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Foreigners welcome in Spain hamlet

Repopulation bid bears its fruits; reviews mixed

AGUAVIVA, Spain -- The woman who runs a café in this remote Spanish community is a Romanian. Down the road, Italians and Argentines make electric cables.

The local school is bustling with foreign-born children, who make up more than one-third of the students.

While much of Western Europe shuns immigrants, this town seeks them. They are seen as key to reversing a decline that has lasted for decades in a population that has brought slow death to so many other Spanish villages, as residents have fled to the cities for a better life.

That prospect is on display six miles from Aguaviva in Las Parras de Castellote, transformed almost into a ghost town, with one bar, no children, and 78 residents, most of them older than 60.

Determined to avoid such a fate, Mayor Luis Bricio dug into his own pocket in April 2000 and flew 6,300 miles to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a novel idea: He would recruit new residents for his town.

A Buenos Aires radio station reported on his journey, and an amazing thing happened: 7,000 Argentines lined up to hear Bricio's sales pitch.

The next year he went to Romania, and did the same thing.

Today, instead of a town that is sinking and shrinking, Bricio runs one that he feels has a future: a growing economy, 34 new homes, and 701 people, up from 598 six years ago, thanks to an influx of foreigners.

``We didn't just find a town full of old people, we found a family," said Lili David, 38, who came from Romania five years ago with her husband and two children, and runs the café on the ground floor of the town hall. ``There is a future with possibility here in Aguaviva. I can ensure my kids' future. If they want to study abroad, I can provide for it."

But Bricio said it was too early to declare victory in Aguaviva, about 175 miles west of Barcelona. It has about 10 births a year. But because of the aging population, about 20 to 30 people a year die, according to the Rev. Salvador Dias, the local priest. Its church has celebrated one marriage in the past two years, Dias said. Just two buses a day stop in the town, at 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

``Rural depopulation is a common phenomenon across Western Europe," said Vicente Pinilla, a researcher at the Center for Studies on the Depopulation and Development of Rural Areas.

Lack of leisure facilities, the collapse of traditional jobs in mining and agriculture, environmental degradation, school closings, shrinking investment, and a lack of trade unions and entrepreneurial ventures all help drive people to the cities, said Graciela Malgesini, a director of Rural-In, which aids the integration of immigrants in rural areas of Europe.

``Some rural villages become living phantoms," she said.

Communities determined to fight back sometimes court investment, hoping that new jobs will attract permanent residents. Others try to use Old-World charm to draw tourists and wealthy city people and baby boomers who want weekend homes.

Las Parras de Castellote, 10 minutes from here down a bumpy road through rugged, deserted fields of scrub brush, is a prime example of that approach.

From a high of more than 1,200 people in the early 1900s, its population has sunk to 78. The school closed more than 30 years ago, and there are no children. José Luis Borraz, a 47-year-old construction worker sipping coffee laced with brandy one recent morning in the town's bar and café, figured that his 44-year-old brother was the youngest resident.

But the town's well-tended streets seem to belie the flight. Parras has managed a mini-renaissance as a summer town. The 367-year-old Church of San Nicolas de Bari was recently restored, and seasonal residents, many of whom live in Barcelona, Valencia, or Zaragoza, have modernized and refurbished ancestral homes.

``In the summer, and during Holy Week, and in the hunting season, it's almost like a holiday town," said Pilar Aznar, 72.

But Malgesini, of Rural-In, expressed doubt that such communities are sustainable for long qualify as rural theme parks."

In 1991, Bricio was elected mayor of a town that had reached its high of about 1,900 people in the 1930s. Later, he got his idea.

He promised to fly in the immigrants and to give them jobs in local businesses, decent housing, an education for their children, and subsidies and loans for furniture and other necessities. The newcomers had to sign five-year contracts agreeing to repay the loans. They had to be of Spanish descent and younger than 40. And they had to have at least two children younger than 12.

Argentina seemed an obvious recruiting ground. ``We were thinking of countries at the time that were having economic problems, so they could benefit from coming to our town, and we would benefit, too," said Bricio, 54, who is a physician in a neighboring town. ``And we thought if they were Spanish speakers from Latin America, their cultural roots would make it easier to adapt."

The experience did not turn out as planned.

Many Argentines came, but they found Aguaviva small and isolated and the residents provincial. Some Argentines apparently wanted to use the program to get working papers and never intended to stay. Bricio estimates that about 600 arrivals eventually left.

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