Photo by Rafa Royes Lopez
Vicky from Valdonzella
Turn off the Ronda Sant Antoni on to a tiny street called Valdonzella, and suddenly the city appears more Philippine than European. There is a grocery store, a bar and restaurant with Philippine videoke, a travel agency, a remittance centre, a freight forwarding service and a flat rental service. Here, people from the Philippines can eat the food, drink the beer, sing the love songs and speak the language that is their own.
This is also the world of one particular immigrant, Vicky de Leon Matira, who is the proud owner of all the above-mentioned establishments. When she first came to Barcelona from the Philippines, about 27 years ago, she came straight out of school, where she had been studying accounting in her home province of Mindoro.
“I came here without knowing anything. I had a sister here who was a domestic helper. She was the one who got me here,” she said, referring to the Spanish law allowing immigrants to bring their families to Spain.
In her first years here she was a working student, juggling a babysitting job, selling plane tickets for a travel agency, being a receptionist, tour guide and waitress. She had always dreamed of having her own business, but for two more years she kept at her hard work, until she got married and started a family. That was when she and her husband decided that they had to take the risk, and they drew up plans to start a small grocery store.
“At that time, we lacked the money [to put up a store]. None of the banks trusted us. This was 23 years ago and we were among the first Filipinos here. Every bank director we asked for a loan looked at us from head to toe and said no. I’ll never forget it.”
Finally, her husband’s former boss at a Spanish restaurant agreed to act as guarantor for a loan application. Soon, their 30-square-metre store opened on Carrer de Valdonzella, at first stocking only basics—things like cooking oil, milk, rice, salt and sugar.
At that time, de Leon Matira said, none of the locals wanted to buy from foreigners. “They were very racist in those days. I felt a bit hurt but I always told myself, ‘One day, you will buy from us, you’ll see’. I didn’t take it too personally.”
The new Philippine immigrants face less discrimination now, she said. There are free language classes and the city has become more cosmopolitan and accustomed to foreigners. As the numbers of Filipinos grew, Vicky began providing them with restaurants, flats and other services. “One business led to another. It was a big need that had to be met.”
Two years ago, de Leon Matira was diagnosed with lung cancer while she was on a trip to Manila. But like the businesswoman she is, she accepted it as just another challenge.
Right after her first operation, she did not waste any time and decided to put up a second branch of her bar and restaurant. “Even if I’m sick, it is not a burden. I see that a person has continuity. If not me, then my children [will continue].“
Her family wants her to stop working, she said, but she’ll keep at it as long as her health permits, and she hopes her next project will be a hotel. It will not be any ordinary hotel, but one with a restaurant that will have live acts, she said, with a gleam in her eye.
Probably the same gleam that she had when she first came to Barcelona 27 years ago.