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3 June 2010

The child that plays: immigration, sports and public space in Barcelona

Conference that formed part of debates on public space, in the framework the Bucharest Architecture Symposium (Anuala de architectura Bucaresti), 22-23 May 2009

First of all, I’d like to say that I feel something of an intruder today. I’m not an architect or specialist in anything, and I’m speaking to a group of people who, I’m sure, know a lot more about urban planning than I do. I’m a storyteller, a novelist and, as such, I observe. Every day I walk around Barcelona for a few hours and take in my surroundings. Sometimes, when travelling permits (like here and now), I do the same in other cities: I walk around streets I don’t know and observe people and places for hours on end. What I’ll try to do now is organise and explain a few ideas – intuitions, rather – about some of the phenomena I’ve noticed in recent years as I’ve been walking around Barcelona. I refer in particular to the use that immigrants make of public space, especially for playing and engaging in all kinds of sports.

Before starting on that, I’d like to make a brief preliminary detour and mention one of the roles that sport has played in our society over the last few years. If you go to Regent’s Park in London, around noon, any Saturday in spring, you’ll find a lot of people playing football. Even though the park is very big, often the fields of play overlap and the games get mixed up. The same thing happens in other parks of London, from the noblest lawn in Hyde Park to the most working-class grass in Greenwich, in the east of the city. In the 1990s, when English professional football went big-time as international business, and the first-division clubs started to sign up African players, these parks became a showcase for amateur players from overseas. A lot of young lads who’d come to Great Britain to do any kind of work were getting up early on Saturday mornings so they could show off their football skills. In an attempt to emulate the star teams, the second- and third-division English clubs, especially in the capital and its outskirts, sent their trainers to check out the boys who were playing in these parks – often barefoot – with a view to hooking future talent.

The life of an immigrant tends to be a battle between dreams and frustrations. Most of the boys playing in the park never changed its grass for that of the stadium yet, as they conquered that public space with their desires, they somehow ended up closing the circle.

Globalisation has come to the realm of sport too, and the stars often symbolise the triumph of emigrants. Such is the case of Africans who play football all over Europe, from Drogba and Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast), Essien (Ghana) to Eto’o (Cameroon), to cite just a few very famous names. All of these players have become models to emulate, perfect projections of a dream. Again, it’s hardly surprising that, when interviewed, these players from Third World countries state that, were it not for sport, their fate would be the same as their emigrant compatriots. This phenomenon isn’t limited just to Great Britain. In the French national team that won the World Cup title in 1998, for example, the majority of players – Zidane, Thuram, Djorkaeff … – were offspring of immigrants that had come to France in the seventies. Neither is it strange, then, that photographs of people from Third World countries – from those in the war-ravaged streets of Baghdad to sub-Saharans who are rescued on the high seas, adrift in small boats – often show them wearing t-shirts of the top clubs: FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, AC Milan, et cetera.

This link between football and triumphing can be extended to other sports and other countries. We have one example with the Cubans and Venezuelans who play professional baseball in the United States. Another very clear case is that of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi cricketers. Since this is a semi-professional sport in Great Britain, contact with a British team can often be a good way of obtaining a residence permit. In internet forums on cricket, it’s not unusual to read comments of Asian players who offer to come and play for British teams in exchange for an air ticket and help with the formalities of acquiring resident status.

Choosing the right space for everyone

The newspaper La Vanguardia recently published a survey on the “processes of immigrant integration in Barcelona” 1. Besides focusing on points such as the system of relationships established between immigrants and locals, or immigrants’ ability to participate in the public life of the new country of residence, the survey also looked briefly at public parks as spaces of relationship. “People who live in flats occupied by more than six people are those who most frequent green zones and squares”, the journalist writes. The comment is hardly surprising. The urban planning activist Jane Jacobs had already said it in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities 2, an essential work for understanding the phenomenon of migration in the great cities. “[C]ities are, by definition, full of strangers”, she wrote. As we shall soon see, the way in which immigrants treat public space often transforms it into an extension of private space.

If we were to locate on a map of Barcelona the places and sports presently being played in them, we’d have a rather nice sample of the variety of immigrants who come to our city, as well as of the variety of different social customs and uses that define them. These sporting activities in parks and other public spaces take place especially in leisure hours at the weekend and, in the case of children, after school and all day long in the summer break.

To give an idea, Filipinos, Cubans and Venezuelans tend to go up to the different playing fields on Montjuïc to play softball and baseball. Those who have joined teams play in places that are especially fitted out, such as the Carlos Pérez de Rozas Municipal Baseball Field or the municipal softball field though, curiously, these players still seek virgin (and not very appropriate) territories for impromptu games. A good example of this may be seen on this YouTube video:

Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants play cricket mainly in the squares and other spaces of Ciutat Vella (Old City), the neighbourhood where most of them live, for example the Three Chimneys Garden or the Rambla de Raval, but also in other areas such as shopping centre car parks that are empty on Sundays. They are the most active when it comes to playing, and it’s not difficult for them to set up the conditions for a game of cricket in any space. The YouTube pages are full of amateur recordings of such cricket matches in Barcelona. One can see a good example of this kind of appropriation at

Members of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian communities play volleyball and foot volleyball on the Barcelona beaches in particular, but also on those of Castelldefels.

Members of the Chinese community, which is the one that is most aloof from local people, play ping-pong on the tables in the city’s parks and gardens and also do tai chi in the parks, although maybe tai chi can’t be considered a sport.

So now we have all these games and sports, what kind of spaces are they played in? According to a detailed study by Francesc Magrinyà and Miguel Y. Mayorga 3, some of the data is quite relevant. More than 50% of sporting activities take place in parks and squares, while 40% are “unforeseen”, which is to say public space is given an alternative function. Finally, only 11% happen in ad hoc public spaces. We might say that need hones ingenuity when immigrants adapt a square, a park, a garden or a car park in order to play sport in it.

This third option, apparently the most subversive, is also the most interesting because of its powerful symbolic charge, and it enables one to reflect on the adaptation of immigrants to the urban schemes of their new place of residence. To return to the writings of Jane Jacobs, she also noted that “City diversity represents accident and chaos”, and it is this accidental chaos, ordered in disorder and struggling to survive despite the municipal ordinances, that gives vitality to the big city.

Man the player

When it comes to analysing the meaning of the public presence of play, one first needs to give a more precise idea of what play is. I’d like to refer here to a key work, Homo Ludens4. In this essay written in 1938, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga establishes the importance of play in culture and in the development of human behavioural patterns. For Huizinga, man plays like a child, for pleasure and sport, outside the bounds of serious life. Games take place in a limited time and in keeping with established rules, which are freely accepted. The joint sense of tension and, at once, happiness, creates an awareness of being another person in everyday life. Play is creating a new world, with new rules, and it establishes a relationship between player and place. In short, playing is communicating.

Along similar lines to Huizinga, sociologists tend to agree that the practice of sport is, above all, an exercise of memory. The verb defines it well: engaging in sport is to play or, in other words, to go back to childhood. To stretch things a little further, we might conclude that, for the immigrant, playing is a way of returning to the land he or she has left behind, to its customs and traditions. It is the place of memory that also tends to be the place of childhood. Moreover, playing makes it possible to socialise with other immigrants from the same country, or from other countries of similar traditions. There is no doubt about it: the option of domesticating a terrain that isn’t readied for play, of shaping it in keeping with the needs of the game, procures more powerful symbolic recognition than if the players just used a football or sports field equipped for the game. Again, one should be aware that this process is an exact repetition of what the immigrants used to do in their countries of origin: playing in frequently improvised public spaces was a necessity and not dissidence.

If this exercise of memory tends to take place in a public space, it is because, this way, it has a dual function: on the one hand, it is the space of return, as I have noted and, on the other, it can be used for colonising (if only for a few hours) the territory of arrival and making of it – thanks to the conventions of the game – one’s own space. Urban life, in which the limits of public and private are frequently blurred, facilitates this kind of identification. Furthermore, it is an operation of dialogue, of teaching others one’s own ways, which is to say, making them participate in one’s inner life, in one’s deep-seated feelings. This point would link up with the “theory of recognition”, which Josep Ramoneda referred to yesterday when citing the studies of Axel Honneth.

Between admiration and fear

Since the phenomenon of immigration has come about with unexpected momentum in recent years, the inhabitants of Barcelona have been trying to understand it every day, in a kind of forced march that frequently oscillates between admiration for the unknown and fear born of lack of understanding (sometimes drifting towards xenophobia). The alternative use of public space by the immigrants who play cricket, for example, is perceived by some as a threat, an invasion. It doesn’t matter that their children played football there not so many years ago; now, all of a sudden, some strangers have conquered the territory.

Such questions and misgivings arise in particular because we are dealing with first-generation immigrants. There has been no apprenticeship in these rituals of play, and perhaps acceptance of such diversity would be a sign of cosmopolitanism. I’d say that, right now, Barcelona is a city that is uneasy with its present and that it is burdened with doubts: it hasn’t yet decided if it wants to grow into a great megalopolis, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails, or if it prefers to remain medium-sized, beautiful and intact. (It’s probable that while our city is pondering this, the weight of the days going by will make the decision.) In any case, the future will have to show whether Catalan society is ready to accept the changes in the human landscape as a matter of course.

In order to tackle this battle of doubts generated by the new phenomenon of immigration, I’d like to turn to two of the views expressed by the professor of Theory of Art, Martí Peran, at a conference on Public Space, which was recently held at the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona5. If I understood correctly, Martí Peran was talking about public space as a place where shared experiences come together in the form of an imaginary or, in other words, a space of “constructing an identity”. At the same time, this space is necessarily a place of conflict, especially social conflict, thus enabling us to discern what it is that isn’t working well. This idea fits perfectly with those expressed by Jane Jacobs, when she says that chaos and accident are at the basis of diversity. She also said, “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served”.

I mentioned earlier the cricket matches played in Barcelona by members of the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. This is a good example of the clash between the city’s good intentions – as represented by its managers – and everyday reality. A couple of years ago, having noted that more and more boys and girls were playing cricket in the streets of the inner city, the neighbourhood with most Pakistani residents, the City Council offered a series of sporting facilities, including among them an enclosed space in which to train. The idea was to use “cricket as an integrating element, bringing together the cultures of Ciutat Vella residents”, while at once keeping the kids “off the street”. The moment of truth came, as noted in the on-line publication Sí, se puede – which specialises in neighbourhood news – when the pitch provided in the Drassanes area ceased to be used while, a few metres away, the Pakistani kids were still freely playing in the street. It’s highly likely that the conditions for playing were better in the Drassanes sports area, but the lesson of the whole story is that inertia is not very amenable to domestication, especially when we’re talking about first-generation immigrants who are seeking an identity.

I have an intuition – but it’s only that, simply an intuition, so please bear with me – that the unforeseen symbolic uses of public space become regularised over time, at a point when there’s no longer any need to colonise the space. Maybe we can come at it another way: in the future of the great city of Barcelona the day will dawn when cricket or softball will have become sports of solid tradition (and not just within the Pakistani or Cuban communities), and children from all cultures will be playing them. Similarly, before too many years have elapsed, a boy of Moroccan or South American origins, born and raised in Barcelona, could well end up playing as a professional for the Barça or Espanyol football clubs.

Discovering reality through fiction

To conclude, I’d like to take this theme back to my own terrain, the novelist’s. We might hypothesise that the next stage in this relationship between immigrant and public space is when it has become so entrenched and so normal that it can be used as the fodder of fiction. We see this in cultures and societies with consolidated immigrant communities. The conflict hasn’t disappeared, because it’s part of the essence of immigration but at least there are more options for understanding it. This is shown, for example, in the British film of the Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha, Bend It Like Beckham (2002), in which a girl wants to play football and has to deal with the prejudices of her Indian parents. Another captivating example is the recent novel Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (2008), which is set in New York and tells the story of a Dutch-born equities analyst who sets out to look for a cricket team so he can keep on playing his favourite sport. This pastime brings him into contact with Asian immigrants who also have a penchant for playing cricket and, in particular, with a Jamaican who dreams of constructing a great cricket stadium on the outskirts of Brooklyn on some semi-derelict land. The novel gives a very good description of the quest to achieve one’s own bit of territory, a space of identification. For the Dutchman, the flat, desolate blocks of land where the sports field is to be built are like a fragment of Holland transplanted to Brooklyn while, for the Jamaican, this inhospitable wilderness takes him back to his Antillean childhood.

There are more examples I could give of this identification between realist fiction and reality. What always counts, at bottom, whatever the immigrant’s vicissitudes, is that his or her relationship with the new city of residence goes through the stage of organising public space in order to convert it into a playing space – or their playground, as the English language so neatly expresses it. At the heart of it all there is always the need for understanding, for dialogue – to resort to a much-abused word – between those who arrive and those who receive them. While the backdrop of this encounter is the big city, public space will always play a key role. I shall end now with the words of professor of Aesthetics, Jordi Balló, in a recent article in La Vanguardia because they offer a rather good account of the background of my playful approach to this theme: “In the city, uninhabited spaces don’t belong to anyone, and this is part of their appeal.” 6


1. Ramon Suñé, “Como en casa” (Just Like Home), La Vanguardia, “Vivir” section, pp. 1-3, 13 July, 2009.
2. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York, Random House, 1961.
3. Francesc Magrinyà and Miguel Y. Mayorga, “Dissenyar la ciutat per a l’esport als espais públics” (Designing the City for Sport in Public Spaces) in Apunts. Educació física i esports, Nº 91, 2008, pp. 91 – 113.
4. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, New York, Beacon Press paperback, 1955 (in Spanish: Alianza Editorial, 2000).
5. Martí Peran, “Espais públics, entre urbanismo i paisatgisme” (Public Spaces, between Urban Planning and Landscaping), Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, 29 April, 2009.
6. Jordi Balló, “El efecto Pitarra” (The Pitarra Effect), La Vanguardia, 29 April, 2009.


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