Image credit: Bilbao City Council

Recognising migrant women

“Many times, our dream is lost. We came to improve our quality of life. That is cut short because you have to hold on to what comes to survive.” In 1997, Maylin Vergara migrated all the way from Cuba to Bilbao. 

The Basque city is nowadays an intercultural place that celebrates diversity. To recognise the value of migrant women in the social and public spheres, the council is holding the third edition of the ‘Migrant Women of Bilbao’ Awards.  

Integrating gender and nationality 

“The aspiration is to recognise the importance of migrant women and their contribution to the development of the city,” declares Claudia Emmanuel Laredo, Immigration Expert in the area of Cooperation, Cohabitation and Festivities of Bilbao.   

The awards split into multiple categories: Community woman, Political woman, Woman defender of human rights, Female artist, Female entrepreneur, and Young woman.  

Maylin Vergara, founder of the Migrant Women Entrepreneurs Association

Vergara won the ‘Female entrepreneur’ award in the second edition. This category aims to appreciate women leading sustainable and successful projects in any sector. Vergara has been the leader of various businesses since 2005 when she founded the first gender-sensitive advertising agency in Bilbao. “I consider that I am an entrepreneur for life because I am recycling and updating as the economy changes,” she proudly adds.

I consider that I am an entrepreneur for life.
— Maylin Vergara

For her, the initiative entails two positive outcomes: recognition and visibility. “Being recognised as having made a positive contribution gives you emotional satisfaction,” she states.

Visibility is also a meaningful aspect, the entrepreneur adds, since natives may ignore the positive contribution of migrants to society, “especially women, who contribute much to caring for other people.”

Women-only job category 

Female is the predominant gender among the migrants in the Basque city. According to Emmanuel, a significant percentage take on care-related tasks, and also they are affected by a high rate of overqualification.  

In Vergara’s opinion, this happens due to the difficulties of migrants in regularising and standardising studies. The employment services end up assigning migrant women jobs of caretakers or cleaners, which “contributes to clichés and stereotypes that we try to break,” she concludes. 

Stella Maris García Ardiles came from Argentina 20 years ago. In the documentary above, she maintains, “You come here and get assigned a specific place in society to work only in caregiving or hospitality. We’ve got a glass ceiling. We are not expected in other spheres, and that’s very discouraging.” 

We’ve got a glass ceiling.
— Stella Maris García Ardiles

García Ardiles was awarded in the category ‘Political woman’, which recognises those who perform advocacy actions to transform public policies. 

Indeed, migrant women play an essential part of many other social spaces. Vergara explains that an award was created since many of them in Bilbao actively have contributed to their districts for years: the ‘Community woman’ category. 

Requirements document for applicants

Neighbourhood and community work are of great importance for the social fabric. “We have a Colombian woman that manages a hair salon in a neighbourhood in Bilbao. She’s devoted to taking Moroccan boys into traineeships in her business,” comments Emmanuel. “She’s a reference in her neighbourhood. People say anything that arises in there: ‘Luz can fix it for you.’ She is involved in all the associative fabric and mutual aid networks.” 

Spreading positivity 

Vergara admits society might not have understood that entrepreneur migrant women are part of the economy.

Maylin Vergara, winner of the award ‘Migrant Women Entrepreneur’

“Where are the women that open businesses here?” she used to wonder. They could be found leading fruit shops, hair salons, restaurants—however, not a trace of them attending entrepreneurial workshops. To gather them, Vergara founded the Migrant Women Entrepreneurs Association in 2018.

Primarily, the group pursues breaking stereotypes. Among the members, we can find lawyers, photographers, marketing specialists, cybersecurity entrepreneurs, furniture recyclers, managers in the food sector and fiscal advocacy experts. 

Secondly, they act as an empowerment source. “There are women who have been a live-in care servant for 15 years. What can be left from that at the emotional level? In our digital space, we encourage each other, and in the workshops, there is tremendous energy.” 

Starting from their skills and their original dream, members think together about delivering those as a service to the community. Even though not all businesses are primarily focused on the social economy, Vergara admits that women often pursue community service. 

She delivers workshops on a large variety of helpful topics such as gender perspective in business, the introduction of the United Nations 2030 agenda, cybersecurity or digital literacy. “I guide migrant women in personal growth projects focused on entrepreneurship,” she summarises. 

A day to remember 

Both the association and the awards pursue the empowerment and the recognition of women “that often don’t even realise their contribution to many spheres,” Emmanuel declares. 

Women awarded in the second edition (2021)

The awarded women get a high-level ceremony in the Arabic Salon, the majestic hall of the council. The commemoration includes the honourable traditional Basque dance Aurresku, reserved for the most remarkable events in the region. 

“The women feel very excited, appreciated and highly valued,” Emmanuel comments.

The women feel very excited, appreciated and highly valued.
— Claudia Emmanuel Laredo

The first edition of the ‘Migrant Women of Bilbao’ Awards did not receive many applications since it was a new initiative, but the second tripled the number. Now, Bilbao city council is currently open for applications for the third edition. Emmanuel expects the number of applications to keep on going up and up – and it’s clear that the recognition and participation of migrant women in the city is on an upward trajectory too. 


Learn about another of Bilbao’s immigration initiatives here. More about gender-sensitive cities projects.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer
in numbers:
  • 6

    categories of awards
  • 3

  • 10%

    of the population of Bilbao has a foreign origin