Spaniards are the latest addition to Miami’s Latin social fabric

Spaniards have long regarded Miami as a jet-set haven, home to popular Spanish artists such as Julio and Enrique Iglesias or Alejandro Sanz.

But the stories of the new Spanish emigrants in South Florida are far less glamorous.

Eva María García-Abadillo, 31, and her husband, Sebastian Baigorria, 36, were both unemployed and struggling to maintain their two young children in Mallorca, Spain, before he was hired two years ago by the chain of Argentine steakhouses The Knife.

“My husband had been jobless for more than a year and one day he got off the sofa and said, we have to go”, she says.

Now, he is earning more than $4,000 a month as an executive chef. She found a job in Doral as a server at Nahuen, an Argentine restaurant.

With the unemployment rate close to 28 percent in Spain, many people are leaving the country in search of better fortune. According to official figures, around 400,000 Spaniards have emigrated since the economic downturn started in 2008, mainly to Western Europe and Latin America.

The impact of this emigration wave is also being felt in Miami, where they are blending with the Spanish-speaking social fabric that has transformed the city in recent decades.

The U.S. Census — which gathers data from surveys mailed to U.S. household — estimates that since 2000, around 12,000 more Spanish citizens live in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, bringing the total figure to more than 20,000.

And Miami, which had never been a traditional destination for Spanish migrants, overtook New York in 2012 to be home to the largest colony of Spaniards in America, according to figures from the Spanish Consulate in Miami.

More than 30,000 people are registered in the consulate, which covers Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. About 90 percent of those on the list live in the Miami area.

Consulate figures are tricky, however. The Spanish recession has coincided with a change in the Spanish nationality rules that granted the citizenship to children of Spaniards. Many people with only a blood connection to Spain are now also Spaniards living in South Florida.

In addition to that, consulate figures underestimate the real number of Spaniards here. Registration is voluntary and the consulate is not counting many who arrive from Spain and do not register until they need to vote or renew their documents.

Others come with a three-month tourist visa and stay in the country under the radar, only emerging when they marry to an American citizen or after they are sponsored by a U.S.-based company.

Longtime Spanish residents in Miami say they have noticed an increasing influx of Spanish people who come here to try their luck, a trend that can also be detected in online forums of Spaniards in Miami, where many potential emigrants ask about the job market.

The Spanish language, of course, is a factor in their decision to relocate.

“My dream is to pursue my career in Miami,” said a nurse on the Facebook Web page Españoles en Miami, with more than 520 members. “I know there will be a need for nurse in coming years and my profession is well-paid there, in addition to the good reputation of bilingual nurses.”

Lorena Villar, 32, who has worked in Miami for a Spanish institution since 2008, says the profile of the young Spaniard in Miami has evolved. When she arrived, there were barely any “spontaneous” arrivals from Spain.

“Very few are successful in their job search,” she says. “It is very difficult to find companies that sponsor Spaniards.”

But Javier Pagalday, the Spanish adjunct consul in Miami, says the phenomenon of undocumented immigrants is marginal.

Most of the new Spanish emigrants move to closer destinations such as London or Berlin, where they are granted the right to work as European citizens.

Many of those who are relocating here, Pagalday says, are hired by Spanish companies expanding their business in Florida.

Banks, construction companies and food producers from Spain set their sights on South Florida in the early 2000s and they have expanded their operations after the recession hit their home market.

According to the consulate, 35 percent of Spanish companies in the United States — about 350 — are based in Miami-Dade County. That number is up from 280 in 2005.

Also, entrepreneurs are starting small businesses here.

Ernesto Lefranc and his wife, Lola, both 55, arrived three years ago and opened Lola’s Gourmet, a Spanish-food delicatessem on Calle Ocho that they have recently expanded into a restaurant.

The restaurant has been a success, they said, thanks to their hard work and the love that many in the Latin community profess for Spanish food.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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