At first glance, London is just like many of its European counterparts. Buzzing, diverse and rich with culture. But a sunny afternoon spent people watching in a West London restaurant served to confirm my suspicions. London is full of people – Spanish people. Young men and women taking in the sights, sipping on pints of beer and experiencing what London has to offer. However, it soon becomes clear that – a few eager souvenir carriers aside – they are not tourists. They are immigrants looking to change their lives and make London their home away from home.
British politicians have scared the public with the unequivocal consequences which Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK would bring on our daily existence. But the truth is that there is a far bigger migration underway, which rather surprisingly comes from some of Europe’s oldest members. In the first quarter of 2012, 5,350 Spaniards and 5,370 Italians were allocated national insurance numbers in London. Year on year the number of national insurance registrations for Spaniards across Britain has soared by 25 per cent.
Spaniards, like the other PIGS (Portugal, Italy and Greece) are moving to London because the opportunities on offer far outweigh those at home. Spain’s dismal unemployment rate increased to 25.93 per cent in the first quarter of 2014 from 25.73 per cent in the last quarter of 2013. Figures from the Guardian’s Data Blog 2012 show that there were 71,000 Spaniards living in London but the Spanish embassy estimates that there could five times as many studying, working or looking for a job. However, Spanish immigration to the UK is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it dates back to the reign of Henry VIII, whose first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was Spanish. Spaniards from poor rural areas have been coming to London since the immediate aftermath of the second World War and continued to do so until Franco’s death in November 1975.
Pedro Pérez Mósquera was born in October 1936, a difficult year for Spain as it became embroiled in a bloody civil war. Born and raised in rural Galicia, Pedro was the youngest of seven children. His parents, both farmers, worked hard to provide for their family and although Pedro insists that they “never went hungry,” he admits that times were tough. After he married his girlfriend, from a neighbouring village, the newlyweds decided to make a life for themselves away from Spain’s frontiers. The couple arrived in Dorset in 1960 following a 48 hour journey and settled quickly. After a short stint in the countryside, Pedro and his wife moved to London where they worked a series of jobs to make ends meet. “I came to London looking for a better life,” he says.
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When Pedro returned to Galicia in 1993, he encountered “a completely different country.
“Spain was booming. The construction sector had taken a life of it’s own and there was a real opportunity to make money. It was nothing like the Spain I left behind in the 1960s. I was shocked,” he says.
Spain’s economy had certainly improved following its entry into the EU in 1986 and people had less reasons to leave, with migration levels decreasing as a result. Once the property bubble burst during the 2008 recession, Spaniards were once again faced with the possibility of emigrating. As 3000 jobs are slashed daily, a record only beaten by Greece, an increasing number of well-educated youngsters are leaving Spain. They are leaving, not because they want to, but because they have to. “No nos vamos, nos echan,” which translates as “We are not leaving, they are throwing us out,” is a widespread slogan heard amongst young Spaniards.
Lucia Vázquez Blanco, 36, a fully qualified CAD technician originally from Galicia is part of this new wave of immigration. Since moving to London two years ago, Lucia has been working as a cleaner in one of London’s busiest tourist attractions. She is the perfect example of how Spain is loosing a generation of well-educated workers to low-skilled jobs abroad. Leaving home was not an easy decision, but following a series of temporary work contracts and with her boyfriend on unemployment benefits, Lucia and her partner decided that it was time for a change.
Her frustration quickly surfaces when I ask about her job. Lucia points out that she feels like she is “stuck in a vicious circle.”
“My situation is just as bad as it was when I first got here. I struggle to find a better job because my English is not up to scratch. In order to improve my English, I would have to spend quite a lot of money on private lessons and at the moment that is not an option,” says Lucia.
There is no denying that she is a hard-worker. She explains how she studied to become a CAD technician whilst working various jobs . Even with the qualifications and work experience behind her, Lucia tells me that it is difficult to find a job in London. “I don’t think that Spanish titles are given the same weight as British ones,” she says.
Work aside, it is evident that Lucia is battling home-sickness. We begin to talk about Spain in all its glory and exchange childhood and teenage memories over fits of laughter. I can see a twinkle in her eye as she reminisces about happier times. Unfortunately, that beacon of hope disappears when I bring up the country’s precarious situation. Lucia’s anger, like most of her contemporaries, is directed at Spain’s politicians which she credits with destroying her country and subsequently turning her life upside down.
As our conversation draws to a close, I tentatively ask about the possibility of her returning home. It is at this point that the anger and frustration turn to sadness.
“I often think about going back but I change my mind depending on whether I have had a good or bad day here in London. My job really gets me down and sometimes I doubt that I can go on for much longer. At the same time, I feel very lucky because London has given me the chance to start a new life.”
Although Lucia’s future in London is still somewhat uncertain, she is determined to make the most of her new life here, exemplifying how optimism still reigns amongst some of London’s Spaniards.
Samuel Johnson famously said that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Jordi Lage Martinez, 33, a civil engineer from Barcelona agrees. Jordi arrived in London three years ago and he admits that his move was partly motivated by London’s “endless leisure possibilities.”
“I moved to London because the construction sector was very badly hit by the economic recession in Spain, but also because I set myself the challenge of improving my English and working on international projects,” says Jordi.
Like Lucia, Jordi is a go-getter. Highly energetic and clearly passionate about life, his experience in London has been a positive one.
“Everyone should live in London at least once in their life,” he says.
Jordi has experience in living away from his native Barcelona, which he clearly adores. With numerous projects under his belt, Jordi has worked all over Spain, and is convinced that there are plenty of job offers available to people from outside the UK.
“I think it’s easy to find work if you are qualified and have previous experience in a similar position to the one that you are applying for.
“I have been treated extremely well by all my colleagues. They have helped me from the onset and are very patient with me as English is not my first language. I feel much more valued and respected than I did when I was working in Spain.”
Jordi willingly shares anecdotes about his life in Spain and describes what seemed to be a blissful existence. His reaction about a possible return, however, is met with firm reluctance.
“I feel one hundred per cent Spanish. Spain has become my holiday destination because all my family and friends live there but professionally speaking, I know that it is not the place for me.”
David López Delgado, 28, decided to follow his girlfriend to London a couple of years ago, following a series of unsuccessful attempts at Spain’s notoriously difficult public exams to become a policeman.
David has spent most of his working years in the hospitality business and has witnessed the struggle between London’s long-established community and the new wave of immigration first-hand. He is critical about the way which some Spanish business owners operate.
“I think that some Spanish business owners in London take advantage of people arriving from Spain. In my opinion, they make you work very long hours and pay very poorly,” he says.
David and Jordi have one thing in common. They both believe that finding work in London is easier than back home, but David is quick to share advice with any prospective immigrants considering crossing the Channel.
“Living in London is tough. Rent is very high and jobs often pay the minimum wage. Don’t be surprised if you end up calculating every penny in order to make it through the month,” says David.
Ivan Villar Riveiro, 33, worked as a chef at the same restaurant where David was a manager. He decided to come to London two years ago, but hopes to return as he believes that things back home “have to improve.”
With a platter of olives laid before us, it is not long before we discuss various issues affecting our friends and family back home. We fail to understand how a country so rich in primary resources can nestle all its eggs in one basket. The basket being the construction and tourism sectors and the eggs – well, us, the people.
Spain’s history, often misunderstood, is complex and it seems that the country’s relentless desire to catch up to its European neighbours has taken it’s toll. A very young democracy by western standards, Spain has transformed itself at breath-taking speed. Perhaps it was this very transformation that has caused the loss of a generation.
“Spain has suffered since the introduction of the euro, most items have gone up in price significantly and I don’t think that the transition was manoeuvred efficiently,’ says Ivan.
“You will feel more Spanish once you are in London”
Leaving one’s country is never an easy task, but it seems that the new Spanish Armada is here to stay. Although nostalgia and frustration seem to be the common thread uniting most of London’s Spaniards, it is also very true that they are all grateful for one thing and one thing only: they have a job. Simple as that.