The Two Albu[r]querques

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Dr. David Holtby is Senior Program Manager at the Center for Regional Studies. Dr. Tobías Durán is Director of the Center for Regional Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Albuquerque closed its Tricentennial celebration last October. While the attempt to entertain by lighting the Sandia Mountains met with mixed reviews, the final event shouldn’t diminish appreciation of an eighteenth-month long festival that saw many reminders of Spain’s pivotal role 300 years ago.

But it’s not simply by looking back to 1706 that we glean meaning from the Tricentennial. Contemporary Spain should be part of what we know about, too. Doing so gives us perspective on issues by seeing them through another society’s experiences.

In particular, attention is due our sister city in Spain. The one with the “extra R”—Alburquerque— located 15 miles from of the border with Portugal in the region of Extremadura (now one of 17 Autonomous Communities in Spain).

On the surface, the differences in our two municipalities are numerous: Alburquerque is over 825 years old; its current population is just under 5,800; towering above the community is a castle dating from the thirteenth century; and the economy is overwhelmingly agricultural, with a special, and historic, reliance on pork and cork.

But there are similarities as well. Each town is led by a popular and self-described progressive mayor. Each community encompasses a large communal green belt—the bosque here and there the dehesa, or a sparsely wooded pasture primarily of cork oak grazed by livestock. Each community also has an Old Town drawing in tourists.  

In 1706 it took at least 10 months to travel between New Mexico and Spain. Today it’s a 10 hour flight to Spain, ample time to read the bestselling book The World Is Flat.

Its author Thomas Friedman shows how technology, especially the web, has shrunk the world, put us all in proximity, and thrust up a common set of problems. Taking our cue from Friedman’s book, we might ask: “How has the transformative power of globalization impacted the two Albu[r]querques?”

One set of answers emerge from a review of on-line newspapers covering Alburquerque and the region of Extremadura. Such a survey shows numerous parallels in the social, political, and economic issues the two Albu[r]querques address.

News stories common to the two communities during this past spring and summer include: drought and wild fires; environmental disputes over land use; smoking bans to improve public health; economic development to compete in a global economy; and efforts to cut the school drop-out rate. But at least one issue—immigration—merits a closer examination because how it plays out in each community, and in each nation, suggests lessons for all involved. 

Immigration—no issue more roils Spanish politics. Charges of racism and xenophobia are parried by reminders about terrorism and threats to national identity.

The debates in Spain have two parts. First is legal immigration. Spain’s declining birth rate and aging citizenry means it has a net population loss. This is offset by legal immigration.

Since 1998, more than 2.5 million foreigners legally entered Spain. They provide needed workers and also pay taxes and contribute to the national social security pension system. Today immigrants are 8.5 percent of Spain’s total population of 44 million, up from 2.1 percent in 1998.

Illegal immigration is on the rise, too, especially over the past several years. Today an estimated 1 million illegal immigrants have come to Spain from, in order of their numbers, Latin America, Africa, former countries of Eastern Europe and republics of the old Soviet Union, and the Middle East.

Municipalities, including Alburquerque, regularly grapple with public concerns about immigration. An exchange between Mayor Ángel Vadillo and his chief political opponent at a May meeting of the city council illustrates tensions.

The mayor’s opponent wanted to know the city’s policy for providing “housing, social integration, and employment” for immigrants. He proposed creation of a commission to study such matters. He also reportedly wanted to know the number of Arab immigrants in Alburquerque.

The mayor replied that recent immigrants to Alburquerque had “not caused any problems” for the city or its services. In rejecting the call for a special commission, the mayor instead drew attention to the newly created Municipal Institute of Conflict Resolution.

The Institute is a citizen’s group mediating “conflictos de convivencia.” Convivencia is a pivotal concept in modern Spain. It means a willingness to live together in respect and tolerance. Mayor Vadillo announced that the Institute “will look at how all persons are accorded respect regardless of their country of origin.”           

The two Albu[r]querques have gone their separate directions for 300 years. Yet today each community looks more alike than dissimilar when comparing issues they face.

Alburquerque’s mayor and 18 others from the town visited our city during this summer’s Fourth of July and Tricentennial celebrations. Regrettably, local media gave them scant notice. Had a public dialogue occurred, it would have highlighted that our two communities, and our respective nations, face many identical public policy issues. Realizing we all grapple with a common set of problems reminds us of what binds us—and challenges us—as people.

At a time when the phrases “culture wars” and “wedge issues” are used to describe a widening fracture line within our society, especially over immigration, it is worth remembering Alburquerque and convivencia. A commitment to living together with mutual respect and tolerance provides an invaluable model and an enduring lesson from the Tricentennial.

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