June 2015

Pilar was 24 years old when she and her husband decided to go to France, to work as agricultural laborers on a farm owned by a wealthy Frenchman in 1955.

Born in Albuñuelas, a tiny pueblo of 5000 people an hour north of Granada, Pilar knew what it was to live frugally. Both of Pilar’s parents worked as laborers, and Pilar grew up in a two-room stone house that had neither running water, nor electricity, which she shared with six brothers and sisters. Pilar dropped out of school to work the land alongside her parents when she was 12 years old, and married her childhood sweetheart shortly after her 20th birthday.

View of Albuñuelas from Pilar’s childhood home.
View of Albuñuelas from Pilar’s childhood home.

For the first few years of their marriage, during which their first two children were born, the young couple rented two cows and a small patch of land that they cultivated. But after splitting their profits with the landowner, the money was barely enough to cover their basic expenses. “We knew we’d never be able to save money that way, and in those times it was very difficult to find work. So we decided to go to France.”

Her husband’s brother, who had worked on a French farm for several seasons, made the necessary introductions, and shortly thereafter Pilar’s husband left to work on a large farm in the north of France. A few months later Pilar joined him, leaving their two small children — both under the age of five — with her parents in the pueblo.

That was 60 years ago. Now a brisk, outspoken 85-year-old, she remembers those times as the most difficult and prosperous of her life. “We suffered a lot,” she recalls. “We worked from dawn until there was no light, and picked escaroles until our fingernails turned black and began to fall off. We worked until our backs felt like they would break. When others rested, I helped to clean the house and do laundry. We worked and worked and worked. You can’t imagine how much we suffered. But in the end, it was worth it.”

85-year old Pilar stands in front of the new room she built, attached to her childhood home, after returning to France.

Thanks to the money they made in France, theirs was the first family in the pueblo to have running water, an indoor toilet, a car, a swimming pool, and eventually, electricity. They built a restaurant and a bar, and later, with the money earned from subsequent trips to France, managed to buy land for each of their six children, so they would not have to suffer as their parents had.

Today, Pilar lives in a modest two-story adobe and stone house surrounded by acres of fruit trees — avocados, pears, lush figs with leaves the size of a man’s head, melon-sized lemons, oranges, apricots and pomegranates, all of which she owns. Chickens cluck from their roost behind her house, a few meters from a generous patch of land where peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini grow large and heavy on their stalks. She owns other houses in the pueblo too, that she rents out to wealthy European vacationers during the summer.

Pilar in front of the grapevines that grow plentifully on her land.

Although she always qualifies her stories about France by repeating how difficult it was, Pilar looks back on her experience as a migrant with gratitude and pride. “After France, everything changed,” she said. “Our lives would have been so different if we hadn’t gone there. We never would have been able to pay for any of this, if we hadn’t spent those difficult years working on that farm.”

So a few years ago, when Pilar saw the gaunt, dark-skinned Moroccan man sitting listlessly under a tree outside the family’s restaurant, begging passersby for money, she engaged him in conversation. His name was Alcirez, and he told her he’d come from Morocco on a small patera (a rubber dinghy) that had crashed on a turbulent part of the rocky coast in the south of Spain, near Cadiz. Sixteen others had begun the journey with him, but all had drowned. He was the sole survivor. “I came to work,” he’d told her hopelessly, “but I lost all the money I had when the boat sank. The clothes I’m wearing are all I have left.” Pilar saw that while his clothes were ragged and dirty, his face was clean, and had an earnest quality that inspired trust. “I’m so hungry,” he said again. “Do you think you can spare some change for food?”

“I can do better,” she replied decisively, and she took him to her house. There, she cooked him a heaping plate of potatoes, chard and eggs. She paid him to help her husband fix a stone-wall on her property that had fallen, then commissioned him to help with repairs on the house. She called friends of friends who had olive and almond plantations, to see if anyone needed a worker. Once she saw he was hardworking, reliable and honest, she had one of her sons drive Alcirez to Granada, to meet with a lawyer, who facilitated the paperwork that gave him legal status as a temporary laborer in Spain. Thanks to Pilar’s intervention, Alcirez was able to work steadily for nearly five years, and saved quite a bit of money.

“I haven’t heard from him for a while, but last I knew he was living in Morocco and doing very well,” she said. “With the money he earned here, he bought two cows, land and a house. He got married and had a baby girl. He still calls me sometimes.”

Although not everyone in Spain is as generous as Pilar, her experience may help to explain why, despite high unemployment and a flood of immigrants attempting to enter the country via Morocco and Ceuta in record numbers, Spain has not seen significant anti-immigrant backlash, unlike neighboring countries, Italy, France and Greece. Pilar was born to a generation in Spain among which many were migrants themselves, and she believes that the collective memory of the hardships that Spanish families faced while living abroad makes them more compassionate when dealing with the migrants coming to Spain today.

“If I hadn’t gone to France myself, I would probably hate all the migrants who are coming here,” she said. “But I know that life. It’s very difficult — you work and you suffer, and work some more. Everything I have, everything my children have, is because I was a migrant. So how can I hate them? I’m just like them.”


Although Spain rarely makes American newspapers, the migrant crisis has hit this Mediterranean country just as hard as Italy and Greece: As the only European state sharing a land-border with Africa—to the Spanish outposts of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern Moroccan coast—and with just 14 kilometers (8.69 miles) of water separating the lower tip of the Iberian peninsula from north Africa, Spain has become one of the primary routes for migrants attempting to enter Europe.

Over the past two years, Spain has seen a surge in “mass entries,” as migrants from Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Syria storm the fences of Melilla and Ceuta in droves, in desperate attempts to cross the border fence into Spain. Last year, border police reported more than 19,000 attempts to scale the fence at Melilla alone, up 350 percent as compared to 2013, according to the Interior Ministry. Nearly 12,549 migrants were caught trying to Spain in 2014 — a 70 percent increase over the previous year — including 3,305 from Syria.[i]

Compounding immigration pressures is skyrocketing unemployment. Despite recent improvements to the economy, nearly 24 percent of all Spanish cannot find work, and Spain’s youth unemployment — at a staggering 49.9 percent — is the highest in all of Europe, above even Greece.

Despite these three factors — prolonged economic crisis, unabating unemployment and growing immigration pressure — which, when combined, are like rocket fuel to far-right, anti-immigrant political parties, no far-right party has gained significant support nation-wide in Spain. At the local level, there exists only one xenophobic party to speak of — the Platform for Catalonia (PXC). However, the PXC remains quite marginal, and public attitudes toward immigrants throughout Spain have remained remarkably tolerant.

Political rhetoric carefully echoes public sentiments: Although Spain joined France and the United Kingdom in rejecting recent proposed quotas for migrants coming from Africa and the Middle East, politicians have been careful to emphasize that the motivations for limiting migration are economic. When rejecting the plans, Foreign Minister José García-Margallo pointed to Spain’s double-digit unemployment as the primary reason. “Pledging to take in migrants for whom you cannot provide work would be, in my opinion, providing a disservice,” he said, when speaking to Spanish radio broadcaster Cadena Ser last week. “It’s logical that people want to seek a better future where they can find it — for that reason one of the parameters that you have to keep in mind is unemployment. The first priority is in providing work. A country that has twenty-four percent unemployment isn’t the same as one that is below five percent.”

In April, the Partido Popular, the Spanish center-right political party currently in power, even announced that they will allow illegal immigrants to access free public health care, after experimenting with a policy banning undocumented migrants from seeing general practitioners as an austerity measure the year before.[ii]

Spain’s unusual tolerance towards immigrants has been the subject of many studies. Migration Policy Institute scholar Joaquín Arango suggests that the relative newness of migration to Spain may be partially responsible. Long an immigrant-sending country, migration to Spain really only started in the 1980s, after the country joined the European Union. While migration increased steadily through the 1990s, it became truly significant between 2000 and 2009, when Spain’s foreign-born population more than quadrupled, increasing from less than 4 percent of the population to 14 percent. During this time, Spain’s immigrant population increased by an average of 500,000 people each year — making the country the largest recipient of immigrants among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, second only to the United States.[iii]

The collective memory of life under the Franco dictatorship, and the relative newness of democracy provides a second, often-cited reason: According to Arango, Spain’s unique political culture, which was formed after the end of Franco’s rule, is very sensitive to sentiments that could be seen as undermining the democratic values of quality and liberty, and groups supporting immigrants are “large, active, and vocal in their opposition to any sentiment that could be seen as racist, xenophobic or simply hostile to immigrants. There is widespread belief that immigrants are entitled to the same rights as other members of society.”

The fact that most Spanish families remember the time from the 1950s to the 1980s when at least one of their members migrated to Germany, France or Belgium to take low-wage jobs in manual labor doesn’t hurt. In fact, stories like Pilar’s became even more commonplace in the 1960s, where as many as 100,000 Spanish per year left their country to look for work in Germany, France, and Switzerland.

There are signs that tolerance towards newcomers may be sliding. PEGIDA, an anti-Muslim organization from Germany, has recently gotten a foothold in Spain, organizing protests against Muslim migrants in Madrid and Barcelona. The Spanish government also recently drew sharp criticism from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for passing a controversial law that allows the immediate deportation of undocumented migrants who are successful in climbing the border fences into Melilla and Spain. Human rights organizations and NGO’s supportive of immigrants in Spain also worry how the mass emigration of Spanish unemployed youth to other European countries in search of work might make attitudes towards new migrants less tolerant.

So far, however, public attitudes remain remarkably unchanged. Pilar admits that she doesn’t know much about politics, but she believes that it is the collective memory passed down from generation to generation about the hardships suffered by families working abroad that makes Spanish so tolerant of newcomers, despite the country’s challenges. “Just a few years ago, it was the Spanish who were going to other countries to buscarse la vida (earn a living). That was my generation. Now, the young generation is going again. So when I see the pictures on television of all the Moros trying to jump over the fence and get into Spain, I am not afraid, and I am not angry. I see the Moro trying to sell CDs on the street, or looking for work in the campo and I do not hate him. I feel sad for him — because life is a migrant is difficult. It is pain and suffering. But how can I hate him, when I too am a migrant?”


[i] Badcock, James. “Illegal immigration in Spain up 70 per cent in 2014,” The Telegraph. 15 April 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/11539439/Illegal-immigration-in-Spain-up-70-per-cent-in-2014.html

[ii] Badcock, James, “Spain to allow illegal immigrants to access free public healthcare,” The Telegraph, April 1, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/11509227/Spain-to-allow-illegal-immigrants-to-access-free-public-healthcare.html

[iii] Arango, Joaquín, “Exceptional in Europe? Spain’s Experience with Immigration and Integration. Migration Policy Institute, March 2013