Tuesday, 10 May 2011
El Ejido

Yesterday, I did an interview with J., "el de los caballos." He was a charming young man. 23 years old. Born and raised in La Aldeílla. G. had suggested I interview him, as he was his favorite former student and, G. says, a natural leader. He claims to have told J. when he was still in ESO that he would be the mayor one day. Sure enough, during our interview, J. told me he is on the list as a PP candidate for mayor! I would vote for him if I could, even being part of the PP.

I had waited for him to arrive for our 1pm appointment outside in the sun, next to the side gate entrance of the school. I sat there nervously making notes for myself -- I felt nervous! -- and a few of the teachers wandered out to smoke. One of the P.E. teachers, an imposing, tall, boom-voiced but good-hearted guy (the students are afraid of him), announced, "No hay nada como ser guiri y venir a España a pasar el año!" I laughed, "Qué conste, qué conste." "Luego hablarás con tus amigos y dirás, 'Sí, mucho trabajo, mucho trabajo.'" I laughed again. "Yo me voy un año pa' allá," he said. "Eso, vente a Arizona," I said. "Arizona?" "Sí, allí vivo yo." (I was surprised he didn't already know that by now!) And he started talking about "Arizona Baby" (that is, "Raising Arizona") as the cantinera and a couple more teachers sauntered out to join them for a smoke.

Within a few minutes, a tall, lanky young guy in a freshly pressed striped shirt, rushed up. "Oye! El de los caballos!" exclaimed the music teacher. The man smiled and shook hands, spotted me and we approached each other to give our greeting kisses. He was also freshly shaven and his hair was slick with gel. He had that open-faced expression of someone who is not afraid of life, an infectious joviality and warmth that immediately made you want to be in his presence, hear what he had to say. I noticed during our interview that only his fingernails were dirty, likely permanently stained with soil. "He venido corriendo!" he said. "Nada más llegar del invernadero, me he duchao y he subío pa' 'ca." ('I came as fast as I could! As soon as I got home from the greenhouse, I showered and came on up.') He towered over me by nearly two feet (younger generations of Spaniards are noticeably taller than their parents and grandparents!)), but with the demeanor of a gentle giant: perhaps a function of his youth, but also of his gift for being with people. I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like him before.

He said he'd wanted to attend equestrain school in Cádiz -- thus his descriptor, "el de los caballos" -- but he hadn't been accepted, so he'd gone to work with his family in their greenhouses after having finished ESO (high school).

He is closely involved with community activities, through his hermandad as well as through the 'asociación cultural' that he is active in. He is the very *first* person who's expressed a positive, optimistic outlook on the pueblo, as well as the youth, as well as the cultural mix. At the same time, I found him to be realistic when describing the difficulties facing people in the area: a lack of support from Town Hall, a lack of dynamism among those in power that therefore keeps most things "estancadas." He himself works in agriculture -- his family owns greenhouses -- and so he also sees how lack of infrastructural and financial support affects people's livelihoods in the profession that is most important to the region.

There were no even remotely racist overtones in his comments! Most people start out trying to maintain an even tone, a tone of acceptance toward Moroccans, but then lapse into, "But they don't want to integrate. They stay separate. They have their own culture." It's an oft-repeated litany. He noted that, yes, the culture and religion mean that the Spanish and Moroccan communities are often separated, but he pointed to actions that indicate possibilities for change: First, he said that over Christmas, businesses in town put speakers in their doorways and play villancicos (Christmas carols). They give a donation to the hermandad sponsoring the speakers, and members of the hermandad come and hang the speakers and get them hooked up properly. He said this year, several Moroccan business owners participated! [I wish I'd been here for Christmas, to see it.] Second, he said that at the cultural association, a handful of Moroccan boys sometimes come to activities and meetings. They don't come regularly, he said, but they do come occasionally. There was a Moroccan girl who came once, too, but she was already 14 or 15, and so her parents did not want her hanging out in the evenings or with boys, so she only went once. "Muy poquito a poco," he said, "pero no creo que [la relación entre españoles y marroquíes] se vaya a peor." ('Very much little by little, but I don't think it's getting worse.') He did not mention the riots in 2000, and I did not ask. Perhaps I should have, but I admit I was basking a bit in his Obama-effect (I should note, too, that his political talent seems more a feature of his authenticity than cunning or savvy; I've seen and heard enough politicians to know when they're being politicians, and J. had a youthful genuineness, and a bit of naivity, to him). I think it's significant that he did not bring up the riots on his own. To a person, everyone else I've talked to in or about the area -- including people younger than him -- have mentioned them. They still serve as a reference point in local memory, for fear, for violence, and for division. When I get a chance to talk to him again, I will ask him why he did not mention them. Perhaps it's a conscious decision.

He did, however, mention that he has eight Moroccan men working for him, and they ask him sometimes, "Por qué vamos a una discoteca, estamos arreglados y todo, y no nos dejan entrar?" ('How come we can go to a discotheque, all clean and dressed up, and they won't let us in?') He said that he agreed with them that this wasn't fair and couldn't continue long-term. He attributed some of this treatment to the fact that immigration is so new in the area, and that people would have to change the way they treated immigrants.