Ricard Morén-Alegret Department of Geography, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


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When Love Comes to Town (and when it is missing). Foreign immigrants and couple formation in Spain

  • Ricard Morén-Alegret

  • Department of Geography, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


  • A research line on immigration, settlement, territorial change and social integration in rural areas and small towns began in late 2001 when the author was awarded a 5-years research contract funded by the Spanish Science Ministry (Programa Ramón y Cajal).

  • One of the main research projects included in this research line is the one titled Migración, asentamiento de la población y cambios socio-económicos. Los procesos de integración social en pequeñas ciudades y áreas rurales (November 2002 - November 2005), funded by CICYT.



  • A bibliographic review revealed the main topics studied in relation to immigration in rural areas and small towns of Spain until 2001:

  • Foreign labourers situation at work and their habitat characteristics. The study of the salaried workers arrived from impoverished countries into areas where intensive agriculture is a key economic sector.

  • Social stratification processes. The impact of foreigners law and poorly-paid jobs among foreign workers inserted in agriculture.

  • Relation of tourism and North-Western European immigration in certain coastal areas and surrounding territories. Including the analysis of the factors explaining the phenomenon, socialisation processes, and its impact on the housing market.



  • Main axis of this current research line:

  • Immigrants’ social integration and settlement in rural areas and small towns

  • Territorial transformations, socio-economic changes and population shifts beyond metropolitan areas

  • Debate on the usefulness of the urban-rural dichotomy

  • Governance and immigration in small towns and villages

  • Place, immigration and territorial identity

  • Social webs and migratory networks

  • Gentrification and rural urbanisation

  • Health and immigration in small towns and villages

  • Information technology, migration and rural development



  • QUALITATIVE RESEARCH (CICYT research main methodological elements)

  • Research technique selected as basic for this study: semi-conducted interviews

  • Complementary research techniques:

    • Documental research in situ
    • Participant observation


      • Two kind of interviewees:
      • 1) Key informants belonging to a diversity of organisations:
          • Public authorities
          • Trade Unions and Employers’ organisations
          • NGOs and Immigrants’ associations
          • Cultural associations, Institutes for Local Research, and Foundations
          • Women associations
          • Environmental groups
          • Youth and Elders’ associations


      • 2) Immigrant people interviewed as such:
      • Key characteristics:
          • Foreigners or immigrants born abroad: mostly from Latin America, Africa and Europe
          • Minimum age: 18 years-old
          • Minimum time of stay in the current place of residence: 1 year


  • Criteria for selecting fieldwork areas:

  • Areas with certain contrasted historical identity as ‘counties’ (comarcas)

  • Areas including localities composed by population with a diversity of geographical origins

  • Areas with different socio-economic and living conditions between them

  • Under-researched areas

  • Areas including localities with a high percentage of foreign population, according to the 2001 Census.

  • Areas mainly composed by small localities, i.e. municipalities hosting less than 25,000 inhabitants



  • Exploratory fieldwork in Alt Camp, Tarragona (November 2002-April 2003)

  • Objectives:

  • a) Testing the interviews script (i.e. useful for including in the script questions on how people define ‘rurality’)

  • b) Immersion in a rural area: participant observation, etc.



Statistical analysis of 2001 Census data

  • Map 1. Percentage of the foreign population by municipalities, 2001 (Source: GRM elaboration based on INE data)



  • Counties of fieldwork (October 2003-March 2005)

  • [General fieldwork coordination: Ricard Morén-Alegret ]

  • Bierzo (León, Castille and León). Researchers: Esther Sánchez, Ricard Morén-Alegret and Pap Sow

  • Marina Alta and Marina Baixa (Alicante, Valencia Region). Researchers: Esther Sánchez and Ricard Morén-Alegret

  • Alt Empordà and Baix Empordà (Girona, Catalonia). Researchers : Esther Sánchez, Ricard Morén-Alegret, Pau Mota, Miguel Solana, Verónica de Miguel.

  • Andévalo occidental and Costa occidental (Huelva, Andalusia). Researchers: Esther Sánchez, Verónica de Miguel, Pau Mota, and Ricard Morén-Alegret.

  • Campo Arañuelo and La Vera (Cáceres, Extremadura). Researchers: Esther Sánchez, Ricard Morén-Alegret and Pap Sow



  • El Bierzo

  • The municipalities with the highest percentage of foreign born immigrants were Igüeña (10.8%), Torre del Bierzo (8.4%), Bembibre (8.2%) and Páramo de Sil (3.9%).

  • Map 2. Percentage of foreign born residents by municipalities, 2001 (Source: GRM elaboration, INE data)



Peñalba de Santiago, Bierzo (León)



Peñalba de Santiago, Bierzo (León)



Villafranca del Bierzo (León)



  • Marina Alta and Marina Baixa

  • In the first one, the most outstanding localities were Llíber (54.7% of foreigners), Calp (49.7%), Teulada (47.1%), El Ràfol d’ Almúnia (38.8%), Benitatxell (38.7%) and Benigembla (33%). In Marina Baixa, Alfàs del Pi (36.1%), La Núcia (32.1%), Bolulla (30.7%) and Tàrbena (22.2%).

  • Map 3. Percentage of foreign born residents by municipalities, 2001 (Source: GRM elaboration, INE data)



Benissa, Marina Alta (Alicante)



Calp, Marina Alta (Alicante)



La Vall de Pop, Marina Alta (Alicante)



Callosa d’en Sarrià, Marina Baixa (Alicante)



  • Alt Empordà and Baix Empordà

  • In Alt Empordà, the most outstanding localities were Castelló d’ Empúries (27.3%), Pau (23.4%), Torroella de Fluvià (22.6%), Sant Pere Pescador (17.4%), Vilamaniscle (16.9%), Palau-Saverdera (15.3%) and Roses (14,8%). In Baix Empordà, Santa Cristina d’Aro (15,9%), Ull (14,3%), Gualta (14,1%), Calonge (13,9%) and Castell-Platja d’Aro (12.9%).

  • Map 4. Percentage of foreign born residents by municipalities, 2001 (Source: GRM elaboration, INE data)



Palafrugell, Baix Empordà (Girona)



Platja Castell, Palamós, Baix Empordà (Girona)



Llofriu, Baix Empordà (Girona)



  • Andévalo Occidental and Costa occidental.

  • In Andévalo the most outstanding localities were El Granado (5,3%), Villanueva de los Castillejos (4%) and San Silvestre de Guzmán (3.4%). In Costa occidental, Cartaya (4,4%) and Lepe (3,7%).

  • Map 5. Percentage of foreign born residents by municipalities, 2001 (Source: GRM elaboration, INE data)



Road from Villablanca to Villanueva de los Castillejos, Andévalo Occ. (Huelva)



Strawberry fields in Lepe area (Costa occidental, Huelva)



San Lúcar de Guadiana, Andévalo occidental (Huelva)



Lemon trees in Cartaya-Lepe area (Costa occidental, Huelva)



Isla Cristina, Costa occidental (Huelva)



Isla Canela, Costa occidental (Huelva)



  • Campo Arañuelo and La Vera:

  • In Campo Arañuelo, Talayuela (25%), Toril (12.5%), Majadas (11.8%), Casatejada (5%), Peraleda de la Mata (4.6%) and Navalmoral de la Mata (4.6%) were the most relevant municipalities. In La Vera, Losar de la Vera (7.8%) and Jaraíz de la Vera (6.1%) were the most outstanding ones.

  • Map 6. Percentage of foreign born residents by municipalities, 2001 (Source: GRM elaboration, INE data)



Pasarón de la Vera (Cáceres)



Tobacco fields, Campo Arañuelo (Cáceres)



Aldeanueva de la Vera (Cáceres)



Garganta la Olla, La Vera (Cáceres)



Guijo de Santa Bárbara, La Vera (Cáceres)



  • Characteristics of the interviews:

    • Interviews to immigrants were anonymous
    • Key informants were organisations’ representatives
    • Contacts to interviewees: via directories, Internet, ‘snow balling’… or spontaneous encounters in streets, etc.
    • All of them were audio recorded. Duration of most interviews to key informants: from 40 minutes to 90 minutes. Duration of most immigrants interviews: from 15 minutes to 45 minutes
    • Most interviews were carried out in Spanish language, but some were in English, French, Portuguese and Catalan.
    • Criteria for selecting localities in each county (comarca): a) high percentage of foreigners according to 2001 Census; b) a diversity of habitats; c) possible access to places and peoples.


  • Total number of interviews: 350 (October 2003-March 2005):

  • a) 240 interviews to key informants belonging to public authorities, social organisations, etc.

  • b) 102 interviews to international immigrants as such (and 8 interviews to Spanish internal immigrants and returned immigrants as such).



Table 1. Interviewees by sex

  • Women 49

  • Men 47

  • Total 102



Table 2. Interviewees by geographical origin



Table 3. Interviewees by age groups

  • 18 - 33 years-old 47

  • 34 – 44 years-old 29

  • 45 – 84 years-old 26

  • Total 102



Table 4. Interviewees' relation with the economic activity

  • High-Skilled worker 7

  • Semi-skilled worker 13

  • Unskilled worker 29

  • Employer 5

  • Self-employed 12

  • Retired 15

  • Unemployed 21

  • Total 102



  • According to Ragin (1994), the three main objectives of qualitative research are:

  • to give voice,

  • to interpret significant historical or cultural phenomena,

  • and to propose theory.

  • This paper is devoted to give voice to foreign immigrants that are living in Spanish small localities while analysing a relatively new phenomenon that is transforming society in certain regions: foreign immigrants integration processes. Building on this basis, new theoretical insights will be proposed in forthcoming publications.



  • Since the beginning of modern social sciences, integration has been a key concept (Durkheim, 1893: 124) that has evolved thanks to a diversity of academic approaches proposed along the twentieth century (Alpert, 1941; Landecker, 1951; Mills, 1959; Parsons, 1960, 1971; Luhmann, 1982).

  • ‘Integration’, as Bauböck (1994: 9-10) suggests, is a ‘rather elusive concept’. However, according to him, two main meanings can be found:

      • a) A first interpretation refers to the internal cohesion of a system or aggregate composed of a multitude of singular units or elements;
      • b) A second one designates the entry into the system of elements that had not been part of the environment before, or the extension of the system to incorporate such external elements or units.


  • Taking into account both meanings, one may use 3 types of integration processes as working hypothesis:

    • Social integration (processes related to social and cultural dynamics),
    • Systemic integration (process related to economic, administrative and politics’ dynamics),
    • Environmental integration (processes related to habitat and environmental dynamics).


  • However, after a literature review on the concept ‘integration’ related to international immigration in a diversity of geographical regions

  • - including North Western Europe (Patterson, 1963; Sivandan, 1982; Rex, 1996; Bianchini and Bloomfield, 1995; HCI, 1991; Wieviorka, 1992; Touraine, 1995, 1997; Martuccelli, 1996; Seifert, 1996; Blom, 2004; Ireland, 1994; de Heer, 2004); Southern Europe (Cinanni, 1976; Rosoli, 1992, 1993; Cagiano de Azevedo, 1993; Cagiano de Azevedo, Sannino, 1996; García-Castaño, 1995; Bel Adell, 1994; Álvarez Dorronsoro, 1993; Makomé, 1991; Guardo Polo, 1992; Pumares, 1998; Delgado, 1998; Pascual de Sans, 1992; Carlos, 1993; Malheiros, 1996; Saint-Maurice, 1997, Possidónio, 2004), and North America and Australia (Gordon, 1961; Harvey, 1996; Weiner, 1996; Soysal, 1994, Vasta, 1995; MacAndrew and Rossell, 2005)

  • - it can be acknowledged that most authors dealing with foreign immigrants’ integration do not take “love” as a key factor.



  • Zigmunt Bauman (2003) has noted that “ in our world of rampant ‘individualisation’ relationships are mixed blessings. They vacillate between sweet dream and a night-mare, and there is no telling when one turns into the other … In a liquid modern setting of life, relationships are perhaps the most common, acute, deeply felt and troublesome incarnations of ambivalence … it tells of the pleasures of togetherness in one breath with the horrors of enclosure. Perhaps this is why, rather than report their experience and prospects in terms of ‘relating’ and ‘relationships’, people speak ever more often … of connections, of ‘connecting’ and ‘being connected’. Instead of talking about partners, they prefer to speak of ‘networks’… In a network, connecting and disconnecting are equally legitimate choices, enjoy the same status and carry the same importance … Connections are ‘virtual relations’… Unlike ‘real relationships’, ‘virtual relationships’ are easy to enter and to exit”



Table 5. Interviewees by civil status and family situation



Instance 1

  • “If, for example, you visit our country you will always have friends. However, when I was married to my wife, when we were engaged and friends, often her father called me ‘moor’, he insulted me”

  • (Moroccan man / 29 years-old / Senija Alicante province / Laundry worker / Divorced from a Spanish woman).



Instance 2

  • “because I am a single mother I have had problems with people from my own country. That did hurt me a lot because my parents taught me good things but you never know what can happen. I never thought I was going to have a baby. I was thinking on working hard and help my family… However, the good thing is that I decided to have the baby… and now that I feel a bit stronger than before I don’t care what they say about me, I am only thinking on my child and working for my child, nothing else … My big problem was to fall in love with a married man… the father of my son… he did not tell me the truth”

  • (Equatorian woman / 23 years-old / Bembibre, Leon / Unemployed)



Instance 3

  • -“I got pregnant before getting married, and this is horrible in my country! Furthermore, my father is an Imam. This means that he tells people what they must do, you know, talking about God and this sort of things… At the beginning, my parents did not want to talk to me, and other Moroccans were looking at me in a very bad mood in the streets. Nobody helped me when I got pregnant. Some time later, I went to live with my partner... After that, things started to calm down a bit. However, they still see it as something bad. That is the only problem I have had in Spain: the fact that some people does not accept that a Moroccan woman is living together with a Spanish man…

  • - And how the problem was solved?

  • - Well, when my partner went to the mosque and he talked to my father. They decided that he will convert to Islam, but he has not done that so far… because he does not want to. He has lied to my father, and things have calmed down… Image is the most important thing, it does not matter if he does not pray, what it really matters is that the rest of people think that you are like them…

  • (Moroccan woman / 19 years-old / Jaraiz, Caceres / Housewife, one child)



Instance 4

  • “I came here with my husband. Yes, and I asked him to divorce here, not in Algeria… Divorced women want to leave the country in order to open a new door for life… However, I came with my husband and I divorced here. He did not want to stay and he went back, but I stay here”

  • (Algerian woman / 32 years-old / Platja d’Aro, Girona / Geriatric assistant)



Instance 5

  • “Here in a small village, if a girl has a boyfriend, she can not look at you, she can not talk to you. However, in a big city it does not matter, you can go for a coffee with her, it is different”

  • (Bulgarian man / 35 years-old / Lepe, Huelva / Temporary jobs in hotels and agriculture)



Final considerations

  • - Love relations (and the lack of them) can be a very relevant factor in order to understand integration processes

  • - More research should be done comparing the importance of both relationships and connections regarding immigrants and non-immigrants’ integration processes

  • - Furthermore, it would be interesting to study if there are differences in such question between rural, semi-rural and metropolitan settings.




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