In Spain's lonely countryside, a Cupid crusade

The women stand on one side of the village's only restaurant, chatting and primping. Their potential suitors - sheep farmers, wheat growers, and truck drivers - lounge in a row opposite, mumbling and gawking.

Marifé Castejón can't stand it. "I came here to meet a man!" she yells out to the assembled bachelors. "Are we going to stay divided like this, or are we going to mingle?"

This is courtship in the dying Spanish hinterlands, where middle-aged men still live with their mothers and single women are so scarce they have to be imported by bus, in this case from Madrid.

The imports - most of them immigrants to Spain like hospital janitor Ms. Castejón - come to these sleepy hamlets hoping to walk down the aisle to a better life.

For their part, the men hope to recover from the romantic disaster that Spain's modernization and urbanization have wreaked since the 1960s. The so-called "economic miracle" lured most of the rural population to the big cities, including the suddenly liberated women of the post-Franco era.

Some of the menfolk left behind in places like Fompedraza (pop. 143) were simply paralyzed by such major change, sociologists say.

Others were elder sons who had inherited the family farm. But whatever held them back, these rural Romeos shared a common bond: loneliness.

"I had girlfriends who would spend summers in town, but come winter, they would all leave to work in Zaragoza," cattle herder José Serveto recalls wistfully.

Mr. Serveto was among the bachelors in his Pyrenees mountain village, called Plan, who helped organize the first of these so-called "caravans" of imported potential brides, in 1985. Their inspiration was the 1951 American film "Westward the Women," whose Spanish title is Caravana de Mujeres. Serveto found his mate, as did three other men.

Since that first successful venture, enterprising farmers around the country have been organizing the collective blind dates, where lonely hearts mingle over roasted lamb and a halting pasodoble, or two-step.

But the demographics are dismal: 922 hamlets, most of them in the arid central plateau, have fewer than 100 residents each, according to the National Institute of Statistics. So singles from neighboring towns must band together to throw just one bash.

The early caravans attracted mostly Spanish-born singles, working women like Serveto's wife, Maxima Matías, a maid in Valencia who says she felt "overwhelmed by city life."

But today, the cupid crusade has been hitting the road to a salsa beat, as immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Colombia board the bus. Mostly housecleaners and nannies, the new recruits say they're willing to trade city life for stability and companionship.

"I know the guys in the pueblos are gruff and unpolished, but at least they're hard-working and serious, and they don't mind if you already have children," says Doris Ortiz, a Dominican housecleaner who left Santo Domingo in 1992 with her two daughters. "You just have to watch out for the machistas who think we're prostitutes and that all they have to do is dance with us and we'll sleep with them."

In these encounters of potential mates, the culture clash goes beyond urban verses rural. Some of the men have trouble concealing their wariness of the "Sudacas" - a pejorative word here for South Americans - who, bachelors fear, may simply be looking for deep pockets or the equivalent of a green card. Other men say they have heard tales of women who have dropped their Spanish suitors once a true love - or even a husband - from Bogotá or Santo Domingo arrives on the scene.

Mistrust of foreigners is a feeling common in a Spanish society facing rising immigration. Over the past five years alone, the number of foreign-born residents has more than doubled, from 719,649 in 1998 to 1,572,017 today, according to the National Institute of Statistics. And that's counting only those with legal papers. Most of these "new Spaniards," as the media call them, are from Morocco, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Unfortunately for the "flowers from another world," as a 1999 Spanish film dubs the caravan-hopping South Americans, the most visible immigrant women have been tricked into prostitution by international criminal rings.

But in reality, the majority of these new arrivals merely do the dirty work Spaniards won't - harvesting vegetables and cleaning toilets. They also accept the leftover bachelors.

Like Mañuel Gozalo. The insurance salesman, raised in Fuentesaúco (pop. 310), had rarely dated before age 36. That's when he met a young grandmother from the Dominican Republic at a caravan. Since that day in 1995, he has devoted his free time to helping others find domestic bliss; he has planned 16 of these get-togethers.

Mr. Gozalo chooses a village, plans the festivities, and then advertises in Madrid by word of mouth. He usually draws between 30 and 40 women. For the right to attend an event, which typically lasts eight hours, the women pay $10 apiece; the men $30. Gozalo says he doesn't make a profit; all the money pays for the food, drink, and transportation.

"I organized the first caravan as a joke after my girlfriend dumped me, but then I realized it was a great way to repopulate the towns," he says, launching into a speech on the need for government incentives to bring new industries - and jobs for women - to the Y-chromosome belt.

But for now, Saturnino Gutierrez's only hope is the next scheduled caravan.

"I don't care where she's from or what color her skin is. All I'm looking for is a good woman who doesn't mind the life here," says the farmer, whose mother cooked all his meals until his 41st birthday, and who has never set foot in Madrid, though it's only a 90-minute drive away from Fuentesaúco.

Mr. Gutierrez has been to seven matchmaking expeditions, and last year he finally scored a telephone number. "We were out a few times," he admits shyly, "but then she told me she doesn't want to live in the pueblo."

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