Shrinking Spanish village opens arms to foreigners

Reply Sun 11 Jun, 2006 06:43 am
(Report ptinted in several newspapers throughout the USA, today, e.g. in the Boston Globe and on page 8 of the Chicago Tribune)

Here, the article as first published in the Washington Post, Thursday, June 8, 2006, pages A16 and A17)

A Global Village in Spain

Town Tries to Stem Dwindling Population by Recruiting Foreigners to Relocate

By John Ward AndersonWashington Post Foreign Service

AGUAVIVA, Spain -- The woman who runs the city hall cafe in this remote Spanish hill community is a Romanian. Down the road, Italians and Argentines make electric cables in a small factory. The local school is bustling with foreign-born children, who make up more than a third of the students.

While much of Western Europe shuns immigrants, this town seeks them. They are seen as key to reversing a decades-long drop in population that has brought slow death to so many other Spanish villages as residents fled to the cities for a better life.

That haunting prospect is on display just six miles from here in the hamlet of Las Parras de Castellote, transformed into a semi-ghost town with one bar, no children and 78 residents, most over age 60.

Determined to avoid such a fate, Mayor Luis Bricio dug into his own pocket in April 2000 and flew 6,300 miles to Buenos Aires with a novel idea: recruit new residents for his town. A Buenos Aires radio station reported on his journey, and an amazing thing happened: 7,000 Argentines lined up to hear Bricio's sales pitch. The next year he went to Romania and did the same thing.

Today, instead of a town that's sinking and shrinking, Bricio runs one he feels has a future: a growing economy, 34 new homes and 701 people, up from 598 six years ago thanks to an influx of foreigners.

"We didn't just find a town full of old people, we found a family," said Lili David, 38, who came from Romania five years ago with her husband and two children and runs a cafe on the ground floor of the town hall. "There is a future with possibility here in Aguaviva. I can ensure my kids' future. If they want to study abroad, I can provide for it."

But Bricio says it's too early to declare victory in Aguaviva, located about 175 miles west of Barcelona. It has about 10 births a year. But because of the aging population, about 20 to 30 people a year die, according to the Rev. Salvador Dias, the local priest. Its church has celebrated exactly one marriage in the last two years, Dias said. Just two buses a day stop in the town, at 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

"Rural depopulation is a common phenomenon across Western Europe," said Vicente Pinilla, a researcher at the Center for Studies on the Depopulation and Development of Rural Areas.

Lack of leisure facilities, the collapse of traditional jobs in mining and agriculture, environmental degradation, school closings, shrinking investment, and a lack of trade unions and entrepreneurial ventures all help drive people to the cities, said Graciela Malgesini, the Spanish director of Rural-In, a group that aids the integration of immigrants in rural areas of Europe.

"Some rural villages become living phantoms," she said.

Communities determined to fight back sometimes court investment, hoping new jobs will attract permanent residents. Others try to use Old World charm to draw tourists and wealthy city people and baby boomers who want weekend homes.
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Walter Hinteler
Reply Sun 11 Jun, 2006 06:43 am
Las Parras de Castellote, 10 minutes from here down a bumpy road through rugged, deserted fields of scrub brush, is a prime example of that approach.

From a high of more than 1,200 people in the early 1900s, its population has sunk to 78. The school closed more than 30 years ago, and there are no children. José Luis Borraz, a 47-year-old construction worker sipping coffee laced with brandy one recent morning in the town's bar and cafe, figured that his 44-year-old brother was the youngest resident.

But the town's well-tended streets belie the flight. Parras has managed a mini-renaissance as a summer town. The 367-year-old Church of San Nicolás de Bari was recently restored, and seasonal residents, many of whom live in the nearby cities of Barcelona, Valencia or Zaragoza, have modernized and refurbished ancestral homes.

"In the summer and during Holy Week and in the hunting season, it's almost like a holiday town," said Pilar Aznar, 72.

But Malgesini, of Rural-In, expressed doubt that such communities are sustainable for long. Without a temperate climate, sporting, cultural and other facilities, she said, many small villages simply "do not qualify as rural theme parks."

Bringing in foreigners is a controversial strategy. Each year, thousands of Arabs and black Africans try to reach Spain illegally on open boats. The government is struggling to stop that flow. But it is sympathetic to foreigners who arrive legally and grants special access to visas and work papers for those of Spanish heritage.

In 1991, Bricio was elected mayor of a town that had reached its historic high of about 1,900 people in the 1930s; it had about a third of that number when he took office. In his first years he watched it decline further. Then he hit on his idea.

He promised to fly in the immigrants and give them jobs in local businesses, decent housing, an education for their children and subsidies and loans for furniture and other necessities. The newcomers had to sign five-year contracts agreeing to repay the loans. They had to be of Spanish descent and younger than 40. And they had to have at least two children younger than 12.

Argentina seemed an obvious recruiting ground. "We were thinking of countries at the time that were having economic problems, so they could benefit from coming to our town, and we would benefit, too," said Bricio, 54, who is a physician in a neighboring town. "And we thought if they were Spanish speakers from Latin America, their cultural roots would make it easier to adapt."

The experience did not turn out as planned.

Many Argentines came, but after the big lights of Buenos Aires, they found Aguaviva small and isolated and the residents provincial. Townspeople saw them as haughty. Some Argentines apparently wanted to use the program to get working papers and never intended to stay. Bricio estimates that about 600 new arrivals eventually left.

"They said it was a small, boring town, and they did not see a future in terms of a university education for their children," said Dias, the priest. "So they left for other places, especially the coast, where there's better weather, more fun and entertainment, and more schools."

"People from here helped those from the outside more than they would help each other, but some came and wanted everything handed to them on a platter," said Auría de Anta, 57, whose daughter, Ester, recently became the first person to be married in Aguaviva in two years. She wedded an immigrant from Portugal.

Social workers complain that Aguaviva did not do enough to integrate the new families or address the underlying causes of depopulation, but they credit Bricio's pioneering efforts. He said he is now working with other towns that have adopted a similar approach.
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Walter Hinteler
Reply Sun 11 Jun, 2006 06:44 am

The biggest mistake in Aguaviva was assuming that language would help the Argentines adapt, Bricio said. In fact, he and others said, the Romanians who were later recruited, having a tougher work ethic and lower economic expectations, integrated more easily. Today, about 80 Romanians and 30 Argentines live in Aguaviva, along with a handful of people from Uruguay, Portugal and Italy.

In the last six years, the school's enrollment has doubled to 52 students, and 35 percent are immigrants, according to director Pietro Julian Cucalon. In his view, children were a key to making Bricio's program work, because they pulled adults together no matter what their backgrounds and language skills.

Now the town has ended the program, because it's well known as an immigrant center and foreigners often arrive on their own now. "The key for us," Bricio said, "is the flow of people, until the one who likes it finally appears and decides to stay."

Such was the case with the most recent arrivals from Buenos Aires -- Walter Aguirre, his wife, Isabel Mazzeo, and their two daughters, ages 10 and 14. They came because they had family here, some of the first Argentines who arrived under Bricio's program.

Mazzeo's father, Antonio Mazzeo, is a 72-year-old Italian who immigrated to Argentina in 1953 and began a cable-making business in 1980. He packed up the factory and moved it to Aguaviva three years ago to be with his family and take advantage of lower production costs. Today, the factory employs eight people, including five from the family and two Romanians.

Special correspondent Jennifer Green contributed to this report.

Washington Post, online version
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