Paolo Boccagni: On migrant ways of making home in the public, beyond symbolic ethnicity – notes from my pilot fieldwork in Madrid

On migrant ways of making home in the public, beyond symbolic ethnicity – notes from my pilot fieldwork in Madrid

by Paolo Boccagni


I’ve often been to Madrid, albeit only for short periods. This is what most academics do as they bounce, luckily but also a bit sadly, from one conference to the next. It seemed logical, even necessary to include it among the research settings for HOMInG, on the European side of the project. While my colleague Alejandro Miranda (@alejomir) is spending part of his intensive fieldwork there, I’ve done a quick and preliminary visit, early this month. Just a few days – not that significant in itself, unless as part of a longer and more complex study. Enough, though, for writing some notes as an outsider who, strolling around the city with a metro map and a few contacts, struggles to find out the ways in which Madrid feels like home for its foreign residents.


From the academy to the lived city

One of the research aims of HOMInG is to see how – if at all – migrants, whether newcomers or long-term residents, make themselves at home in public urban spaces. This is not a marginal issue for urban and welfare policies, even leaving aside the tribe (a relatively small, but expanding one) of those obsessed with “home” as such. Now, some semi-public places and conditions are clearly more significant than others, as potential sources of home feelings for each of us. Regarding Latinos in metropolitan areas, in Europe and elsewhere, informal gatherings in parks and urban gardens, religious celebrations, or cultural events are only the most obvious instances. Lots of insightful case studies have been done about them. Even politics matters to the experience of home in the public. External voting celebrations, as well as political rallies and events, make for ephemeral but “thick” opportunities for migrants to gather in the public, with identities and labels other than the ones that are usually attached to them in more or less derogative ways. And of course, the public atmosphere and the orientation/investment of public policies do shape the room for migrants to feel at home or not. In this respect, Madrid seems to fare better than many other European cities.

For sure, the possibility of feeling somehow at home in the public is still a matter of “secondary” needs. It does not replace the primary need for a decent dwelling – whether one calls it “home” or not. This, in turns, connects with the access to the housing market, the risk of eviction, etc. – all issues for which migrants in Spain have paid a very high price over the last decade. However, looking for traces of home in the public says much on how, if at all, a person of foreign origin intimately feels to belong to a community, to be recognized by it, to have a future in it – hence, to invest in it.


Traces of migrants’ home-in-the-public

Now, following these rather academic insights, I was spontaneously attracted to look for traces of migrants’ domesticity, in particular for Ecuador, in places like association venues (pic. 1: Ruminahui,, restaurants (pic. 2: El Sabrosón), or music events (pic. 3: ASCAE,

PIC 1_Post Madrid

Pic. 1 – Window of the offices of Ruminahui – “Hispano-Ecuadorian Association”

PIC 2_Post Madrid

Pic. 2 – Inside the Ecuadorian restaurant “El Sabrosón”

PIC 3_Post Madrid

Pic. 3 – With ASCAE’s Edmundo Guzman and Arturo Lucero playing Ecuadorian music in a Lavapiés bar


So far, so good. Lots of food for thought for our project, as homemaking can well be a matter of gathering with co-ethnics, having traditional food together, “consuming” the same music. However, I realized, there is much more than that in migrants’ homemaking in the public. These places or events are at best good entry points into more complex and disperse web of relations. Most important, there is more to home-in-the-public than a more or less formulaic reproduction of what used to be (in) Ecuador or Peru. That migrants, and all the more so their children, keep attaching a sense of home to something that reminds of their homeland – whether through food, music, collective rituals, or just symbols – is a working hypothesis. It may hold for some, more than for others. And it need not be the whole story anyway. Of course, for migrants like Ecuadorians or Peruvians in Spain, speaking the same language as the “natives” makes public space much more decipherable, if not accessible, than anywhere else “abroad”. Home is experienced also through (shared) language. Not to mention the fact that, as a result of a selectively benevolent civic stratification, many former Ecuadorian migrants in Spain are dual nationals by now. Even so, the consequences of their length of stay, including the evergreen debate on on assimilation (and dissimilation!), should also be brought into the picture.


Enter diversity, length of stay and, perhaps, the de-ethnicization of home

In short, the study of migrants’ interaction with the public space, as a potential source of a sense of home (at least for some, at least in some moments), should not overly rely on the ethnic. Diversity is irremediably there, whether one likes it or not! Following HOMInG’s understanding of home-in-the-public as the possibility to feel secure, familiar and in control within public space, there is much more to investigate than ethnic niches or bubbles. Access and use of mainstream facilities, urban spaces, places of consumption etc. have also their stake. Why, after all, shouldn’t / couldn’t migrants feel at home there too, as much (or as little) as their counterparts? The more diverse an urban background, the more complex the picture of home-in-the-public – and more urgent the need to look also at class, tastes, and lifestyles, on the one hand; at the accessibility and permeability of public space, on the other.

Ethnicity – real or imagined Ecuadorianness, Peruvianness, etc. – is the entry point. Emotions, senses and practices of identification and appropriation of space – with all of the consequences on majority-minority relations – are the next empirical challenge for Homingers and, arguably, for many more ethnographers of urban diversity.

Let the research, and the debate, continue!