30 Jul, 2008 @ 17:32
7 mins read

The new El Dorado

The new El Dorado

Five hundred years after Spanish conquistadors scoured the Andes in search of El Dorado, that fabled city of gold, MARK EVELEIGH reports on the Ecuadorians who have crossed the Atlantic in search of wealth

“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 I 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.’ I 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 totally 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 Ojeda‘Martina’ Hidalgo Ojeda is one of 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 earner (after oil).

In the late 1990s, Ecuador suffered what economists have described as the fastest economic decline in the history of South America (though how it compared with the fall of the Inca Empire is unlikely ever to be known). 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 US or Spain,” Martina remembers. “Norte 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. When I went to see my husband to ask for money he beat me. I had no expectations of getting rich in Spain but I was prepared to do anything to earn an honest living. Deciding to leave my son with his grandparents was the hardest thing I had 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 Martina flew to Madrid, there were rumours that 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 400 US dollars-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, 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 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. Do not to carry telephone numbers of anyone in Spain they warned; to have contact details for friends in Spain would be seen by the immigration officials as an intention to stay illegally. Women should borrow the family jewellery to appear wealthy. Learn something about the tourist attractions of Spain so that you could answer questions on what you wanted to see. Martina found a book on Toledo and soon knew more about its history than she did about her own hometown.

The travel agents and money-lenders emphasised that above all – even if you have to ransom your parents’ home – you must raise the $1,500 loan to get you through immigration.
“It was crucial to have a return ticket, of course, and the flight cost US$700,” Martina recalls. “But I needed a loan of another US$1,500 – more money than I had ever imagined – to prove to immigration officials that I was a tourist.”

Top priority after entering the country would be to pay back that loan with interest. It is a trap from which many immigrants never escape.

“I love Spain”

At first, many found illegal work in agriculture, in the orange groves of Murcia or the plastic-covered plantations of Almeria.

Patricio Cerón a trained psychologist and now cultural mediator in the Ecuadorian community began his own career in Spain as a labourer on a building site. Even at that he was earning five times what he could have made at home.

“The Spanish employers seemed to accept the character of Ecuadorian workers easier than that of other countries,” he says. “We had an advantage over the Moroccans in the common language but we were also seen to be less troublesome than other groups. Fatalistic almost. The first illegal Ecuadorian immigrants here quickly established a reputation for working more and complaining less.


“I love Spain,” says Cerón with feeling. “I love it because it is beautiful. I’m happy to work and to help so that it continues to prosper. But, even after ten years, it’s not my home. Ecuador is my country. Poor, humble and mistreated it might be, but it’s still my home.”

Perhaps because of what Cerón describes as a natural humility, Ecuadorian women are often valued as domestic workers, as companions for elderly people and as child-minders. This has had an important knock-on effect for the Spanish economy since it has freed more Spanish women to return to employment further up the scale.

Ecuadorian men typically find work in construction and industry. The situation is changing, but most Ecuadorians are still occupying jobs that few Spaniards would consider. Today there are few towns in Spain that do not have a large Ecuadorian community.


With one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the Iberian Peninsula, the rich northern city of Pamplona has seen a particularly spectacular influx. Ten years ago, a foreign face was rarely seen in the sleepy Navarran capital. Today, there are 16 Ecuadorian social and cultural clubs, dozens of Ecuadorian bars and shops, several newspapers and even a Latino radio station.

Jesus Ayala of the Red Cross estimates Pamplona’s Ecuadorian community can be split into two equal groups: “There are those whose ultimate ambition it is to go back home and those who consider themselves nuevos vecinos (new neighbours) and have settled down to fully-integrated family life here.

“Pamplona is a richer place for the cultural diversity they have brought to it,” he says.

But there have also been complaints. Hospitals are struggling to meet the demands of this new population – a population that has never had the benefits of a first-class medical system, but which is quick to enjoy these newfound advantages.

Spanish parents complain that the level of education is dropping in some schools, although teachers have also reported that in many cases immigrant children seem to appreciate the unusual privilege of good schooling and often show a greater enthusiasm for learning than their Spanish counterparts.

“When I first arrived, there were fewer than 100 Ecuadorians in Pamplona,” lorry driver Welington Arroyo recalls. “Now there are almost 6,000, and maybe 22,000 in the whole province. Apart from the very first arrivals, most of us who came here knew somebody in the town already and could count on the help of our compatriots. I spent several months with a dozen other men sharing a two-bedroom flat. We all put our money into the pot and helped each other. The dream of most of us was to go home when we had earned enough money. But some have been back and realise that this is their home now. My kids see themselves as Spanish and they will have to choose their own direction when we finally pack up to go back to Ecuador.”

Nine years after arriving in Spain, Martina Hidalgo has acquired dual nationality and is working as domestic help and child-care for a senator. She lives with the family and looks after her employer’s children as if they were her own. Her living conditions are truly spectacular by Ecuadorian standards and she earns good money, but she works seven days a week since, at the weekends, she commutes to Bilbao to look after an aged couple.

She does not regret her move but she misses her son and keeps his photo beside the little altar in her room. She has bought a house in Quito and is happy that she has been able to finance Renato’s education to the extent that he will soon qualify as a pilot in the Ecuadorian air force.

It could be said that, through hard work and determination, Martina found the El Dorado that she was searching for and has even been able to realise the childhood dreams of her son. But at what cost?

“I’ve been very well looked after in Spain and have made many great friends here but don’t know if Renato will ever forgive me for abandoning him,” she sobs.

In 2001, Spain regularised more than one million illegal immigrants and then began to enforce regulations that effectively made it impossible for Ecuadorians to arrive in the country without work visas.

Another massive regularisation came in 2005, but workers are still needed and the Spanish government has affirmed that it wants to find positions for 200,000 more Ecuadorian immigrants this year. From now on, new arrivals are contracted in Ecuador through joint commissions between the two countries and they will work under the same rights as Spanish nationals for the duration of their contracts.

Conditions have improved but most long-term immigrants have tales to tell of work conditions that few Spanish would ever accept. I spent an afternoon with 300 Ecuadorian men at an impromptu volley-ball competition – a sport that was totally unknown in Pamplona ten years ago but is a ubiquitous feature of weekends at the park now.

The men I talked to agreed that cases of outright racism are rare, but those who had been here for any length of time talked of police harassment or of agricultural bosses who refused to pay.

“What can you do when you are working illegally?” they shrugged.

Spain has introduced fines for employers who hire immigrants without papers and it is now increasingly difficult for an illegal immigrant to find work. I asked one recent arrival what he would say to a Spanish employer who expected him to do more work for less money just because he did not have papers.

“I would tell him he was my saviour and that I would be grateful to him until the day I die.”

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