Latinos in Spain: Finding the delicate balance between two identities

Latin Americans reject the stereotypes about their community, which they say remain rampant in Spanish society

Lina Larrea, who says she feels both Colombian and Spanish.
Lina Larrea, who says she feels both Colombian and Spanish.

Nearly 80% of the children of immigrants in Spain feel “right at home,” according to a report by the José Ortega y Gasset Foundation, The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), published in November 2017 and modeled after a similar study conducted in the US by Princeton University.

Lina Khaterine Larrea, who is from Colombia, certainly felt at home in Spain, but only until she turned 10. That is when she began to be bullied at school.

Perhaps there is still something left of that attitude of looking at Latin America over your shoulder

Manuel Enrique Paulino, Peruvian journalist

“They would throw stones at me, they’d call me a cokehead. Just because I was Colombian,” she explains, sitting in a square in downtown Madrid. That is when she realized that having two identities was going to mean “pain and sacrifice.”

Ultimately, Lina Larrea decided to conceal her Colombian identity. “I felt ashamed of being from that country,” she explains.

Colombians make up the largest Latin American community in Spain, at 145,000 strong out of nearly 800,000 Latin Americans, according to figures from the National Statistics Institute (INE).

As she was growing up, Lina was forced to answer, time and again, questions about women and drugs in Colombia.

“The drug-trafficking process we experienced in Colombia was highly traumatic for Colombians,” she explains, adding that TV series and movies have created a mythical aura around traffickers and hyper-sexualized women.

I felt ashamed of being from Colombia

Lina Larrea

“The man I was taking care of asked me to give him ‘affection’,” explains Edith Espínola, who is from Paraguay and has a degree in business administration, but was forced to do domestic work when she moved to Spain. She came because her mother was already living here, and because she felt particularly attracted to Spanish history.

Espínola believes that the problem lies in Latin America, where she says that women get treated like products, which is why Spaniards perceive Latin American women as being “affectionate, kind, obliging and willing to do anything.”

Keen to break that image, Espínola became a member of Servicio Doméstico Activo (SEDOAC), a support group for domestic workers that reports on workplace and sexual abuse against many Latin American women, who are often in a position of administrative vulnerability.

Only 18.2% of children of immigrants hold a highly qualified position compared with 27.3% of children of Spanish parents

The stereotypes do not end there.

“People seem surprised when I tell them that I went to a private school or that I went to university,” says Manuel Enrique Paulino, a Peruvian journalist who moved with his family to Seville when he was in his teens. Paulino thinks that all too often Latin Americans are associated with a lack of studies and education. “Do you know how to read?” a woman once asked Edith Espínola. “Perhaps there is still something left of that attitude of looking at Latin America over your shoulder,” adds Fernando Ochoa, a Venezuelan musician whose grandparents were Spanish.

Ochoa notes that he has never encountered direct discrimination. “It must be because I don’t look Venezuelan to Spaniards. Perhaps they expected me to be a little darker,” he muses.

What he does notice is that people know very little about his country. “They ask me about Chávez and Maduro, and, depending on where they get their news, they have a very partial vision of Venezuela.”

And there is still inequality when it comes to the workplace. Only 18.2% of children of immigrants hold a highly qualified position (as managers or technical experts) compared with 27.3% of children of Spanish parents, according to the study, which followed 7,000 students at 180 schools in Madrid and Barcelona between 2006 and 2016.

Despite these figures, “something is changing,” says Paulino, the Peruvian journalist, citing the internet as a powerful tool to refute stereotypes. Ochoa, from Venezuela, agrees: “During my grandparents’ generation, if you wanted to know something about Venezuela you had to go there. Now, all it takes is a little bit of curiosity.”

Ultimately, it’s about a sense of belonging. Paulino and Ochoa say they feel like they belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Edith Espínola says that you are not more patriotic if you fly the national flag, but if you respect the rules of the society that you are living in. And Lina Larrea, who no longer feels ashamed of being Colombian, concludes: “There should be room for every one of us who feels as much from Spain as from those other countries.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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