“Chain Migration” to Paris

Françoise and Marie Lopez talk about the gradual migration of their parents to France.

Nos parents, Genaro Lopez (1891) et Maria Alvarez (1897), étaient originaires de Villalpando dans la province de Zamora. Notre père était venu une première fois seul vers 1918 puis il était rentré en Espagne où il a attrapé la grippe espagnole. Il est reparti à la Plaine avec son beau-frère, Juan Gomez (époux de notre tante paternelle Luisa Lopez) en 1920. Ils sont d’abord venus seuls, puis ont écrit à leurs femmes qu’ils avaient du travail et un logement et qu’elles pouvaient venir les rejoindre ; c’était en août 1920. Notre père et notre oncle les attendaient à une date précise et sont allés les chercher deux jours de suite à la gare d’Austerlitz. Le troisième jour, ils n’y sont pas retournés or c’est là qu’elles sont arrivées. Elles avaient été retardées à la frontière où elles attendaient leurs bagages (notamment leurs matelas…). A l’arrivée à la gare, un homme qui parlait espagnol les a recommandées à un cocher qui les a amenées jusqu’au Pont-de-Soissons, mais a refusé d’entrer dans le “ quartier espagnol ” trop mal famé. Elles se sont alors retrouvées sur le trottoir avec toutes leurs affaires et se sont mises à pleurer — elles étaient enceintes toutes les deux, notre mère de notre sœur Claudine, notre tante de notre cousine Louise. Finalement, un Espagnol du quartier est passé et est aller chercher des carrioles à bras et des hommes pour transporter leurs affaires.  En arrivant, elles se sont aperçues que les “ maisons ” dont leur avaient parlé leurs époux étaient en fait des caves aux murs blanchis à la chaux. Elles ont alors regretté l’Espagne car elles y vivaient mal mais au moins dans une maison appartenant à leur mère.

Our parents, Genaro Lopez (1891) and Maria Alvarez (1897), came from Villalpando in the province of Zamora. Our father had first come alone around 1918 and then returned to Spain, where he contracted the Spanish flu. In 1920 he returned to La Plaine with his brother-in-law Juan Gomez (husband of our paternal aunt, Luisa Lopez). They came alone at first and then wrote to their wives that they had work and an apartment and that they could come to them; this was in August 1920. Our father and uncle waited for them on a certain date and went to the Gare d’Austerlitz to pick them up on two consecutive days. They did not go there on the third day, but that was exactly when they arrived. They had been stopped at the border, where they were waiting for their luggage (especially their mattresses…) When they arrived at the station, a man who spoke Spanish referred them to a coachman who took them to the Pont-de-Soissons, but refused to enter the “Spanish quarter”, which had a very bad reputation. So they found themselves on the sidewalk with all their belongings and began to cry – they were both pregnant, our mother with our sister Claudine, our aunt with our cousin Louise. Finally a Spaniard from the neighborhood came by and got some handcarts and men to carry their things. When they arrived, they realized that the “houses” their husbands had told them about were in fact cellars with walls whitewashed with lime. So they missed Spain, because although they lived there badly, they were still living in a house that belonged to their mother.

In the first half of the 20th century, the so-called “Little Spain” emerged in the Parisian suburb of La Plaine Saint-Denis. In 1931, Spaniards made up the largest migrant community in La Plaine Saint-Denis with 4.5 percent of the total population. Various Spanish migrants had settled in Saint-Denis, Saint-Ouen and Aubervilliers in the course of three distinct migratory movements. So-called “economic migrants” shaped the decade of the 1920s. After the uprising in Asturias was crushed at the end of 1934, political refugees in particular began to arrive in the Parisian suburbs, and their number rose to about 1.5 million by 1950 after the defeat of the Republican camp in 1939. Another generation of Spanish “economic migrants” followed between 1955 and 1970. 11“La petite Espagne de la Plaine-Sainte-Denis “, https://www.tourisme93.com/la-petite-espagne-de-la-plaine-saint-denis.html [accessed July 28, 2020].

Often, as in the case of Françoise and Marie Lopez’s parents, migration was gradual. One of the terms used in scholarship to describe this phenomenon is “chain migration” – a term that has been more than controversial since the debate on immigration policy following Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program. “Chain migration” describes a natural dynamic: migrants follow relatives or acquaintances (so-called pioneer migrants) who have already migrated to the destination area. Through these social relationships (networks), they may receive trustworthy information (e.g., about housing and employment opportunities) and support (e.g., in finding a job or dealing with authorities at the destination), which facilitates both migration and integration processes. 1. https://www.bpb.de/nachschlagen/lexika/270587/kettenmigration.] For many, the connection to Spain remained after migration in other ways as well. For example, when the Civil War raged in Spain, some ethnic Spanish men aged 18 to 46 left the Plaine Saint-Denis to return to Spain to fight in the Republican camp. Those who stayed in “Little Spain” organized support networks for communists or anarchists.

The reception experience for Spanish migrants differed according to the French migration regime. The latter in turn changed with the economic and political situation in France. For example, when, in early 1939, Spanish republican refugees from the Civil War exited for France, many of whom migrating to Paris and the surrounding areas, it became all too obvious that France had changed from a country of refugees to a country of forced transit. For although the French authorities had been very well prepared in the late 1930s to accept Spanish civil war refugees “humanely,” domestic, foreign policy and economic developments obviously spoke against this: immigration was to be severely restricted under the right-wing government of Édouard Daladier, making it more difficult for refugees to remain in France. 22Scott Soo, The routes to exile: France and the Spanish Civil War refugees, 1939-2009 (New York : Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 1-3.


  • 1“La petite Espagne de la Plaine-Sainte-Denis “, https://www.tourisme93.com/la-petite-espagne-de-la-plaine-saint-denis.html [accessed July 28, 2020].
  • 2Scott Soo, The routes to exile: France and the Spanish Civil War refugees, 1939-2009 (New York : Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 1-3.

Extract from the interview with Françoise and Marie Lopez, conducted by Natacha Lillo, lecturer in Spanish civilization at the University of Paris-Diderot (Paris 7), on October 25, 1999 in Plaine Saint-Denis.

Natacha Lillo, La Petite Espagne de la Plaine Saint-Denis (Paris: Autrement, 2004).