The diaries of a bus buddy: Fieldwork observations as immigrants navigate Spain’s agri-food industry

Merissa Gavin, Master’s Student, International Development Studies at Wageningen University

My daily ‘commute
Beyond the methods and ethics of data collection, something we were taught in fieldwork preparation is that the field is full of surprises. Often you arrive to a reality much different to what your a priori desk research may lead you to expect. 

I came to Huelva expecting to observe and participate with Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha (JHL), a self-organised feminist and anti-racist group of day labourers in the strawberry industry. My intention, in the best-case scenario, was to live and work alongside the fruit harvesters. Failing this, I was willing to accept visiting where the workers lived, hanging out with them after work and joining unionist action organised by JHL. However, due to the delicacy of immigrant workers’ statuses and the protectionist front of employers, this avenue proved unviable. Employers commonly provide accommodation on site and they are reluctant to facilitate external interactions. In place of JHL, the entry point for my research has been Asociación Nueva Ciudadanía por la Interculturalidad (ASNUCI). ASUNCI is an association that offers its members hostel beds, internet connection and hygiene services, all of which are in high demand amongst workers not housed by their employers, but instead living in roadside settlements without electricity or water.

Expecting to have worked with JHL, I rented a room in the city of Huelva, which now means a 45-minute bus ride from Huelva to the town of Lepe, where ASNUCI is based. At first, I was grateful to have any participant entry point (given the growing knot in my stomach once JHL was no longer an option), so the commute by bus didn’t bother me. In fact, once I began to observe the surrounding areas of Lepe and to spark up conversation with my fellow passengers, I stopped considering the bus as purely a commute to and from the field, but rather a component of the field itself. Immigrants that travel to Lepe for the seasonal harvest first arrive at Huelva, then take the regional bus to Lepe. The journey I’ve been making daily is an essential component of their journey across Spain. Fortunately, it appears I am an approachable type, as several immigrants have come to sit with and talk to me on the bus, where I haven’t observed similar behaviour between immigrants and Spanish passengers. On a few occasions I was asked if I was Ukrainian, which may alternatively explain the ease with which they approach me, as though I share their experience of being driven from home. Whatever the reason, conversations arising from my daily bus journeys have taught me a lot.

Commuter conversations
No two conversations are the same. And yet, more often than not, the opening questions from my bus journey companions include, “Estás casada?” (Are you married?). Answering in the negative, many followed up by requesting my phone number or Instagram handle. One Senegalese man, who recently arrived in Spain, wasn’t disheartened when I declined to give my contact details and instead he handed me a piece of paper from his wallet with hand-written details of his name, phone number and Facebook and Instagram accounts. He had a number of these pieces of paper and said he carried them as a way to make friends. A Moroccan man I once sat next to worked as a contractor for his jefe (chief/boss; the word used for harvest employers) and offered to get me work at one of the fruit harvests. Eager to work alongside the fruit pickers and to visit the farms, I gave him my number. However, this resulted in little more than calls and texts asking to meet and have dinner together. A younger Moroccan man was on video call to his mother back home, and, having recognised me from Lepe, he turned the camera to my face to introduce me to her. One of the most heart-warming commuter experiences I’ve had was one afternoon when I got on the bus and scanned my transport card, only to realise that I had nothing more than 10 cent credit. This had happened to me once before but a friendly female smile and the ‘clueless foreigner’ card was enough to get me a free ride on the bus (something I’m certain wouldn’t work for my sub-Saharan counterparts). Today was a different bus driver and he was in a less giving mood. To my rescue, one of the Moroccan guys who comes to my English class was sitting near the front and saw me sweat trying to plead with the driver. “Profesora” (Teacher) he called, “toma!” (here you go!) and he handed forward his transport card to pay for my fare.

Lepe bus station passenger waiting area, photograph taken by author

My return journeys from Lepe have been equally chatty. A Senegalese man, who I’d never spoken to or even seen before, saw me talking to a Senegalese friend who had walked me to the station. The former smiled at me and I returned the smile, which he took as his cue to sit next to me on the bus and speak for the entire 45 minutes about his life in Spain and all the cities he has lived in and all the jobs he has had. One regular interaction I’ve had is with a Mauritanian man who has joined some of the English classes I’ve been giving at ASNUCI. He lives in Cartaya, ten minutes outside of Lepe, and we often take the bus home together. He sits next to me and makes the most of those ten minutes to practice whatever English we had learned that week. Another time, one of the Senegalese guys I had befriended took the same evening bus to Huelva with me and we chatted the whole journey back. He was spending the night at a friend’s place in the city because the following morning he had an appointment with his lawyer. He went on to tell me that because he’s undocumented, he’s been using someone else’s papers as his own and he wanted his lawyer’s advice on how to begin his documentation process.

Whether as a way to make friends and connect with people, to contract workers as a ploy to go on dates, to share life experiences or to practice language skills, immigrants have been very forthcoming with me on our shared bus journeys. Additionally, I’ve been exposed to various strategies employed by immigrants in the face of instability, such as borrowing others’ documents whilst you organise your own, or working as an unofficial taxi driver, something I will elaborate on below.

The bus station: a central node in navigating precarity
The Lepe bus station and adjacent café is a central node in the immigrant space. It is where new arrivals make first contact with the town of Lepe and begin to navigate the precarity of their new home. Where people sleeping on the streets store their belongings, safe in the knowledge their bags won’t be removed thanks to an unspoken agreement with station maintenance. Where the jefes pick up and drop off workers before and after their shifts. Where, during opening hours, those not fortunate enough to find work sit in the passenger waiting area to pass the time sheltered from the sun. Where people come to use the bathroom, to play pool and to have a coffee and a chat.

One evening I arrived at Lepe bus station to catch the last bus back to Huelva. Five, ten, fifteen minutes pass and still no sign of the bus. I stood there, confused, with other passengers waiting for the same bus. It was over half an hour later when I accepted that the bus wasn’t coming and I’d have to find another solution. Luckily, the solution found me. A teenage Moroccan boy approached me and asked if I needed to go to Huelva. He pointed to a car waiting at the steps of the bus station, telling me to speak to that woman, she was driving to Huelva. The driver, also Moroccan, first asked for €20 (for a bus ride that costs €1.10) which I haggled down to €15, with the deal to pay only €10 if she managed to collect more passengers along the way. She was very friendly and we chatted and joked a lot. She told me that she’d lived in Spain for years, with all her children born here and that she worked full time as a private taxi driver. Private taxi driving was illegal, she said, but the police never caught her. She asked me about Irish and Dutch universities, and where I would recommend sending her children for their third level education. Passing Cartaya, we saw more people abandoned at the bus stop. We picked three of them up and with the extra passengers in the back, the driver turned up the radio and we didn’t speak for the rest of the journey. I was the last passenger to get out because I had to go to an ATM to withdraw cash. I hopped out of the car with just my purse and my phone, and when I came back to give her the money and grab my bag, she warned me “No confíes en nadie” (Don’t trust anybody), saying I shouldn’t have left my bag unattended with a stranger. Before she drove off, she gave me her number and told me to call her if I ever needed a ride again.

Another day I was making the journey from Huelva to Lepe with a Senegalese friend and he suggested we take a private car instead of waiting for the bus. We went to the back of the bus station and there haggled with a Moroccan man to take us for €10 each. As we headed for Lepe, the driver said to us, “Si la policía nos para, yo no soy taxista, somos amigos, vale?” (If the police stop us, I’m not a taxi driver, we’re friends, alright?). Another day, at the bus station in Huelva, I stood towards the end of a long line of people waiting for the bus. As we shuffled forward to board the bus, I chatted to two young Moroccan men behind me in the line. Just as I got to the front, the driver announced the bus was full. There were fifteen-plus people behind me and standard practice is to run a second bus if there’s enough demand so I waited around. The two Moroccans left and came back to ask if I wanted to come with them in a private car and we’d each pay €4 to get to Lepe. Another day I was standing in the line for the bus to Lepe, when I saw an unfamiliar Moroccan man approaching people in the line, asking if they’d prefer a private driver. He got to me and greeted me as if we were friends. Reading the confusion on my face, he said he knew me from the Senegalese restaurant where he once saw me eating. We chatted briefly and he told me about his work as a private taxi driver. It’s better than stealing, he said, and he enjoys talking to people and learning about different cultures.

Relying on public transport, and finding viable alternatives when it lets you down, is an experience I’ve shared with immigrants in Lepe. As well as that, frequenting the bus station has taught me how some make a living by working as unofficial taxi drivers, putting their driving skills to use as a survival strategy in the face of scarcity of job opportunities beyond the seasonal harvest.

Relocating to the rural
What I first considered a potential set-back, losing nearly 2 hours daily taking the bus between Huelva and Lepe, has since proven insightful in many ways. That said, with eight weeks of city life under my belt, I will now move to Ayamonte, Lepe’s neighbouring town. Throughout the move, I’ve experienced first-hand the struggle of immigrants with the impossibility of finding accommodation in the town of Lepe itself and, as a result, have settled for a room in Ayamonte to spend the final weeks of my fieldwork. While my journeys between Huelva and Lepe have taught me a lot about immigrant routines and the spaces they occupy, living in Ayamonte offers access to various new research opportunities. I will travel the ten minutes to and from Lepe every day with the staff of ASNUCI, all of whom live in Ayamonte. Living in the neighbouring town, where many of the people I’ve been hanging out with also live, will serve to override the ‘visitor’ identity I was developing in Huelva, as I disappeared from the dreary town of Lepe every evening. Another bonus of the move is that now I can join for the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast since the ASNUCI staff work until ten o’clock at night.

I am excited about the move and am looking forward to experiencing the lives of the workers from a new perspective, delving into aspects of their lives that my Huelva-Lepe commute may have hidden from me.

1 thought on “The diaries of a bus buddy: Fieldwork observations as immigrants navigate Spain’s agri-food industry

Comments are closed.