For whatever reason we are discriminatory in our hearts is a private matter. But open racism–that’s a different thing altogether.
I was wandering home a couple of weeks ago and I passed a sign that said ‘Restaurante Español’. With Valencia being Spain’s third biggest city it might not seem all that strange to see a sign advertising a Spanish restaurant. The sign wasn’t in fancy lettering painted on the window, or neatly written above the door; it was on a piece of A4 paper stuck across a window. The reason the sign is there is because the bar is on one of the streets that run alongside the Estación del Norte, Valencia’s China Town, where about eighty per cent of the bars and restaurants are Chinese-run, including the Bar Restaurante Don Pepe Authentica Comida China. I’m certain there were no racial undertones to the sign, and what he was saying was, ‘I’m a Spanish caff, with Spanish owners and Spanish customers’, although he might not have used those exact words. Ten minutes walk away, though, the story is very different and far more troubling.
Ruzafa is seen as the place to be in Valencia at the moment – it’s la moda, full of new restaurants, bars, galleries and the chi-chi extras that draw the Valencianos and leave the Barrio del Carmen to visitors. It has always been a barrio de toda la vida, a working class neighbourhood that has welcomed immigrants as far back as the time of the Moors around a thousand years ago – although, admittedly, they came as conquerors.
A casual stroll across the barrio, north to south, east to west, will take you all of fifteen minutes, but you would pass through a United Nations mix of cultures, lives and histories, all living side-by-side. Arabs, Chinese, Pakistanis, Italian, Senegalese, Irish, English, Russian, Australian, people from every Latin American and North-European country and pretty much everywhere else besides, happily co-existing with their Spanish neighbours. It’s this diverse population that gives the area its unique feel. In the years I’ve lived here I’ve never heard one single racist comment or seen a racist act – until today.
Calle Romeu de Corbera is a narrow side-street that runs off Ruzafa’s main drag, which changes names three times in its relatively short length, from Calle Literato Azorin, through Calle Reina Doña María, where I live, and ending with Calle Pedro III el Grande. Romeu de Corbera has a couple of restaurants, a second-hand electrical appliance shop and small workshop that takes in sewing repairs. Until recently it also had a greengrocer.
As I walked up the street this morning I saw that the greengrocer had closed, and above the roll-down security door was a sign printed on an A4 sheet of paper encased in a clear plastic cover and nailed to the wall. The sign read ‘ESTE LOCAL NO SE ALQUILA A PAKISTANI’ – This shop is not for rent to Pakistanis. It seemed so innocuous, but it shocked me more than I would have expected.
We’ve heard plenty of South African apartheid stories of ‘Black’ and ‘White’ entrances to buildings, the vicious racism in the southern states of America that forced Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat in the ‘White only’ section of a Montgomery bus and heralded the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and the ‘No Blacks’ treatment of Jamaicans by landlords and hotels after they arrived on the MV Empire Windrush in 1948, and for years afterwards. But all that is history – this is now, my barrio in 2012, and I couldn’t believe that someone could be so blatantly racist, and even if the act isn’t actually illegal it is so outrageously discriminatory that it should be.
Alongside the offensive sign is a large sticker for the agents handling the rental, hogarvalencia.com, an agency which, at least according to their website, is made up of a group of professionals of different disciplines and many years experience in the estate agency field, but Carlos, the agent I spoke to who didn’t give his surname, frankly admitted that he knew about the sign didn’t care that it was there. The owner had put it up because previous tenants had ‘acted badly’ and hadn’t paid their rent, so he wouldn’t rent to any more Pakistanis.
Most people who have lived in Spain for any length of time, be they estate agents or not, will have plenty of stories to tell of disastrous rentals, including unpaid rent, damaged property, and long, interminable court cases to get the offending and offensive tenants evicted. In my experience and judging by the anecdotal information I have, it isn’t just foreigners who cause the problems, it is the Spanish themselves who are the main culprits. So I put the point to Carlos. Just because it was a Pakistani person who caused the problem, did this give the owner the right to ban the whole of the Pakistani nation from renting his property, and, if he had the problem with an English, a German or a Spanish client, would he also feel justified in putting up a sign saying, ‘‘ESTE LOCAL NO SE ALQUILA A INGLES/ALEMAN/ESPAÑOL’? He said that it wouldn’t bother him whatever the nationality was, but I suspect it would be a long, cold day in hell before he’d have the temerity to put a sign outside a property banning the Spanish both individually and as a nation from renting a shop.
I can’t speak for the rest of Spain, but in Valencia many of the vegetable shops are now run by Pakistanis, and there has been an exponential increase in them over the last couple of years. To be truthful, I’d visited the shop in question a couple of times and wasn’t particularly impressed by either the range of goods on offer or the service, and I’d suspected that it wouldn’t stay open for long, if for no other reason than it is in a very bad situation for this type of shop, with no passing trade. Perhaps the fact that it had been closed for years might have given a reasonable indication. But what happens if someone else wants to try his entrepreneurial hand in the same premises?
“If a Pakistani rings me and asks me to show him the shop I won’t go,” said Carlos. “I don’t want to waste my time going when I know the owner won’t rent it to him.” Which then begs the question, how does Carlos know it’s a Pakistani calling him? Is he simply going to ask, “Are you Pakistani?” and if so, how deep into the murky waters of discrimination is that getting him?
Whatever reputation a nationality has in its business dealings, and to be fair, judging by the bad experiences of a number of friends who have had dealings with Pakistani businessmen in Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile’ of Rusholme, where most of the ‘Indian’ restaurants and business are actually Pakistani-run, this sort of situation is far from rare, it nonetheless does not justify in any way whatsoever a public declaration of discrimination as the sign in Calle Romeu de Corbera displays. Whatever is said privately or excuses made about why a particular property cannot be rented to someone specific, this should be kept strictly behind closed doors. Let something as simple as putting up a home-printed sign saying that one targeted group of people are barred from any business or activity and you are one step further to the ‘Blacks at the back of the bus’ that Rosa Parks stood up against almost forty-seven years ago.
Racist or illegal, I don’t know, but it is most surely discriminatory. But apart from that, it is offensive; offensive to the people who live in the community of Ruzafa, the Chinese, Moroccans, the Senegalese and Latin Americans, who might be seen as outside the ‘European’ norm. This is bigotry, however you want to look at it, and it doesn’t just rest with one person, the owner of a small shop in the barrio. It is with the collusion of an agency of supposed professionals, hogarvalencia.com, who have appointed themselves judge over a nation. Given the tarnished reputation that clings like swamp mud to many Spanish estate agents, perhaps this might be a time for the physician to heal himself before trying to handle the ailments of others.