The general elections are coming up on April 28th and it looks like, apart from regular concerns regarding economy and employment, and tensions with independence movement in Catalonia, a determinant aspect for voters and the politicians who aim to win their votes will be immigrants. In other words, the central theme to the elections, one can say, will be the topic of identity. What does it take to be Spanish or to become Spanish? How should Spain approach immigrants: with open arms, through disgust and hatred, or somewhere in between?

Real Academia Española has two major definitions of immigration. First one is about reaching to a foreign country to settle in it and the second one is about moving elsewhere within one’s own country to search for better living standards. As an expat in Barcelona who found herself in the middle of immigration crisis, I am surprised how easily Spaniards seem to have forgotten, or not bother mention in the immigration discussion, that they themselves have mainly been the ones immigrating to foreign countries in the recent past, and how that now forms a reverse immigration back to Spain, further complicating the Spanish identity. Curiously enough, one of the countries that Spaniards had immigrated to have better standards of living is today’s crisis-struck Venezuela. Now, the children and grandchildren of those Spanish immigrants who moved to Venezuela are arriving in Spain. I interviewed one of them.

Talking about her mother’s immigration story from Galicia to Venezuela in the 1950s and how that connects to her own story of moving from Venezuela to Barcelona, Carmen says “Now it’s my turn but my mom did the same in 1950s. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be in Spain now.” Today, Venezuela has an inflation problem like nowhere else in the world and co-existing two presidents that make the country seem like one of the most politically unstable. However, back in the day, at the end of the Civil War in Spain when there were unemployment and salaries were low, Venezuela attracted Spaniards with its petroleum-driven economy. Bolivar, the local currency of Venezuela, was more valuable then Peseta (Spanish currency before the Euro). Carmen’s mother went to work as a nurse in the city of Valeria, Venezuela and met her future husband in the hospital where they both worked, and became a naturalized Venezuelan citizen after giving birth of their first child.

When she arrived in Spain, Carmen applied for Spanish citizenship by demonstrating to authorities her mother’s birth certificate. Venezuela was getting increasingly dangerous, and with the birth of her grandson, she felt that she needed to provide safety and security for him and the rest of her immediate family. In that regard, Carmen fits the definition of an immigrant in Spanish word bank but with a major difference from refugees who immigrate illegally or others who need to reside in Spain for at least a decade before applying for citizenship. She says that when she goes to administrative offices, if she doesn’t say a word and just puts her DNI (Spanish ID), they consider her Spanish. But if she speaks before giving her ID, she is asked to present her NIE (ID for foreigners in Spain), implying that someone speaking with Venezuelan accent cannot be Spanish. Similarly, other Venezuelans with Spanish ancestry face similar reactions from locals when they say they’re Spanish: “No no, tú no eres Español. Tu padre era Español” (No, you’re not Spanish. Your father was Spanish).  

Reverse immigration back to Spain by those whose parents or grandparents once left Spain for a better life brings into mind existential questions on the meaning of being or becoming Spanish. What does Spanish society, aside from fulfilling the legal aspects of immigration, demand from its immigrants to fully accept them? To be born in Spain, to have Spanish accent and phenotype? Also to have Spanish ancestors? I bet upcoming election results will have something to say about that.

A shorter version of this piece is available in Spanish from HERE

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