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.


Mr Grumpy said...

Interesting Stuff. By comparison us Europeans have it easy on moving to Spain. Then again, moving to the US isn't all that easy for us Europeans.

Sorokin said...

This is a very interesting subject, which affects me directly, living in Brussels for almost twenty years. What am I? Expat? Spanish? European? Mostly taking into account that I have also lived in London, in Paris, in Mexico, etc. Would I say that I am basically a professional immigrant?
Anyway, I have to say that I eventually have settled here (twenty years are a lot of years). And I have to say that for EU citizens, things are easy here (provided, of course that you have the means of living). No problem to get the double residence, the driving license, etc. So, in fact, I have no answer whether I am Expat or what. Brussels is such an open city that nobody feels a foreigner here.

Incidentally, Blogger does not update your entry in my list of Blogs.

Nicole Jewell said...

I think this is one of the most interesting things you have written about, especially considering that you write some incredibly impressive posts!

I really enjoyed reading it - thanks for sharing your experience!


pepón said...

You would be considered Spanish if you spoke spanish naturally without (foreign) accent, and knew the cultural references. No one would think to ask, because we are not used to it. Even if you are chinese or african, it might take people by surprise, but if you pass the test above, you will be accepted.

Trevor Huxham said...

This was an incredible read, Zach, and I really liked your philosophical take on the whole idea of citizenship and the nation-state. Have you considered changing “An Expat in Spain” to “An American Spaniard”? Looking forward to more posts to come!

An Expat in Spain said...

Mr. Grumpy, thanks for reading. I'd say your observation is understatement. In fact, I've barely had time to think about the fact that now I'm also a European. Now I'll be able to travel and work around Europe as freely as other Europeans! Even the UK. What a concept!

Sorokin, you of all people can most certainly relate to this idea of being a person without a nation, or falling into the cracks of national identity. There is someone I follow on Twitter: @DisplacedNation, whose tagline I particularly like: "Have you traveled for so long and crossed so many cultures that you don’t seem to belong anywhere? Then you've earned the right of entry to our site: thedisplacednation.com". There you go. You've "earned a right" to their website ;)

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Nicole! I cannot underscore how much I appreciate your encouraging comments! So many thank yous for them! I'm glad you found this entry interesting. Frankly, it is too long. (This is what my mom told me after reading it. LOL!) But it was a long journey, so I decided to go ahead and inflict it on my readers as such.

Pepón, I think you are mostly right, and in fact several of my EFL students said much the same thing. In my case (European ethnicity), I think it's true. But I do wonder whether Spaniards are as prepared to consider Chinese-Spanish and Africa-Spanish as much as Brits and Americans have. (Granted, even in the U.S. we have an awkward acceptance of Asian-Americans in our national imagination. Consider the dearth of Asian actors in Hollywood, for evidence.)

Trevor, as a historian I have to say there is a ton of very fascinating literature on the nation-state. In fact, the entire historiography of WWI is really a study in what it meant to for sovereign elites (kings, tsars, and emperors) to finally go to war on a global arena relying on popular nationalist sentiment rather than forced conscription. But I digress. I _love_ your suggestion, and am changing my accounts "as we speak".

Ester said...

I'm spanish, I'm a teacher and i have had many children who were immigrants (not expats) in my class, and I have noticed that those children who copy the behaviours, attitudes, and even jokes from spanish children are integred rapidly and everyone tends to forget that they are not spanish, but those who hold different attitudes or behaviours (not worse nor better, just different) are considered foreigners for longer.
Regarding to the way we see our country, i'm sure that immigrants or expats will see it with more objetivity, because we are influenced by our history.

Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

You write so much! But you have interesting things to say, so it works out for ya.

Congratulations! I don't think I will ever take that step, mainly because Mario and I would like to live in the US (closer to my family; I'm the homebody in this relationship). The place he's working at is likely not his long-term job (he'll burn out if he continues at this pace for five years straight), so we're kind of in a waiting game.

And because of this waiting game, I feel like the best term for for now is expat. Although it's less about summering or vacationing or retiring. It's about Mario, more than anything. I do love Spain, don't get me wrong, but ... I want to live closer to my family! Luckily it seems Mario is a bit more like you. He's lived apart from his family before without the slightest tinge of homesickness.

Oh, and I agree about the bureacracy ... bureacracy is certainly not fun. Madrid's is the worst, due to the sheer quantity. In Zamora, where I got my NIE and we were married, it was actually very painless. I applied, no lines, and a month later I had it! :) And you are right, they do seem to soften up when they hear you are in Spain for looooooove.

Anyway, great post. I always learn a lot.

Cat said...

I, I don't even know what to say! I've been told that Americans can now get Spanish passports, but I'm just not in the mood to go through the bureaucratic BS to get one or even look into it. I applaud you!

sp said...

Please spread the word to your circle that the European home countries of retired expats pay thousands in annual per head contributions to Spain for healthcare. Most Spanish don't realise this and imagine that they are paying for those who just retire here and bring their health problems with them.

Paige said...

I have to admit, I felt really ashamed when you were talking about how it must be more difficult for immigrants from other countries to go through the legal processes than it is for Americans. I complain all the time about having to renew my NIE and get the stupid autorizacion de regreso when I want to leave, but I've really never had a problem. Although I don't look Spanish and I don't really sound Spanish, most Spanish people are welcoming to me and want to get to know me whether it's at the grocery store, the bus stop, or at a bar. Maybe if I were African or Chinese, it wouldn't be as easy.

Anyway, really interesting post with strong points. Congrats on becoming Spanish. The great state of Texas misses you I'm sure!

An American Spaniard said...

Ester, you make a very good point, that children (and school teachers) are much more adaptable to adopting immigrant kids if those kids integrate. Thank you for voicing that point and sharing your experience. (In fact, Ewen in her book Immigrant Women makes a similar point about the focus on introducing immigrant families to local culture through children, whose culture is much more fluid.)

sp, you also make a good point. Under the new EU law, expat homeland countries pay a stipend to countries like Spain for their expat communities who use healthcare. Though I hear that there is still a gap between the spirit of this mutual exchange and the effectiveness of its implementation.

An American Spaniard said...

Paige, becoming Spanish hasn't lessened my missing the great state of Texas! (This month jalapeños are in season at one Mercat Central stand, and this is one Texan whose been living up the nostalgia of them.) Glad you enjoyed the post.

Kaley, I think your plan sounds perfect, and though it carries you in the opposite direction, I actually very much relate to your reasoning and plans. My wife and I spent many years in the States building up our professional profiles, but always knowing we were moving back to Spain for family reasons. (I've had to weather all kinds of silly comments from people about our moving here... as if pleasant weather and decent food, alone, would cause me to pick up my bags and plop on over to another continent!) Family and connectedness is important. I wish you and Mario the best when that move comes. It sounds like Mario will be getting a well-deserved break, too!

Isa en Valencia said...

I just spent the past four months living in Valencia and have absolutely fallen in love with it! I'm still a student at my university in the States, but I'm already looking at grad programs in Spain.

Any advice for keeping up with my Spanish back home until I can return to Spain? (I'm also a Spanish major, just for the record.)

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Isa! Valencia can really win a person over. The advice I'd give on keeping up Spanish is the same advice I give my students here on creating a virtual "total immersion" for English in Spain (in no particular order):

1) watch lots of movies/television in original language (resist subtitles)
2) set your internet browser home page to a Spanish language website (e.g. El País if you like to read the news). Every time you load your browser, you'll by default see what is happening in Spain and be drawn into reading Spanish stories ... this has the advantage of also keeping you plugged into whatever Spaniards are reading
3) read novels in the language... and don't limit yourself to (potentially boring) classic literature. Read present-day hits, like La sombra del viento, or Perez-Reverte, so that they are fast, easy reads and use contemporary language.
4) Find language exchanges or join cultural clubs. The more you put Spaniards in your immediate life, the more your mind will 'think in Spain' (not just in Spanish, per se, but about what's happening there). This was probably why my Spanish improved substantially the 7 years I lived in the U.S. with my Valencian wife, even though we spoke English together. We're social creatures, so the more you find your social life drawing your mind to Spanish issues/topics, the more you'll think like a Spanish speaker.
5) Create Spanish music playlists on your MP3 player. The more you listen to Spanish music, the more you'll find yourself humming Spanish chorus lines and keeping up the vocab. It'll also "tune" your ear to the language keeping it fresh.

I'm sure there are more tricks, but that's a pretty good start. My main trick, which might be the best one but the hardest to force, is simply to fall in love with a Spaniard. Nothing conditions your language faster than having it in your love life.

Good luck with it! And I hope you find your way back to Spain soon.

Therese said...


Cassandra said...


I echo the others in that this is a fascinating account. I wanted to let this sit and process for a bit before I came back to leave a comment.

Your account is not only intriguing because it is something unique among us English-speaking-Spanish-living bloggers*, but also because you force us all to reflect a bit on what it means for each of us to live here. What is our situation, and how is it different from that of a Romanian/Chinese/Peruvian immigrant? How are WE to be treated, and how do we come to terms with a new identity (be it paperwork-official or not). I believe the crux of your argument centers around the idea that “in truth citizenship was not just about convenience for me. It was about commitment.” That is an insightful and haunting proclamation, Zach.

I also find the argument about the definition of “expat” interesting, since the one you write about is quite different from the typical way long-term travelers identify with the label. (*Notice how I didn’t use it here, ha.)

It’s also been interesting to see how everyone responded to your story. It seems that you have indeed triggered two distinct reactions: the pragmatically curious (“more details please!”) and the pragmatically confounded (“I wouldn’t bother”).

You also make a good observation in that some of the paperwork here is easier than the same tramites are in the States (and possibly in other countries). My boyfriend is from Colombia, and certainly in some respects this has also been true for him, as well. He studied in the States and had to deal with some of the “nightmares” you mention here when applying for his US student visa. While Spanish papeleo sometimes makes me frustrated at its lack of transparency, I do have to sit back and recall that a) on the whole my paperwork has been processed with minor holdups and b) I don’t have the experience of maneuvering red tape in another country. Gasp—someone arguing that Spanish bureaucracy is downright decent?! Now that is a post I’d like to read again.

Finally--sorry, I realized I’m writing a novel here!—congrats on your new status! Mil gracias for sharing the journey.

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Cassandra! I'm always glad to have you reading, and I really appreciate your comments. While I was reading your paraphrase of my remark about citizenship being more than convenience, but a kind of commitment, it reminded me of a conversation I once had with a gay friend about gay marriage versus civil unions. At the time I didn't understand why she wouldn't be satisfied with civil unions, which legally would offer all the services and rights of marriage to gay couples. She replied, and completely convinced me, that such a "separate but equal" approach to gay relationships still fundamentally denied them legal (and by extension social) recognition that their commitment was as real and genuine as a straight couple's.

I wonder if there is not some analogy to be drawn here to what I'm describing about the psychology of integration and cultural commitment, and differences between tourists, exchange students, expats, and immigrants, in terms of degree of "going native". And the role of institutional recognition and certification of that belonging. I doubt this (unformed, rough) thought has been made clear here, but I thank you for your thought-provoking reply.

Cassandra said...

Ahh, that definitely does make sense, Zach. For many matters the social recognition is just as important as the legal--it certainly influences your day-to-day life and how those around you treat you. Great analogy for demonstrating this point!

Chelsea Alventosa said...

HI Zach,

Wow! I really loved reading this and it has given me so much to think about... I might have to do a related blog entry of my own! Entering into my third year teaching English in Spain I've also reflected a lot about what my place is here. I like what you said about living in a "third space"... an American Spaniard, like Trevor Huxham suggested. My boyfriend and I are a registered pareja de hecho and are now jumping through hoops for me to get a 5-year residency card and I sometimes really struggle with convincing myself that it's worth it. I love living here and I love my boyfriend and I love connecting to my roots (my grandmother was Spanish) but at this point I think I prefer long-term resident to immigrant.

Thanks for such an insightful and thought provoking read! I really enjoyed it.

SB Tang said...

Hi Zach

I hope that you and your family are well. I love your blog, Not Hemingway’s Spain.

I’m an Australian freelance writer. I’ve written for The Guardian, ESPNCricinfo and Roads & Kingdoms. I’m currently in Valencia for a holiday and to write an article about Valencian rice culture for Roads & Kingdoms.

As the resident bilingual expert on Valencian food and culture, I was wondering whether you’d be interested in being interviewed for my article and perhaps, if you’re free, showing me around and helping me with the language barrier?

Unfortunately, my Spanish is non-existent!

I've sent you an email with my phone number.

I hope to hear from you.

Keep up the great work with your blog!

All the best.

Kind regards
SB Tang

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Chelsea! I'm glad my experience and account of it here has been of help to you. My heart goes out to everyone who has to navigate foreign bureaucracies on issues of residency or nationality. It is always confusing, stressful, and sometimes complicated. I wish you the best with it. You blog is now on my radar and I look forward to following your adventures in expatdom in Andalucíá.

Hi SB, I'm glad we were able to meet up while you are here. It's been fun talking about rice culture and sports culture in Spain, the U.S., and Australia. I look forward to reading the article when it comes out, and will be sure to share it with my readers.

nj_bcn said...

I'm struggling with this big step ... after more than 5 years in the works, I finally received my notification and now I just need to "jurar" to make it final .... but my problem comes when they tell me I must renounce my US citizenship ... I've started a thread on this forum ... maybe you could take a look at it ... I'd love to hear back from you....


nj_bcn said...

WHOOPS! I forgot the link ...


Thanks again!

Emily MG said...

Hi Zach, I just found your blog after seeing your comment on NPR. This post was interesting for me because I lived in Madrid for 4 years as an English teacher (plus junior year of college, plus summers of college as an au pair) and I didn't know much about becoming a citizen. I've been in the US for a whole year now. I've never been away from Madrid for this long and it kind of feels like the city and I were in a long term relationship that didn't work out. My whole adult life has been in Spain (example: I didn't know how to say security deposit in English when I had to sign a lease).
Regarding being seen as an outsider in Spain: I speak Spanish well and have also adopted many mannerisms that the madrileños use. However, I was convinced while living there that I could marry a Spaniard and have children and later grandchildren in Spain and I would never truly be Spanish. I love my Spanish friends and former neighbors, but I don't know if people walking down the street would ever really think of me as Spanish even if I did have citizenship. Maybe I'll ask you how you feel about that in a decade or so.
I am especially curious about the juramiento. As an American, I would be uncomfortable to swear allegiance to a king. I wouldn't mind giving up the US and living abroad again, but did it bother you at all to accept the Spanish monarchy?
Anyway, I'm glad I found this blog and I plan on checking out more posts.

Emily MG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
An American Spaniard said...

Hi nj_bcn! I can understand the hesitation. I knew about it in advance and so I had a couple of years to think about it and consult around. I've written a much longer reply on the expat-blog forum link you posted to. I hope it helps. If not, feel free to email me with further questions/doubts.

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Emily! I'm enjoying the NPR series, since it is fun and thought-provoking, and good to be a bit reflexive about what it means to be an "expat" or "immigrant", and how that also depends on your starter country (to pun on "starter kit") or economic situation. I love your wording of how your time in Madrid is like a longterm relationship that didn't quite work out. There is a kind of romance (in both senses of the word) to citizenship and national belonging.

Still, one shouldn't give national identity too much credence. Yes, it will be a long time, maybe never, until a Spaniard's first impression of me is that I'm Spanish. But that might just force them to keep an open mind about who I really am. Many of my American compatriots could easily misjudge me if they simply stereotyped me as "American". The joy of living between two countries, two nationalities, is that one can explore themselves without too much simplistic nationalist baggage of what part of them is generic and what is unique. (Or maybe this is an advanced expat feeling. My first year in Spain I was constantly recurring to simpler compare and contrast analysis.)

Oh, and I confess that I'm teased by my friends for being a bit of a royalist... not that I'm advocating monarchy as a political system (even Spain's king isn't), but constitutional republics also have their pitfalls. (Would I swear allegiance to the crazies in Congress who shut down the national parks right when I wanted to visit them this year?) So, no, I had no problem swearing allegiance to the king; much as it didn't bother me to pledge allegiance to the flag as a kid in elementary school.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

leahb said...

Stumbled upon this blog, really great writing. There's this silly girl from New York who has gone viral and even been printed in El Pais who wrote an article about how her life was changed in this small town in Extremadura. I found the article childish and couldn't believe how she was able to get published! The real article they should have put was yours. Great insight and very well written.

Hristo Yanev said...

Hi guys,
Thank you so much for this wonderful article really!
If someone want to know more about are expats immigrants I think this is the right place for you!

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