Coming for economic nirvana, finding hell

Updated:
MADRID, Spain — Cans of Spanish beer peak out from a worn yellow plastic bag sitting on an overturned cardboard box outside of a busy Madrid Metro station. Mr. Yu, a kind-faced Chinese immigrant, peddles the beer to passersby, but he keeps the bag handles within easy reach for an quick getaway in case the police show up.   
 
On his feet for most of the night, Yu is exhausted by morning and is doubly discouraged by how little money he made. The 36-year-old Yu, who declined to give his first name, said the streets aren’t bustling like they used to, and those who do venture out to have a good time are not buying his beer as often.
 
This isn’t the life Yu envisioned for himself when he left his wife, daughter, and a rice farm in the north of China for Spain. The Chinese think of Spain as “a land of opportunity,” much like the U.S., he said. But he has been unable to get a regular job, and is struggling to pay off the debt he accumulated migrating here more than a year ago. Yu, with almost no Spanish skills and an expired visa, said peddling is his only option.
 
“Every day I am just suffering,” Yu said with the help of a translator. “When you are really desperate, you do this.”
 
Yu is not alone. Though the practice is illegal in Madrid, scores of Chinese immigrants, lacking the Spanish skills and the papers to get a job, set up makeshift alimentation stands at night on street corners and in plazas, peddling beer, sandwiches, candy and rolling papers. Others, calling “cerveza?” to those outside bars and clubs, are mobile, constantly moving along the streets to stay one step ahead of the police,.  
 
More than 156,000 Chinese immigrants live in Spain, according to the most recent data from the Spanish Ministry of Labor and Immigration, a number that has climbed steadily over the past two decades. No statistics are available on how many immigrants peddle illegally.
 
Peddling food and drink is a minor offense, earning only a written warning from police who confiscate and destroy the items being sold, according to the Municipality of Madrid. Yu says he has been caught countless times by the police, and has spent the night in jail at least three times.
 
What little money he makes is worth the risk, he says. A typical weekend night vending beer brings in 32 euros, or about $39, and weeknights bring in around $25. Generally, all the immigrants peddle for themselves, competing against each other for business.
 
But Yu still holds out hope that he will find economic success here.
 
About a half a mile down the street, Liu, a 35-year-old woman from Shanghai peddling beer and candy bars, is not so optimistic.
 
“I regretted it the first day I came,” says Liu, who did not give her first name because her visa is expired. Speaking through a translator, she said “We don’t want to do illegal things. We don’t want to do this, but we’re forced to do this.”
 
After unhappy turns as a nanny and convenience store clerk, Liu, who left her young son behind in China a year ago, said she began to peddle as a last resort. Like Yu, she said she borrowed money to finance her migration, and doesn’t want to return until she can recuperate her losses.
 
Suddenly, flashing blue lights turn the corner a few blocks away. Liu, who was caught by police the night before, panics, her broad, pretty face flashing with visible fear. Grabbing her cardboard box and remaining items, she violently shoves them under a parked car and runs off down the street. As the police car disappears from sight, Liu returns to the corner, reassembles her haphazard stand and continues to sell well into the early morning hours.
 
Despite their visibility, Chinese immigrants who peddle are the minority, said Gladys Nieto, a Chinese anthropology and language professor at the Autonomous University in Madrid. Those without the proper papers and the language skills who peddle get little opportunity for work, she said.
 
On the other hand, many Chinese immigrants open successful businesses, such as restaurants, Laundromats, Internet cafes, clothing shops, convenience stores, Nieto said. Most Chinese immigrate to Spain in order to better their families and to experience economic growth, Nieto said.
 
“I believe the Chinese are always looking for areas in commerce that haven’t been entered,” Nieto said.
 
Back in front of the Metro station, Yu pulls a lighter from his black down jacket and lights the cigarette of a young Spanish woman, his large, almond eyes crinkling amiably. Despite the hardships he suffers, he has remained good-humored.  
 
“If you feel so bad,” he said, smiling slightly, “then you should buy all my beer.”