Mom, I’m staying in Spain

Returning Latin Americans can have trouble getting their Spanish-born children to join them

Daniela Montes moved to Spain at age 10 from Colombia.
Daniela Montes moved to Spain at age 10 from Colombia.jaime villanueva

Daniela Montes, 25, describes herself as “an oddball.” She was born in Barranquilla in Colombia, grew up in the southern Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera, and for the last four years has been living in Madrid.

Until a few years ago, Daniela believed that her parents would spend their retirement in Spain. But the collapse of the economy changed their plans, and her father had no choice but to return to Colombia in early December. In a few weeks, her mother will join him after living here for 15 years. But Daniela says she intends to stay: “I feel Spanish, this is my home.”

The economic crisis has hit Spain’s immigrant communities hard, and thousands of residents out of a total foreign population of 4.5 million have moved back home in recent years. A significant percentage of them are Latin Americans, mainly from Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.

But their kids, many of whom were either born in Spain or arrived here as young children, have largely opted to stay. “They have accumulated many experiences over their 10 to 15 years here in Spain. And it makes sense that many of them feel Spanish,” says Félix Arturo Chipoco, the Peruvian consul in Madrid.

Immigration: the stats

F. B.

In July 2014 there were 4,538,503 foreign residents in Spain, a drop of 10.53 percent from January 2013. These figures do not include people with dual nationality.

Ecuadorians (187,025), Colombians (154,320), Bolivians (109,596), and Peruvians (71,755) are the biggest Latin American communities in Spain.

But at 721,445, Romanians make up the largest single immigrant community in Spain, followed by Moroccans (697,074). But together Latin Americans represent the largest group, and they have also returned home in larger numbers as the crisis has bitten deeper. During the first quarter of 2014, the biggest drop in numbers was among the Peruvian community, which fell by 14.8 percent; followed by Bolivians at 14 percent, and Ecuadorians at 12.6 percent. The average age of second-generation immigrants in Spain is 18, and 81 percent of those born in Spain say they feel Spanish; the figure is 43.6 percent for those born abroad.

Around 77 percent of immigrant parents say they want their children to attend university, while 87.4 percent say they are "very happy" with their children's education, and 90.85 percent believe that their children will have the same opportunities as children born to Spanish parents.

Sources: National Statistics Institute; Crecer en España: la integración de los hijos de inmigrantes.

“Kids never like having to make new friends or switching schools, much less moving to a new country,” says Carmen González, a researcher in demographics and international migration at the Madrid-based think tank Real Instituto Elcano. “And if going back means worse living conditions, along with inferior education and healthcare, more expensive public transport, and even street violence, they are going to resist the idea even more forcefully.”

As a result, some parents decide to stay in Spain for the sake of their children, however tough their own situation. But others simply have no choice but to go back, and if their kids are still underage, they face a difficult situation.

“When children were born in Spain or arrived here as infants, then we’re not really talking about ‘going back’ as such, but about emigrating and beginning a new process of social integration,” says María Luz Valdivia, president of the Acobe foundation, which helps migrants returning to their home countries.

Rosa Aparicio, who teaches sociology at Madrid's Pontificia de Comillas University and does research for the José Ortega y Gasset Institute, says: “The longer young people stay in a country, the stronger their feeling of belonging.”

Aparicio, who recently published Crecer en España: la integración de los hijos de inmigrantes (Growing up in Spain: the integration of immigrants’ children), says that 78.4 percent of second-generation immigrants of all nationalities have not experienced any problems integrating. Although Spaniards have largely been accepting of newcomers, González says the “big challenge” is the lack of employment opportunities for immigrants: “Integration takes place chiefly through work once one has become an adult.”

Education plays a determining role in why the children of immigrants want to stay in Spain. The first generation, most of whom came from relatively poor backgrounds, saw in Spain the opportunity not only to find work but also to improve their children’s future chances, says Aparicio.

“I hope to raise my children here in Jerez”

Daniela Montes’ friends in Madrid have nicknamed her La andaluza (The Andalusian), while back in Colombia her grandparents call her La española (The Spaniard), and in Jerez, everybody knows her as La colombiana (The Colombian).

“I don’t really belong anywhere in particular. But home is definitely Andalusia,” she says in a strong southern Spanish accent. Her family moved from Barranquilla to Jerez 15 years ago, “carrying all our belongings in four suitcases.” She was 10, and her sister, eight. They were both brought up in Jerez, where her father set up a small business making household cleaners.

Daniela’s sister later decided to return to Colombia “in search of her origins”. Daniela chose to stay behind and train to become a social worker. She now combines her job as a conflict mediator for the Madrid regional government with law studies.

Her father’s business shut down in 2007, and he was forced to take a job as a sales representative on a commission basis. “He never had stable work, and as the crisis bit deeper, he was being paid less and less. In 2012 I was working three jobs to try to help them out. Sometimes they earned as little as €600 a month, but the mortgage payments were the same.” Finally, at the age of 60, her father received a job offer in Colombia, and he left to take it up; her mother will follow shortly.

“I would love to be able to bring my children up in Jerez, where you can still buy a can of Coke for a euro, people are friendly, and in 15 minutes you can be at the beach. I've been lucky, and I’m very grateful to my family for everything.”

“Some things have gotten worse here”

Ramón Alcántara is used to separations. His father abandoned him and his sister while they were still babies, and then, when he was two, his mother left him in his grandmother’s care in Dominican Republic to come to Spain in search of work. The money she made cleaning houses put food on her children’s table back home. For the next 15 years, Ramón says he saw his mother “just a couple of times.” Finally, at the age of 17, he was able to legally move to Spain.

Today, at age 25, Ramón has dual nationality and says he loves living in Madrid. “I’ve been to other places, but it’s in Spain, in Madrid, where I feel at home.” His sister now lives in Italy, and his brother, who was born here, is training to become a mechanic. Meanwhile, his mother has returned to the Dominican Republic: “She was finding it hard to get work. I guess maybe she’ll return to Spain some day. I don’t know.”

Ramón says he has thought about looking for work abroad, but finally decided that he wanted to stay in Spain. He gets by on temporary work, volunteers at an evangelical church, and says he wants to get a university degree in “something related to sports or health sciences, I’m not sure yet.” Madrid offers him the best chances to get a good education, he says, along with well-paid work and more job security. “Some things have gotten worse here, but with time, the situation could well be an improvement over how things were before.”

“You have to look for opportunities”

Luis Enrique Melo came to Spain from his native Peru in 2007, at age 18, to live with his father. He says he had three clear goals: “Studying, studying, and studying.” After completing a technical course in broadcast media, he began a degree in journalism at Madrid’s Complutense University. His father, who had been in Spain for many years, worked in the restaurant business and led a quiet life, he says.

But three years ago his father lost his job, and after failing to find work, decided to return to Peru 18 months ago. “He came here to pursue his dream, but life was just too hard. He felt defeated, and he had no choice: there was no work.”

But Luis Enrique decided to stay, and says he is just about managing to make ends meet. Today, at age 26, he works as a waiter in a Peruvian restaurant in the evenings, so he can study during the day.  “My father has his own life, I am beginning mine. It was always clear in my mind that I wanted to stay here and study, start a career, and then perhaps one day return to Peru.”

Even though he grew up in Peru, he says he now feels Spanish if only because he shares the widespread feeling of anger about “this country’s problems,” in reference to corruption, unemployment, and politicians’ inability to improve the situation. “Yet despite the crisis there are still plenty of opportunities. You just have to find them! Latin Americans are accustomed to crises, you just have to hang in there: I know this country has a lot to give. And it’s giving me a lot already. I really appreciate the low crime rate, which is something we don’t have in the Americas.”

“My life here is safer”

Tamara Salamea came to Spain from Ecuador 16 years ago, when she was just five, and says she remembers little about the country where she was born. She moved here with her father; her mother had arrived a year earlier. “We didn’t have a cent,” she says. Her sister was born seven years later, right around the same time when her parents decided to set up their own business and open two Ecuadorian restaurants. “Things went well for them: they bought an apartment and a car, and we never wanted for anything at home.”

But the crisis hit their businesses hard, and they had to close the restaurants three years ago. Her mother, now 43, went to Switzerland to work as a tourist guide, while her father, now 59, was out of work for a year. Finally, in February of 2014, he decided to return to Ecuador, using an inheritance to start a business. Tamara was left on her own and in charge of her 13-year-old sister. “She’s going back to Ecuador, and I think my mother will as well, but not me. I’m in my second year of a marketing and management degree, and if things get better, I could get a job and pay for a master’s program.”

Tamara says that during her holidays in Ecuador she came close to moving back, but realized she would find it hard to adapt to life there: “It’s not a bad life in my country, but things are safer here.” She believes the education system here is better, and has also made many friends. Having said that, she doesn’t feel Spanish. “My parents passed on their roots to me. But I still don’t think I could go back.”