Catalonia: Latin Americans face uncertainty

After the independence, Latino immigrants struggle to find work

Catalonia: Latin Americans face uncertainty

Marta Pascal, the secretary-general of the Catalan European Democratic Party described Catalonia’s pro-migrant policy as ‘the Catalan Dream.’ “This is a prosperous and interesting territory in the south of Europe where the Catalan Dream… works”, she told the press. If you came to Catalonia and learnt the language your respective identity would be respected, Pascal had enthused.

Yet, it now appears that the Latino population of Catalonia have been the victims of a rude awakening.  “Sincerely, I can’t take it anymore and be silent because of the fear”, confides Valentin Mogrezutt-Gómez, a Venezuelan who has lived in Barcelona for fifteen years. “The fear and concern of what will happen to us that live in Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia”.

Valentin works in a hotel in the centre of Barcelona which typically hosts employees of some of Spain’s biggest companies when they come to do business in the city. “We are at 40% down on bookings for the next couple of months and cancellations are just increasing and increasing”, he says. “This is purely because our main clientele, business people, managers and employees of the major companies including San Miguel and Banco Sabadell, no longer want to do business here.”

He claims he has had his hours slashed as a result and is struggling to pay rent and put food on his table. “This conflict has already done us a lot of damage. Who will come to visit Barcelona and spend their money in our hotels, restaurants and shops when all anyone knows of outside our borders is of the instability and civic risk?” Valentin says shaking his head.

Valentin’s situation is not an isolated one. There are over 190,000 Latin Americans with official residential status in Catalonia, according to the 2016 Generalitat de Catalonia survey. The Spanish Ministry of Employment and Social Security estimates that once you take IGNORE INTO account Latinos who are on temporary work visas or living illegally in the region this figure could also realistically be twice as high.

Latinos play an integral part in civil life in Catalonia but they were not allowed to vote in the October 1 referendum as the Catalonian Parliament restricted trips to the ballot box to Spanish citizens in order to comply with national rules on voting. Nonetheless, they must deal with the fallout head on.

Traditionally, Latinos worked and thrived across a whole range of sectors in the region, from financial services to the security industry, working in local government to the shipping sector, benefitting from the pro-independence Catalonian parties’ positive attitude to immigration.

Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Catalonia swelled by 20% reaching 7.5 million, driven in a large part by immigration, with just under 14% of residents recorded as being foreign born. Pro-independence parties promised citizenship to Latinos in the new Catalan Republic in exchange for their support in the polls.

It seemed everyone was a winner. “Life in Catalonia was fantastic,” says Maira Macheda Bustos, a Colombian living in Barcelona.  “For many, many years Latinos were welcomed in Catalonia.  It was an open door and in return we were extremely grateful to live and work in this rich land,” she says.

However, it is the industries dominated by Latinos that have been hardest hit by the capital flight and economic uncertainty in the province following the referendum.

One of the industries dominated by Latino workforce is tourism

Revenue from the tourism industry has fallen by 15% since the independence referendum compared to the same period last year, revealed Jose Luis Zoreda, vice president of the Exceltur trade association.

“The tourism industry is one of the biggest for us Latinos,” says Myriam Caren Acosta over an impossibly sweet gin and tonic in the bar she works at in La Barceloneta. Myriam has been an adopted Barcelonian for eight years since she moved from her native Santiago in Chile for work.  “When I moved here it was easy to get a job in the hospitality industry. There were so many tourists, as long as you could speak a bit of English you could get a job in a hotel, restaurant or a bar. Since the referendum, people are stopping to come here, they are going elsewhere in Spain and the Latinos are the first to lose their jobs”. She added, “I know of two friends, two Dominican girls, who have already lost their jobs because their restaurant can’t now afford to keep them on, while many other of my Latino friends with similar jobs are having their hours cut.”

The construction industry in Barcelona was another dominated by Latinos.

Construction companies in Spain once built more residential homes annually than the rest of Western Europe put together. However, Spain suffered when its early 2000s credit-fuelled construction boom went bust, with the industry now worth half of what it was a decade previously.

While Barcelona was hit hard, Latinos working in construction were somewhat cushioned from the widespread job losses seen elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula. Continued inward migration to the region had resulted in an on-going demand for new accommodation and office space.  However, grave uncertainty over the region’s future has led businesses to freeze investment and look elsewhere in Spain.

Inmobiliaria Colonia, a leading real estate firm, and Abertis, the infrastructure company, have already moved their head offices outside the region. Companies have “seriously put the brakes on all investments until the end of 2017”, says Jose Luis Zoreda.

Previously, construction firms in Catalonia typically hired Latinos, who were often experienced and prepared to work for lower pay than their Spanish-born counterparts. While the work was long, Latinos could make a stable living, particularly in the Catalan capital. Again, everyone seemed to be a winner.

Yet this is no longer the case as Jorge Eduardo Perez, a Colombian engineer, explained.  “Companies are stopping building here, you can see in the news - businesses and tourism -everyone is leaving Catalonia,” he said. “Over the last two months it has been shocking, the lack of work for us and it is causing conflict within the Latino community here over remaining jobs.”

His sentiment was emphatically supported by Javier Eduardo Salazar, a Peruvian builder. “Building work is completely stopping across some industries – textiles, manufacturing and of course with tourism – it is hard to put IGNORE INTO words how many Latinos livelihoods that affects here. It is not just me but also my wife and children. Not to mention my elderly parents at home in Arequipa, who rely on the money I used to be able to send home.”

There are, on the other hand, some Latin Americans who have thus far been untroubled by the instability caused by the referendum.

“Work hasn’t changed too much for me,” says Karina Figueredo, a Venezuelan who works in alcohol advertising.  “Much of our invoicing goes to companies outside of Spain and obviously they aren’t affected like Spanish companies are.”

However, during our conversation she expresses her frustration at the general strikes being held in the region as international clients are experiencing difficulty reaching her offices from Barcelona-El Prat Airport. She worries that ongoing disruption will mean her clients will grow impatient and look elsewhere with their money.

For many Latinos life in Catalonia is changing beyond recognition.

The crushing reality is that the Catalan dream may be becoming a nightmare. Those who had made the province their home for several decades are now being forced to consider rapid relocation.

“Of course, there will be many lost jobs,” says Daniel Caballero Cáceres, a Paraguayan living in Barcelona. “As more people are going to be made unemployed, the Catalans will not want Latin Americans here. The great Latino population here will move to other cities in Spain.” Daniel takes a worried glance over the city below from our café on Tibidabo mountain. “There will be no single positive aspect for us,” he concludes with a heavy heart.


Latin American Post | Joe Wallen

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