Spanish suburbs transformed into land of shattered dreams
When Magali Quezada began working at a remittance office in suburban Madrid four years ago there were long lines of customers -- now she waits patiently for someone to walk in.
"It used to be swarming with people, there were long lines of people who wanted to send money back home," the 34-year-old Peruvian said as she looked around the empty office at Torrejon de Ardoz.
Like other Spanish suburbs, Torrejon saw a huge influx of immigrants during the years of a profitable real estate boom as millions of foreigners arrived seeking jobs in construction and the service sector.
Immigrants account for about one-fourth of Torrejon's population. They come mainly from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe and have helped keep the town's bars, cafes and beauty salons busy during the good times.
But with immigrants especially hard-hit by the collapse of Spain's real estate bubble in 2008, stores are now deserted. "For sale" signs dot the windows of flats, and the suburb is plagued by unemployment and shattered dreams.
"We got used to the good life, we had leisure time, we could buy a plot of land in our countries, we brought over our families. Now all of that is over," said Quezada who arrived in Torrejon a decade ago.
Spain's unemployment rate soared to a 15-year high of 21.52 percent in the third quarter, the highest among major industrialised nations.
But among immigrants the joblessness is even higher, standing at 32.7 percent.
Many now struggle to meet repayments on car and and home loans given out with ease by banks when times were better.
When Luis Mendes arrived in Spain in 1997 from Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on the West African coast that is one of the world's poorest nations, he thought he found his land of opportunity.
The 40-year-old worked long hours on a farm and then as a construction worker and got a bank loan for 100,000 euros to buy a 70-square-metre flat in Torrejon.
"I earned a good living, I earned 1,800 euros a month because I would often worked overtime. It was enough to help my family who stayed behind," he said.
"Today I don't work anymore. I received jobless benefits during a year but now I am not entitled to them anymore," said Mendes, who shares his apartment with his two brothers who are also out of work.
He is facing eviction from his flat because he has not been keeping up with his mortgage payments.
The street where Mendes lives has been nicknamed "eviction street" because several other people risk losing their homes over missing mortgage payments.
Last month a group of about 60 activists who fight against home foreclosures tried in vain to prevent two bailiffs from evicting Consuelo Lozano from her first-floor flat in Torrejon.
The 40-year-old unemployed cleaning lady had already sent her two sons and daughter back to her native Ecuador with her husband but she cannot walk away from her 200,000-euro mountain of debt.
"It is a fight against giants and I am nothing beside them," she said, her eyes welling with tears, after she turned over her keys to the bailiffs.
Lozano would like to go back to Ecuador but if she leaves Spain the debt on her flat would pass on to her sister, who is a guarantor of the bank loan.
"I could go back to Ecuador but where would I leave my conscience which torments me?," she asked.
Other immigrants, like Mendes, have no desire to return to their homeland.
"It is very hard, I live very badly now. But it is even worse in my country," he said.
© 2011 AFP