July 16, 2013

Becoming Spanish: From Expat to Immigrant

Me dicen el clandestino 
Por no llevar papel 
Pa' una ciudad del norte 
Yo me fui a trabajar 
Mi vida la dejé 
Entre Ceuta y Gibraltar 
Soy una raya en el mar 
Fantasma en la ciudad 
Mi vida va prohibida 
Dice la autoridad.
— Manu Chao, "Clandestino", 1998
Spain's population grew by one on Monday.
Some people are born Spanish. Others, like me, choose to become Spanish. Yesterday morning, in Valencia's Ciudad de la Justicia, I swore the oath to the King of Spain and the Spanish Constitution, to confirm my naturalization as a Spanish citizen. Today I woke up Spanish! (Though it won't feel really real until I get the DNI and passport later this month.) This is exciting!

That my "juramento de la nacionalidad española" occurred so closely after Bastille Day, July 14th, marker of the French Revolution and a birthday of sorts for modern ideas about nationalism, was a token symbolism not lost on me. What really is a nation, after all, but a Romantic myth made real by all the bureaucratic paperwork of government institutions, along with the sentimental acts of patriotism by "the people" grasping at straws for some kind of ennobled unity of identity beyond the simple fact of physical proximity… and yet this so-called nation is made a mess of by the many expats, immigrants, emigrants and other migrants who "vote with their feet" and, consciously or not, "resist" the reality of borderlines drawn on maps. I'm not saying "nation" is not "real". Quite the contrary, I am thrilled to gain Spanish nationality. This is a big moment in my life! I'm saying that over the last ten plus years of moving back and forth between Europe and the U.S., and now immigrating to another country, I've gained a very rich and complicated idea of what a nation is, and I can tell you that it is something we produce, not something "real" sitting out there in nature. Which means it's dynamic and evolving. Hey! Yesterday Spain gained a new citizen! This nation is a little different this week than it was last week.

But, oh dear, I've gotten all philosophical. First I should get to the nitty gritty. Answer those usual questions that I get asked whenever I mentioned that I'm applying for citizenship here. These generally fall into two categories: the pragmatically curious (how does one go about doing something like that?) and the pragmatically confounded (why bother?).

     • How does one do it? Do you have to take a test?

Immigration to the United States is a process of such mythic proportions that the process itself has become the subject of many a Hollywood fiction—take Green Card (1990), for example—and even entered pop culture in the form of clichéd narrative twists (marrying for visa, but then falling in love) and popular lingo (e.g. "anchor baby", "fresh off the boat"). Not so for Spain, and maybe that's why so many Americans I know are curious to know what it's like over here.

The latest in a long line of silly
Hollywood movies about the
"romance" of U.S. immigration.
The short answer: much easier. Of course it depends on how you go about applying, but for us married-to-a-Spaniard types the process involves establishing one year of residency in Spain + 2 years waiting for the paperwork to "process" in Madrid. Oh, and it is totally free! (Contrast this with the U.S. where it is 5 years residence to then apply, and I have no idea how long the papers take to process. And throughout the process you pay hundreds of dollars in fees!)

Once the residency requirement is established, you compile various papers to show your cause is legit (proof of residence, proof that marriage is real) and that you have some means of getting by in Spain… for the details check out this official link. And you go in to the appropriate police station in your city and make an appointment to submit them. In my case, about a week after asking for an appointment I got it, and thus had the first of two interviews… and this leads to the other big question: Is there a test for citizenship in Spain?

Of course, it might not be free for long. On my morning waiting for the
processing to be completed, I noticed these posted flyers all around the office.

As the posts indicated, the current PP-led government is threatening
to introduce fees for many legal services provided by the government.

Well, yes and no. Unlike the U.S. there is no formal multiple-choice test to establish proficiency. But there is a requirement in the application that you demonstrate some degree of integration in the community, or some wording to this effect. So in this first interview I had the officer was asking me about the application, why I was applying, and then suddenly asked me where I had travelled to in Spain, drawing an outline of the Spanish peninsula on a piece of paper. She pointed at the paper and asked me to mark on the map the cities and places I've visited. I obliged, marking a fair number of cities (I think she was impressed), and she was satisfied that I had some basic geographical knowledge of Spain… though she pointed out that I had placed the city of Granada too far to the west on the map, too close to Sevilla and Córdoba (a mistake I'll never make again). They made a note of my intent to apply and kept copies of my application. Not long afterwards (I think around 3 months had passed), I received a letter to bring my documents to the Registro Civil, and for my wife to join me. This was, in effect, a second (and final) interview. We were asked questions about each other, but it was not especially rigorous or intense. In fact, the woman who interview me was downright friendly. But, again, there arrived a moment when, suddenly, I was asked: "¿Te gusta la comida española?"

Now, at this point I was recalling my dad's dating advice: "Zach, you like to talk too much; try to be quiet; give simple answers, and let the other person talk". Because I was thinking: "Are you kidding! I'm a total foodie, and heck, I study the history of food! I love Spanish food!!!" So I answered very coyly that, yes, I liked Spanish food (tortilla de patatas, jamón, etc.), and then I pandered by saying that in particular I like Valencian food (paella, arroz al horno, fresh salads "de la huerta"). It was the summer of 2011, so I made a point of saying that I had been making my father-in-law's recipe for sopa de pepino a lot, in support of the poor Spanish cucumber farmers besieged by Germany's Spanish cucumber health scare. And I left the interview wondering: how could one fail that test? Would anyone ever answer: no, I hate Spanish food?

But then I have read Zola-esque exposés in Spanish newspapers about capricious local immigrant officers imposed byzantine tests, such as a judge in Getafe asking applicants what happened in the year 1868 (answer: "la Revolución Gloriosa"… which none of my Spanish friends or family knew), or the more tricky case of a test in Catalonia that asked applicants to name two Spanish athletes, but then failed an applicant for putting "Messi y Ronaldo". Haha! Aren't Messi and Ronaldo Spanish athletes by now!?! But I write these kinds of incidents off as examples of that deeper cross-cultural truth: that there are a**holes everywhere, but they are generally the exception not the norm.

Early morning line at Valencia's Ciudad de la Justicia

Still, when people ask me about my experience applying for visas and citizenship here in Spain, I make a point of qualifying that there were three things which quickly turned the process in my favor with local bureaucrats: 
1) when I opened my mouth, I spoke a pretty good Spanish, above all with a decent Spanish accent, which puts the agent at ease (no awkward hand gestures and annoying confusions necessary),
2) when they asked me where I'm from, my answer--the United States--immediately removed suspicion from them as to my motives for applying, and
3) when they asked by what means I was applying and I answered, "por matrimonio (a una valenciana)", in other words, for love, their hearts softened and they treated me like part of the community.
I can only wonder what a sub-Saharan African immigrant who comes looking for work with only broken Spanish would face. (I also wonder how tiresome it must get for the bureaucrats to deal with overly romantic, hedonistic guiris whose Spanish is atrocious.)

This funcionario pride poster was also
posted around the Registro Civil office. 
But the intractable discretion of street-level bureaucrats is not unique to Spain, nor Europe. (For any social theory nerds interested in this, I direct you to Michael Lipsky's Street-Level Bureaucrats (1980), a classic on the subject.) And I shudder to think what my experience would have been like in the United States where even "desirable" immigrants face a profound skepticism and distrust, where the burden of proof is, "Why should we let you in here?"

So let me pause here to give my thanks to the many bureaucrats who helped me to get here today: Spanish bureaucracy is not that bad. In fact, in my opinion, it's smooth, efficient, professional and downright pleasant when compared to the experiences my wife had in the United States with immigration. (I had nightmare experiences with Homeland Security when my wife applied for residency in the United States.) This shouldn't be much of a surprise, because the people who work in the immigration office are professionals, funcionarios, whereas many of the people who work in U.S. immigration are hourly wage workers. Which is why I groan every time an expat spins another clichéd blog entry about Spanish bureaucracy; or when Spaniards perpetuate the stereotypes themselves. The truth is that most of you haven't had to go through it in your own country, and so you really have no point of comparison. Bureaucracy in the U.S. can be pretty oppressive, opaque, and capricious to an outsider; and Spain's system was fairly straightforward and navigable for me thanks to having my wife and her family as "insider" guides. (It's amazing how easily "local knowledge" can sidestep bureaucratic conundrums by tried and true method of "asking a friend about it" or getting a local to "look into it" for you.)

If anything the economic crisis has been a wonderful opportunity
to display the creativity, inventiveness, dare I say entrepreneurship
in all the brilliant ways that the protesters ("manifestantes") play on
pop culture and popular indignation to give birth to hilarious
and poignant critiques like this one: Rajoy, public enemy #1...
enemy of the public #1

     • Why apply for it? Why would you want Spanish nationality anyway? 

In a way, getting asked this question already offers significant insights into the differences between Spain and the USA… Why don't more people ask this question back in my birth country? Part of me was saddened that I was even asked this by the first immigration officer that I spoke to, not simply for the interview, but as a sincere question: why apply to be a Spaniard when you can be perfectly happy here as an American expat? 
–> Initial easy gut answer: So that I can vote in elections. So that I have a voice. Because it will simplify my life with the local bureaucracy.
Why are such utilitarian, transactional explanations always the most credible? When I give answers like this people nod their heads (and then probably think, "Okay. I guess that makes sense. [But I'd never bother with it!]").
–> Sincere yet awkwardly formed, deeper answer: Because I want to be a member of the community! I own a home here. I live here. It feels wrong for me to pretend that I do not belong here. Citizenship is a part of belonging in modern society. I want to belong.
Yeah, even as I write it I can see that it sounds sentimental and idealistic. But in truth citizenship was not just about convenience for me. It was about commitment. Spain is my future. I'm not just day-tripping here. So it is not enough for me to be a permanent resident.

The moment when I swore the oath to the King of Spain and the Spanish Constitution.

Of course, the corollary question that I get asked is "Do you lose your American citizenship?" Ah, yes, the real test of commitment. Here I can fall back on a legal ambiguity. In the "juramento de la nacionalidad" I did have to renounce my other commitments, including my American citizenship. In Spain, I am now not an American. Yet, I know for a fact that the U.S. won't let go of me so easily. I continue to be an American citizen over there. (Unless I formally renounce my citizenship in a U.S. Embassy in front of a consular officer, it's not official for the U.S.) Indeed, some Americans have tried unsuccessfully to willingly leave the U.S.A. for tax-purposes (Americans abroad still have to declare taxes in the U.S.), such as the co-founder of Facebook recently tried. But de facto dual citizenship exists, as I know from a friend who came to Spain from the U.S., got Spanish nationality, and even played basketball for the Spanish Olympic team… and yet the U.S. still accepts _his_ American passport. So short of Spain declaring war with the U.S., and me becoming an "enemy combatant", I'm still American.

Does this mean I'm a dual citizen? I'll leave any direct answer to that to the lawyers. It simply means that in the U.S. I'm American and in Spain and Europe I'm Spanish. 

     • Whither Expats and Immigrants?

The most trivial of dilemmas I now face as a result of this acquisition of Spanish nationality is that I must now decide what to do about my blogger persona moniker: "An Expat in Spain". I'm not exactly an expat anymore, am I? 

The idea of "expat", and how it differs from immigrant, is a complicated one with a long history. If you are interested in this history, I recommend this article, "Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats" by Nancy Green, herself an American expat living in Paris. One of the broad points of her article is that few Americans actually ever sought foreign nationality, Henry James a notable exception. (Ernest Hemingway was more par for the course, living abroad for years on end, but never giving up his Americanness and surrounding himself with other expats.) Another interesting broad point of her article is that, as America has become more comfortable with itself as a nation, it has not worried as much about demanding clear loyalties from its subject. In other words, at the beginning of its history the U.S. worried about its citizens being abroad too long; but today it is comfortable that an American abroad is an American no matter how much they might "go native" as anthropologist say. Thus we now use the word "expat" for people who do not in any way intend to expatriate, to renounce their former nationality for a new one.

It has always seemed to me that, broadly speaking, there are three kinds of immigrants: 
1) those who migrate "por el factor n", to be with the novio/a… i.e. for love,
2) those looking for work or "opportunity" abroad, and
3) those who need to "get the heck out of dodge", the emigrants who want to leave a place more than seek one out. 
Depending on which of these three you are, you'll have a very different kind of experience with the process of cultural integration and local acceptance. One peculiarity of Spain's special relation with many South American countries is that it is easier for many South Americans to obtain citizenship than to get a work visa. Which was probably why the majority of people in my swearing ceremony were from there. This has also created an awkward trend in recent years of a population decline for Spain due to newly minted naturalized Spaniards from South America returning home, unable to find work here.

When my wife saw Balseros with me years ago
in the States, she commented on how much
the Cuban boats resembled boats of refugees
that head to Spain's Canary Islands all the time.
And there is obviously a difference between the legal and illegal immigrant. Being from Texas, I've been especially struck by the parallels between Spain/Europe and Texas/United States in the politics of immigration. In some ways, Spain, like Texas, is a major front in the battle lines of illegal immigration for Europe (see, for your reference, latest news story X on boat from African to southern Spanish coast; compare to Cuban raft on Florida coast). And for the last 15 years Spain has had immigration levels comparable to Texas. And yet, while many northern countries in Europe have had a kind of xenophobic backlash to their immigration (like certain reactions in California or Arizona, which see immigrants as a drain on public resources), in Spain, like in Texas, immigrants are generally accepted as a plus for the economy. Even though Spain does not have the U.S.'s long history as a "melting pot", it tolerates immigration quite well even though immigrants do challenge Spaniards' cultural assumptions. (Cue conversation on "los chinos" and how they confound the Spanish conventions on knowing when to stop working – a fruit stand open on Sunday? It's the beginning of the end!)

But what exactly are "expats"? Where do they fit into all of this. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, there is a kind of luxury and casual indifference to those who embrace the "expat" label. It is not about integration. "Immigrant" suggests a desire and neediness for the adopted country that "expat" does not. "Expat" says, "It's so pleasant here. What a wonderful spot to summer, or vacation, or retire!" (Any time Spaniards do mention immigrants as a possible burden on social services, I point out that retired expats are a much bigger drain, using social services in their retirement without having contributed to employment taxes.) But it's more than that. "Immigrant" suggests a struggle of identity, "Am I Spanish enough? What should I preserve, protect from my past self?" In other words, the immigrant offer us the story of real drama and cultural confrontation, the expat the story of fanciful whimsy and entertainment. (Hemingway, are you hearing this? taking notes?)

For a while now I've enjoyed using the expat label because of its convenience, because it conforms to people's expectations of me as an American in Spain. Because it has allowed me to reach out to others from my birth country who are here in Spain, to connect with them on our "similar" experiences falling in love with the country. But there is a part of me that is curious about those (other) immigrants. Why shouldn't I be classed with the Romanians, the Russians, the South Americans, the sub-Saharan Africans, the Chinese who come to Spain? I'm an immigrant, too!

The room where we did the swearing in ceremony,
and the group of immigrants with me.

Hmm. I don't know. I'm still chewing on this thought. And not lightly, I promise. Yesterday morning, throughout the swearing ceremony, I found myself humming the Manu Chao song quoted above, "Clandestino", about those illegal immigrants in Spain, skirting the law. (What a great song!) How much of my life is like, and how much is it different from those "sin papeles"? Obviously drawing too much of a comparison is not fair to them. I've had it easy. But when I ask, what is a nation, what I'm really asking myself is, how are they any different than me? Why is their claim to enter Spain less legitimate than mine? What right do I have to becoming Spanish that they don't?

This cartoon, showing a "blind justice" miraculously able to pass a eye test
focused on euros, is a brilliant critique of the highly unpopular PP proposal
to introduce fees ("tasas") for legal services in the justice system.

     • Once a guiri, always a guiri?:

Some people are born Spanish. Others, like me, will spend their entire lives having to prove they are Spanish. Last May when I was leading a discussion class in the English language institute where I work, I chose as the topic, "a culture within a culture", starting with a discussion of Jewish culture in America, but then drawing parallels to gypsies in Spain. And sure enough, one of the students said that flamenco was Spanish, not just gypsy, but then couldn't easily articulate why gypsies were somehow distinct from the Spanish even though a dance style they introduced could be called typically Spanish. I made the observation that continental Europeans (not just Spaniards) tend to rely more on a tradition-centered, place-based identities than Americans, and that there was a fixity to how they saw identity that, for me as an American, seemed oddly stubborn and out of alignment with numerous examples of hybrid or dynamic cultural currents in contemporary Spain. 

To drive the point home a bit, I asked my students, "In July, I will gain Spanish nationality, but will you think of me as Spanish or American?" Using the classic heuristic of fuzzy sets reasoning (something akin to "slippery slopes"), I then asked about further hypotheticals, "Is the first generation Chinese-Spanish kid, who speaks with a fully Spanish accent, Spanish? If so, are they, in some way, less Spanish than a Spaniard born to Spaniards, because they don't "look Spanish" or because their parents aren't Spanish?" Now, my students aren't bigots, far from it, but they were honest and they acknowledged that I would not "become Spanish", in the broader cultural sense, this July simply by getting nationality. (Formal nationality is not a magic wand after all.) And some even agreed that I might never be Spanish, by many people's standards. Even though, at some future point in time, I will have spent more years in Spain than I have in the U.S.

Frankly, I'm not worried about this. "Blending in" is not my lifelong objective. I enjoy being a bit of a misnomer and "out of place" here, living in a "third space" between Spain and the United States, to pun on an urban planning term. I would like to think that I add to Spain's diversity and cultural richness by being the immigrant that I am, and not a born-and-bred Spaniard. But I do like to get my students thinking outside their comfort zone, so I then told my students about an excellent work in American history, Elizabeth Ewen's Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars (1985), a study of progressive social workers in 1920s America who sought to work with poor immigrant families to help them integrate and "become American". It was an ironic story. The "very American" social workers kept getting frustrated with what they saw as intransigent, backward immigrants who adopted "American" traditions only partially, selecting some but not others. Of course, what the American social workers did not see, but what the immigrants saw only too well (and the historian with 20/20 hindsight), was that America had changed. The immigrants were not encumbered by Victorian-era values, and embraced the emergent 20th-century consumerism, with all its flash and heady gaudiness. (I don't think it's a coincidence that so many American directors during Hollywood's Golden Age were immigrants. Who better to write the script on the quintessentially American story?)

What was the lesson for my class? Sometimes, just sometimes, immigrants see a country better than the locals do. And both are going to play a part in writing that country's future.

Addendum: A much, much longer entry could be written about the 
many other bureaucratic steps one has to take to "become Spanish", beyond 
residence and citizenship... such as the dreaded "homologación de título" 
for foreign degrees, or getting a local driver's license. Suffice it to say that 
some of these I've done and others I have on radar, but they are much more
complicated, infuriating, arbitrary and time-consuming. 
So I save them for another day.

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