LIMA, Peru — “When we told friends and family we were moving to Peru, no one was surprised,” says Ana Bustinduy. “There is just no work in Spain.”
“People have already seen so many others leave. We lost our jobs and it was obvious we had to go. We came because of the crisis.”
After two years struggling to establish themselves in Lima, Bustinduy, 36, a human rights lawyer, and her husband, Carlos Lorenzo Amigo, 33, an agronomist, seem to have found their niche.
Last September they sank all their savings into establishing La Libre, a bookshop in the touristy Barranco district of the Peruvian capital.
The bookshop is still not quite breaking even. But it’s close, and Bustinduy feels optimistic about the business.
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“The bookshop is going well but we are living in uncertainty. Do we stay here five years, or 10 years, or are we never going back?” she says.
“Right now we don’t have children but that could change things. We have no family here, no grandparents to help with the kids. We could sell the bookshop to go home, but it wouldn’t be enough to start from zero again in Spain.”
The couple is a perfect example of a new trend: young people, above all professionals, emigrating from struggling European Union countries to Latin America in search of work.
That’s a reversal of a long-established trend: migrants from poor Latin American nations seeking a life in Western Europe’s bustling, advanced economies.
In 2010, for the first time in nearly two decades, the number of Europeans heading west outnumbered Latin Americans heading to the “old world,” says a May report by the European Union and the International Organization for Migration.
It may come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of them come from Spain, perhaps the only EU country that has suffered nearly as much economic hardship as Greece.
Throw in the common language, and a long historical relationship, and most of Latin America is an obvious escape route for Spaniards.
In 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Spaniards made up some 85 percent of all European immigrants to Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the EU/IOM report.
Unemployment in Spain has hovered around a mind-boggling 25 percent in recent years. But that may be the least of it. Youth unemployment has been double that, at around 50 percent.
Behind those numbers are stories of millions of shattered dreams and the day-to-day battles just to put food on the table.
And for many, that struggle continues when they arrive in Latin America, especially in the early days.
“It’s not what I love but it is regular work,” says Alba Garcia, a 28-year-old actress from Avila, near Madrid, of her current job in Lima teaching drama and dance at a private school.
On top of that she gets theater gigs. But they don't pay enough to live off of, as she would like. Life has been a challenge ever since she arrived in Peru in 2010. And that’s despite arriving with her Peruvian boyfriend, now her husband.
“Having a Peruvian partner helps a lot, but it’s still been a struggle,” she says. “It’s very tough to break into work here. The circles are very closed.”
“One of the issues is my accent. I’ve been told to lose it or I’ll keep being labeled as the ‘conquistadora.’ But it’s my natural accent. It would feel odd to get rid of it.”
Yet she has no regrets. Her father, an architect, has been out of work in Spain since 2008, and her parents encouraged her to leave just to get on with her life.
With its booming economy, Peru is an obvious destination. But enterprising Spaniards are heading all over the region, including less obvious countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador.
And in doing so, they are also helping to boost their own country’s economy. In 2012, Spaniards in Latin America and the Caribbean sent $2.4 billion of remittances home, making up a whopping 53 percent of the EU total, according to the recent report.
That makes Spain comparable to many Latin American nations, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Brazil, which receive similar orders of remittances from millions of citizens abroad, including in the United States.
Interestingly, Spain's remittances are way ahead of Argentina's. The South American country received $526 million in 2012, despite a wave of emigrants heading everywhere from Mexico to Australia in the early 2000s after enduring an economic crisis about as bad as the one Greece has been suffering through.
Yet despite the shared language, adjusting can be hard for Spanish transplants. In most of Latin America, the quality public healthcare and education systems that most Europeans take for granted don’t exist.
Plus Latin America is statistically the world’s most violent region, while Europe is its safest.
“There is a cultural shock,” says Bustinduy. “Peru has incredible food, and such diversity in its landscapes. But the traffic is just disastrous.
“For a European, it takes some getting used to that the cars don’t stop when you are crossing the street. It makes you despair. The extreme classism is also tough. In Spain, of course you have rich and poor, but not like here.”
But there are positives too. Garcia, for example, admires how Peruvians still value family and respect the elderly in a way that, she feels, is being lost in Spain.
“Living in a different country teaches you so much,” says Garcia. “It opens your mind and you realize that things that you always thought were normal, or common sense, can be done a different way.”