“In the general European euphoria over the election of Barack Obama, there is the beginning of self-reflection about Europe’s own troubles with racial integration. Many are asking if there could be a French, British, German or Italian Obama, and everyone knows the answer is no, not anytime soon”.

These are the words of Steven Erlanger in a brief article published in the International Herald Tribune.

But now, as I just visited my native Argentina – which has many problems, but fortunately not the nationalisms that my adoptive country, Spain, does – I am wondering if it would be possible for the President of Spain to be someone with the look of a foreigner, or more specifically, a child of immigrants.

Currently, immigrants comprise 11.6 percent of the population of Spain, which is practically the same percentage that the United States has: 12.9 percent. But despite the fact that their population percentages are basically the same, the difference in political representation between the two countries is abysmal. In the United States, minorities are better organized and better represented in the political system. Obama is not the only case of an immigrant or child of immigrants in politics in the United States; others include: the former ambassador of the United States to the United Nations, current governor of New Mexico and Secretary of Commerce Nominee, Bill Richardson and Antonio Ramón Villaraigosa, the current the mayor of Los Angeles.
In Spain, there are practically no immigrants or children of immigrants among the 200 most influential political figures.

It is possible that it will only a matter of time: the United States was founded by immigrants and their descendants. A fairly recent New York Times article provides an interesting look at the history of immigrant and racial identity in the country. Indeed, the founding father Benjamin Franklin himself was once worried about “swarthy Germans” outnumbering his fellow white Pennsylvanians.

In contrast, immigration is a recent phenomenon in Spain, having begun just a decade ago – two at the most. As such, at the dawn of the 21st century, the country finds itself stuck in the 19th or 20th when it comes to immigrant and racial integration, at least in comparison to the USA.

Ever since the Muslims and Jews were expelled in 1492, Spain has been a catholic, monolithic, and relatively poor country, and its people have emigrated to others. However, thanks to democracy’s comeback and its admittance into the European Union, the country has transformed itself and made progress in that aspect. As part of that transformation, Spain has received nearly five million immigrants in ten years, and the immigrant population has jumped from a mere three percent in 1998 to its current level of 11.6 percent.

The majority of immigrants are not yet able to vote in Spain, since they are still not Spanish citizens and thus cannot be represented in the Spanish government. This means that there are still very few Spanish citizens of immigrant origin. In contrast, think about the massive efforts undertaken by the candidates in the recent American elections to win the Latino vote. Regardless, in Spain, this level will grow in the next few years. It is very important to keep in mind that immigrants have twice as many children as natives, meaning that they make up 11% of residents but have 22% of the babies.

Could Obama’s election in the United States be influential and mobilize Spanish society and spark a demand for immigrant rights? Could the immigrants in Spain have their own Barack Obama?
To me, it seems unlikely.

In order for Spain to have its own Barack Obama, three preconditions that already exist in the United States would have to be met. One: that immigrants mobilize themselves and generate leaders to enthusiastically fight for the rights of immigrants and minorities (Spanish Martin Luther Kings, so to speak). Two: that the immigrant and minority movements grow more cohesive in order to demand their rights. And three: that voters in Spain be mature enough to vote for a child of immigrants.

I believe that the immigrant society in Spain has the ability to organize and mobilize through hundreds of organizations, but lacks leaders to represent the multiple interests of immigrants and be reference points for Spanish society as a whole. In order for immigrants to make that political leap, it is absolutely necessary to have leaders who mobilize, unite and demand minority rights.

As to whether Spanish society is ready to vote for an immigrant or a child of immigrants, to me it seems unlikely today. Spain lacks a lot in this sense because the level of prejudice is high. Just look at what Madrileños (natives of Madrid) and Catalans say to each other. It is hard for me to imagine that Spain could vote for a man or woman born to African immigrants.

A little while ago, I wrote an article in my blog in which I warned about the prejudice against minorities being demonstrated by Spanish high school students. It is hard for me to believe that, with these racial prejudices firmly established in Spanish high schools, this very group of young people will vote for a half-African or half-Latino president within a few years.

“In this election, the Americans not only chose a president, but also their identity. And now we have to think, too, about our identity in France. We realize we are late, and America has regained the torch of a moral revolution” wrote the French analyst Dominique Moisi in the International Herald Tribune.

I believe that it is also time for Spain to rethink its identity and, through an inclusionary campaign, better integrate its immigrants and open the doors to political process for them.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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