Historical memory and Spanish emigration


Most of us would agree with the statement that history is essential to understanding the world in which we live. However, on many occasions historical memory - the collective perception of the past, often simplified and idealised over the years, propaganda and cultural products - does not correspond to the facts. A common example cited by historians is that of the Second World War, which in Europe is 75 years old this week: despite the fundamental importance of the Soviets in the German defeat, three quarters of a century later most Europeans believe that the American and British armies were primarily responsible for the victory over the Nazis. In fact, on the occasion of the anniversary, the White House itself has commemorated and celebrated the war effort of the United States and Great Britain, ignoring the contribution of other Allied countries such as Canada or France. Similarly, the presence of hundreds of thousands of soldiers of colonial origin - Africans, Arabs, Indians and Caribbeans - in the French and British armies is often omitted in most Western novels, films and video games dealing with the conflict.

A society's memory of its past, therefore, does not always correspond to the facts. As the years go by, memory becomes distorted and incorporates elements, which explains the emergence of many myths and legends throughout history. Another interesting example, because of its relevance today, is the Spanish emigration to Europe during the 1960s. Most of those who left the country during those years belonged to the post-war generation, the same generation that is suffering the worst effects of the coronavirus. A generation that, as is repeated in the media these days, raised the country thanks to their effort and sweat in quite precarious living and working conditions. And a generation that, like mine - I was born in 1992 - sought a future in emigration to Europe that they could not find in their own country.

One of the most repeated myths about Spanish emigration in the 1960s is that it was legal and orderly. This argument is often used by those who, in the current political context, demand a firm hand against immigrants who are in our country illegally. Despite the fact that historically Spain has been -and to a lesser extent still is- a country of emigration, many people argue that Spaniards who left our country half a century ago did so with an employment contract, unlike those who arrive in Spain today. The historical reality, however, is much more complex.

In La Patria en la Maleta, one of the most detailed studies of Spanish emigration to Europe, José Babiano and Ana Fernández estimate that more than two million Spaniards left our country between 1960 and 1973. Of these, more than half did so irregularly, although it is true that a good part of them were only "illegal" in the eyes of the Spanish authorities. During the Franco regime, emigration was regulated through the Spanish Institute of Emigration, which tried to prevent women, skilled workers and politically conflictive workers from leaving the country. The institution was not very popular because of its slowness and bureaucratic inefficiency, so most emigrants opted to leave Spain with a tourist visa and seek work independently in the destination countries with the help of family members or fellow countrymen who lived there. In theory, emigrating outside the authorised channels was a crime, but the Spanish authorities did not make much effort to prosecute offenders.

Once settled, those who could tried to regularise their situation with the local authorities, although many of them - especially women employed in domestic service and workers in the agricultural and hotel sectors - remained as illegal immigrants. This meant that they did not report many abuses - including physical abuse, rape or accidents at work - for fear of deportation, which was used by unscrupulous employers to force unfair working conditions. The "German economic miracle" of the mid-20th century was also the result of the efforts and suffering of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers.

Like many of today's irregular immigrants, many Spaniards were victims of human trafficking and smuggling networks that promised safe passage and employment in exchange for considerable sums of money. While many of these agents and traffickers kept their promises, many others robbed their victims or abandoned them to their fate near the border crossing. The importance of these intermediaries diminished as Spanish migrants established networks of contacts and assistance in destination countries, but for many people who wanted to migrate and had no acquaintances abroad, they remained the only way to leave the country. Interestingly, there are still agencies today that offer homes and work abroad in exchange for a fee.

Spanish emigrants used to live very precariously, both legal and irregular. This was due both to the desire to save and to the abusive practices of the companies where they worked. Since most Spaniards were unfamiliar with the language and customs of their destination countries, they were often offered accommodation by their employers, often in barracks or hostels where dozens of people were crammed into unsanitary conditions, sometimes even with the system of hot beds. Migrants paid rent to their companies for living in these residences, most often at above-market prices. The local media often blamed foreigners for the appalling conditions in which they lived, accusing them of being dirty and carrying diseases. Xenophobia is palpable in many of the headlines in the English, German, French and Dutch press of the time. Although the Spanish received solidarity from some trade unions and workers' organisations, others accused them of taking jobs away from the locals and lowering prices.

The collective memory of Spanish migrants in Europe represents them as temporary workers with relatively short stays, as expected from the "Gastarbeiter". While it is true that there were many temporary workers - especially in the agricultural campaigns in France - and that many workers had the objective of saving to improve their living conditions in Spain, tens of thousands of Spaniards remained in their countries of destination. According to Carlos Sanz, more than 70% of the 137,000 Spaniards living in Germany in 1981 had been in the country for more than ten years. Some of them are still there, as I personally experienced when I lived in Hagen, a bland industrial city in the Ruhr area, where I met a group of four Spanish pensioners who had been there for half a century.

Although it is tempting for the thousands of us who have emigrated at some point to compare ourselves to our grandparents' generation - my own maternal grandfather emigrated to Germany in the early 1960s - our experience is very different. For a start, we as citizens of the European Union have complete freedom of movement within the Schengen area and do not need visas or permits to live and work in other countries. This allows us to register, to have equal employment rights with the natives and even to vote in local elections.

Furthermore, freedom of movement makes it much easier to return to Spain on holiday or permanently, as we are not afraid of being discovered when we cross the border. Similarly, communication with our loved ones is easier and faster than half a century ago. It is true that we generally continue to hold low-skilled jobs - although the proportion of university graduates who emigrate is astronomically higher than in the 1960s and many Spaniards have obtained good jobs - and it is also true that, like our grandparents, we tend to socialise among compatriots. But access to information, freedom of movement and equal labour rights put us in a much better position, and in addition, today's Spanish emigrants generally do not send as many remittances as those of yesteryear.

Perhaps the experience of Spanish emigrants half a century ago is more comparable to that of many irregular immigrants in Spain today. Despite the fact that many young people continue to seek opportunities abroad, our country's economy is highly dependent on immigrant labour. The tasks that immigrants perform in Spain are similar to those of our grandparents north of the Pyrenees: construction, agriculture, domestic service, cleaning, care and hospitality, essential but generally poorly paid jobs. Like our grandparents, many immigrants today are victims of false employment agencies that deceive them, and do not go to the police to report abuse for fear of being deported. Like our grandparents, a good number of immigrants send money back to their countries to support their families. And like our grandparents, most immigrants in Spain - whether or not they are illegal - are only trying to improve their living conditions and build a future for themselves. 

Hard times are coming economically, and everything seems to indicate that immigration will once again be a topical issue. Despite the fact that the prevailing discourses tend to simplify everything, immigration policy is a complex and delicate issue. There are many factors that determine migratory flows, and finding a balance between the economic needs of a country, respect for the rights of immigrants and the reservations of the native population towards foreigners is always complicated. In raising debates on these kinds of issues we must bear in mind that immigrants are not mere cogs in the economic machine but, like our grandparents, are hard-working people who are vulnerable to exploitation. History, in that sense, gives us perspective on what our country has been, a land of migrants and humble workers.