Magazine article Geographical

The New El Dorado: Five Hundred Years after the Spanish Conquistadors Scoured the Ecuadorian Andes in Search of El Dorado, the Fabled City of Gold, Young Ecuadorians Are Travelling Back across the Atlantic in Search of a New Life in the 'Old World'. but, Although the Immigrants Are Filling a Gap in the Spanish Labour Market, Their Arrival Has Been Contentious

Magazine article Geographical

The New El Dorado: Five Hundred Years after the Spanish Conquistadors Scoured the Ecuadorian Andes in Search of El Dorado, the Fabled City of Gold, Young Ecuadorians Are Travelling Back across the Atlantic in Search of a New Life in the 'Old World'. but, Although the Immigrants Are Filling a Gap in the Spanish Labour Market, Their Arrival Has Been Contentious

Article excerpt

On the flight over to Europe I sat next to a priest. I had never been out of my country and was extremely nervous about this new life l was going to look for, so I asked him if he would pray for me. When he asked what my name was, I said it was Martina. 1 don't know where the idea came from. Back in Ecuador I was Estela, but in that moment, I realised that Estela was gone. I was now Martina, a new person with a new future in Spain. Since then, I've never let anyone, even my family, call me Estela. Estela suffered a lot in Ecuador, but now she is dead."

'Martina' Hidalgo is one of more than half a million Ecuadorians who now work legally in Spain. An estimated one in four of all Ecuadorians has left the country to look for work and this exported workforce has become Ecuador's second-highest revenue (after oil). These 'exiles' are so influential that the new president, Rafael Correa, sent his vice-president on what amounted to a world tour as part of his election campaign and has vowed to reserve six places in the Ecuadorian parliament for representatives of the emigrants.

Flight of dreams

During the late 1990s, Ecuador suffered what economists have described as the fastest economic decline in the history of South America. And just as the desperate and hungry young peasants of Extremadura and Andalucia once swallowed their fears to gamble everything on a voyage across the Atlantic, thousands of poor Ecuadorians began struggling to raise the funds for a flight to Madrid.

"The dream of every young person I knew was to go to either the USA or Spain," Hidalgo remembers. "North America was more difficult, but we could still enter Spain as tourists, and the common language helped. In Ecuador, my office job did not even earn me enough to pay the rent. With every month I worked, we were getting poorer. After my husband walked out, my son and I rarely had enough to eat. I had no expectations of getting rich in Spain, but I was prepared to do anything to earn an honest living. Leaving my son with his grandparents was the hardest thing I'd ever done. I had faith that everything would work out, but I still couldn't be sure when, or if, I would see him again."

Even in 1998, when Hidalgo flew to Madrid, there were rumours that the Spanish immigration officials were becoming wary of passengers coming directly from South America, so the travel agency advised a more expensive ticket via Amsterdam. Hotels were said to be extremely expensive and hard to come by in Madrid, so they also sold her US$400-worth of vouchers for four nights' accommodation. Only when she eventually found the hotel did she realise that the vouchers were worthless. Other emigrants paid travel agency representatives for the promise of guaranteed work in their new country, but the 'man in the red baseball cap' who was supposed to meet them at the airport never showed up.

Just as there must have been countless port-side rumours around Cadiz and Seville as the conquistadors prepared to set sail, mysticism and speculation were rife among the hopeful peasants who arrived in Quito looking for a way out. There was so much money to be made out of the desperation of these would-be emigrants that the mafia quickly became involved in setting up their own travel agencies. They had a vested interest in the promise of new riches in Europe: but also in bolstering the fears of their clients.

Don't carry telephone numbers of anyone in Spain they warned, to have contact details for friends in Spain would be seen by immigration officials as an intention to stay illegally. Women should borrow the family jewellery to appear wealthy. Others memorised details of Spain's tourist attractions so that they could answer questions about what they wanted to see. (Hidalgo found a book on Toledo and soon knew more about its history than she did about her own hometown.) And travel agents and money-lenders emphasised that--even if you have to mortgage your parents' home--you must raise the US$1,500 needed to get through immigration. …

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