Madrid neighbourhood becomes global crossroads

By Sinikka Tarvainen, IANS

Madrid : “Imagine there’s no countries … And the world will live as one.” The late John Lennon’s dream in the song “Imagine” is far from having become reality, but it is constantly being tested out in Europe’s multicultural immigrant neighbourhoods.

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Spain’s most important testing ground for the coexistence of people from all over the world is Lavapies in the heart of Madrid.

Once the city’s Jewish quarter and later known for its elderly population, Lavapies is now home to some 50,000 people from more than 80 countries who have created their own brand of the global village.

Its traditional Spanish pastel-coloured buildings with iron balconies house Indian and Pakistani food stores, Asian and Arab restaurants, Chinese and Senegalese clothes shops, Muslim butcher’s shops, basement mosques and African hairdressing salons.

Lavapies is also known as a haunt of artists with an unrestrained nightlife and a relatively high rate of petty crime.

Elderly Spanish residents who have seen the neighbourhood change radically sit on benches in the central square and watch people from all over the world pass by.

The cavalcade includes Latin American women pushing prams, West Africans in their colourful robes, Spanish punks and squatters, a Sudanese poet well known in the local bars, secret police looking for Islamist terrorists…

“I regard myself as an adopted son of Lavapies,” said flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes, one of the artists and intellectuals who like the neighbourhood for its unconventional atmosphere and active cultural life.

Residents like Vicente Bachero still remember the quiet and thoroughly Spanish Lavapies of the 1980s, when “people came to stand on their doorsteps to take fresh air in the evenings”.

Now, however, “with a few exceptions like the pharmacy or the stationer’s, every shop is owned by a foreigner”, Bachero observes.

Lavapies acts as a magnet for Africans crossing over to Spain on rickety boats, as well as for other immigrants in a country where the number of foreign residents has soared to nearly 10 percent of the 45-million population.

Nearly 20 percent of babies born in Spain had at least one foreign parent in 2007, up from 4.5 percent in 1996.

The economic distress of many immigrants shows up in Lavapies, where young Moroccan boys whisper offers of hashish and homeless migrants haunt the central square.

“Lavapies captures me,” a local rap song goes. “Its pretty girls, its bad boys, its chocolate (hashish), the cocaine…”

Neighbourhood associations have staged demonstrations against crime, night-time fights between drunkards and garbage on the streets, accusing the city authorities of “abandoning” Lavapies.

At the same time, however, the transformation experienced by Lavapies has turned it into a fascinating crossroads where stories from all over the world converge into a unique, unwritten epic.

“My father has many cows,” a construction worker from Guinea-Bissau recalls one quiet evening in a cafeteria. “My favourite cow used to come and lick my neck in order to be milked.”

“Cotton fields begin to be cultivated in April,” a Turkish immigrant told the daily El Pais. “They look like a green carpet turning white. And I also miss the women… In the east of Turkey, pretty girls are called cherries.”

Most of the stories are never told, as most of the Lavapies immigrants “only live for work,” says Thierno, a young man from Senegal who lives in the neighbourhood.

Colombians, Moroccans and others get up before dawn to commute to construction sites outside Madrid, or other jobs, to be able to send money home through the many transfer companies present in Lavapies.

“People tend to stick to their own kind,” Thierno says. “Senegalese, for instance, spend their time watching television with other Senegalese in flats rented by Senegalese.”

Racism remains a sensitive subject. “I ordered a drug trafficker to leave my restaurant, but his friends claimed I ousted him for being a Muslim,” a restaurant owner complains.

In extreme cases, the feeling of being an outcast in Spanish society contributes to radical reactions such as fundamentalism. One of the men found guilty of the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people, Moroccan Jamal Zougam, ran a call centre in Lavapies.

At the same time, however, cultural boundaries are constantly being crossed in the community squeezed into a small area.

A lawyer from Niger sits on a terrace advising a Pakistani businessman, a Japanese and a Mexican woman discuss their joint activities in an anti-racist movement, and immigrants walk the streets with their Spanish wives and children.

Lavapies mirrors today’s world, with “people from different places… all with the same problems… the same confusion and disorder, always pursuing something they never find”, said author Lucia Etxebarria, who describes life in the neighbourhood in her novel Cosmofobia.