Guiris and other immigrants

I had it in mind to give a full analysis of Spain's immigration dilemmas, but my buddy Baltasar made a face like Mafalda when her mother serves soup.

Balta, who is now editing our Spanish-language blog Lecturas y lectores, thinks our blogs should be amusing and snappy. In his opinion, Spain's biggest immigration problem is the invasion of the guiris -- meaning (the origin of the word is obscure) Englishmen and other northern Europeans and their kin (including North Americans) who wear ridiculous clothes, never get the jokes, and dance like the mechanical scarecrows in Grass's Dog Years. Balta has found this view of guiris partying, which he finds hilarious: YouTube - EL GUIRI

But it's another kind of immigrant that gets more attention in the Spanish news these days. These folks seem to dance even as they walk, sometimes wear colorful clothes from their homeland, and do get the jokes -- even jokes that nobody else gets. Even though a lot of what they go through to get here doesn't seem very funny. They come from Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and other countries of Africa, in cayucos (big open fishing boats used in Senegal) to the Canary Islands or in pateras (smaller open boats, often inflatable, originally used on the Spanish coast and in the Strait of Gibraltar to carry supplies to ships).

But the really big numbers of immigrants come from Eastern Europe, especially Rumania, Bulgaria and Poland, in chartered buses. And the next biggest numbers from South America, especially from Ecuador and Colombia, by plane and usually with tourist visas. Most of all of these groups (except the guiris) are looking to make a buck, bucks (or rather euros) being much more plentiful in Spain these days than in their home countries. They work in construction, in restaurants, or (especially the Africans) fishing boats, or in agriculture. Low-paid and often dangerous jobs, especially construction where rushed foremen ignore safety regulations.

And a lot --a minority surely, but a big minority -- in criminal enterprises of one sort or another. Spain is especially attractive to criminals from northern Africa (Morocco, Algeria), Eastern Europe and South America, partly for geographical reasons (as a gateway between one of these regions and the others) but more because (a) the economy is booming and (b) it floats on an ocean of black and gray money, that is, money that can't be traced. A lot of that money comes from the construction industry, where people make unregistered cash transactions to avoid heavy taxes. And a lot of the rest of it comes from prostitution rings, drug traffic and various other frauds.

So, all of that is going on, making some Spaniards rush to close the gates -- except maybe to the guiris, who spend a lot money. Spain, for over a century an exporter of migrants (first to South America, later to France, Germany and other northern countries), is suddenly the receiving country, and that's hard to get used to.

BUT closing the gates can't be done! Spain cannot physically close the oceans to the cayucos and pateras, and as a member of the European Union it can't legally close its land or airport borders to other Europeans. And for sentimental and historical reasons, it is not easy to close the borders to South Americans either.

But there is an even more serious reason why Spain can't close the gates. "Spain will need at least four million immigrants from now until 2020," headlines El País (6 October 2006: "España necesitará al menos cuatro millones de inmigrantes hasta 2020"). Without them, the country will not be able to fill the jobs it is creating. That is because the Spanish birthrate is so low ("In the 1970s we decided to stop having kids," says a Spanish demographer, referring to the lack of state support for families), and because the population is aging.

So the only viable option, if Spaniards want to preserve Spanish identity, is to make it as easy as possible for the newcomers to learn the language, accept and be protected by the laws, and to become Spaniards. It's happened before in this country, though not always peacefully: Iberians and Celts (including Basques?) were followed by Phoenicians who were followed by the Vandals and other Goths who were followed by the Berbers who were followed by the Arabs and the Jews and the Gypsies and on and on, to all the many peoples who have made modern Spain.

Chart at top of page from El País, 14 February 2000
Photo of immigrants in a cayuco from Leyendo a la sombra
Mafalda cartoon (by Quino) from historieteca.com

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