‘I feel at home here’: descendants of Galicia’s émigrés return to the old country

Spain’s poor western region is welcoming back heirs of those who once left it – especially from troubled Argentina

Galicia has long been one of Spain’s poorest regions and since the mid-19th century Galicians have emigrated in their tens of thousands to seek a brighter future in the Americas. But now they’re coming back.

The Galician regional government says that returnees – the majority are Argentinians – are settling in the area at a rate of three a day. After more than 150 years of steady depopulation, in 2019 more people arrived than left, while, for the first time in its history, the reverse was true for Argentina.

Far from discouraging immigration, the Galician government has set up offices offering the returnees help with jobs, schools and housing, as well as financial support.

“For us, these new arrivals are a boon,” said Antonio Rodríguez Miranda, the head of migration for the Galician government.

“For some years we’ve put out the message that, if you want to come back, you’ll be welcomed with open arms,” he said.

As many as half the arrivals have Spanish nationality, acquired through their grandparents.

Between 1857 and 1960 over 1 million people emigrated from Galicia, a huge outflow from a region that even today has a population of only 2.6 million.

They went to Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela but the overwhelming majority went to Argentina, mainly the capital, Buenos Aires. It’s estimated that 5.5 million Argentinians, 14% of the population, are of Galician descent.

Diego Martínez Duro, president of the Argentine federation of Galician associations in Buenos Aires, said: “The first wave went to Cuba because there was an economic boom, but later word got back to Galicia from immigrants in Argentina that there were more business opportunities there and a better standard of living.”

The first wave of Argentinian emigration back to Spain began after the military coup in 1966 and under the military dictatorship in the 1970s. The next wave began in 2001 when the economy collapsed, and the exodus has continued, with Argentina currently facing inflation of 70-90 per cent.

According to the UN’s 2020 migration report, in 2019 alone, 1 million Argentinians emigrated, 260,000 of them to Spain.

“They are mainly middle class and the main reasons for leaving are lack of opportunities and the country’s financial and social problems,” said Rodríguez Miranda. “They’re looking for a better life in Spain, the land of their ancestors, and in particular Galicia which is like their second home.”

Plaza de la Constitucion in Vigo, Galicia.
Plaza de la Constitucion in Vigo, Galicia. Photograph: agefotostock/Alamy

Karina Alejandra Lomba Díaz, 51, left Buenos Aires in 2019 with her two adult children and has since settled near Santiago de Compostela. Her grandparents are Galician.

She worked as a nurse in dialysis in Argentina but has set up a pilates studio in her adopted home.

“I wanted stability and a better future for my children,” she said. “Here it’s safer. My 21-year-old son can go out for the weekend and I know he’ll return safe and sound, unlike Buenos Aires which is plagued with robberies, violence and kidnapping.”

She misses her family but has no intention of going back. “Overall, we have a better quality of life here,” she said.

Javier Franciso Caprarelli Rodríguez, 38, also from Buenos Aires, first came to Galicia in 2010 to study a master’s and then returned in 2020 with his partner and their child to live in Pontevedra.

“When my son was old enough to start school we thought it would be better here than in Buenos Aires. Life is more manageable and not so chaotic,” he said. “I’ve revived a relationship that I didn’t know I had with my mother’s family. I feel at home here.”

In Buenos Aires, Martínez Duro laments Argentina’s loss of people who he says have made an incalculable contribution to the cultural life of the capital.

“Galicia’s offer of financial and other support is having a big impact,” he said. “Most of the emigrants are highly educated and many are entrepreneurs who find it hard to raise capital given Argentina’s gloomy economic situation. They also want a quieter life where they don’t have to worry about crime.”


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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