Welcome to Spain’s foreign capital

Over 77% of residents in San Fulgencio are expats – the highest proportion in the country

Luis Gómez
San Fulgencio -
British citizens play bowls in San Fulgencio, Alicante.
British citizens play bowls in San Fulgencio, Alicante.Joaquin de Haro

Year after year, journalists drop by the town of San Fulgencio in Alicante province to check whether the trend persists. And the answer is, yes, it does – in fact, it’s even growing. The latest head count by the National Statistics Institute (INE) shows that 77.7 percent of residents registered in the municipality are foreign-born. That means that nearly four out of every five inhabitants are not Spanish.

San Fulgencio has been the defending champion in these particular statistics for over 10 years, and still lacks a real rival. The town could well serve as a laboratory for analyzing the extent and effects of European integration. Coexistence is peaceful and relations good. But integration is an entirely different story.

The profiles are well-defined: 6,364 out of the 9,862 foreign residents (64.5 percent of the total) are British, followed by 1,468 Germans and small delegations from other countries, mostly also Europeans.

Given that there are only 3,000 resident Spaniards, one might be tempted to think that San Fulgencio is ruled by the British. But that is not the case. In reality, the town is divided in two, both geographically and sociologically. The Spaniards live below, in the former old part of town, and the foreigners live higher up, in an area named La Marina, which houses a massive residential estate filled with stand-alone homes.

Demographics suggest that San Fulgencio has survived the crisis

Inside La Marina, English is spoken inside all the commercial establishments, which cater to foreign customers and are run by non-Spaniards, as though this were a real British village stuck in the middle of Alicante’s Vega Baja.

The result of untrammeled construction in the 1980s and beyond is here for all to see: a flat, elongated, impersonal city where everyone goes their separate ways, with no common areas save for the odd shopping center. Located in one of these is a pharmacy owned by Fani Ruiz Lozano, who has 23 years of experience and learned English and German at one of Spain’s official state language schools.

Fani ventures that Spaniards are more knowledgeable about healthcare issues. “The British don’t know how to use their medication, and they know very little about antibiotics. We try to stay in touch with doctors to help them out, and they are very grateful,” she says.

Nearby daily life unfolds. At the local bowls club, members carry on with their games. Since all of them are British except for one Spanish woman, the mood is completely English: etiquette reigns supreme, and all players have to wear white. Close by, volunteers run a library comprising around 600 books, lending out titles free of charge and illustrating the spirit of cooperation and community work.

Trinidad Martínez, then-Socialist mayor of San Fulgencio, was arrested in 2008 over a bribery scandal involving one of her councilors.
Trinidad Martínez, then-Socialist mayor of San Fulgencio, was arrested in 2008 over a bribery scandal involving one of her councilors.

Not far from here is Jennie and Dave’s Dog House. The couple runs a bar and a secondhand store whose proceeds go to the upkeep of nearly 50 abandoned dogs; photographs of the animals decorate one of the walls of the establishment. Jennie and Dave, who are just over 60 and have lived in Spain for over 20 years, have managed to find homes for them. But don’t try asking them the time in Spanish, because they still don’t speak the language.

Language, one might say, is the main barrier to integration here. A notary who wished to remain anonymous said that several British citizens who wanted to apply for Spanish citizenship gave up when they found out that speaking Spanish was a requirement.

It is only during the local fiestas in January that the uptowners and the downtowners come together. So says the mayor, Carlos Ramírez, 43, of the Popular Party (PP). Ramírez used to work at El Corte Inglés, Spain’s largest department store chain, and now works full-time as a local leader.

“There is no real integration,” he says. “This used to be a small village of farmers with one local policeman who was blind in one eye, and suddenly a giant company descended on the village and began building thousands of homes on some land located three kilometers from the center, and connected to it with a badly paved road. This physical barrier, together with the language issue, did the rest. They lead their own separate lives, and have over 200 establishments of their own.”

Opposition leader Trinidad Martínez, a former Socialist mayor herself, feels the same way. “We are still separated. They have all the services, too. If there are two hairdressers downtown, there are seven uptown. When it comes to running things, they feel it’s better for Spaniards to run the municipality. They don’t participate a lot, even though their influence could be decisive. But experiences have not been good.”

All the calm turns into a storm where local politics are concerned

In fact, all the calm turns into a storm where local politics are concerned. New, suspicious-sounding groups keep popping up to seek votes among the foreign population and later use that representation to help either the PP or the Socialists take control.

In 2008, a British man named Mark Lewis who was councilor for animal affairs ended up becoming mayor despite the fact that he didn’t speak a word of Spanish, after the police arrested nearly the entire local government – including then-Socialist mayor Trinidad Martínez – over a recording that showed a group of businessmen bribing the town-planning councilor to ensure his support for their project for a huge residential and golf estate.

Right now, the PP is in government thanks to support from Scotsman Jeffrey Wiszniewski, the sole councilor and leader of the PIPN (Independent Party for Nationalities). Wiszniewski is accused of having several advisors at his service courtesy of the local coffers.

At another time, San Fulgencio had a deputy mayor who was also the councilor for treasury, trade, tourism, protocol and cabinet affairs, all at the same time. This man was also arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe, although the claim was proven false. “There’s been a lot of dirty dealing around here,” concludes Trinidad Martínez.

Meanwhile, San Fulgencio keeps growing in its own way. While there are always more deaths than births, the migratory balance is positive: new retirees keep coming every year. And to the great satisfaction of lawyers and notaries, foreign residents have learned their lesson and now conduct all their legal paperwork in two languages, including their wills.

Demographics suggest that San Fulgencio has survived the crisis. Those who predicted a massive return of foreigners back to their native countries were wrong. Unlike other foreigner-oriented residential estates on the Alicante coast that have turned into ghost towns, this place has resisted the onslaught of the real estate bubble and even the devaluation of the pound. San Fulgencio lives on. So it is likely that another journalist will soon be dropping by to inquire how things are going – yet again.

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