At 11.30 pm Saturday night, Asif stands outside a bar in Barcelona’s inner-city district of El Raval, in the middle of summer months with ice-cold cans of Spanish beer, ‘Estrella’ in his hands, waiting patiently for patrons to walk out. Within minutes, he reaches out to a group of people, bartering to sell at a price of one euro per can. He carefully manages to secure another deal in the next thirty minutes, fifteen euros for a twelve pack, earning more in one hour than he would in a month in his home country, Pakistan. Asif is one of the many informal street vendors, working two to three jobs, living in crammed apartments, patiently awaiting documents to stay legally. A third of his monthly income earned is a regular remittance sent back to his family living in a village near Gujarat in Pakistan.
Across the block in the Eixample district, Mani, a second-generation Spanish citizen with Pakistani roots, converses fluently in Catalan with his customers at his renowned ‘Fish & Chip’ shop. His family migrated to Barcelona when his uncle married a Spanish woman about forty years ago. After having worked in their family restaurant, Mani and his brother, Majid decided to open their own business. The menu includes a range of fusion food options at affordable prices such as, spice battered local fish served with hand-cut chips and mango chutney, made with recipes influenced by Pakistani cuisine. He converses bashfully about the success of his latest food fusion ventures. He speaks of new dishes and drinks concocted with his friends beckoning a desire to create new flavors, to innovate, and to forge an identity for the Pakistani community, signifying a compatibility between the two cultures.
Further away from the city center, at the end of Las Ramblas, a young Pakistani man in his late 20’s hustles various tourists to visit a nearby club for complimentary drinks. He is dressed in a suit, with circular-shaped thick-rimmed spectacles, clean-cut hairstyle, and a polite mannerism seeking an ample audience to promote late-night ventures for his client’s precarious business. He wagers a discounted entry to multiple clubs gathering a group of young tourists to follow him into an alleyway towards his client’s bar. He earns a commission for every person he takes to the clubs, sometimes even receiving tips from enthusiastic tourists for his immaculate English-speaking ability. In Pakistan, Sunny is an accountant with a graduate degree in commerce from a university in Lahore. Unemployment and religious stringency, being a minority of Christian faith, forced him to emigrate. Family connections in Barcelona allowed him to secure temporary residency. His true ambition is to become an Urdu singer but hopes of pursuing this dreams in a city where he constantly feels like a cultural outcast impedes his motivation, slowly pushing him towards a reclusive entertainment industry.
Asif, Mani and Sunny all have two things in common, they maintain transnational links to their villages back in Pakistan and have had some sort of connection to the neighborhood of El Raval in Barcelona.
For the longest time, El Raval has been called a dangerous ghetto with very few realizing the role it has played as a cultural incubator for contemporary urban change and social movements taking over Barcelona. Fundamentally, it is an arrival city. Doug Sanders, a British journalist describes an arrival city as transitional spaces where the next great cultural and economic boom are being born. It is where a diverse population provides immigrants with a network of relationships aka ‘social capital’, low-rents, and well-being opportunities enabling their upward social mobility into the host society.
Compared to countries like the UK, US, Australia and Canada, international migration to Spain from Pakistan is a recent phenomenon. In the 70’s, immigration mainly from eastern European and Latin American countries occurred through the demand for unskilled labor in the construction industry. Then the issuance of the first Immigration Law in 1985 allowed those immigrants to settle-down with a legal status. In the 90’s, large-scale redevelopment jobs created by the Olympic Games of 1992 provided the next phase of immigrants to arrive.
Majority of these immigrants were from Pakistan who settled down in El Raval, where low rent, job opportunities, and central location made it an attractive home. Eventually, a rapid economic expansion in 2000’s allowed Pakistanis to fill an occupational gap, helping them establish successful low-skilled businesses.
They opened supermarkets, halal butchers, salons, tailors, restaurants, and electronic shops. In time, they gained ample social capital, resources, and the motivation to mobilize further economic expansions, especially after the economic crisis. Around this time, Pakistani immigrants grew by 50 per cent after 2008 and 30 per cent of local business leases were transferred to either them or other south-east Asian entrepreneurs.
This growth became further heralded by a growing tourism industry in Barcelona. Today, Pakistanis are the second largest nationality in Barcelona; out of which, 20 per cent of them live in El Raval and own 40 per cent of all businesses. Majority of the Pakistani population in Barcelona can still be considered to be first-generation.
A growing bilingual second-generation of Pakistanis in Barcelona with mixed social capital suggests a banding together to collectively maintain their customs and slowly integrate with the more established local norms at the same time. It may seem as though the two cultures clash and one must give up the other to become naturalized or assimilate, and that it is a one-way exchange where the immigrant always gets the shorter end of the stick.
To add to the difficult process of integrating into a new culture, recent negative media coverage and worldwide right-wing political momentum against mass-migration and fear of non-western cultures has generated stigmas against the Pakistanis in Barcelona. Additionally, fear of losing cultural homogeneity and specifically, a Catalan identity, has shriveled efforts towards meaningful dialogue. Many question who these new Barcelonians are?
However, leftist political activism has also grown, ripened as a counter-response to racism and discrimination in the wake of Ada Colau’s mayorship since 2015. Political activism, the fight for equal rights, and social justice movements have uncacooned several discriminatory practices, leaving plenty of room for liberated debates on growing immigrant voices, gender roles, gentrification and specifically an anti-tourism rhetoric. It is acknowledged that immigrants indeed lead dual lives and are inherently bicultural with multiple identities.
This somewhat socially-conscious and liberal atmosphere has influenced various creative outlets of cultural exchange in El Raval, more so from a younger and politically active generation residing within the creative clusters of the neighborhood. Symbolic gestures of culturally mediated identities have started popping up to entice an awakening in the perceptions and psyche of the locals towards rich cultural diversity in their city.
More than a decade ago, an invented word ‘Ravalerjar’ emerged on the walls of the neighborhood, along with translations in common languages spoken—Urdu, Arabic, and Tagalog— as an indication of the beginning of a new phase, a linguistic jumble. To Ravalejar meant ‘to do, to live El Raval’. Around this time, the number of Pakistani immigrants living in El Raval grew drastically. This symbolic gesture promoted by local institutions suggested a sense of openness to becoming a heterogeneous, multipolar, and polyrhythmic diaspora space; acting as counter-measure to shun equally growing fears of it turning into a dangerous ‘ethnic enclave’.
Similarly, Instagram pages like “Ravalistan” dedicated towards documenting the daily lives of Pakistanis and the co-habitation of grungy city life in El Raval emerged creating a bricolage of random moments. The daily shopping routines of the Pakistani women, the children playing cricket, the gas-cylinder delivery man, the bearded bartenders selling chai, the half-drunk lads passed out on the kerb, the grandmas smoking cigarettes, the Catalan man ordering a carajillo, women hanging cloths off their balcony, all celebrating a common legacy—El Raval.
This slowly typified into graffiti and stencil art on the walls as transgressive acts to remind everyone of a union between two unlikely worlds— “raval power”— becoming and giving hybrid identities to that most immigrants live with daily.
Consuelo Bautista, an active photojournalists presents the ultimate collection of a loaded imagery showcasing the “multifaceted, ambivalent nature” of El Raval in the current Barcelona Metropolis issue. The rawness of the captured moments suggest a departure from the stereotypes.
Such politically motivated art and creative movements have generated constructive dialogue and an exchange, from all facets, personal on to the public sphere. Rather than a burden for immigrants to assimilate, can there be a meaningful communal exchange?
Casa Asia, a joint public-private initiative, promotes Asian cultures has initiated events such as “Pakistani Ramadan Evenings in Barcelona” involving an exchange between citizens of various origins to learn how Pakistanis approach citizenship, daily life, especially during the annual month of fasting.
Similarly, CCCB, a contemporary cultural institution located in El Raval, has had various exhibitions, events and knowledge exchange in the past to raise awareness to the presence of a large eastern influence through programs like the ‘West by East’ (2005), ‘the new Barcelonians’ (2015) and recently, ‘Debates on Right to the City’ (2019).
Such ‘half-ways’ of cultural compatibility have also come under much scrutiny as authentic efforts for reconciliation have turned into marketing campaigns through appropriation of cultures. The use of multiculturalism as branding for bars and emergence of tours targeting social issues such as the ‘narcotours’ have facilitated a theme-park style tourist industry followed by a growing number of middle-class residents. The ensuing rise in rental prices and gentrification has affected all established residents, not just the immigrants.
El Raval maybe the last affordable culturally diverse neighborhood in Barcelona. Once urban revitalization projects and private developments pave way for gentrification, marginalized groups maybe displaced, affecting its social and cultural diversity. Before this happens, important lessons need to be learnt from its success as an arrival city for immigrants. The alternative to resettle immigrant groups in secluded neighborhood far from the city’s center will only heighten issues of social and economic seclusion.
While socially destructive and racist stereotypes still plague many newcomers through regular use of derogatory naming such as ‘paki’, their spirit to forge greener pastures for the future generation provides the necessary motivation for them to remain. The take-away for government officials and long-term residents is that mass-migration is shaping the whole world, immigrant populations are growing, but they are resilient when given the opportunities, making them well-equipped to mobilize social capital, restart local economy, revitalize urban areas, and importantly bring diverse new cultural capital into host societies.