return to nº44

by Carmen Luque and Gabriel Pernau

Between the Pacific and Indian Ocean, there is a world formed by several peninsulas, thousands of islands and millions of inhabitants. The present issue of our magazine devotes the last chapter of its "Barcelona Plural" series to the people who have come to our city from the so-called Southeastern Asia and the Hindustani Peninsula, excluding the Chinese and Japanese nationals who have already provided the focal point for previous chapters. Our account of their journey follows three very different itineraries, respectively starting in the Philippine Islands, India and Pakistan, as we are talking abut a group of people so disparate in historical, ethnic, religious as well as cultural terms that it only makes sense insofar as we assemble them under the rather questionable geographical epigraph of "people from beyond the eastern borders of Iran".

The first arrivals from the Philippines.

As soon as he arrived to Barcelona, Father Avelino got down to visit all the nightclubs, discotheques and dens of dubious repute in the city. In 1986, they sent him to Spain from the Philippine Islands on a mission that involved regrouping his fellow countrymen, more particularly the many sailors who had disembarked in Barcelona. (...) Eventually leaving the dimlit nightclubs, he proceeded to meet with the Philippine colony in plaça Catalunya at weekends and to say Mass in a church in the Sarrià district on Saturdays in the afternoon. Then he moved from Sarrià to the parish of Santa Mónica and later to the Sant Just i Pastor church where he would say Mass in tagalog, the official language of the Philippines. Nowadays, they have their own parish.
However, Philippine emigrants started coming to Barcelona long before Father Avelino set out to explore the nightlife of Barcelona. Some Spanish families who had settled down in the former colony brought their native maids with them when they returned to the homeland. But it was not until 1972 that we started to see a truly regular flow of young Philippine immigrants, in the main from the Northern Ilocos region, into our city. (...)
At the beginning, 99 per cent of this collective were women, principally nurses, secretaries or schoolteachers, who came to Spain to work as domestic helps. As live-in servants, they resided in the wealthier, "upper" section of the city, more especially the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi district. But, after the institution of the "family regrouping" policy in 1985, 70 per cent of the Philippine nationals who had decided to settle down in Barcelona for good chose to live in the more modest district of Ciutat Vella. At present, quite a few families own an appartment there, and others have set up small-scale businesses such as the café and the shop on calle Paloma or the grocery store on calle Tigre. (...)
In the Philippines, a schoolteacher's salary is approximately 50.000 pesetas whereas a girl who works as a domestic help in Barcelona may earn as much as 110.000 pesetas a month. Those who decide to emigrate may thus live here and still support their family in the Philippines. Nevertheless, even though they enjoy a better financial status, there is no improvement in their social status. They usually send two thirds of their wages to their family. (...)
At the present time, 15 per cent of the Philippine immigrants are men who have found a job in some Chinese restaurant, or work as chauffeurs, gardeners or factotums in the wealthy houses where their wives are also employed. In any event, it proves much harder for men to find work here. Barcelona's Philippine colony has seen some mixed marriages and includes quite a lot of young children. (...)
8.000 Philipines nationals are currently living in our city but, as many early immigrants have now obtained Spanish citizenship, the actual figure could be as high as 13.000. They form a very discrete, rather closed group that does not cause any kind of trouble and shows a remarkable capacity for self-management. Besides, they are particularly association orientated. Their first association, called "Movimiento para la Unidad Filipina" (Movement towards Philippine Unity), was created in 1975. Over the years, more associations have been set up while others disappeared. These groups work within different frameworks : religious, social, cultural, etc... Some of the Philippine associations currently active in Barcelona are the "Asociación de Trabajadores Inmigrantes Filipinos" (immigrant workers), "Amistad de Mujeres Filipinas en Barcelona" (women), "Asociación de Inmigrantes Jóvenes Filipinos" (young immigrants) and other more specific groups such as "Solteras por Cristo" or "Matrimonios por Cristo". All these organizations are led by women.
The Pinoy school, founded in 1992, is open on Saturdays. It is frequented by approximately one hundred children - aged between five and twelve - who come to study tagalog as well as the folklore and traditions of the Philippine Islands. The school is run by Sister Maria Gracia, a former president of the "Asociación de Inmigrantes" (Association of Immigrants) during many years. Maria Gracia is also one of the driving forces behind the "Centro Filipino" (Philippine Centre) that opened in 1986. In that centre, located on Riera Baixa, newly arrived immigrants are taught Spanish and Catalan, special assistance is provided to solve social and legal problems and festivities are organized as, for example, the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Independence of the Philippine Islands. (...)


We know very little about the Malaysian colony. The fact is that Malaysians, a people of Chinese ethnic origin, are very few in Barcelona. According to information provided by the Malaysian Consulate, less than one hundred. In large part, these immigrants are unmarried men who are working as cooks or waiters in restaurants. Some of them have set up their own business and a few are business executives. However, by far more numerous are those cheap objects of all kinds imported from Malaysia and sold in the "Todo a cien" shops. (...)


Joan Aragó defines himself as a true "conejillo de Indias" (literally "Indian rabbit", which is how a guinea pig is called in Spanish). When he was but 19 years old, he went to India as a Jesuit. He fell deeply in love with the country and with an Indian woman, Clara. Joan then decided to leave the Society of Jesus and they got married in Barcelona, the city where they have been living for the last twenty-three years. He has been nicknamed "conejo de Indias" because of the countless "culinary experiments" his Indian wife keeps on subjecting him to. Clara is from Goa and she is therefore a Christian Indian.
However, the Barcelona-based Indian colony is a human jigsaw puzzle that reflects the manifold reality of their homeland, as India is a country of astounding cultural, social, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity.
In our city, we may differenciate between three relatively well defined groups. First, there are a number of Indian nationals of different origins and motivations who do not mix much with their countrymen, do not belong to any association and have very peculiar personal histories, so that it is practically impossible to generalize about them. The second group is formed by mixed couples, most of which got married in the seventies. They are in the main Christian and that is the group Joan and Clara belong to. It numbers some seventy people. The third group is the "Sindhi" community. The Sindhi follow the Hindu faith and traditions, and most of them live in the neighbourhood of the "Ramblas", where their souvenir shops are located. The total number of Indian residents in Barcelona is about 3.000 people of very diverse origins and idiosyncrasies. The relations between the different groups are scanty and their interaction with the rest of Barcelona's society is practically non-existent, with the exception of the mixed couples. (...)
"The communications system among Sindhis all around the world works better than Internet", Jaideep, a young Sindhi, says jokingly. The Sindhi ethnos comes the Sindh region - nowadays a part of Pakistan - and their diaspora started when Pakistan proclaimed its Independence from India. You can find Sindhis in almost every seaport all around the world, a fact whih is a logical consequence of their long-standing tradition as tradespeople. The first Sindhi immigrants to settle in our city arrived in the mid-nineteen sixties. With the support of their highly effective system of communication, they set up electronic equipment businesses, importing pocket calculators and other small devices from Great Britain and the United States at extremely low prices. However, when profits in the electronics sector started slumping, they went into the souvenir trade.
The first Sindhi immigrants to arrive to Barcelona now have children who are already in their twenties and will later carry on with the family business. Male children do not study for university degrees, not for lack of means, but because sons are naturally brought up to follow their fathers into the family business. Trading talent is in their blood. The girls are allowed to get a higher education but few of them ever use their degrees to get a job. (...) Barcelona-based Sindhis - about 250 families - are well-off and live in the Eixample district or the "upper" section of the city. Their children are sent to private schools in which all subjects are taught in English, such as the "Benjamin Franklin" and "Kensingtown" schools in the wealthy Pedralbes neighbourhood.
Adult women speak little Spanish and only maintain relations with each other, using their own houses as meeting places. Parents speak Sindhi or English with their children and they maintain some knowledge of the Hindi language by watching satellite television programmes. Sindhi men spend all day and most of their life working behind the counter. Their shops, open fifteen hours a day, are their true homes. They really are inveterate hard workers. (...)

The Pakistani microcosm.

The fist Pakistanis who came to Spain were middle-aged men who worked as miners. It was around 1972. From that year on, younger men started arriving from Pakistan. Their colony has been steadily increasing in number over the last years, more particularly were school-age children are concerned. At the present time, there are some 4.000 Pakistani nationals living in Barcelona, not to mention "a few" illegal immigrants. Many of them get into Spain by way of countries where they are not required to present a visa (Great Britain, for instance), given that they would have to pay around one million and a half pesetas to obtain a visa. These immigrants are for the most part men who have left their family in Pakistan.
Many find work in the hotel business as waiters, scullions or cook's helps. Some have jobs in the building industry or in textile workshops while others, less fortunate, make a meagre living by delivering butane cylinders, cleaning boilers or selling flowers in cafés and restaurants. In their homeland, a worker earns around 500 pesetas a day whereas a kilo of chicken meat costs as much as 400 pesetas. So they do not complain about their situation in our country. Young Amir, who arrived from Punjab seven years ago, explains why : "I buy food at the cheapest prices I can find, and people in the labour market here do exactly the same : they look for cheap labour. And that is what we are".
The Pakistanis who can afford it set up their own business, and these are the ones who eventually succeed in bringing their wife and children to Spain. In Barcelona, the bazaars, special "halal" butcher's shops and some grocery stores are owned by Pakistanis. They run several telephone parlours (on Carme, Princesa and Sant Pau streets), some clothes shops (on Hospital street), quite a few restaurants (in Villa de Madrid square and Rauric, Avinyó and Ample streets), and even one video club (on Sant Pau street). In those shops, Pakistanis may find everything they need to feel at home. There are even some pieces of land in Gava and other parts of Barcelona's metropolitan belt where they are now cultivating typical Pakistani vegetables such as an exotic variety of beans named "ocras".
Some buy reasonably priced apartments in the "Casc Antic" (Barcelona's Old Quarter) and the Barceloneta neighbourhood. Others rent accomodation which they share with friends. A few Pakistani associations have been set up over the last years ("Asociación de Trabajadores Pakistanis" (Pakistani Workers' Association), "Pakistan Universal" and "Pakistan Society") but they are not very active. Pakistani immigrants meet at the mosque which was opened two years ago on Arc del Teatre street. Every eleventh day in the moon calendar, they hold a celebratory meal with the imam, in accordance with Islamic tradition. (...)
Children are taught Urdu - Pakistan's official language - and Koranic laws at the mosque. In their satchels, boys carry a "tope" (a small cap they wear when saying their prayers) and girls carry a "chador" (the heavy veil they have to use to cover temselves). As for Pakistani women, their entire lives revolve around their home and family and they maintain no relations outside their own circle of female acquaintances; those of peasant origin are illiterate. Like in the case of Moroccan women, Islamic customs impose concrete patterns of behaviour on Pakistani wives in their relationship with their husbands and children. (...)

A more pluralistic, richer city.

Argentinians, Gambians, Japanese, Czechs, Peruvians, Chinese, Morrocans, North Americans, etc... In the last ten issues, B.MM has presented its readers with profiles of the principal groups of foreign people living in Barcelona. Men and women who have left their homeland for different reasons, some of them out of necessity, seeking the kind of social environment and living conditions that were nowhere to be found in their native countries. Others, more fortunate, have come to our city out of personal choice, as part of an "upper-crust" immigrant group. These two kinds of motivations mark radical differences in their respective experience of immigration. The situation that awaits those who decide to come "for the pleasure of it" does not have anything to do with the endless series of difficulties and disappointing experiences that those who emigrate for strictly economic reasons have to face up to.
Now that the series has come to an end, the title we gave the section in may 1997, "Barcelona plural", appears rather open to question. Because Barcelona is not truly "pluralistic" yet, though it is taking the first steps in that direction. Obviously, our city is "pluralistic" if we compare it with what it was but fifteen years ago when the first immigrants arrived, or if we compare it with other nearby cities. On the other hand, foreign residents account for a mere two per cent of Barcelona's current population, which is still a very low percentage in comparison with other European cities such as Birmingham or Rotterdam, where the immigrant community accounts for some twenty per cent of the total population.
Barcelona is undergoing an important transformation and that transformation is palpable, for example, in the Ciutat Vella district where large numbers of Barcelona's foreign residents are concentrated (70 per cent of the Pakistanis, 60 per cent of the Morrocans and 65 per cent of the Senegalese live there). Diversification is a characteristic of the current immigration situation. Besides, many of the men who had first come alone have now managed to bring their families, which shows that this is not a transient phase, but a permanent phenomenon. The fact is that the immigrants' needs increase in parallel with their numbers. They no longer merely look for work, they now have requirements in other spheres such as education, medical care, social services and culture, just as "native" Barcelona residents do. Over the last years, some specific assistance services have been created, but the future must lie in granting all foreign residents access to the city's network of ordinary services.
The problems newly arrived immigrants have to face up to are as numerous as common : Where can they rent an apartment ? What do they have to do to legalize their situation ? Who could help them to get a job ? How will they manage to adapt their own customs to the patterns of behaviour that prevail in our country ?... They get to know the layout of the police station on Via Layetana and that of the Aliens Internment police centre at La Verneda intimately enough. Most of them have had to resort to legal aid services in order to avoid expulsion. Immigration law makes it increasingly harder for them to stay. So their main objective is to obtain Spanish citizenship. However, to tell the whole truth, this is not the last obstacle they will have to overcome in the race for a normal life. (...) Many have experienced how their facial features, or the colour of their skin, mark them out in a society that, until very recently, was in no way accustomed to racial diversity. (...)
However, what presents the biggest headache for immigrants is a series of legal restrictions placed on their movements - short-term residence permits, prohibition for those women who have come within the framework of the "family regrouping" programme to enter the labour market, etc... - which has become a major unstabilizing element. The precariousness of their situation is a constant source of worry among the immigrant community. Nevertheless, experience has proved that stability within the family circle is a key factor to the social integration of all its members, more particularly where children are concerned. And the second generation is a fundamental element if we are to face up to the future of immigration with some guarantee of success.
Paying due attention to the immigrants' original culture is necessary not only to ensure their personal enrichment but also to help them achieve an emotional and intelectual state of equilibrium between what they see at home and what they live outside in the streets. A good example of such positive action is "Bayt Al-Thaqafa", an organization which gives young North Africans the opportunity to learn Arab and the most characteristic traditions of their parents' homeland. It is also important for foreign residents to be provided with means to play an effective role in their own integration. They want to be active members rather then passive elements in the society in which they have come to live. (...)
All things considered, two decades are a too short period of time to allow us to ascertain which role immigrants will eventually play in Barcelona's society. On which terms will they adapt to it ? Will it be a process of integration or one of complete assimilation ? Which place will second-generation residents occupy in a near future ? It is truly difficult to foresee what the future holds, but the people involved in the process at least agree on one point : integration is only possible among equals and, in this respect, information is a basic instrument for achieving mutual understanding.
And that kind of information is exactly what our "Barcelona Plural" section has attempted to provide by showing how the different groups of foreign residents - whose numbers have been steadily increasing since the early eighties - live and think. We have allotted part of our pages to figures, but our main objective was to portray the lives and experiences of the human beings who are behind those statistics and to acquaint the readers with the traditions, customs and social situations that deeply condition them and of which we are largely ignorant. (...)
Striving to get away from the usual clichés, our magazine has approached the subject of immigration through a first series of profiles that are fundamentally aimed at presenting the readers with a more complete, unbiaised view of the immigrant world in Barcelona. It was a proper opportunity to comment objectively on the day-to-day life of a large group of people who, generally speaking, are deemed worthy of media coverage only within such frames of reference as social exclusion, religious conflicts or delinquency. (...)