How second-generation immigrants are transforming the landscape of Spanish society

Children born to foreigners are maintaining their connection to their parents’ culture while seeking out references that will help them forge their own identity

Second-generation Spaniards.
Second-generation Spaniards.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s worked,” says Fátima J., 23, who was born in Almeria to a Moroccan father and Spanish mother. “If I was to say anything, it would be positive. It’s true that when you’re little, you get asked a lot of stuff and there are a lot of things you’re unsure of because the approach to bringing up children can be so different and there are cultural things that you don’t really grasp.”

Fátima J., born to Moroccan parents.
Fátima J., born to Moroccan parents.Jaime Villanueva

Children born in Spain to immigrant parents have not had to go through the trials and tribulations of migration but they do have to live between two cultures. They belong to a new generation of Spaniards who have been brought up here and whose parents are predominantly from countries further to the south.

They are very often bilingual and their mixed identity allows them to enjoy links to their parents’ culture while positioning themselves within Spanish society, according to the report Spain in expansion: the integration of immigrant children, published in 2014 by La Caixa Foundation.

20% of babies born in Spain have a foreign parent

Fátima J., a criminology graduate from Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, explains that she has grown up with two very different mindsets, and this has helped make her more tolerant. She has two approaches to life and she says her visits to Morocco during the holidays have taught her the value of hospitality. “You are always welcome in anyone’s house,” she says. “In Spain, this seems strange because you have to be invited to eat at a relative’s home. But in Morocco, the doors are open to you any time of the day.”

In 2005, it wasn’t clear whether immigration would continue to grow in Spain or whether the trend would reverse. There are four million foreigners registered in the country, which is 10% of Spain’s 46.7 million population, and data from the National Statistics Institute (INE) shows that the new generation of Spaniards is the most diverse to date.

A study carried out by Verne on births, nationality and population reveals that 20% of the almost five million births in the last decade – amounting to 1,150,629 – have been to at least one foreign parent, according to INE data from 2007 to 2017.

I think I feel more Spanish because I grew up in Spain, but I also identify with Japanese values

Kinue Tsubata, whose father is Japanese

Data gathered between 2006 and 2016 indicates that immigrant parents who arrived in Spain during the last decade are predominantly Moroccan (around 26%), with Rumanians accounting for 12%, Ecuadorians 6% and Chinese 4%. It is their children who are transforming the landscape of Spanish society.

Iker E., an electronics student, is also used to living between two different cultures that share a language. Thanks to his parents’ efforts, he has a strong link with Ecuador, despite the fact they left during the 1990s. “They are very family-oriented there,” he says. “They all help a lot at home and it shows.”

Iker, born in Madrid to Ecuadorian parents.
Iker, born in Madrid to Ecuadorian parents.Jaime Villanueva

Born in 2000, Iker loves Ecuadorian cuisine, though he says the ingredients are expensive in Spain so they don’t have it that often. “But I also eat Spanish tortilla, paella and cocido [chickpea-based stew] and I like them a lot too,” he says. “We are really lucky that we have different dishes from different cultures.”

The Longitudinal study on the Second Generation by La Caixa, which carried out 7,000 interviews over the course of 10 years, suggests that the identities of the children of immigrants is fluid and changes over time and according to the context they are in, particularly during adolescence.

“The children of immigrants select the values from each culture that are worth preserving,” says Nathalie Hadj Handrim, doctor in Spanish and Latin American Civilization and Language at the University of Barcelona.

Mónika Sosa, 28, was born in Havana in Cuba. She now has dual nationality and is proud of her cultural heritage. “My maternal grandparents were Spanish and emigrated to Cuba,” she says. “They put down roots and my mother was born there.”

Mónika, who is studying for a master’s degree in Applied French Language at the Sorbonne in Paris, adds that she and her parents came to Spain and settled in Mazarrón, Murcia when she was four. Behind closed doors, the family was still very Cuban. “I never had the feeling of being someone who emigrated,” she says. “At the same time, I feel I’m from Cuba; I was brought up listening to salsa, Juan Gabriel, Marc Anthony, and my father talking about the communist dictatorship. I have dual heritage.” Her favorite Cuban writer, she adds, is Leonardo Padura.

Born in Spain, but without Spanish nationality

Not all the children of foreigners born in Spain obtain Spanish nationality. It depends on the legal status of their parents. If neither parent has Spanish nationality, the children take the nationality of their parents unless they are stateless.

In legal terms, this is known as the right to nationality by blood versus the right to nationality according to place of birth. To be recognized as Spaniards on paper, either one of the parents must have Spanish nationality or the child must reside in Spain for a year, according to the country’s Civil Code.

108,074 children of immigrants became Spanish citizens between 2013 and 1017

Fátima A., who was born in Madrid to Moroccan parents, made the switch along with her parents when she grew up. Her parents had to wait until they had legally resided in Spain for the specified 10 years before applying for the Spanish ID card. This 10-year residency requirement applies to all foreigners except Latin Americans and refugees who must be officially resident in Spain for just two years. In 2013, after jumping through a number of bureaucratic hoops, Fátima’s entire family became Spanish and are now in possession of their official ID cards.

“My parents wanted me to have Spanish nationality so that there wouldn’t be a difference [between me and Spanish people] and we would be treated equally,” says Fátima, 20, who wears the traditional Moroccan headscarf. “Afterwards, you realize that although you have the nationality, you’re still considered different on racial grounds.”

Adrian N., 18, was born in Madrid, but says he has no link with Equatorial Guinea where his paternal grandparents were born. His own father was born in Spain. Now an electronic engineering student who plays soccer for Rayo Vallecano, he follows YouTube channels like The Grefg and Pro Gadget Review.

Adrián N, born in Madrid to an Ecuadorian father.
Adrián N, born in Madrid to an Ecuadorian father.Andrea Comas

According to the Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad, who studied the children of immigrants in France during the 1990s, administrative and social realities keep these children in between two worlds.

“On the one hand, there is an administrative reality which determines nationality […] and on the other hand, a social reality which keeps these children between two countries and two nationalities and two societies beyond the purely legal dimension […] so that they become products and victims of the same story,” he writes in his work The Double Absence. From the dreams of the emigrant to the suffering of the immigrant.

A glance at INE data from 2013 to 2017 shows there were 108,074 children of immigrants who acquired Spanish nationality in that period, 46,700 of whom were previously Moroccan, 8,556 Ecuadorian, 5,818 Bolivian, and 4,318 Nigerian.

Rosa Aparicio, from the José Ortega and Gasset Foundation’s Research Institute and co-author of The Longitudinal study on the Second Generation, points out a recent spike in Moroccans who are becoming Spanish citizens, having accumulated the 10 years of official uninterrupted residency.

This is because, according to INE data, Moroccan immigration peaked exactly 10 years ago, with the arrival of 70,000 migrants. Last year, 39,000 migrants arrived in Spain from Morocco, a similar number to 2009 figures.

Four million people, or around 10% of the population, are currently registered as foreign nationals, most of whom are either Moroccan or Romanian. This percentage was 3.85% in 2001, according to a report by the Ministry of Employment and Social Issues.

Forging identity through art

Born in 1995 in Spain, Kinue Tsubata has maintained close ties to her Japanese roots. Though her mother is from Alicante, both parents – her father is from Nagaoka in Japan – have instilled Japanese values in her, such as punctuality, perseverance and the importance of attention to detail.

“I think I definitely feel more Spanish because I grew up in Spain, but I also identify with Japanese values,” explains Kinue, who is currently in London getting a master’s degree in Japan-focused International Administration at the School of Oriental and African Studies. “I have a lot of contact with Japanese culture and I watch series and films in Japanese so I won't forget the language.” She goes on to list Japanese animation movies including Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away from Ghibli studios.

Since she was little, she has had to find her own cultural references as everyone on TV and in cartoons was white. “I was drawn to films such as Mulan and I had a Japanese Barbie that wore a kimono,” she says. Now, she tries to participate in as many cultural events and parties thrown by the Japanese community as possible.

The children of immigrants select the values from each culture that are worth preserving Nathalie Hadj Handrim, doctor in Spanish Civilization and Language

According to the mothers of children of African descent, such as Sara Plaza and Kenia Ramos, second-generation children need references to help them identify – “both in the media and within institutions,” says Sara, the mother of a two-year-old whose father is Senegalese.

“Everything that reaches them contains images of white people and particularly the typical blonde girls with blue eyes,” says Kenia, who has a seven-year-old daughter.

In order to forge the identity of their children, both women try to find relevant cultural references in food, stories and toys. “It’s difficult because there’s no information,” says Kenia, who points out that there are many more books of this kind in English than in Spanish, such as Little Leaders: bold women in black history and Kirikú and the sorceress.

The Cross Border Project theater company, which began in New York and has since set up in Spain, addresses the issue with their play Fiesta, fiesta, fiesta, which tells the story of seven teenagers born in Spain to foreign parents.

The play covers themes such as wearing the headscarf, the culture clash between parents and their children, and the teenagers' own dreams and fears. “What is happening in the classroom is what is happening in Spain,” says dramatist Lucia Miranda, who came up with the script base on real-life conversations and interviews.

“This is the big identity issue facing the country and Europe, not what is promoted by nationalists. I think it’s an issue that is still not being spoken about in debates. People who are very close to me still speak about Spain in a way that is completely outdated. Spain is no longer white and Catholic. It is very diverse.”


This analysis is based on data from the INE and the Ministry of Education on the census, births and student numbers. We have classed any child with at least one foreign parent as the child of immigrants, in line with the broadest academic definition of the term and with the definition used by researcher Rosa Aparicio.

No distinction has been made between the terms immigrant and foreigner. We are aware that the word foreigner carries less political punch than the word immigrant. No distinction has been made as the data and conversations carried out by experts suggest that 73% of people coming from abroad to live in Spain are from the south while 27% come from countries further north such as Germany, Finland and the United Kingdom.

The analysis of school students is based on data from the Ministry of Education between 2010 and 2017. The data included preschool, primary, secondary, vocational training and pre-university schooling. The children of immigrants who have Spanish nationality have not been included as they are now registered as Spanish.

The analysis may be extrapolated since, according to researcher Rosa Aparicio, the economic status on which it is based is different to that of children with two Spanish parents. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCDE) points out, “The different socio-economic levels account for more than a fifth of what differentiates immigrant students from native students when it comes to acquiring basic skills in OCDE countries and the European Union.”

For population data, provisional 2018 statistics have been used and subjects have been grouped as follows: children between 0 and 19, youths between 19 and 30, adults between 30 and 69, and the elderly. It is not possible to analyze minority nationalities, which are classed as “others” due to statistical confidentiality, according to the INE. Oceania is also treated as a country as no data exists apart from the statistical data.

We have omitted the surnames of the young people quoted in the story at their request.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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