?’ Yes, indeed, here, too, cherchez la femme, as the French say.
A ‘special’ caseThe Republic of Pakistan is an Asian country, artificially created in 1947 when India was divided on religious lines. It is inhabited by a patchwork of ethnic groups united by their Islamic faith. There were never any historic links with the Iberian peninsula, like there were with Britain, say, the result of nearly one and a half centuries of colonial status. Nevertheless, by the end of 2001 there were 14,322 Pakistani citizens registered with residency permits in Spain. Even more curiously, 10,495 of them were living in Catalonia and almost all of them in Barcelona Province (10,339), of whom 6,112 were living within the city limits of Barcelona itself. During the last 15 years that last figure has tripled. What has made the capital of Catalonia so attractive to its current 19,414 inhabitants of Pakistani origin. The heritage of Gaudi? The climate? Employment opportunities? Neither the first, nor the second, and certainly not the third, judging by the number of local Spaniards claiming unemployment benefit. The answer is simple. In January 2001 around a hundred foreigners, mostly from the hardly noticeable at that time Pakistani community, broke into the church of Santa Maria del Pi and refused to leave (and declared a hunger strike at the same time) in protest against a recently passed law, 4/200 ‘On the rights and freedoms of foreign citizens in Spain and their social integration’. During the next 3 months the protesters, stubbornly demanding ‘papers for all’, were joined by around 700 people turning the drama in the heart of the Gothic quarter into the top news story for the entire country. Under pressure of public sympathy (a petition in support of the migrants attracted 63 thousand signatures in Catalonia), the government was forced to retreat and amend the law. And as sociologists today point out, for Pakistanis living precariously in France, Germany and Britain, this event rang a bell indicating that the floodgates were now open. And their fellow countrymen in Spain were only too happy to reassure them they could settle here. Family connections, on which the newcomers could assuredly rely, are seen as the basic factor in the growth of Barcelona’s Pakistani population. And friendships, too. Mostly, as one can easily guess, with their own kind, as the results of an informal poll carried out a couple of years ago in Raval show. Almost 30 percent of respondents had no Spaniards among their acquaintances… Meanwhile, also a couple of years ago, the authoritative Gallup Institute published the world-wide ratings of the countries most tolerant to migrants. Spain came nearly top in the European part of the ratings, just a little behind Ireland. On-the-spot studies confirm these findings. In 2012, for example La Caixa bank organised a poll asking Barcelonians what they thought of their non-Spanish neighbours: 77 percent replied calmly that they had only positive experience of contact with people from other cultures. Citizens who had experienced conflict with outsiders moving into the same building or neighbourhood came to less than 1 percent of respondents. Other noteworthy data includes the number of mixed marriages, which have now crossed the threshhold of 30 per cent. If you want to look at the situation exclusively through rose-tinted spectacles, you can stop right here, but decide to dig deeper and you will uncover a mass of curious details. For example, that there are parts of town being bought up completely by one diaspora or another, with other areas outstripping Raval by far in this respect.
I’m buying a place in your area
Something like 90 percent of buyers of elite property in Barcelona are foreigners. This is what the statistics collected by realtors based on their sales during the last few years will tell you. The most significant buyers are traditionally British, French, German and Swedish. Realtors working with properties in the 950,000 euros and upwards price bracket describe their typical foreign client like this: a person without financial problems and with a clear understanding of the cost effectiveness of the square metres they are buying; in the case of Barcelona they are particularly interested in the favourable relationship of price to quality – in other words, the price of top-end property is very affordable and the quality of life in the city is very acceptable. Nevertheless, Barcelona still has several elite areas with a low concentration of foreign residents. The most striking example is, perhaps, Font d’en Fargues with only 5.4 percent of ‘extranjeros’. This little neighbourhood in the Horta-Guinardó district is a triangle of several quiet streets of old detached houses and villas, plus some newer 3 or 4-storey apartment blocks with their own tennis courts and swimming pools. The area is attractive, clean and prosperous, but also with a suggestion of fun and frivolity, like the boudoir of a long-dead society beauty. Curiously, Font d’en Fargues is home to the Princess Margaret School, one of the oldest and most prestigious international schools in the city, opened in 1967 by one Mrs. Gaos.
Inside the Ghetto
The Fondo area in the municipality of Santa Coloma-de-Gramenet does not officially lie within the boundaries of Barcelona, but it is at the outer limit, the last stop on the metro’s red line. It’s also the city’s main Chinese quarter, a real Chinatown, with an extremely high concentration of immigrants from the Heavenly Kingdom. It’s said that every third resident is Chinese. That more than 5 thousand live here is a fact. But this is about more than statistics. Fondo is a city within a city, playing by its own rules and living by its own laws. With Chinese shop signs and fast-foods where you can only order if you speak Mandarin. With a school, open all summer, on the corner of Ludwig van Beethoven and Wagner streets, where a teacher with charasteristic Oriental eyes watches carefully over her brood of black-haired children. About the Chinese in Barcelona we know a lot and a little, simultaneously. They are friendly and outgoing, yet remain one of the most closed and isolated foreign communities in the city. The majority come from the province of Zhejiang, or to be more exact from the smallish, population around 500,000, city of Qingtian, to the south of Shanghai, where you’d probably need a microscope to find a family that couldn’t boast of relatives living in Europe. The first wave of Chinese washed over Fondo in the 90’s. Even before that the area had been fairly specific, with a large amount of accommodation built in the 1970’s for migrant workers from Andalusia. Housing here was a lot cheaper than in the centre, and commercial rents were also pleasingly affordable. Today many of the long-term Chinese residents have not only bought apartments in Santa Coloma-de-Gramenet, they also own businesses – restaurants, shops, hairdressers and even textile factories, where the workers, toiling from morning to night, are also Chinese, either less lucky or more recently arrived. Experts who have studied the community say that the rumours about a Chinese mafia and slave labour, the almost automatic fate of Chinese illegal immigrants when they reach Barcelona, are not just rumour. The well-oiled ‘business’ runs roughly as follows: you want to go and live in Spain, but don’t have the money (or a contract which you need to get a visa), so you turn for help to the ‘right people’. They see to all the formalities, and for the next couple of years you work off the debt, without even thinking about complaining, let alone trying to change anything. Any sudden and unexpected alertness on the part of the authorities or the police regarding, say, the complete lack of ventilation in the workshops or excessive working hours would annoy the workers themselves most of all. If the factory closes, how are they to pay the triads and send money home to the family?
Birds of a feather
It may come as a surprise, but the green parrots which are as familiar now in Barcelona as pigeons or seagulls, are also immigrants of a kind, albeit with a curious history. Local ornithologists are convinced that the huge local colony, plus the ones that have flown on to other Spanish cities, including Madrid, are the descendants of a few Argentinian parrots and Kramer’s parakeets imported into Catalonia at the beginning of the 1970’s as pets. Whether they broke out of their cages or let out by owners fed up with their constant squawking, the fact remains that it was as though Barcelona’s palms, plane trees and street lamps were put there specially for their huge nesting colonies, and the birds feel very much at home. Now parrots are one of the most widespread bird species in Barcelona, and the speed with which these feathered interlopers are multiplying is a cause of concern to naturalists, because of the disturbance to the city’s long-established ecosystem.
If anyone thought of establishing ratings for integration into the local community, there can be no doubt that the Italian diaspora would win hands down. Emotional, colourful, gesticulating, loud, they have, paradoxically, succeeded in taking the town ‘sin hacer ruido’ or ‘without a fuss’. It also happened a very long time ago. It’s a known historical fact. In 1571 a certain Zanotti opened a coaching inn, with food and accommodation, next to the church of Santa Maria del Mar. It was known later as the Fonda Santa Maria, and already by the 19th century Zanotti’s enterprising compatriots were behind the best hotels in Barcelona, including the Grand Hotel Cuatro Naciones on the Ramble, the one where Frédéric Chopin and George Sand parked their bags during their short stay in town. Italians, who kept coming and coming throughout the 19th century (mainly by sea, on ships from Genoa), alos owned the resaurants Miramar and Majestic, the Nazionale café and the Teatr del liceu… The list goes on and on, so it’s simpler just to observe that the most notable and influential section of their community at that time comprised of people connected with the restaurant and hotel businesses, music and theatre, arts and crafts. Clarinet teachers, impressarios, grocers, opera singers, potters, midwives, couturiers, journalists, owners of rubber works, all found a place in the capital of Catalonia, and when the 1880 census showed that Barcelona with 1284 Italian residents was the most popular city in Spain with this particular diaspora, nobody, probably, was surprised. During the first 30 years of the 20th century, when the population of this expanding city was swelling like well-leavened dough, Italians, naturally, were at the forefront in filling the ranks of new Barcelonians. In 1937, though, the flow suddenly dried up, with the dawn of the Franco dictatorship, his policy of economic self-sufficiency and an unbelievably powerful wave of internal migration which brought thousands of families from Andalusia and Murcia to the shores of Catalonia. Though Italians continued to leave home in search of a better life, Spain, it seems, attracted only the most desperate. There is a theory that things came full circle because of the two most important sporting events in the modern history of the city, the soccer World Cup in 1982 and the Olympic Games in 1992. Supposedly, Italians who came to Barcelona in 1982 and then came back ten years later were so impressed by the changes in the city, they immediately packed their bags to move here. Sceptics, when they hear this story, usually pull a face and remind us of a more fundamental, political, event – the Schengen agreement. Once this came into force, Spain removed the barriers at the border and, as a result, opened the doors of Barcelona even wider to Italians and many other Europeans who wanted to try their luck here. Incidentally, the majority of foreign migrants in Barcelona still come from other European countries, if you take the continent as a whole.