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Scene in Berlin

Out and about in Spanish-speaking Berlin

Berlin's Spanish and Latin American community has been rapidly expanding for years. From great tasting Mexican food to lessons in the art of the Spanish language, DW's Andrew Bowen has been reaping the benefits.

When I first moved to Germany, I was thrilled to have a chance to significantly improve my German.

But at the same time, I was fearful that all the progress I'd recently made in Spanish would be erased. I had just studied abroad for a semester in Argentina, and that fluency was still fresh in my mind.

To my pleasant surprise, I ended up speaking more Spanish in Germany than I ever did in the United States - despite the latter's huge and rapidly growing population of Spanish-speaking immigrants and their children.

Some Spanish speakers I met through the language school I was enrolled in during my first two months in Germany, others I just met in bars or through friends. I found that being far from home in a strange land was something that quickly bonds foreigners together.

Reaping the benefits

The benefits I've reaped from Berlin's sizeable Spanish-speaking community go far beyond language skills. I'm referring, of course, to the availability of decent Mexican food.

Mexican Food.

Is Berlin home to the best Mexican food outside of Mexico and the US?

There's Dolores, a California-style burrito shop near Alexanderplatz, or the more authentic Chaparro on Wiener Strasse in Kreuzberg, perhaps the best Mexican food I've ever tasted outside of the United States or Mexico itself.

And let's not forget Santa María, less than a kilometer away on Oranienstrasse, which offers 1-euro tacos on "Taco Tuesdays" and 4-euro margaritas during their daily happy hour.

It's difficult to overstate how much the access to that kind of food has improved my quality of life in Berlin.

A question of community

There are a couple easy explanations for why Germany, and above all Berlin, has become such a popular place for Spanish speakers.

First and foremost, there's the economy. Spain's sky-high unemployment rate has led many Spaniards to take advantage of their right to live and work anywhere in the EU and come to Germany, where there's actually a shortage of highly-skilled labor.

And I've met no small number of Latin Americans who have managed to obtain EU passports because of their family's relatively recent emigration. It's something I try not to resent them for - having access to a country with high standards of living and a robust economy is a golden opportunity.

Another explanation is simply globalization. German companies looking to expand into the growing Latin American market need employees with knowledge of the region's language and culture.

This phenomenon, coupled with Berlin's status as a hip and affordable city, has attracted immigrants of all backgrounds, Spaniards and Latin Americans among them.

A third is simply the number of people in the world who speak Spanish. Spanish is to have the second-highest number of native speakers in the world, after Chinese. So it's only logical that a good number of those people would end up in any given place.

Angela Merkel (CDU) and Mariano Rajoy at a press conference in January 2012. Foto: Maja Hitij/dapd

The German government has campaigned to attract skilled workers from Spain to Germany

Cosmopolitan and cheap

But while those factors can at least partially explain why I've been fortunate enough to find great-tasting tacos and ample opportunities to refine my Spanish-speaking skills in Berlin, I felt that there was something I was missing.

So I put the question to Latino friends living in Berlin: Why is it that so many Spanish speakers live here?

My good friend Maria is an artist from Santiago, Chile, and has been in Germany exactly as long as I have. She said that many Latin Americans view the developed world as "the place where everything works" - and having lived in Latin America, Germany and the United States, my experiences allow me to sympathize with that feeling.

Maria said many young Latin Americans want to see with their own eyes what life here is like, and Germany's generous investments in programs to bring in foreigners to study and work in fields ranging from art to science to technology, offer an attractive alternative to life at home.

Speaking of Berlin, Maria told me that it has a special reputation within Europe of being a capital of culture - specifically, and most relevant to her, art. It's cosmopolitan, cheap and beautiful - and has a relatively high standard of living.

Most interestingly, Maria noted a desire for "cultural independence" among Latinos. Rather than clinging to the culture they inherited from Spain, many want to explore something new.

Berlin is at once exotic and approachable, with its immense diversity offering both new experiences and an inevitable community of compatriots to fall back on.

One need not fear dirty looks on the street when you're speaking your native language, because a good number of the people you pass by are themselves foreigners.

Discover yourself anew

I also took my curiosities to a newer acquaintance, a fellow freelance journalist named Jorge, from Tijuana, Mexico.

His perspective from the opposite end of the geopolitical region of Latin America was clear: Mexico, he said, has aligned itself much more closely in both politics and economics with North America than with Latin America.

Ironically it was in Berlin, after meeting people from Colombia or Chile, where he first felt the "Latin American" identity.

Which is one of the greatest things about the German capital. Anyone who has lived as an expatriate can tell you that a life abroad gives you a whole new perspective on your own national and cultural identity.

In my experiences and those of my Spanish-speaking amigos, no where is that more true than in Berlin.

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