In recent years, Spain has had a devastating economic crash, an influx of migrants and corruption scandals that left people fed up with politicians. All these factors might make Spain fertile ground for the sort of right-wing, anti-immigrant political parties gaining ground in other parts of Europe. But unlike much of the continent, Spain has no such far-right movement.
The answer lies in places like San Cristóbal de los Ángeles, about a half-hour train ride south of Madrid’s grand boulevards. It’s a warren of drab concrete apartment blocks, with women wearing Muslim headscarves and Africans playing cards in the street. The Madrid suburb is about half-immigrant. Most residents are either retired, unemployed or in the country illegally.
In a bar, white, native-born Spaniards bemoan their barrio’s decline. The only local industry was construction, and that collapsed when the crisis hit in 2008. Immigrants have filled cheap, half-built homes.
“We used to feel like neighbors. But day by day, I feel like we’re strangers,” says Carmen Acero Rodriguez, 82, who’s lived in San Cristóbal ever since she got married 57 years ago. “So many new people have moved in. The barrio doesn’t feel safe anymore.”
Acero Rodriguez says she was recently robbed by a Moroccan immigrant she’d hired to clean her house — though she quickly adds the culprit could just as easily have been Spanish. And it would never occur to her to look to the right wing for solutions or to feel safer.
“I’m a lifelong socialist!” Acero Rodriguez says proudly. “Why on earth would any working-class person vote for the right wing?”
In Spain, some of the feelings and frustrations that help feed support to right-wing and populist parties elsewhere in Europe are the same. But the political reaction here is very different.
Picking up her kids from school in San Cristóbal, Maria Ascensión, 42, calls herself “unemployed and angry.” But she won’t take that out on immigrants, she says.
Many of Ascensión’s own relatives emigrated from Spain to countries in northern Europe, fleeing the dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 till his death in 1975.
“We had nearly 40 years of a repressive, right-wing dictator. That’s why we don’t have far-right parties like that of [Marine] Le Pen in France,” Ascensión says. “We have nothing so radical.”
Only on the left have radical new political parties flourished in Spain. In last year’s national election, the new left-wing party Podemos, led by a 38-year-old former communist with a ponytail, won more than 21 percent of the vote.
Spain is where many Arab and African migrants land when they journey by boat across the Mediterranean to Europe. More than 13,000 migrants arrived in Spain last year — the majority by sea.
Yet the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners in recent years has not provoked a rise in xenophobic or anti-Muslim feelings, says Carmen González-Enriquez, a social scientist who recently published a research paper for Madrid’s Elcano think tank entitled “The Spanish Exception.”
Spaniards tend to empathize with immigrants because most newcomers, until recently, have come from Latin America or Romania and integrated easily in terms of language, religion and race, Gonzalez-Enriquez says.
And, Ascensión points out, many Spaniards have also been immigrants themselves.
Madrid’s City Hall is draped in a “Refugees Welcome” banner. And last month, Spain’s second city, Barcelona, filled with tens of thousands of demonstrators — marching in favor of accepting even more refugees.
Nobody complains about immigrants being on welfare in Spain, because Spanish government benefits are pretty scant. Unlike in the U.K., for example, there is no housing benefit, child benefit or long-term unemployment benefit in Spain.
Instead, Spaniards value the benefits of EU membership, and they’re among the most pro-EU on the continent.
“The Franco dictatorship left Spain isolated and underdeveloped,” González-Enriquez says. “Spaniards felt inferior to the rest of Europe and wanted to join the club — for economic reasons, but also to recover national pride.”
While fear of Islamist terror attacks has become fodder for far-right political parties elsewhere in Europe, seeking to turn people against Muslim immigrants, Spain had a different experience, González-Enriquez says.
The country’s Basque separatist group, ETA, killed more than 800 people in Spain from the late 1960s until it declared a cease-fire in 2011. But in all those years, Spaniards never feared or racially profiled all Basques for the actions of a few radicals. Similarly, they’re less inclined to turn against Muslim immigrants now, González-Enriquez believes.
In Spain, regional identity — featuring distinct regional languages, holidays and culture — tends to be stronger than nationalist sentiment.
Case in point: When NPR approached 82-year-old Acero Rodriguez in San Cristóbal, she introduced herself as a “Castilian” — from central Spain — rather than as Spanish. That kind of regional self-identification helps protect against far-right groups stirring up nationalism across the country, González-Enriquez says.
There is one tiny far-right party in Spain. It was founded about three years ago and is called Vox. It’s a Catholic faction that favors a ban on abortion, harsher penalties for ETA terrorists and more centralized power, with less autonomy for the Spanish regions.
In the San Cristóbal bar, NPR asked Acero Rodriguez about it. After all, the elderly are this party’s target demographic.
But she said she’d never heard of it — and neither had her husband or a handful of neighbors in the bar.
That may be because in last year’s election, Spain’s only far-right party got 0.2 percent of the vote.