Inside Spain’s Electoral Hothouse

The country’s agricultural heartland prepares for a possible Vox victory.

A migrant rides a bike past greenhouses in El Ejido, Spain, on Jan. 14.
A migrant rides a bike past greenhouses in El Ejido, Spain, on Jan. 14. Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

EL EJIDO, Spain—“I’m fine, but a lot of people here do not have a home, they do not have food to live on … many do not even have electricity or water where they live. And at work, you have no right to protest. If you do, they kick you out,” Ali Sankare told me a couple of weeks ago as he inflated the wheels on a bike owned by a Malian friend.

We’d met at the entrance to El Ejido, a town in the south of Spain surrounded by Europe’s largest greenhouse farming area. Although it looks like a place abandoned to the elements—the scene is dominated by dust stirred up by a road full of trucks—it is actually the center of an economic miracle.This corner of Europe is home to over 150 square miles of plastic, an artificial sea that extends from the Mediterranean inland to El Ejido. The patch is so large that it can be seen—white like snow—from satellites.

The plastic isn’t garbage. Rather, it covers a huge number of plantations where cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and lettuce flourish. This vast garden in southern Almería province produces 3.5 million tons of fruit and vegetables each year. Most of it ends up on European—especially German—supermarket shelves.

Sankare is 53 years old. He fled Mali’s poverty, violence, and corruption and wound up in Europe in 2006. For the last decade, he has worked the ground to produce eggplants, cucumbers, and peppers. Despite his long stay in Spain, he does not speak Spanish well, likely due to his lack of integration among his Spanish neighbors.

There are thousands of immigrants like Ali who arrived from Africa and are now stuck here. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 65,400 migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Spain in 2018. Many of these migrants come to El Ejido to work illegally. Due to Spain’s sluggish economy, many would like to move on to other European countries. But their lack of official documents makes it hard to travel further.

Here in El Ejido, their lives aren’t easy. What they earn varies a lot. It might be 3 or 4.5 euros per hour. And the bosses at the greenhouses, Ali said, may mark down that a worker has put in 15 days in a month instead of the real 26.

Nearby, men waited at an unmarked bus stop. Two young African men waited more than an hour with no bus in sight. They seemed accustomed to having their time wasted.

“I will not say that all criminals are immigrants, but there is a high percentage,” Juan José Bonilla, the local coordinator of the far-right Vox party in El Ejido, told me.

We were in the center of the town of Almería, in his austere law firm, which now serves as a regional party headquarters. In general elections on April 28, Vox is expected to fare well. It already won a plurality of almost 30 percent of the vote in El Ejido in regional elections last year.

The party advocates curtailing European Union agencies that it says meddle with national sovereignty. It also wants to ban separatist parties and deport all migrants who don’t have proper documentation. The reason? A supposed upswing in violence.

Bonilla continued, “Recently, a woman was assaulted with a razor blade in her face.” Years before, he said, his “father was killed by an immigrant. Imagine that we were three brothers, and I was the oldest. It’s a traumatic death: A man arrives and cuts your father’s neck.”

He’s referring to his father’s murder in 2000. Tomás Bonilla was one of two farmers killed by a Moroccan citizen, Cherki Hadij, who first stoned a farmer, who had tried to stop him from throwing stones at a dog, and then murdered another who intervened to help the first. Those deaths were followed two weeks later by the murder of a young woman by another immigrant, about 20 years old, who stabbed her after trying to steal her bag.

Yet the crime increase in El Ejido is one of perception more than reality. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior’s crime assessment, there were 3,730 criminal offenses committed in the fourth quarter of 2018 (including three sexual assaults and two homicides), in contrast with 4,200 in the fourth quarter of 2013, for example.

The other supposed reason for Vox’s popularity—economic distress—is complicated, too. For most of the last century, Almería was the poorest province in Spain. But now, thanks to greenhouse agriculture, it has flourished compared to other regions. It now near the middle of Spanish provinces in GDP figures.

La Mojonera, adjacent to El Ejido, is a small town of just 9,000 inhabitants. According to the Andalusian regional government, around 39 percent of the population are immigrants. But the real tally is probably much higher, since many of the foreign-born residents aren’t registered.

Immigrants mostly live outside the urban centers, often in shacks of wood and plastic built along streets without asphalt. When they work, they spend hours invisible under the plastic.

Pepe, a 56-year-old Spanish resident of La Mojonera, has been living in the town for more than 40 years. He thinks that El Ejido “voted for Vox because they are very fed up with many robberies.” For him, the presence of immigrants is less a problem than that “they socialize” but “do not finish adapting.”

There are no reliable statistics about the number of immigrants in the El Ejido area who speak the Spanish language, but it is likely that the vast majority never master it. The lack of knowledge of the language, coupled with suspicion about immigrants taking locals’ jobs, make integration difficult.

But some are trying to find a way to merge cultures. Outside the local police station, I meet Daida drinking beer at a place run by people from Guinea-Bissau.

Daida has been in Spain for a long time and speaks perfect Spanish. He is 30 years old and has been working for 11 years for the same employer. He knows that he is lucky compared to his compatriots: Since he is in the country legally, he said, “I’m fixed, and if they kick me out, it’s going to be a big problem [for them].”

His job is hard, and his back hurts, but on the weekends, he finds a way to shake it off. Daida is part of a hip-hop group called Made in Africa. In a video posted online, you can see a group of sub-Saharan youth rapping in Spanish while strolling through the streets of La Mojonera.

“We will continue making noise, jumping walls, crying out,” one member raps.

If Vox remains the No. 1 party in El Ejido and performs well in the whole of Spain, as polls predict, migrants like them will probably face an even tougher time. Social resentment among Spaniards makes a dangerous force that may only worsen the country’s social problems. Amid fears of deportation, it seems unlikely immigrants will make more of an effort to integrate.

Ricardo Ginés is a journalist in Spain.

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