THE OTHERS AND THE NEW ONES: EXAMINING MIGRATION (IN CATALONIA)

Next October we’ll hold in Santiago de Compostela the twentieth, and possibly final, ‘Culture & Power’ conference. This is a series started in 1995 at my own university, UAB, with the aim of disseminating Cultural Studies in Spain, a much necessary enterprise then as it is still now. This, I know, sounds paradoxical as the series is, as I hint, winding down with two final contradictory messages: Cultural Studies still does not exist in Spain either as a discipline or, much less, a degree, yet at the same time we are strong enough within English Studies in Spain not to need anymore the scaffolding of the ‘Culture & Power’ seminar to hold us together (many of us have moved onto diverse, more specific branches like post-colonialism, popular fictions, media studies, etc.).

This new conference will deal with migration and I have finally decided to write about a long-overdue topic in my academic career… but not as part of it. I am not going to suddenly immerse myself into post-colonial methodologies, nor see how migration fits the many SF novels on colonization. No. I am going to use this excuse for an exploration of my own personal roots as a child of a series of migrant waves to Catalonia. I am using the blog post today, then, to draft the first part of my planned paper, which will deal with the representation of Spanish immigrants in the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and the Museu d’Història de la Inmigració de Catalunya. This may not be English Studies at all but, then, without what I have learned from migration to an from Anglophone countries I might not be aware at all about my own identity issues (also as an English Studies specialist…).

In the course of the recent electoral campaign to elect town council representatives, Esquerra Republicana’s number two, actor Juanjo Puigcorbé, blundered pathetically when he proposed building a museum devoted to the Spanish migration to Catalonia. The blunder exposed his ignorance of the existence of such museum since 2004… at the same time it is completely understandable since very few people know that MHIC exists. There are, you can check, no comments on MHIC in TripAdvisor. I myself have never been there, daunted by the long metro trip I need to take for, yes, MHIC is not in Barcelona but in the adjacent town of Sant Adrià del Besòs, which received many thousands of migrants from all over Spain between the 1950s and 1980s. I have, then, finally found an excuse to visit MHIC and check what is bothering me: that the official Catalan discourse of immigrant integration is burying the memory of Spanish migration under a triumphal discourse focused on the new (1990s onwards) foreign migration. The ‘new Catalans’ are ousting the ‘other Catalans’ from public view.

The ‘other Catalans’ is an expression famously coined by Paco Candel, the man who explained to ‘proper’ Catalans from the fringes of the city of Barcelona who the migrants from all over Spain were. His book Els altres catalans (1964) was published in the middle of a social phenomenon that peaked, precisely, in the mid-1960s and that brought to Catalan territory more than one million migrants (in 1970 only 62% of the population were Catalan-born…). In 1980 Generalitat’s President Jordi Pujol appropriated Candel’s discourse to proclaim that anyone living and working in Catalonia was a Catalan, a much necessary proclamation to end the insidious discrimination and marginalization I recall from my childhood (I was never called ‘xarnega’ but other kids of recently arrived parents were). The gigantic waves of Spanish migrants stopped in the 1980s and less than one decade later the new foreign wave started… which clearly shows there has been no time for Spanish migration to be fully assimilated, and I don’t mean ‘disappeared into Catalonia,’ I mean ‘understood,’ even by the protagonists themselves. A number of recent books and a documentary have unearthed a little bit of that past, with attention narrowly focused on the shanty towns built all over Barcelona up to the 1980s. But little else…

The Museu d’Història de Catalunya offers, as I feared, no substantial comment on Spanish migration. I know that for some the label is offensive for, if you consider that Spain is a national territory and you identify migration with moving to foreign lands, then there is no reason to speak of migration at all within Spanish borders. The truth is that there is much need as, most importantly, migration to Catalonia meant coming across another language and a local culture very much fixed on it as an identity marker (clearly much more so today than under Franco’s regime, indeed). Well… out of the hundreds of linear metres of exhibits that MHC offers, only 5 are devoted to Spanish migration.

The first metre-long exhibit is occupied by panel 31.j ‘La Inmigració’ which explains that the first migrants arrived from País Valencià and Aragón to make up for the rural population deficit–it doesn’t say when. The 1920s public works, I’ll add ‘for the 1929 Universal Exhibition,’ increased the arrival of migrants, mainly from Murcia and Eastern Andalucía, each contributing about 80,000 souls (it seems they colonized l’Hospitalet de Llobregat). The next panel, 39, ‘L’onada inmigratòria’ is a bit longer at two metres but very confusing as it refers to 1936-1980 without examining what happened to the first wave, nor in which ways they settled down. A funny thing I noticed is that even though visitors are told that life was not easy for the newly arrived there is no comment on the fact that Catalan businessmen were responsible for their exploitation. Very cheerfully, the panel concludes that low salaries and poor housing were soon overcome by “economic expansion and an open social structure which allowed to prosper. The migrant wave was replaced by a baby-boom.” Deep sigh… now, I wonder how many of these baby-boomers and their descendants are bearing the brunt of the current crisis… still stuck in their neighbourhoods… The MHC also claims that Catalan society welcomed all the migrants, despite its own difficulties to express its own identity and that “Soon the ‘other Catalans’ identified themselves with the country and contributed to the construction of a ‘common future’.” Not what I have seen.

The final segment in the museum, ‘Catalunya.cat: Un retrat de la Catalunya contemporània 1980-2007’ exhibits a collection of photos showing nicely dressed, smiling people intended to represent current multicultural Catalonia. The places and dates of birth are supposed to show that the 7 millions living here do so in total harmony and content. I will not argue that the tensions are grave, for this is not at all the case–everything considered, Catalonia works well. But what I do not accept is the plainly false statement that according to recent statistics “the ‘new Catalans’ have progressively integrated Catalan as their own language at home and the numbers considering it their own language is growing.” Well, I might accept the second part but by no means the first one –do you really think that migrants from Ecuador (the third biggest community) are switching to Catalan?? Come on… The complicated linguistic practices in my own family would occupy several research papers…

Precisely, I started thinking of these matters when an Ecuadorian friend of mine told me we in Spain are totally homogeneous (I think he meant in comparison to the mixed ethnicity of his homeland, of which he is–handsome–living proof). Not at all!! I exclaimed. Look at my family: I have counted at least 4 migratory waves, my paternal great-great-grandmother in the 1900s, my paternal great-grandmother in the 1910s, my paternal grand-mother in the 1930s, my paternal uncle in the 1970s… and all my mother’s parents in the 1940s, with her, born outside Catalonia, in tow. What I have seen in my family, besides, is a series of conflicts based on, shall we say?, migrant seniority and the matter of how Catalan you are if your mom or dad is from elsewhere. This is the story I am trying to reconstruct now and, believe me, it is not easy.

Particularly because it is nowhere to be seen, or heard. Not at MHC. I’ll see what MHIC shows me…

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2 thoughts on “THE OTHERS AND THE NEW ONES: EXAMINING MIGRATION (IN CATALONIA)

  1. And then there’s the rural exodus from the country and the villages to the big cities. So you can be a Catalan in Catalonia, and still be an immigrant. Migration comes in many shades.

  2. Sure. I’m getting more and more interested in ‘romantic’ migration, which include my own partner. People will go to the ends of the Earth for a relationship, yet this is not contemplated in the discourse on migration, which is very narrow…

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