Children of Migration stories of immigrant youth in spain

You were raised in Spain but you were born in another country. What's your homeland? Where is home?


You were born in a city of a country where your family's past is. When you were two, four, seven years old, your family migrated, and you with them. You've lived your life in another city, another country, where you're often reminded about your origin, but you're planning your future around the place that you live in –although maybe your parents still dream with returning to their hometown.

For those generations of young immigrants, life in another country can mean a double opportunity –twice the culture, the affection, sometimes the language–but it also offers a disjunctive in regards to national identity. When you've lived in two cities, between two countries, what's your country, what's your homeland, where's home?

These young immigrant men and women respond to those questions.


1. The “Dreamers” of another continent

They are 17, 18 and 21 years old. They are young immigrants who came to live in this country when they were two, two and a half, and five years of age. They have spent virtually their entire lives here: It is here where they have grown up, studied, made friends and have become part of their community. Their family came from another country and kept their traditions and pride of their origin; But when asked about their home, it is the country where they currently live.

This description could well be that of the young immigrants in the United States, the generation of which Dreamers are part of; However, Erick, Jhonatan and Jacky live in Spain. They arrived with their family from Quito, Ecuador, around 2000. The three are cousins; the mother of two of them and the father of the third are siblings, sharing the Armijos surname.

Spain has a similar migration pattern as the United States. In both countries, the percentage of the migrant population ranges between 13 and 14%. As in the United States, the arrival of migrants to Spain reached its “peak” in 2000; and before a decade had passed, things became difficult for this population due to the economic crisis. However, the changes made to the Spanish immigration law between 2000 and 2008 made it easier for most children who arrived as minors, so that today they have documents that allow them to live in the country legally, and in some cases, to obtain Spanish citizenship. This is a fundamental difference with the United States, where more than a million and a half Dreamers live without documents even though they have lived all their lives there.

Many of the families that came from countries like Ecuador, at a time when a visa was not required, obtained legal residence through a work contract, as established by Spanish legislation. Once legal residence was established, and thanks to a family reunification law, they were able to bring their children. This way, many of the families who arrived to work for a length of time have settled for a prolonged period without many hurdles; Many of their family members have already acquired Spanish citizenship, as is in the case of the Armijos. Despite this, the challenges they face in terms of integration and identity building are many.

As with all immigrant families, the first few years were difficult; but today, the three youth feel at ease and at home carrying on with their lives in Parla, a small town 20 kilometers from Madrid, which like others, it serves as a dormitory-city because the rents are lower than in the Spanish capital. Parla can be reached by traveling 30 minutes by train, the system named Renfe, which connects Madrid with nearby cities. For a decade, a significant number of the migrant population began to settle in this community, which today is comprised of 24% of foreign inhabitants, most of them from Mediterranean Africa and South America.

Of the three cousins, Erick, Jhonatan and Jacky, she is the only one who remembers fragments of her life in Ecuador. In the Spanish academia, a very well known study conducted by Rosa Aparicio, a researcher at the José Ortega and Gasset Institute surveys a large group of young immigrant children born both in Spain and abroad, concluded that most youth of this generation have managed to successfully integrate in the country, and that about half of those born outside identify themselves as Spaniards. But that is not the case of the Armijos cousins; When asked about which country they belong to, the three answer that it is Ecuador.

— I believe that it’s because since we were little, we have lived with people from Ecuador—Jhonatan begins to explain.

—It’s because it has been instilled in us that we are Ecuadorian —Jacky interrupts—. Even Spaniards themselves tell us: the fact that you have Spanish nationality documents does not mean that you are Spanish. Well, if they ask me, I feel more proud to say that I am Ecuadorian than being Spaniard.

— I also have friend like that —adds Erick—. I have a friend, his parents are French but he was born here, in Spain. He identifies more as French than Spanish.

In the living room of the house of one of their aunts, a space in which the sunlight filters through a window that faces the street, sitting in enormous couches, the three cousins speak of the experience of being migrants and about integrating in Spain’s social life.

—The way of interacting is different, the customs. They are colder; I think that I am also like that because since I was little I have been with Spanish friends —explains Jackie, dark-skinned, with long and dark hair—. Although in high school I hanged out with Latino friends, and yes, I was closer to them because we shared customs. And not only Ecuadorian: my best friend was Colombian, she had friends from Ukraine, Venezuela, Peru, and Dominican Republic. I try to treat everyone the same and I always try to maintain my way of thinking, my way of being, and my customs.

Today, they are four and a half million immigrants that live in Spain. Close to 10% are from Ecuadorian origin, and among them, 32% are under 30 years of age. The Armijos cousins are part of that population segment.

Erick has a white complexion, is thin, with straight dark hair and wears glasses. Like Jhonatan — with a robust body type, curly hair and light-colored eyes—, he pronounces the letters “c” and “z” with the Spanish accent. At the end of some sentances, he throws a very Spaniard-like “¿vale?”, (“Okay?”). He spent his childhood in a small town in Castilla, where he lived with other Spanish youth. Three years ago, the family moved to Madrid, and since then, he has made Latin American friends with whom, he says, he feels comfortable.

—When you are with other Spanish boys, they are more serious, and sometimes you keep things or phrases to yourself when talking, which with Latinos you can say and they understand, —says Erick—; for example, “¡que vaina!” (“what’s up?”), you know Latinos will understand you. Or if someone says, “ese es mi ñaño” (that is my ñaño”), you know he or she is from Ecuador; we call our brother naño. There are many things that you keep to yourself when speaking with Spaniards; when you speak with your Latin friends, it is easier to communicate.

Another thing that happens to Erick is that, without being conscious, when he is with his family, he pronounces the letters “c” and the “z” as “s”. When he is with his friends, he automatically changes the pronunciation.

Professor Aparicio's research on the children of immigrants also concludes that only 5% of them claim to have been discriminated against on occasion. In reply to the direct question “Have you ever felt discriminated against?”, Jhonatan, Erick and Jacky answer no. However, as the conversation continues, they begin to mention the things they see on a day-to-day basis. If in the Renfe a person boards without paying the ticket, someone would comment, “these Ecuadorians do not pay!”, without knowing if the person who does it is in fact of that nationality. If someone has dark skin, he is called nicknames like “panchito”, a pejorative term to describe Latin American people, or “conguito”, the name of a sweet whose packaging shows a black person with very thick lips.

The three of them agree that in everyday language, the term “Spaniard” is used to refer to a light-skinned person; it has more to do with the physical aspect than with nationality.

—One day I went out with some friends —says Jacky—. Here in Parla, as is known, there are many Latino people. We were walking on the street, my two Spanish friends, a white redhead and the other blonde, and I, short, brown-skinned. And the redhead when she looked around said: “Joder, not one fucking Spaniard”. And I said, “And I, I’m not Spanish?” She answered that she did not say it because of me, but that it was a comment because she did not see any Spaniards around; Because everyone around them had a Latin appearance, although many may have been born in Spain. You hear those comments and then I think: well, I’m Latina and you might as well get used to it.

—I’ve heard my friends say “damn Moroccans”, or that they mess with Colombia —Erick jumps—. I tell them what I think, that it’s wrong. If a Spaniard goes to Colombia, they would not like to be treated that way.

—I do not let them call me “panchita”, not even as a joke, —Jacky continues—. It’s as if I would say to them... I do not know... white! —the three of them laughed.

Although the three teenagers say that their identity is Ecuadorian, when asked about their home, all three respond without hesitation that it is in Spain.

—I like Ecuador, it’s your country and it always calls you, but my life is here —says Jhonatan—. My parents want to go back, I told them that I wouldn’t. I made myself at home in Spain.

—I also think of it only for vacation —Erick adds—. I have my life planned, my things here, and there are things my family talks about, the lack of work, insecurity. I'm not ashamed of Ecuador, I’m very proud, but not to live there. In another country, yes.

In Jacky’s case, although at some point she thought about her future in Spain, today the possibility of returning is not out of the question.

—My mom wants to return because my brother is over there, also my uncles, and my best friend is in Colombia. Maybe tomorrow I will say no, but today I do want to return.

2. Life without papers

Estefany is 18 years old. She is studying to be a nursing assistant, and in two years, she will complete her studies. The problem is that once she finishes, she will not be able to work because, although she has lived in Madrid for the past nine years, she does not have her legal residency documents.

Estefany and her sister Scarleth arrived in Spain from Honduras almost five years after their mother Gilma Martínez. In 2004, Gilma came to Madrid to work and to send money to her daughters, who stayed in her city, La Esperanza, under the care of her mother. The last time Gilma saw her daughters before they came, they were two, and four and one half years old. When she saw them again, they hardly recognized her: they were seven and nine years old the day they arrived with their brother at the Madrid airport.

Gilma could not make use of the family reunification law because she lacked residency documents. When she arrived, she began to work as an “interna”, a term used for a domestic worker who stays at all times in the house where they work. She cared for the elderly and children of wealthy families, but she never had a contract, so she could not process her residency. Her daughters arrived as tourists and stayed here.

The following years were difficult. Being a single mother with her two girls who recently arrived and a third one on her way, the economic crisis hit her head on.

—I was without documents half the time I’ve been here, working “en negro”, —she says, referring to work that does not offer a formal contract— and therefore I have not been able to regularize the papers of the girls. First, I worked as an interna, then as an externa —going to the houses for a few hours—, but if I did not earned a salary of 1300 euros, I did not meet the requirements to process their DNI.

Gilma refers to the minimum amount of income that the head of the household must prove in order to process the regularization of legal status of his or her children: 799 euros for their first child and 266 euros more for each additional child.

According to figures of the International Labor Organization (ILO), in Spain there are about 750,000 domestic workers, of whom 90% are women. The majority are foreigners, mainly from Latin American countries. The average salary fluctuates between 650 and 900 euros per month. That amount, of course, is not enough to regularize a family.

—I'd like to work, I don’t like to be like this —says Estefany trying to hide her discomfort with her mother—. Sometimes I get mad at her because I say she should have submitted the papers on time, it’s not my fault. But later, I get over it.

Gilma then reiterates that the situation was difficult before, but that things are better now.

—I have a couple of contracts now. Half the time I work under contract and the other half “en negro”, but I will look for an immigration lawyer to fix the situation, at least hers. Because now we are better, now is when I’m starting to enjoy the time with my daughters, of what I have, of economic stability. And here, we have the freedom to walk in the street. They leave whenever they want, asking for my permission, of course, but without danger. In Honduras, you can’t do that.

For Estefany, that is not for discussion: returning to Honduras is out of the question.

—My home is Madrid, I feel Madrilenian. I see my life here, I see myself studying here, working, living, even getting married here. I see myself here, or in any other country in Europe; perhaps England. I don’t see my life in Honduras.

3. Crossing the sea hidden in a truck

He arrived at 14. Having lived in Tangier, Morocco, his first image of Europe was the interior of a warehouse in a town of Granada: a couple of workers opened a truck carrying tomatoes and, hidden underneath, they found four young men. They called the police. Three of them were deported. Karim, due to his age, was taken to a juvenile detention center. Welcome to Spain.

Mohammed Karim Boûry is 25 years old and lives in Madrid. His family has a stable situation in his hometown, and before migrating he was studying, there was a plan for his future. But it was 2006, many of the youth would talk about what it was like on the other side of the sea, and he and his cousin wanted to know. One day they hid in a truck; the truck, boarded on a ferry crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, then arriving in Algeciras, and from there in Granada. When they found him, the authorities contacted his family in Morocco and told them he would be deported. Karim did not want to return; He wanted to stay in Spain, to seek a future without limitations outside his village. He escaped from the center in Granada and arrived at the train station, asked for money, and managed to buy a ticket to Madrid.

—In Madrid I turned myself into the municipal police —he recalls with a big smile upon his dark face with a sharp nose, lively eyes, thick eyebrows, dark beard and mustache—. Your fellow countrymen tell you a little about what you have to do; I told them that I had no family, that I was hungry and that I had nowhere to sleep. It’s the first thing I learned in Spanish —he says, laughing.

Karim was taken to a childcare center, where he remained for almost four years. According to Spanish legislation, migrant minors traveling alone have the right to protection, to housing, and basic services and education, until they turn 18. Karim started going to school, quickly learned the language, and soon felt at home.

—It was very hard at first because there were not that many Moroccans; I grew up with people from everywhere, but more with Spaniards, because here, when they detain a child who has broken the law —“and sometimes parents denounce their own children”, he says matter-of-factly—, “since they cannot take them to jail, they place them in a juvenile center. They also had problems but we understood each other, we fit in, we were like a family. Within six months, I learned to speak Spanish more or less, and “guay”(“cool”) —he says proudly—. But if I had come as an adult, seeking a life without papers, it would have cost me much more.


Unlike the migration flow that comes from Latin America, whose climax occurred between 2000 and 2004, Moroccan migration to Spain is a phenomenon that dates back at least 30 years. In 2000, when the Ecuadorian population began to arrive —the largest Latin American community in Spain: 450,000 people, 10% of the total immigrant population— there was already a Moroccan community of almost half a million. It is estimated that there are currently 750,000 Moroccan immigrants in this country, the majority between the ages of 20 and 40.

Abdelaziz Allaouzi, coordinator of the Ibn Battuta Foundation in Madrid, an organization that helps immigrants to protect their rights, he considers that the greatest challenge facing Spain, and in general of Europe, is to stop seeing migrants in terms of employment and to begin to see them as citizens.

—The problems we face today are the same of 60 years ago. They are not only the problems of Spain, they are also the problems of Germany, or of France, because when Europe proposed to bring labor workers to cover the scarcity locally or nationally, they did not think of people, they thought of workers —explains the activist—. They forgot that these workers have beliefs, they have different ways of seeing life, customs, traditions, values, and that is where conflicts of a multicultural nature began. In this regard, Europe has not taken enough measures to include these communities as European citizens; it has always left them behind.

Allaouzi considers that, in the particular case of Spain, those who come from Arab countries face an even more difficult situation than those from Latin America, because in addition to immigrant status, there are two more factors: cultural and religious differences.

According to his interpretation, the opportunities granted to immigrants from Latin America since 2000, in contrast to the limitations for those arriving from African countries, have to do with an intention to “rebalance immigration” launched by the government of then president José María Aznar. An example: to date, immigrants from Ibero-American countries can apply for Spanish citizenship after having lived as residents in the country for two years. For immigrants from another country, including those from Morocco, the largest immigrant population in Spain, it must be ten years.

—Many times, those who govern consider that there is a greater understanding with the Latin Americans because they have the same values or similar traditions. It’s a mistake. Our struggle has to be between all groups because the objective is the same: that an immigrant is a citizen with all rights and responsibilities. The European Commission itself defines integration as “a bidirectional process that requires the efforts of both parties”, but in practice, this is not the case: the immigrant is required to adapt to reality, but no effort is made to understand the demands or the needs of the citizen of foreign origin.

Karim spent three and a half years in the juvenile center until he turned 18. When he got out, he found himself in the situation facing millions like him: being an immigrant without full rights is a life in a constant uphill battle. Thanks to the intervention of activist organizations that advocated on his behalf, he was not sent to Morocco. With the possibility of staying in the country, but without documents, it was impossible for the young man to get ahead.

—When you are in the care center, you feel integrated into Spanish society —he explains—. You can study, live with everyone in equality. But at 18, it’s another reality. They do not deport you if organizations stick up for you when you have arrived as a minor; but they don’t give you a work permit, and then, how do you survive? If you go to jail, it’s full of immigrants without papers, because they have tried to eat and have stolen a loaf of bread. That’s a trap.

With the support of those who knew him, he came into contact with non-governmental organizations that create spaces for young men in this situation: in collective housing, adult accommodation centers, also called “transition centers”, these young people get help to start a life on their own, to get a job, a mid-term a contract, and with that, to regularize their situation. Many of these initiatives emerge from civil society, and other programs are supported by autonomous government levels —the Community of Madrid, the Generalitat of Catalonia–, or even from local municipalities, such as recent governments in cities of Madrid and Barcelona.

—In Catalonia, for example, there are better resources than in Madrid with respect to the Moroccan community, by far — explains Allaouzi. In Barcelona, the capital, is the largest concentration of Moroccan immigrants, about 300—. Here in Spain, it is Catalonia and the Basque Country that have a different sensitivity to immigration in relation to other communities. In that regard, they are more European than Madrid.

Karim does not want to return to Morocco. He has returned to visit his family, “but over time I have been learning about life, and when I returned, I realized that my level is higher than the people there. Here, for me, it has been like a university, I’m taking a career”, he asserts. After several years, he has made an independent life in Madrid and is part of an artistic collective, La Tabacalera, installed in a huge industrial site in the neighborhood of Lavapiés. There, he organizes events with other immigrants and composes rap lyrics, in which he talks about his experience and his identity, the one he has built in the decade that followed his trip by sea in the back of a truck.

—I consider myself European and Spaniard because my life is here, I have my home here, I have my friends, I eat and sleep here. And if one day I am in Morocco, I am Moroccan. And if one day I leave, for example, to the United States, I will be American. I, where I go, I will be of that place.


* A project by Eileen Truax. This series was originally published in Hoy Los Ángeles, a Los Angeles Times Media Group company. This project was made possible with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

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Eileen Truax


Eileen Truax

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