The Canary Islands have a richness, colour and diversity that are probably unequalled in most parts of Europe. No, I am not talking about the flora and fauna of these islands, but its people. Here you will find people of all colour, faith and no faith, straight, gay and transgendered. In the main, all rub along happily with each other and this is one of the many reasons why I adore these islands so much. The islands offer a culture of ‘live and let live’ with tremendous energy, vitality and enthusiasm – feelings and impressions that are quickly sensed by our many thousands of tourists to the islands and why they return year after year.
One of my favourite events in Gran Canaria is Carnival in Las Palmas and I would urge anyone who has not experienced this colourful and amazing spectacular to choose (or make) a costume, pack a bag and stay in Las Palmas for a couple of nights during the height of the festival. Be prepared to stay up all night and be hoarse by the end of it all! If you hate late nights, loud noise, crowds of people and thoroughly enjoying yourself then please don’t go! So why is it that Carnival is larger and livelier than most events that you will find anywhere in Europe? I put it down to the South American factor.
My dentist, accountant, lawyer and eye surgeon are all from Argentina, and very good they are too. As most residents will already have discovered, there are many people from South America living and working in these islands and this is one of the reasons why Carnival in Las Palmas is sometimes described as “Second only to Rio”. It certainly puts Peninsular Spain to shame when it comes to this spectacular annual event. Indeed, many professional people, as well as bar and restaurant staff from South America, now live and work in the Canary Islands. It is interesting to talk to some of these people and to discover the reasons why they are attracted to these small islands in the Atlantic.
Since the 18th century there has been an outflow of Canary Islanders to parts of South America and to parts of what is now the USA. At one time this was part of Spain’s strategy to colonise and populate the newly discovered Americas, and the Spanish Government looked to the Canary Islands for recruits to increase the size of the army in Louisiana, with the dual role of defending the territory, as well as populating it.
In more recent times, there was an outflow of migrants from Spain and the Canary Islands and particularly during the periods of economic troubles, avoidance of the obligatory military service, the 1936 – 1939 Civil War, as well as during the period of General Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1975. During this time, many Spanish citizens fled from Spain as a result of the Civil War, as well as sending their children to South America for protection. These refugees from Spain eventually settled in Argentina, Cuba, Mexico as well as other countries in Latin America.
Cuba was a particularly welcoming destination for many Canarians and there are still strong links between the Canary Islands and Cuba, at both Island Government and personal levels. There remains a strong feeling of gratitude towards this island in the Caribbean that became home to so many Canarians fleeing from repression and poverty.
Many of these migrants are now of an age when they wish to return to their country of birth and Spain, to its credit, is doing its best to help these Spanish emigrants and particularly by supporting the elderly. Pensions, as well as return visits to Spain for these “children of the Civil War” and who have not visited their country of origin for many years are now provided by the Spanish Government in an attempt to redress some of the injustices that forced them into exile during the Franco dictatorship. Temporary changes to Spanish law under the “Law of Historical Memory” has allowed many children and grandchildren of Spanish emigrants living in Latin American to obtain Spanish citizenship.
At times of financial crisis, history teaches us that the weakest and most vulnerable members of society are often singled out for criticism and often worse. We heard a great deal about the perceived problems of immigration into the UK during the last General Election. However, in the Canary Islands, we can reflect upon this as a much more positive story and one that has contributed greatly to island life.
About the author: Barrie Mahoney was a teacher, head teacher and school inspector in the UK, as well as a reporter in Spain, before moving to the Canary Islands as a newspaper editor. He is still enjoying life in the sun as a writer and author.
© Barrie Mahoney