VILLANUEVA DE LA VERA, Spain >> A chemist by training, Silvia Barcenilla searched for a job in Madrid for almost a year. But in March, she decided to try a different approach, moving here to the village of Villanueva de la Vera, a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the west.
Within two months, she was working for a resort, the Hospederia del Silencio, which runs yoga courses and other recreation activities on one-time farmland. She signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment for 200 euros, or $255, a month, just a fraction of what it would cost her in Madrid. “If I had found a great job in Madrid, I would not even have thought about moving here,” she said. “But now I don’t see any obvious reason to go back.”
Barcenilla is part of a movement within Spain that has swelled to such proportions that some sociologists have dubbed it “rurbanismo,” a term invented to describe the reverse migration from city to country that has stemmed a generations-old trend that has long been the usual pattern in most advanced industrial economies. The movement has steadily built, but it has been accelerated by Spain’s economic crisis, breathing new life and entrepreneurship into some nearly abandoned areas. “Rurbanismo started before the crisis, once the Internet took off and made it possible to work anywhere, but what the crisis is doing is making the model more attractive,” said Carles Feixa, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Lleida.
The movement is difficult to quantify, he said, partly since many of the new migrants do not bother changing their official residence. But it is clear, he said, that Spain’s cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants have recently stopped growing while villages of fewer than 1,000 are no longer shrinking.
Some of these new migrants are returning to the villages where they grew up or where earlier generations of their family lived, sometimes taking over property that had been left empty or used only for vacations.
Economic necessity is certainly not the only reason Spaniards are moving to the country. Around Villanueva, for instance, a community of artists has sprouted, from graphic designers to musicians and sculptors. Some have restored farm buildings in which tobacco and pepper used to dry.
Meanwhile, some entrepreneurs are buying up clusters of houses or entire abandoned hamlets. Three years ago, Luis Alvarez started buying houses in a hamlet in the Gredos mountain range that overlooks Villanueva, using money inherited from his family’s shoe business. The houses had been abandoned for about 60 years, forcing him to undertake some detective-style investigations to identify descendants of former owners.
For one of the dozen houses that he has so far acquired, Alvarez had to track down 15 people scattered across Spain, France and Argentina with a possible claim on the unwanted property. “It took me almost two years to follow this family trail and finalize a purchase contract,” he said.
Alvarez said his main goal was to turn the hamlet into a community of people “who share a healthy life philosophy.” He also expects the venture to prove profitable, refusing to disclose the exact location in case other buyers are attracted before he can lock in the last remaining houses there.
“Fifty years ago, a child born in a Spanish village was expected to want to move eventually to the big city,” Alvarez said. “Things are changing and I want to be ahead of the curve.”
The change is increasingly evident around here. Last October a group of about 15 performers set up the Toribio circus company in what used to be Villanueva’s dancing hall, renting a 2,100 square-foot space that had been closed for 22 years. The price: 100 euros, or about $125, a month.
Renting such a venue in Madrid would have cost at least ten times as much, a price that was “just unthinkable for us,” said Charo Amaya, a 32-year old acrobat. “It’s been great to bring this place back to life and see the enthusiasm among the old people who first met their partners here while dancing at the weekend many decades ago.”
This month, the troupe staged a festival in the hall that spilled out into the streets of Villanueva.
There were other advantages to setting up a circus company in Villanueva. “We could start working from day one because things are just so much easier here at the bureaucratic level,” said Javier Gonzalez, an acrobat who performs under the name of Romero. In cities like Madrid and Barcelona, where he had previously worked, “we would have had to wait ages to get a thousand different work and insurance permits.”
Rurbanismo has brought other changes to Spanish village communities, including the creation of “time banks,” in which hours of labor are exchanged for goods and services. Carlos Morales, who opened a medical practice in Villanueva together with his wife, said that he often received vegetables and other goods as an alternative form of payment from patients.
The same new energy can be found in the neighboring village of Losar. There, the town hall has approved 11 new business projects over the past year, about double the typical number before the crisis, according to Gema Luengo Lozana, a municipal employee in charge of employment and economic development.
Such projects, on things like organic farming and renewable energy, “bring some renewal in a region where we have traditionally not really had any entrepreneurial spirit,” Luengo Lozana said. “Small towns or villages have every reason to welcome more economic diversity and self-employment initiatives in the midst of a crisis.”
Not everybody shares enthusiasm about rural life.
Jose Luis Amaya Bohaven and Maria del Mar Benito Tarango both grew up in Villanueva. They married here 25 years ago and soon moved to the outskirts of Madrid. In 2008, both lost their jobs, forcing them to return to Villanueva with their three children to save money on housing.
The couple now manages a grocery shop on the main square, but “we will leave again as soon as this crisis is over,” Benito Tarango said. “We have gotten used to living in a big city and really hoped never to have to live here again.”
But many other said that Spain’s economic devastation, with the official unemployment rate still close to 25 percent, had encouraged them to pursue dreams of living in a more natural and relaxed setting. “I had long wanted to live closer to nature, so I guess the crisis helped me pluck up the courage and make the jump,” said Ruben de la Hera, 36.
Last March, de la Hera moved to a farm near the village of Robledillo, along with his wife and baby daughter. The family now grows a dozen crops, making it “pretty much self-sufficient,” he said. Like many other newcomers, though, they stay afloat largely because they also receive jobless benefits worth a combined 1,000 euros a month.
The family previously had lived in the city of Logrono, where de la Hera worked for a company that supplied food-vending machines. In 2008, the company downsized, forcing de la Hera to take on a bigger workload, traveling to handle a more far-flung group of clients.
“After a couple of years, I realized that I was just spending all my time on the road and that started to drive me crazy,” he said. “Moving here has given us again a balanced and healthy family life.”