Immigrants, Tourists, and Vecinos

Last month, I found myself walking through El Born/Santa Pere inside the Ribera district in Barcelona. It’s a pretty hipster area but ah it’s so nice to walk through. There are lots of quirky shops and cafes with outdoor sitting, and although it’s a very popular area for tourists (like much of Barcelona) it’s quite tranquil. Never too loud or crowded, which always makes me crave sitting down on one of the benches next to the fountains that line the middle of the pathways with a book.

I stopped at the Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, where to my surprise, a wedding was in procession. This is a beautiful church, all tall and dark with its Catalan Gothic architecture, but I don’t think I’d like getting married with a bunch of tourists walking in and out while snapping pictures of me and my soon-to-be-hubby. After shamelessly watching the couple say vows to one another, I left and ended up finding a grand iron building labeled as ‘Mercat del Born’ on my map. As a big fan of Mercat de Santa Caterina (they sell my favorite 7-grain bread) I promptly walked in expecting to find more delicious food but instead walked into what looked like a mall. There were no stands with vegetables, no pork hanging from hooks, no smell of delicious bread. Just lots of glass walls surrounding the perimeter of the place, and in the middle there were ruins of a city that once was. Turns out what used to be a market, now holds El Born Centre Cultural which exhibits ruins of the Catalan city from 1700. The “city within the market” was truly an incredible find.

I had some time before the Vegan Fair I planned on attending began, so I turned off GMaps on my phone and decided to walk aimlessly. Soon enough I passed by a building that had a nice big red capital letter ‘B’, which by that point, I had become classically conditioned to go into. These signs are usually outside civic and cultural centers or government orgs, which have been great for helping me with my project by pointing me to resources, helping me meet people, or finding free events and classes. I walked in to the large space that had some tables and chairs next to what appeared to be a small serving bar at the back of the room. The photos of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa lined the walls and as I was looking at them, a voice behind me asked if I needed something.

This is where I met Lucia, a Catalan woman and Soco, a Mexican woman, who run the ‘Vecinos’ center I found myself in. They were actually about to close for the day…and the month because surprise surprise, it was August. But they said they were on their way to a ‘pancarta’ and invited me to come along. I did not know what ‘pancarta’ meant but they were carrying a megaphone, red paint and brushes, along with a box of wine and a bucket of green olives so in the Watson spirit of staying opened to the unplanned, I grabbed some brushes and tagged along!

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The three of us met up with around ten other people (that later doubled). They were all vecinos and long time residents of the neighborhood who had begun to get together to make pancartas aka banners, to hang from their balconies and protest the negative consequences of tourism in their neighborhood. At first, I was both excited to witness this event and mostly nervous because I was sort of a tourist too. Sort of because my Watson year is organized around travel to places I’ve never been to before. I’m not going to be a long-term resident of any place and I’ll know just enough about each city I’ll visit, much like a tourist. But unlike other tourists, at least those in Barcelona, I rented a room in an apartment for a two month stay and I planned my days not on museum visits or beach days but around visits to non-profits and interviews with migrant women. I suppose I mostly do not want to think of myself as a tourist but being there among the vecinos made me realize that I should not want to think of myself only as a tourist so as to remain aware of how I too am complicit in the burdens that residents are forced to live through.

The primary concern of the vecinos was noise. We set up two long tables with white sheets and began painting NO RUIDO on them with bright red paint. They talked among one another, complaining about the opening of the sixth bar on their street; the terraces (which I admitted to loving at the beginning of this story) that stay open past their closing time and don’t let residents living above them rest; and weekly or even one-night stay of tourists in their buildings.

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As I sat among the vecinos and watched them paint, sing in protest through the megaphone, and hang up their banners, I began to understand that Barcelona’s neighborhoods and it’s Catalan residents have seen the city’s landscape change dramatically in only a couple of decades. The Olympic games of 1992 made Barcelona known around the world and making tourism a huge part of its economy. Then there was migration to Catalunya from others parts of Spain to the increasing immigration from Europe and Latin America in the past years, and now a rapidly growing appearance of Western and Northern African immigrants.

I came to Barcelona precisely because of the thriving and varied immigrant communities that live here but my stay has given me the opportunity to think about all of the other externalities that play a part in the lives of immigrant women, like the layout of a city, the architecture of buildings, the placement of residential areas, the existence of outdoor spaces. Moreover, in Barcelona’s case, I’ve had to think about the way the city allocates its resources to serve tourists, residents, and varied immigrants. For example, the increasing number of bars and restaurants popping up across the city is bothersome to residents but also hikes up residential living costs, which simultaneously serves to push low-income and many immigrant communities outside and away from the center of the city. Gentrification is the buzzword, but Barcelona has students, tourists, immigrants, and refugees from all over the world clashing in all sort of ways across the city bringing lots of more nuance to the word.

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This clashing became clear when some of the vecinos began complaining about Mescladis, a restaurant that is completely situated in an open outdoor area. A boisterous blonde women in her late 50s, cigarette in hand began telling those of us sitting around the table that Mescladis had an illegal terrace and that often times she had come down from her apartment to yell at the staff when customers hadn’t left at closing time. I had visited Mescladis a couple of times prior and loved the place.

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Not only because it was a beautiful outdoor space with plants and brightly painted chairs with amazing hummus, but because Mescladis is part of a social project helping immigrants and fighting against discrimination. I actually interviewed the owner, Martin, on my first week in Barcelona because I hoped to collaborate with them.

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Espai Mescladis trains newly arrived undocumented immigrants to be cooks and servers and through partnerships, helps them obtain a job, which paves their way towards gaining residence. The restaurant is the largest source of income for the organization, allowing them not only to hire graduates from the program to run the place, but also to fund yearly activities like photo projects and gatherings.

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I fell in LOVE Mescladis as a social org that uses creativity to address the practical needs of immigrants and to change the social fabric hurting immigrants. So it was very destabilizing to listen to vecinos have a strong disdain for Mescladis.

The women continued to say how the staff ignores and said, “the Black man who runs the place just hates me, he won’t listen to me and just says I’m racist but I’m not racist, he got all those ideas from the owners.”

This statement was a harbinger because later in the evening, as the vecinos were hanging one of the banners between their building and the entryway of Mescladis all hell broke loose. I was chatting with another vecino when all of a sudden the same woman began yelling with what appeared to be a male customer sitting by the entrance. In a matter of seconds everything escalated and the customer pushed the woman and then tugged at her arm. The woman’s sister got involved and then the two of them were being aggressively pushed around by the man. Eventually the woman fell on floor and she began yelling hysterically while the silent and shocked customers inside Mescladis awkwardly held their forks. The man left the premises right away so by the time the manager of Mescladis came out, he was received by the yells of  two scratched and bruised woman and a large crowd of vecinos with phones in hand calling the police.

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Mescladis is on the left while the residential place where various vecinos live is on the right. This was a couple of minutes before the altercation.

The resentment the vecinos had with Mescladis  quickly collided with what happened, and because they were in the process of hanging a banner, it was taken to be a personal attack. I’m not sure who that customer was or what his problem was but the conversation after the altercation didn’t involve this angry man, but blaming the manager who had apparently asked them to wait putting up the banner until closing time. The vecinos had ignored his request and somewhere in between, the fight happened. To make matters worse, while all of this was happening, someone stole a customer’s purse inside Mescladis!

I could’t believe what was happening. I was sympathetic to both the vecinos and especially the woman and her sister who were victims of violence by a strange man, as well as the staff of Mescladis, all immigrants who in the past have probably had uncomfortable confrontations with this same woman and were suddenly responsible for dealing with a busy restaurant, a theft, an angry group, the police, and lots of confusion all thirty minuted before closing time.

I left soon after. Although it was an unfortunate ending to the event I feel very lucky for the evening that I spent with the vecinos. Aside from bringing me insight into my project in very surprising ways, it also forced me to face some uncomfortable realities that one inevitably misses as a passerby in a new place, such as how people, different perspectives, the right intentions, and bad luck sometimes collide in unproductive ways.

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