12 May 2011, Thursday
El Ejido

I met A. outside Caja Murcia on the Boulevard at 5:20pm this afternoon. We’d agreed to meet there then go out to the day center. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure where we were heading at the time… I find this happens to me often, perhaps a result of trying to absorb and manage a great deal of information coming in from different venues, people, times, places, contexts… me lío. That is, I knew we were going to meet B. at Almería Acoge, and A. had been nice enough to set up the meeting ahead of time so that I could talk with her. I knew, too, that he was a volunteer with the organization and was closely involved with their efforts. I wasn’t entirely clear on what those efforts were. I wasn’t clear on where their office was, and I imagined that he’d accompany me there to take a look at the offices and learn about the programs/services they offered to immigrants. Now that I remember our first conversation about this, he had asked whether I wanted to visit where the immigrants lived – shacks amidst greenhouses -- and had mentioned that he’d have to check with B. to make sure it was ok, because the residents, understandably, did not like people coming to look at them like zoo animals. I had told him that I preferred to talk to B. to learn about what the organization did, but that I wasn’t particularly interested in snooping around people’s living quarters. (I now remember these details, and I made notes at the time of our conversation, but before we met up this afternoon, I remembered none of this. Information overload? Linguistic inaccuracy that leads me to misunderstand or not fully understand what people tell me? A bit of both, likely.)

I was sitting on a step next to the bank, in the wind tunnel that ran between the main boulevard and the street immediately north, and I was idly reviewing the day’s notes, filling in a detail or two and trying not to stare uncomfortably back at the older woman and her daughter who’d just sat down on a bench opposite me and were staring uncomfortably at me. Moments later, I heard, “Maisa!” behind me, and I turned to see A. and his son (a 7-year-old, all kinds of cute, dressed in white basketball shorts and a blue t-shirt) standing next to a doorway on the left-hand side of the wind tunnel. I jumped up to meet them. “Maisa viene de Estados Unidos,” A. told his son, “y habla inglés perfectamente. Te imaginas? Sabes que tu nombre en inglés sería igual, pero el mío no.” He turned to unlock the door, “Aquí vivimos nosotros.” We headed into the elevator just inside, and went down one level to the parking garage. A. strapped his son into the back seat, and I got into the front, on the passenger’s side, and we headed out. A. told me his son had a problem pronouncing his Rs, but that in English he did just fine. “Fíjate,” I told the boy, “yo cuando era pequeña no podía decir las erres en inglés, y decía, por ejemplo, ‘motho’ y ‘fatho.’” “Ahí estamos, con el logopedo,” said A. “Bueno, vamos a Las Norias,” he said, as we wended through town and out toward the interstate.

For my benefit (I believe), A. asked his son how many kids from other countries were in his class at school. “Bueno,” said the boy, thinking. “Di los nombres,” said his dad. He named four people, and his dad said, “Pero serán todos españoles, no?” “No,” said the boy, “que X habla ma[t]oquí y sus padres son de Ma[t]uecos.” “Sí, pero porque son sus padres y son de allí, pero él habrá nacido aquí, si lo has conocido desde que teníais tres años los dos. Y son buenos en la escuela? Hacen bien la tarea?” “Bueno…” said the boy. “Pero sus padres no pueden ayudarles, no? Si no saben bien la lengua, no les pueden ayudar. Harías tú bien la tarea si no te ayudáramos, o tendrías muchas faltas? Llevarías la tarea perfecta o tendrías faltas?” The boy gave a non-committal response from the back seat. We stopped for gas, and while A. was outside filling up the tank, his son asked me how to say “gasolina” in English. “Gasoline,” I said. “Es casi lo mismo.” “Claro, por la falta de una ‘a’,” he noted.

A. got back in the car and we continued on our way. He complained about overhearing conversations that rife with racism and disrespect. He said that while his son attends tennis lessons, he sits in the bleachers and reads or grades papers, and he overhears the talk of the other parents. “No hay nada bonito que sale de sus bocas,” he said. “No pueden decir nada positivo.” And what’s worse, he said, is that their kids just soak up all that hate. He said there was a little girl sitting next to a woman who was spewing really horrible ideas this afternoon, and even though she was playing her video game, he had the impression that she was soaking it all up. “Eso se mama en casa.”

The day center sat in the midst of roads that wound among greenhouses for miles and miles: two low concrete buildings painted white and off-white, with a baby fig tree and a transplanted olive tree in front. The woman in charge of the day center, B., is herself a transplant from Bilbao, and arrived in Almería in 2001. She receives clients in the office and helps keep an eye on the men’s residence, which is attached, next door. She and her colleague also make trips out to the chabolas among the greenhouses to see if people need help with legal or medical issues, as well as to provide food, in critical cases. Most of those ‘asentamientos’ have no running water.

If I heard correctly, the Almería Acoge facility is new as of July of last year, and the men’s residence opened in December 2010. The facility has a laundry room, as well as showers, a work room, and a classroom.

The residence has room for 28 men, and they are allowed to stay from three to six months, but not longer. B. told me the men who stay there come to them from basically three sources:
a) They are sent by the Ministry of Immigration, having been rescued/caught in cayucos and pateras, or underneath trucks, attempting to enter the country; they are sent to Almería Acoge when the Red Cross or government agencies can’t tend to them.
b) They come from the surrounding areas, from shanties they’ve set up on their own using discarded plastic and wooden pallets. She showed me a picture of one fairly sophisticated structure that was built entirely with wooden pallets, had several rooms, as well as a spot to shower, with solar-heated water and a small ditch for run-off. Flattened cardboard boxes were used to insulate the pallet walls. She and A. said that the sophistication of these housing structures has grown, but that periodically, the Guardia Civil has been known to go in and flatten or burn them. Moroccan immigrants are the most common builders of these structures, although non-Roma Rumanians also live in some of them; she said Sub-Saharan Africans tend not to build chabolas but to live in what are commonly called “cortijos”—even though they are not really cortijos, she said; they are abandoned buildings and sub-standard structures.
c) Finally, she said that people come to the day center/residence after living on the street for a time; they have their papers in order, but they have nowhere to live, can’t pay rent, or even choose not to for a time, in order to save up as much money as possible.

B. noted an increase in the arrival of Moroccan women in the last 2-3 years. She said that up until recently, the immigration has been almost entirely male. The women who’ve started to appear in the area of the greenhouses are those who’ve chosen not to go back home after working the season in Huelva’s strawberry fields. She said it is claimed that 90% of female seasonal workers return home, and upon contracting them, employers make a point of hiring women who are married and have children—in an attempt to ensure that they will return home. However, with 10% who decide to stay, this means about 5,000 women each year have to find a place and way to live out the rest of the year in Spain. One way of handling the situation has been to form a new couple with a man living here—also a natural result of having un-partnered men and women living in the same area—and to go live with him, even have a child with him, in order to create a less vulnerable living situation. In extreme cases where one or both of the members of the couple already has a family, they may decide to move away, to the city or further away, to avoid problems or reprisals from family members.

She and A. told me that, at least in Almería, it’s become harder than ever for immigrants to get their papers. It used to be that providing proof of three-years’-worth of working here was enough to get the residency process started. Now, Extranjería is asking for one-year contracts, which for people working as seasonal laborers is nearly impossible to get. An alternative to the one-year contract is to get an employer to “cotizar” 206 days of work per year, but the employer is then responsible for this amount, and if they don’t follow through, they are liable for a fine of 10k euros. Naturally, employers tend not to embrace this option, and so it has also become harder than ever for people who already have a work/residency permit to get it renewed.

I asked if these difficulties had anything to do with the ubiquitous “crisis” everyone’s always talking about. Yes, they told me, but it’s also campaign politics, “Y aquí en España siempre estamos de pre-campaña.” (Sounds familiar, I thought to myself.)

I asked if the crisis had decreased the number of immigrants arriving. B. said a bit, perhaps, but as far as Morocco is concerned, that’s just one piece of the immigration puzzle, anyway, and Sub-Saharan immigrants continue to arrive, even though Moroccans remain the largest single national group.

Both A. and B. mentioned that immigrants can go into debt when they decide to visit home because they make sure to buy enough gifts for everyone, and these gifts add up to hundreds or thousands of euros. “Para la cultura Africana, volver con un fracaso es aun más difícil que para nosotros,” B. noted. For this reason, immigrants having a hard time have told her that they won’t share that information with their families back home.

On the political plane, B. said that the media has created a situation in which “la seguridad ciudadano se vende como lo más perjudicado por la inmigración.” The equation ‘immigrant = delinquent’ has long since been established, and hardly anyone questions it. She asked us if we’d heard the PP’s political ads. I have, and they start out, “Estamos hartos de tanto robos…” and they end with a promise for safety and security. The implicit allusion, I thought when I first heard the radio ad version, was, ‘Oh, they’re talking about immigrants.’ That seems to be B.’s understanding, too. (A. told me in the car ride on the way over that the PSOE was actually the first party to benefit from popularizing and politicizing that equation. He also said that the current mayor of El Ejido (he’s from the PAL) – the same one who’s been found guilty of fraud and has been spending time in jail – is using the same message to let people know that he hasn’t changed a wit since 2000, a bald reference to his negligent response to the Spanish-Moroccan riots. A. said that if he loses, it will only be because people will have come to see him as a jailbird; he’s not at all convinced he’ll lose.)

B. said the media has managed to popularize three basic stereotypes, particularly of Moroccan men:
a) They are thiefs: She argued that the first conclusion people jump to when news of a greenhouse robbery airs is that the perpetrators are immigrants. If a set of water pumps or a mass of copper wire’s been swiped from a property, then these are not crimes of necessity; they are something else. There’s another type of robbery that happens, when the plastic on a greenhouse is sliced open, and someone’s filched peppers or whatever happens to be growing there – “el jamón que se había tendido allí para secar,” A. added – then these are not thefts that are particularly worrisome. They are likely carried out by people who are hungry and do not have the means to get more food.

b) They are aggressive: Since 2000, A. said, there’s been a steady effort to replace Moroccan workers with Sub-Saharan, Eastern European, or Latin American workers because of the idea that the latter are more docile and more submissive. I asked later in the interview if there was documentation that they knew of that tracked this shift. They said no, that documentation was very thin in general because employers prefer not to have to deal with contracts and paperwork. A Moroccan man who works with B., however, has told her that greenhouse owners have told him things to the effect of, “We want more like you” – he is from the south of Morocco, and he is dark-skinned – “the Morrocans cause too many problems, protest too much, demand too much.”

c) That immigrant men, because they come to the country alone, because they are single, because they don’t have families, are continually raping women. “Claro,” A. said sarcastically, “hay 5 mil violaciones por día.”

Our conversation turned to fear. I told them that among the most striking things I’d noted from my interviews and observations was a generalized sense of fear (“un ambiente generalizado de miedo”). B. agreed: “Pero de todos a todos,” she said. “La gente del pueblo tiene miedo al inmigrante, y el inmigrante tiene miedo a la gente del pueblo y a la policía. Es una rueda que se retroalimenta.” She described how scared some men have been to go into town to use the phone or go to the grocery store, or whatever. They’re afraid to go on their own because some of them have told her about their experiences walking into town – this was in 2001, right after she arrived, and a year after the riots – and having the Spaniards on the street stop, turn, and stare at them, forming a threatening circle around them, too. So, when they go into town from the greenhouses, they go in small groups, a group of five, say, and then the reaction of the townspeople is to say, “Claro, míralos, como van todos juntos,” and they are received as a threat. She told the story of a young man who had all of his papers in order but who was petrified of going to Almería on the bus, alone, to pick up his passport (which he needed to access other social and civic services). He begged B. to go with him and take her in his car.

“No hay espacios naturales de encuentro,” she said. There’s nowhere for people to run into eachother and get to know one another, because it’s the face-to-face contact that changes opinions—that’s why people will say things like, ‘Oh, not him, he’s nice, but the rest of them…’ “No hay asociaciones mixtas,” A. added.

B. noted that in schools, the role of the intercultural mediator was absolutely fundamental to changing this dynamic. She said the situation is complex, that there are parents who’ve never been to school. With the immigrant students, too, and so a mother might come to school to pick up her child’s grades, she might even meet with the teacher, and listen and nod and smile through an entire meeting, but she has no idea what’s being said or how the school system works or anything. A. added that part of the issue had to do with the different cultural paradigms at work in these situations: Moroccan kids (esp. boys) are in the street all day long. It’s what they do, it’s where they spend their time, where they socialize. (And I think the implicit suggestion was that the school asks students to do otherwise, to be inside, to follow certain rules, and so the issue of school is not really something that’s become a priority for certain families.

“Pero esto tampoco nos lo planteamos hace 25 años,” B. interjected. And, she added, some educators need to learn to understand exactly what they’re saying and asking when they talk about their immigrant students. She said that one of her staff members, an intercultural mediator at an area school, had recently been asked to write a letter “a las familias de los niños negros, porque huelen mal.” Her staff member did not do it, “y es más, yo te prohíbo que lo hagas,” B. remembered telling her. She said that what the mediator had to do instead was try to get the teacher who’d requested that communication to understand exactly what she was saying and why it was problematic. “Hay dos niños en uno de mis clases que huelen mal,” A. offered, “y se llaman [Spanish surnames] y [Spanish surnames]. O sea que…”

I asked about the operations of the center and how they found/approached clients. Two ways, B. said:
a) By visiting housing areas around and within the greenhouses; the Acoge staff are no strangers, even though the same immigrants may not always be around. They are known and welcomed by word of mouth. She makes visits with her Moroccan staff member, and between the two of them, since he is a man, they are able to visit most people who need attention. Her presence helps when there are only women at home, and his presence helps linguistically, she said, because even though she’s studied Arabic, she’s not really able to communicate in it. They perform a mediating role, making sure people’s medical cards are current, as well as any other necessary documentation; they try to facilitate communication where needed; sometimes they offer temporary help with food or money. They ask people to tell them their situations. The residence center itself, however, is only for men, not for women.
b) On the other hand, an immigrant can approach them, and they offer the same sorts of support and tailor objectives to each person’s situation. B. told of one young man who’s doing an internship at a seed plant in Pampanico. If all goes well, he has the possibility of getting a long-term contract position there. They also offer Spanish classes for men, as well as workshops in gardening and other topics. The residents help maintain the installations and the grounds. We walked around after the interview and looked at the cacti and herbs they’d planted around the buildings.
She said in general they try to help men develop life skills, including doing laundry, cooking, and sharing domestic chores and spaces, so that they will be prepared to move out on their own and take care of themselves. Most men whom they work with are between the ages of 18-30; over half are Moroccan, and the rest are from Ivory Coast, Gabón… there was a handful of Algerian residents a while back, she said.

80 percent of people in the area work “sin papeles,” she said.

I asked about The Guardian piece published/broadcast in February of this year. It had received sharp criticism from residents and colleagues in El Ejido as being one-sided. Both B. and A. agreed that the depiction was unbalanced. ‘If you want to find cases like those described, you will. It’s true that what’s described in that report does occur, but what it doesn’t talk about is how the English market and European policy promotes this situation, creates demand for cheap produce, allows this exploitation. It’s very easy to say that the Almerian farmers are racist and that they take advantage of immigrants. It’s true that some of them are, that some of them do, but this doesn’t solve anything. This is an accusation, an expose that goes nowhere and simply creates more anger and more resentment.’ They stressed that, as far as their association was concerned, they were 100% committed to the idea of integrating Spaniards and immigrants together. ‘You can’t go to someone and tell them, Hey, you’re racist and exploiting people. They’ll reject what you’re saying. They won’t listen to you,’ A. said. ‘It’s the same with our kids in the classroom. I can’t go to them and accuse them of being racist, or they’ll never listen to me again.’ ‘We’ll all end up climbing up the barricades to throw rocks at the other side,’ B. said. “Desde aquí lo tenemos muy en claro: se pone una denuncia a lo que merece una denuncia.” She called The Guardian’s report “un reportaje barato,” and she pointed out that around here, you have to be sure to acknowledge that, yes, immigrants have done a helluva lot to make the greenhouse industry what it is today, but that andalusian emigrants’ work must also be recognized and acknowledged; you can’t generalize from single cases, she concluded, even though those single cases present real problems.

B. said that Acoge is dedicated to describing, rather than denouncing or prescribing. They have a regular relationship with a journalist from El Ideal (Almería), and they make a point of telling her about their activities and accomplishments so that people learn about them, so that they can propitiate the common spaces and communication they believe in. “Si hay denuncias,” B. said, “se hacen con cuidado. Lo que ha dicho A. de construir ‘puentes’ es lo más importante, pero yo no puedo hacer eso si rechazo.”

From Jan. 2011 till now, they’ve atended 155 people at the office, 60 people (con fichas) out in the settlements, and there’ve been 43-44 residents at the home.

We took a walk around the grounds after the interview, looking at the new landscaping they’d started, as well as peeking into the residence—two buildings with bedrooms sleeping 4 men in bunk beds, a tv room, a large kitchen, bathrooms and a laundry room. We greeted a couple of men at the door to each residence, Sub-Saharan African men in their early 20s, probably.

On the way home, A. told me about going to class the Monday after the riots. He said he arrived to class and his students were strangely quiet and tense. He gave class like normal, and then finally a student brought up the topic. When A. started to discuss it, a boy blurted out, “Pero a ver, tú con quién estás, con ellos o con nosotros?” “Tú no ves que no hay un ellos y nosotros, que somos todos individuales con nuestras diferentes situaciones y experiencias?” He said that on the school grounds over recess, the place was buzzing with debate and argument, but he said the arguments were baseless, and that it was only the loudest, most brutish kid who got heard, with no thought behind what he was saying nor any kind of evidence or reflection.