Alejandro Miranda Nieto: “Ecuavoley in Madrid: new neighbours, old neighbours and the ordinary uses of home in public space”

Ecuavoley in Madrid: new neighbours, old neighbours and the ordinary uses of home in public space

by Alejandro Miranda Nieto


One of the issues that we have been grappling with in our HOMInG project has to do with home as a socially constructed scale that extends beyond the domestic environment. That is, how home-making practices extend beyond actual houses. In my fieldwork in Milan and Madrid I’ve found several ways in which migrants and non-migrants try to make themselves at home in private, semi-public, public and communal spaces. This post seeks to contribute to this discussion by examining the ways in which migrants and non-migrants use recreational facilities. A case from my ongoing fieldwork in Madrid is used here as an example of thresholds of domesticity and foreignness, as well as distinctions between insiders and outsiders, and political dimensions of interacting in, moving across and arranging public space.


Migration, old and new

Like many other capitals, Madrid has been a city of migration for most of its history. For centuries it has received people from different regions of Spain—also expelling them to other regions and continents. In the southwest of the city, for instance, some old residents of a district called Latina have told me stories of how they left Extremadura and arrived in Madrid through a road now called ‘Paseo de Extremadura’. Many settled around this road throughout the twentieth century in one-story houses surrounded by dirt roads. There was a strong regionalism that became evident during the ‘fiestas populares’, festivities celebrated in public spaces of the city with stands from Extremadura, Galicia, Valencia, Andalucia and so forth. In more recent decades the city has received a significant number of international migrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, China and Latin America. I have been particularly interested in Ecuadorian migrants in this city and the ways they use recreational facilities, especially in relation to the ways in which these different waves of internal and international migration are reconfiguring the uses of public space.

Public parks have always been a site of encounter and friction because of the different uses that one can give to these spaces. In the early 2000s many Ecuadorian migrants (and Latin Americans more generally) started using several parks for recreation with a distinct festive ambiance: people played football and a distinct type of volleyball called ecuavoley, there were stands selling traditional South American dishes, people consumed alcohol, there were outdoors hairdressing stands and some people sold pirated CDs.

Like other migrants in this city, many Ecuadorians shared accommodation with family, friends or strangers in more or less precarious conditions. And when there is not enough space at home, or one does not feel quite comfortable at home, public spaces can be used to compensate some of these problems. People had naps, gathered with friends and family and exchanged information in parks. Two areas that received most of the attention from the media were Casa de Campo and Parque del Retiro, partly because of the dimension of these gatherings. There were, however, other small parks and outdoor sport facilities in which many Ecuadorians gathered and sought to produce a space of familiarity by playing a sport with distinct national connotations.


Ecuavoley in Madrid

Ecuavoley is a variant of volleyball that is very popular in Ecuador and other countries where there are a significant number of Ecuadorian migrants. Each team is composed by 3 players, instead of 6 as in conventional volleyball. The size of the court is the same, but the net is placed much higher and a soccer ball is used instead of a conventional ball. There are also some variants in the playing style and ways in which the game is set. But its most distinctive element is perhaps its recreational and improvisational character: to play this game, the enthusiasts of ecuavoley just need a relatively flat area in which to place two poles, a net and a rope to demarcate the limits of the court. Playing this game is a way of spending the weekend with friends and family. This is also why this activity is often linked to alcohol consumption, street food vending and gambling. Having a beer and some traditional dishes from the two or three stands placed close to the court is leisurely way of spending a Saturday afternoon. Ecuavoley in Madrid is mostly played by Ecuadorians — I’ve seen some people from other nationalities playing, but mostly because they are married with Ecuadorians. This is a meaningful activity with a strong association with their place of origin, a sport with a degree of nationalism from abroad.  

The festive ambiance produced on weekends in big and small parks was not well seen by some of the long-term residents living around these areas. In fact, some of the people that I have been talking with about this topic have mentioned that in the early 2000s there was used a distinction between ‘old neighbours’ and ‘new neighbours’. Old neighbours was often used to refer to people residing in a given neighbourhood for a long time (often referring to Madrileños), and new neighbours was an euphemism to refer mostly to international immigrants.

Street food vending is tightly regulated in Madrid. The type of informal food vending that took place in parks and other recreational facilities became problematic because the norms for using parks in Madrid forbid fires in public spaces. The problems rapidly escalated when the municipality decided to tackle these issues in a punitive way. Police men arrived violently, took the cooking utensils of people, bottles of alcohol and dispersed the groups. Many street food vendors also reacted violently, in part, because this activity was their only mean of subsistence. The way in which the municipality proceeded also had a strong resonance with the attitudes of several neighbours who used these parks or were living around them, leading sometimes to xenophobic attitudes and insults.

The practice of ecuavoley became stigmatised. The ‘old neighbours’ and local authorities saw this sport as inherently linked to street food vending, gambling and alcohol consumption. They could not differentiate between a family gathering in which this sport was played and a botellón, word that refers to binge drinking in public space. Some enthusiasts of this sport even told me that, between 2004 and 2005, putting up a net for playing ecuavoley was forbidden in practice. Some people left their usual parks and started going to abandoned factories in the outskirts of the city with their poles and nets to recreate this activity. As an enthusiast of this sport told me:

To me that was a terrible moment because people dressed up on Saturday but didn’t go to a park of the city, but to an abandoned factory because that was the only place in which we could gather. I think this is still in the memory of many people living in Madrid, how they were treated at that moment, how the institutions mistreated people. (My translation)

Those were the years in which the local authorities of some of the most affected districts and several NGOs advocating for migrant groups engaged in negotiations between old and new neighbours. People from the NGOs told me that their argument was pretty straightforward: having healthy leisure is necessary for people living and working in this city, no matter where they come from. That was when the first associations of ecuavoley in Madrid emerged. Many enthusiasts of this sport understood the need to form associations to engage in official negotiations with the local districts. They demanded spaces for playing this sport, but not much was asked in terms of infrastructure because they could deal with the poles and nets. They were basically demanding spaces in which the police would not intervene; that is, spaces in which this activity was perceived as legitimate — by both new and old neighbours. The mediation of the NGOs became crucial for shifting the view of the old neighbours on these activities and making them conscious of their legitimacy. Many spaces dedicated to ecuavoley emerged, but under certain conditions: no food vending, no alcohol consumption (although moderate consumption was tolerated), keeping the spaces clean after the gatherings and no noise after an appropriate hour. And when the frictions related to the uses of public space were apparently eased, another became evident: there were no toilets in most parks in Madrid.

Toilets are a necessity when people spend several hours in public space. Many of the ‘old neighbours’ used parks for relatively brief periods of time, but the uses of the public space were (and are) changing. Some Madrileños have also told me that before the economic crisis of 2008 they adopted — and I quote — an ‘American way of spending the weekends at the shopping mall’. After the crisis public parks and other recreational facilities have become spaces of encounter that people use in different ways, for different periods of time. New uses bring new needs, and the local norms are gradually adapting to these changing circumstances. Public toilets are still a problem in several districts, and the local institutions are gradually facing the challenge of providing this type of infrastructure.  

There has been a significant change in the way this sport is recognised and perceived by old and new neighbours living in Usera, Carabanchel, Latina, Villa de Vallecas, Puente de Vallecas, Tetuán, San Blas and many other peripheral neighbourhoods. Even the categories of new and old neighbours are acquiring new meanings as many immigrants have been living in the same neighbourhood for 10, 15, 20 years. Currently there are several spaces for playing ecuavoley exclusively. Many players also are trying to limit food vending or the consumption of alcohol until late. The local police tactics have also changed. Nowadays they have a team of mediators and a team focused on hate crimes. Although a relatively new initiative, there have been changes in the ways in which the local authorities are trying to prevent and act against crimes motivated by prejudices.


Unequal access to familiarity

There is an ongoing struggle for inclusion and recognition, as well as for control of different spaces. Confrontations for the use and control of these spaces arise from different groups, which are not limited to the distinction made between new and old neighbours. Barely used during weekdays, many compete for the use of sport and recreational facilities on weekends. A group of kids, for instance, might be using the courts in the morning, but then a group of older boys arrives and takes over the space because they are more numerous, older and stronger. Or there is a group of women that want to train on a Saturday afternoon in a court because they participate in an amateur league, but a large group of men arrive and in the end these women leave the court. There is a tacit understanding of the hierarchies among groups and how they operate in the public space. This is a matter of who is entitled to the space, as much as who is stronger, more numerous or better organised. The case of women training ecuavoley, football and basketball is quite interesting because they have been using more and better spaces as they have formed associations and become more organised.

This is not an example of a conflict between ethnic groups, even if some actors frame it in ethnic terms. In my opinion, this is about home-making beyond the household. So, why framing this phenomenon as something related to home? To me, it seems that what people are trying to produce in these public spaces is familiarity. These activities create the possibility of anticipation in a context that feels foreign. When one doesn’t feel at home because one is sharing a flat with family, friends or strangers, the capacity of feeling at home can be drawn from the ability to do things in a familiar environment. What is more, these spaces are not readily available to migrants and quite often they need to produce them with their own resources, with whatever is at hand. These new neighbours are ‘outsiders’ who have learnt to participate in the game of competing for the public space. They, of course, are not claiming a home in a park, but trying to make themselves at home in a park — which has a lot in common with the ways in which the old neighbours seek to sustain their routines in these spaces.

The political dimension of this case lies in the unequal capacity to draw a sense of familiarity and control from recreational facilities. It is political because this case has to do with the seemingly natural distinction between natives and migrants, old and new neighbours. It has to do with entitlements to public space and the struggles to enact certain practices in public space. This is all about the capacity to draw a sense of familiarity, security and control from public space.