In shrinking Spanish hamlets, immigrants welcome

Newcomers are enticed with jobs, housing, and airfare. But the repopulation efforts have not been without growing pains.

Gilda Mazzeo hasn't been in the doorway five minutes before her elderly neighbors begin the usual interrogation during their evening promenade.

"Baby asleep already?" calls out one woman. "Where's your husband?" another wants to know. "Tell him to stay home with the kids and you go out instead!" quips a third.

With a frozen smile, Ms. Mazzeo patiently answers, as though she had lived all her life in this small northern town, where everyone knows each other's business. But the Argentine's singsong accent gives her away as a foreigner. She moved to Aguaviva three years ago from Buenos Aires and is among 40 immigrant families invited by the mayor to repopulate the dying hamlet of 590 souls.

"The nosiness takes getting used to, but they mean well," Mazzeo says with a sigh. "The neighbors look after us, and one is like a grandmother to my children."

Immigration doesn't get much better than this in Spain, where the settling-in experience is commonly beset by numbing paperwork, housing scams, black-market employment, and other troubles worse than curious neighbors.

As in the rest of Western Europe, most leaders in Spain worry more about how to keep out immigrants than how to make them feel at home. But driven by a dearth of manual labor, a network of 83 one-bus-stop bergs like Aguaviva ("Living Waters") are setting out the welcome mat in the sparsely populated regions of Teruel, Soria, Huesca, and Valencia provinces, most of them in the country's arid, mountainous northeast.

The enticements include a job with benefits, a reasonably priced apartment, and plane tickets for the whole brood - the more kids the merrier. Since the crossborder courtship began here in 2000, the nonprofit Spanish Association of Municipalities Against Depopulation has attracted 56 families from Argentina, Uruguay, Romania, and Ecuador.

When the newcomers arrive, the collision of two worlds often ends in alienation. Some, mostly the Argentines, have scoffed at the construction and farming jobs offered; the lack of opportunities for women; poor communications with the nearest cities; and, naturally, the meddlesome townsfolk, who don't hide their disapproval of what they consider "frivolous" purchases, such as television sets, microwave ovens, or PlayStations for the kids.

The longtime residents, for their part, sound like jilted lovers when they describe the rejection of their way of life and the "lack of gratitude" for their generosity.

"They couldn't feed themselves in Argentina. They come here and what did they expect - a satellite dish on every house and a Mercedes at the door?" asks Juan Altabella, owner of the town hotel.

"The South Americans confused repopulation with colonization," says the town doctor and mayor, Luís Bricio, author of the immigrants-welcome drive. No fewer than 15 families, he says, have "turned their back on the town" after being greeted with baskets of food, clothing, and even furniture by well-meaning locals.

But newcomers like Mazzeo who manage to push through the initial culture shock have incorporated themselves into the rhythms of small-town life.

Blond, blue-eyed Eastern European immigrants converse fluently in Spanish with their new neighbors and co-workers.

Children of all nationalities play soccer in the town square until nightfall - then act as interpreters for recent arrivals from their homeland.

Six-year-old Madelina Tiuka, from Romania, even goes on marketing errands herself because she speaks Spanish so well, the storekeepers are so trustworthy, and the streets so safe. Many are happy enough to bring over other family members: parents, grandparents, brothers, and cousins.

In fact, compared to the often unfriendly treatment in the big cities, home to the majority of Spain's 1.2 million non-European Union immigrants, life is almost idyllic - if you can get used to a place where there is no clothing store, only one bus passes through a day, and the majority of the town's 700 aging natives share the same five last names.

"It's a better quality of life," says Sergio Germain, who was an accounting assistant in his native Montevideo, Uruguay, but now works on a rabbit farm. His wife, Adriana Pereira, serves snacks at the town cafeteria.

"I never have money in my pockets; I don't need it, says Mr. Germain. "I sleep without locking the door. I'm even getting used to those gossip circles. I know how to avoid them!"

The locals have also adapted to the newcomers, despite the suspicion that many will eventually move on to more cosmopolitan surroundings.

The local market now stocks the herbal tea yerba maté, polenta, and other favorites that please the Argentine palate.

Two local nuns started a two-week summer program at the town school to help integrate the newly arrived children and briefly alleviate the day-care pressure on young working mothers.

The school population has doubled - to 80 pupils - since the repopulation campaign began. The hallways are decorated with posters of Romania and Argentina, and a finger-painted "welcome" sign hangs outside one classroom.

The world has become a larger place for the adults in this crosscultural experiment, as well. One elderly woman who had never before met a foreigner found herself renting an apartment to an Ecuadorian family, at the persuasion of the mayor.

"If I do them any favor, they say, 'How can I repay you, God bless you,'" she told her friends during one of the regular evening chat sessions.

And once in awhile, when the chemistry is right, what begins as mutual tolerance blooms into outright affection.

"Give me a kiss, Dorel, give a kiss," coos Matilde Roig, bending to greet the 5-year-old Romanian boy who has just rung her doorbell. Dorel David and his brother, Vladimir, well know their way to Ms. Roig's house. The childless retiree offered to look after them three hours a day for six months while their mother, Lili, worked in a restaurant outside the town.

"She didn't even ask me for a slice of bread to give them," recalls Lili David, her Spanish fluent after two-and-a-half years in the country. "She said, 'Look, I have a full refrigerator.' I asked what I could give in return, and she said, 'Nothing, I love them. Just leaving them with me is enough.'"

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