The first time I ever saw an immigrantwas at Mercat Nou metro station, at the end of the nineties. Or, come to think of it, it was the first time I actually became aware of them. I saw her and thought: im-mi-grant. Because it was a woman. But there was something different about her, something new, satin-like – the immigrant was black. I didn’t know that I was supposed to say sub-Saharan until some years later. Or of sub-Saharan origin. Even if she wasn’t. My flatmate, who was studying anthropology, told me that there were no races, just ethnic groups. Great – I had never used the word race, so I could go straight to the words ethnic group.
Before the wave, as far as I was concerned the immigrant–emigrant thing was little more than an exam question. In Social Sciences, in the last year of primary school, I had to use a memorisation ploy: “Rocío emigrated from Barcelona and immigrated to our village.” Rocío wore a school gown from a school with forty pupils per class, and come Carnival time she used to dress up in traditional Sevillian costume. But that wasn’t in the exam. What was in the exam was the teacher’s example: Rocío’s parents emigrated from Jaén and immigrated to Barcelona. Although Rocío would put the record straight: “to Belviche.” Until then, the class had thought the family were Spanish-speakers, and that was that. And if Jaén sounded strange, then Belviche sounded really strange – che, che, che. Like the Viva la Revolución Che Guevara tee-shirts. Yours truly, however, did know what Belviche was. It was the station my mother always mentioned when, on the train, my brother and I asked her, for the umpteenth time, “Aren’t we there yet?” When she said “This is Belviche”, we knew that our grandparents were already waiting for us in Sants. My mother said Belviche like Rocío did, in Spanish, as did my grandparents, who also said Paral·lelu, Valle-Hebrón and Viviendes del Congrés.
It took me a few years to realise that the word was actually spelt Bellvitge, because at the beginning of all my other holidays all I could do was stare at those colossal Lego-like blocks of flats. By the time the train started to slow down, I was glued to the window. I watched the blocks of flats pass by and wondered at those mysterious buttresses, which were actually lift shafts. Blocks and towers, blocks and more blocks, amid white vans, Seat 124s and 131s, Renault 6s, 7s and 12s, crowded together over unpaved ground, puddles and banks, like the survivors of an earthquake. Back in the village, Rocío talked to us about Bellvitge as if it were Beverly Hills. She must have missed it.
After a three-hour journey the train officially reached Barcelona. And before entering Sants it went through Mercat Nou, an inhospitable metro station, even though it was above ground, full of graffiti at a time when graffiti was the epitome of degradation. Until it was given a face lift, Mercat Nou was the Bronx of Sants, and if the Bronx smells of urine, then even more so. It had all the emotions the intrepid traveller could ask for – holes under the tracks, open flights of stairs and subterranean tunnels. To get up to Sants station there was a passageway separated from the platform by a metal fence, which was just perfect for clanking a baseball bat along to intimidate a rival gang. At the end you could admire a poem by Leonard Cohen using the spray paint over bare brick technique. That was what Mercat Nou was like the year I saw an immigrant, and it would still be like that when the immigrants, like the graffiti, were the touch of colour in that station.
Twenty years ago I only knew all of this from looking through the window of a train. Mercat Nou was where the converging tracks almost always brought our green train alongside the blue metro carriages, full of passengers who ignored each other. In the village, my mother used to tell us to “Say goodbye to everyone”. In Barcelona she would pull us away, saying, “Don’t say goodbye, you don’t know them.” Barcelona, besides being the city where my mother was born, was the DON’T city: don’t do this, don’t run, don’t stare, don’t stop, don’t touch. My grandparents lived in the neighbourhood of Sants-Badal. I remember the flowery smell of the wet pavements the neighbours washed first thing in the morning. The canaries singing on the balconies. The entrance to Badal metro station, which gave off hot air that smelt of burning brake pads. The smell of dairy products and cabbage from the shops that sold Chambourcy yoghourt.
In the DON’T city, our grandparents were afraid of everything. Keep an eye on your bag, said my grandfather to grandmother. Look out for the car, motorbike, bus… So you can imagine their horror when one day we took the metro at Badal and boarded a carriage without realising it had been taken over by a gang of punks. When the doors closed, my grandparents just froze – the seats were occupied by crest-headed kids sporting open denims and studded jackets. They were lounging around, toting bottles and smoking cigarettes as if it were their own living room. Look – my hand still hurts from the grip of my grandfather’s working man’s fingers. My brother probably has the same memory of our grandmother’s hand. Her panic covered more cubic feet than the smoke in the wagon, and she shook even more than the cassette that was churning out a vaguely musical noise. “Don’t look at them”, squeaked my grandfather, “we’ll get off at the next stop.” I turned my head and kept looking under his elbow. My eyes couldn’t take it all in – from the dyed hair to the studded jackets; from the bare arms to the steel toecaps; from the eyes of the girls to those of the boys, also made up. In the evening, when we told our mother, I pretended that I had been afraid as well, so as not to scare my grandfather even more.