EXAMINING MIGRATION (IN CATALONIA), PART II: VISITING MHIC, THE MUSEU D’HISTÒRIA DE LA IMMIGRACIÓ

As announced in my post of 1 June, I decided to visit the Museu d’Història de la Immigració de Catalunya, MHIC, as part of my research for a paper on how local Barcelona museums portray the Spanish economic migration to Catalonia (1930s-1970s). In this other post, I presented a negative view of the Museu d’Història de Catalunya for devoting so little space to a process which is absolutely crucial to understand 20th century Catalonia. Paradoxically, my impression is that MHIC, although a more specialised museum, also fails to present a thorough portrait of Spanish migration. In a sense, this is an even worse failure than that of MHC, though, as I will try to explain its root is very different. And even justifiable.

MHIC, as I explained, is not even 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.” The L2 metro line takes you quite close to MHIC, yet the territory between the Verneda stop and Can Serra, the building housing the museum, is a rough urban landscape. Balmes Street is a collection of industrial stores and factories, leading to a busy roundabout boasting a huge gas station and a big McDonald’s outlet. No houses, no shops. I wondered what reaching the museum on a rainy winter day was like… Faced from the gas station, the museum looks half covered by a big metallic fence, separating it from the constant traffic of the Ronda, the highway encircling Barcelona. How different from the Museu d’Història de Catalunya, down by the marina, with its classy restaurant and bookshop, and nearby Barceloneta so full of tourists…

I think this has been one of the strangest museum visits in my life. I had not realized that MHIC is basically an open-air museum so what I took for preliminary information (a series of panels skirting the entrance corridor and surrounding the main building) is the real thing. I didn’t know where to get my ticket, so I asked a guy enjoying a cigarette in the garden. He turned out it be in charge of the museum which, by the way, is free, no entrance fee. Throughout my hour-long visit, he kept a discreet watch on me, pointing out what to see as he greeted warmly the people working the substantial urban orchard attached to the garden. I was the only visitor on a sunny summer Friday morning. My ‘guide’ told me the museum does get many visitors but I suspect these are mainly school groups. It takes, as I see it, determination to take the metro or grab a car and go on your own there…

The panel installation offers an overview of the history of migration, presenting migration as a common process in all periods and lands on Earth. The other main exhibits are a glass box which, again, presents a general overview based in this case on showing objects brought my migrants from all over the world, and naming the factors conditioning integration, from education to sports. Next to this, a metallic mesh fence shows the visitor the many obstacles migrants face when attempting to cross borders, with examples from all over the world.

As you can see, the 4 sections I have mentioned so far present migration from a world-wide, not a local, perspective. This is reserved for MHIC’s star attraction: a wagon of the train known as ‘El Sevillano.’ The exhibition on board this wagon focuses on the experience of the long voyage to Barcelona from places distant even more than 1,000 kms but still in Spain: mainly Galicia and Andalucía. The tone of the panels, oral narratives, photos, spaces and video is optimistic, with the hardships–which must have been many in trips lasting over 20 hours with no seats guaranteed and in overcrowded trains–compensated by the excitement of seeing the sea for the first time or reuniting with a husband unseen even for years.

I learned that Franco initially restricted internal migration from the countryside to the cities, as he thought that agriculture should be a key economic sector for his autocratic regime. The Guardia Civil could return you to your village of origin if you failed to produce your Carta de Trabajo, and they did this to thousand of migrants ‘sin papeles.’ When Franco finally saw in the 1950s that migration could not be stopped as peasants would no longer put up with the misery of their extremely poor lives, he decided to exploit the flow for his own ‘desarrollista’ plans. He ordered RENFE to build cheap trains for the migrants… but neglected to build housing for them in their place of destination. Many found themselves leading lives of utter squalor in Barcelona’s many shanty towns. You should see the photos of the beach, from Barceloneta to Sant Adrià, in the 1950s and wonder how people survived in those ramshackle huts. Think Brazilian favelas…

I do not want to be unfair to MHIC as I think this is an institution struggling to merely exist. What I wonder is why. A press note issued by the local town council of Sant Adrià announced in 2011 a project to build a third space, a handsome, modern building designed by Mizien Arquitectura, of 600m2 and a cost of 400.000€ to be funded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture (not the Catalan Generalitat!!). I’m not sure whether the fences surrounding one side of MHIC are hiding the works from view but I suspect they’re not. The official leaflet presents this new building extensively but mentions no opening date.

In an article of 2005 in La Vanguardia, Arcadi Espada complained that the local Catalan Government, then headed by Pasqual Maragall, showed as little interest as that of his predecessor Jordi Pujol in supporting the museum. For Espada, the new, foreign migration made the existence of MHIC even more necessary, particularly for Maragall’s left-wing Government, to consolidate the idea that all kinds of migration deserve attention. 10 years later and under Artur Mas’ right-wing, pro-independence policies MHIC still looks like a very poor relation of the openly nationalist, well-provided Museu d’Història de Catalunya. Perhaps this is in the end the problem: the migrants, old and new, complicate the idealized picture of a homogenously Catalan-speaking nation walking unanimously towards independence. The old Spanish migrants are, in this sense, more of a ‘problem’ since people with strong family ties to other areas of Spain will hardly want to see Catalonia go its separate way. Better, then, not mention them too much. And leave MHIC to survive as well as it can…

I have visited Ellis Island, possibly the museum that has most impressed me, even above El Prado or London’s British Museum. I was deeply moved by the ability of the Ellis Island museum to transmit the personal experience of migration. At a much more modest scale the beautiful Museo de la Emigración of Colombres in Asturias, has the same effect. I just hope MHIC can one day be as moving as these two other museums are.

So much to tell, so few resources. I just hope that neither malice nor indifference but just plain ignorance keeps the voices of the Spanish migrants from finding a better place than the current MHIC. I do look forward to see the new MHIC house one day those voices.

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