Child Labor in Paris

Fé Garcia Petit talks about how she started working when she was twelve to support her parents financially.

J’ai eu mon certificat à 11 ans et demi et je suis tout de suite partie chercher du travail, à 12 ans. J’ai passé une visite chez le docteur, qui ne regardait rien, et je me suis mise toute seule à chercher du travail. À l’époque on allait partout pour demander s’il y avait du travail pour nous. J’en ai finalement trouvé dans une cartonnerie, à Paris, chez Faillot, à la Porte-de-la-Chapelle. Mais mon père ne voulait pas que je dépasse la barrière de l’octroi et que j’aille travailler à Paris. J’ai donc menti à mes parents en disant que j’allais travailler dans une cartonnerie de l’avenue Wilson, en face du cinéma, chez Soubraque. Tous les matins, ma copine Maria Timon, qui habitait 1 passage Boise, venait me chercher pour aller au travail mais elle, elle prenait le tramway car sa mère lui donnait des tickets, alors que moi je courrais tout du long, jusqu’à la porte de la Chapelle. J’étais déjà crevée en arrivant au travail. Tous les jours ma mère me préparait ma gamelle ; elle ne comprenait pas pourquoi je ne rentrais pas manger à la maison mais je racontais que je préférais rester manger avec mes copines. Si j’avais dit à mon père que j’avais dépassé l’octroi, il m’aurait fait prendre mon compte et c’était dur de trouver du boulot à ce moment-là. Finalement c’est une voisine espagnole de notre cour qui a découvert le pot aux roses. Elle m’a interrogée sur l’endroit où je travaillais et quand je lui ai dit que c’était chez Soubraque, elle m’a dit qu’ils ne prenaient pas les étrangers. Elle a tout raconté à mes parents mais finalement je suis restée travailler là-bas car le petit quelque chose que je ramenais à la maison servait à mettre du beurre dans les épinards. J’ai fait entrer plein d’Espagnols dans cette boîte : Bogas, Martin, Nina Martinez qui travaillait alors dans la couture.

I received my diploma at the age of eleven and a half and left immediately at twelve to look for work. I went to the doctor’s office, who didn’t look at anything, and started looking for work all by myself. At that time we went everywhere to ask if there was work for us. I finally found some in a cardboard box factory in Paris, near Faillot, at the Porte-de-la-Chapelle. But my father didn’t want me to cross the license line and go work in Paris. So I lied to my parents and said I was going to work in a cardboard box factory on Avenue Wilson, opposite the cinema, at Soubraque. Every morning my friend Maria Timon, who lived in Passage Boise 1, came to pick me up to go to work, but she took the streetcar because her mother gave her tickets while I walked all the way to Porte de la Chapelle. I was already exhausted when I arrived at work. Every day my mother prepared my lunch box for me; she didn’t understand why I didn’t go home to eat, but I told her that I preferred to stay and eat with my friends. If I had told my father that I had gone over the license limit, I would have had to quit my job and it was difficult to find work at that time. In the end, it was a Spanish neighbor from our farm who caught on to me. She asked me about the place where I was working and when I told her that I worked at Soubraque, she said they don’t take foreigners. She told my parents everything, but in the end I continued to work there because the little thing I brought home was used to put butter in the spinach. I brought many Spaniards to this company: Bogas, Martin, Nina Martinez, who worked in the sewing room at that time.

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 “, [accessed July 28, 2020].

The connection back to Spain remained intact for many even after their migration. 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 but exclusion and discrimination dominated the lives of many no matter when they arrived. 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 “, [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 Fé Garcia Petit, conducted by Natacha Lillo, lecturer in Spanish civilization at the University of Paris-Diderot (Paris 7), on December 13, 1999 and March 9, 2001 in Garges-les-Gonesses.

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