The view from Carboneras

In this small town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, the people who have been here a while are always looking for an opportunity to turn a stranger into a vecino, that is, into a known quantity that can be integrated into the community. This is why newcomers are so often surprised by unsought conversations in a shop, a bar, or on the street, even when the language barrier is high.

Community is woven of many threads of information, some of them as light and fragile as a person’s sigh or tic, others– remembrances of ancestors and of living family, or knowledge of one another’s political or religious preferences –tightly wound into stronger cords. The denser the weave, that is, the more the threads that cross through it, the more firmly attached are the members to each other. A vecino is not necessarily an amigo – among families that have dealt with one another for generations, threads of ancient conflicts pull against other, newer ties. But for the same reason, the multiplicity of ties, a vecino can never be entirely an enemy. And a newcomer is always a potential amigo, someone you know well enough to know what might please and what might hurt, and care enough about to avoid the latter.

People here are friendly and open not just to one another, but even to unmonied immigrants from Africa, black and brown, Eastern Europe, and China, to foreign retirees of means – mostly English or other European –and even gypsies. And here in Carboneras, as Susana & I happily allow ourselves be woven ever more tightly into this community, we watch – on TV and in the papers – how different things are in other parts of the world.

Right now the most dramatic contrast is with France, where youth of all colors, but especially those whose parents came from Africa or Asia, are hurling firebombs in protest against their exclusion from the community. And yet France has far fewer immigrants from those areas than Spain, which in 2004 received 610,000, more than any other country in the world except the U.S. (“Un milagro español,” by Andrés Ortega, El País, 7 Nov. 2005). Not all parts of Spain are as welcoming and harmonious as Carboneras, but this country has made far more successful efforts than France at bringing immigrants into the community. The reasons are complex, but surely the policies of inclusion of Spain’s socialist government, in sharp contrast to the punitive policies of Chirac and Sarkozy, are part of the explanation.