The migrant leader of a tour stops to explain the significance of a site in Bilbao

Changing perceptions one tour at a time

Neftali is a natural storyteller. As he takes visitors on a tour of his neighbourhood, he weaves stories about its special places and historical figures with his own migration story in a way that has them enthralled.

Among the small group of guides leading the tour with Neftali is Carmen, a quiet woman whose mother came to Bilbao from another part of Spain. Carmen’s love of history inspired her to get involved – even though she didn’t see herself as a migrant at all.

What brought these two very different residents together was a desire to take visitors deep inside their dynamic neighbourhood to reveal its unique heritage as a home for people with diverse cultures and beliefs.

Diversity for cohesion

As a port and mining city, Bilbao has long drawn workers from other parts of Spain, but in recent years migration from outside Spain has increased. Many newcomers from Africa, Latin America and Morocco have started their new lives in one particular neighbourhood.

“The diversity of the city has increased a lot and this has affected the image of some neighbourhoods,” says Claudia Emmanuel Laredo, Migration Officer, Bilbao City Council. “Our aim is to promote inclusivity and to put the focus on the contribution of migrant groups to the development of the city – socially, economically and culturally.”

The diversity of the city has increased a lot and this has affected the image of some neighbourhoods
— Claudia Emmanuel Laredo

The spark for a migrant-led tour concept that would contribute to this ambition was provided by KOOP SF34, a non-profit intercultural incubator for micro-social enterprises in the San Francisco neighbourhood, where 39% of residents are of foreign origin.

The concept has now seen the city recognised internationally as a shortlisted best practice for the Eurocities Awards, taking place this year during the Brussels Urban Summit.

The experience of one particular member proved pivotal.

“It’s easy to think of migrants as a collective but it’s not easy to create cohesion because we have so many different origins, languages and customs,” says Marcelle Mardon, Project Coordinator and KOOP SF34 member.

“I was very keen to see if a powerful way of working to create a spirit of the collective in the community that I’d been involved with in southern and eastern Africa as part of my work in sustainable urban development could reinforce cohesiveness in this neighbourhood.”

It was also about creating opportunities for migrants to develop new skills
— Marcelle Mardon

KOOP SF34’s focus on entrepreneurship meant that Mardon’s ambition for the guided tours went beyond promoting intercultural interaction, a sense of belonging and a new narrative about the neighbourhood.

“It was also about creating opportunities for migrants to develop new skills and find work that would give them more agency and control of their own stories, rather than just working in kitchen or domestic roles,” she says.

Turning the traditional tour on its head

Inspired by the European network Migrantour concept, Bilbao’s Diversitours project was designed to encompass these educational and empowerment aspects and to suit the local context.

The city asked KOOPS SF34 to develop and deliver Diversitours, which was launched in 2021 with a grant from the Council of Europe – Intercultural Cities programme and led by the city of Bilbao with Valencia.

KOOPS SF34 invited residents and other people with ties to the neighbourhood to put themselves forward as intercultural guides.

The tour was co-created by a group of intercultural guides

Ten migrants representing eight countries of origin including Spain were chosen and received training covering tour design and communication and interpersonal skills. The guides then worked with KOOP SF34, a local historian and other community associations and businesses to develop the tour.

“We went through a process of examining what this neighbourhood means to us, which places and businesses hold the most important associations for us and what stories we have to tell about the time we have lived here,” says Mardon.

In the end it was a beautiful experience to see humanity come together
— Marcelle Mardon

This proved to be a challenging process precisely because of the diversity of the group.

“We have different cultural values, religions, levels of understanding identity and agency and we all had to learn and accept this as part of who we are collectively,” says Mardon, “In the end it was a beautiful experience to see humanity come together.”

The result of this collaborative process is a guided walk which layers culturally and personally significant stops and sites onto the industrial and migratory history of the city and the Basque region.

Promoted through municipal and KOOPS SF34 social networks and the media to educational, social and cultural entities, the tour can be pre-booked and costs between €250 and €400 per group. This income enables guides to be paid fairly.

We also want to offer international tourists more than the normal narrative
— Claudia Emmanuel Laredo

“Diversitours is focused mainly on attracting local people living in surrounding neighbourhoods to try to influence their view of the San Francisco neighbourhood,” explains Emmanuel Laredo. “We also want to offer international tourists more than the normal narrative on the city and attract people coming to visit by showing them a completely different view.”

The heart of city history and migrants’ lives

The two-hour tour takes in an old coal mine, a church that holds a monthly mass for 100 different nationalities, social projects and shops relating to inter-Spain migration.

The duo of Foottit and Chocolat performing in the skit "Spider". A colour illustration by René Vincent
The duo of Foottit and Chocolat performing in the skit “Spider”. A public domain colour illustration by René Vincent

It also highlights a plaque marking the home of Rafael Padilla – known as ‘Monsieur Chocolat’ – a man of Afro-Cuban descent who came to Bilbao as a slave and became a famous clown.

Participants also visit the Al-Furkan Mosque where they are warmly welcomed and enthusiastically educated, and a Moroccan restaurant where Arabic sweets and cakes and tea accompany personal story telling by the guides.

There is a stop on the waterfront to see one of the old houses built specifically for the families of migrants who had come to the city looking for work in the mines at the end of the 19th century. It would have been packed with people and is known as the ‘elastic house’ as there was always room for one more.

Important but often overlooked ruins are part of the tour too, as is a square that has become the first port of call for newly-arrived Senegalese migrants who know they will find coffee there just as they like it alongside help and friendship.

Almost 600 people have taken this walking tour, 50% have been young people and the vast majority are residents of Bilbao and students at Spanish universities. International visitors have included The Intercultural Cities Network, the European Youth Parliament and delegations from The Wellbeing Summit for social change.

The city has gone on to ensure that even those who can’t participate in person can still experience the tour – by re-creating it in immersive virtual reality form.

The tour has been recreated in immersive virtual reality form

The entire Diversitours digital layer has been developed, with an investment of €38,700, through a collaboration between the Kamanga Influencers Collective, a group of young people of Sub-Saharan origin, and the non-profit Moviltik Cultural Innovation Association.

More than 400 children and adults have taken this technological route, which has an unusual sensory element: participants wearing VR headsets can also interact with Kamanga Collective members standing in front of them, to shake hands for example.

A path to social cohesion and self-confidence

At the end of the project’s pilot phase, the city chose to transfer the project’s leadership to the participating neighbourhood social entities, to support their autonomy, self-management and empowerment and Diversitours’ sustainability.

Plans for the future are ambitious. The number of tours and visits by educational centres is set to increase and an investment of 50,000 will be used to create new workshops and content to further develop the digital Diversitours’ experience.

These plans are not surprising given the impact of the project’s novel approach to neighbourhood cohesion and migrant empowerment and entrepreneurship.

Feedback from the real-world tours highlights how much participants appreciate being able to meet and interact with migrants, discover a concept of heritage that transcends monuments and see for themselves how diversity enhances community life.

Visitors are warmly welcomed at the Al-Furkan Mosque in Bilbao

Similarly, evaluation of the virtual Diversitours experience shows that participants’ perceptions changed substantially compared to their initial assessments linked to conflict, prejudice and the stereotyping of neighbourhoods.

This is all very good news for the city. But how have the intercultural guides themselves benefited?

No-one wants to talk about being from outside
— Marcelle Mardon

Diversitours has given them new skills, some income and respect and recognition. But that’s not all. For many guides, the experience has helped equipped them in different ways for the life they want to live.

“For some people, there’s a stigma attached to having come to the city as part of the original inter-Spain migration. No-one wants to talk about being from outside,” says Mardon.

“Diversitours has given Carmen, for instance, the opportunity not only to be proud of her migrant background and feel part of a collective but also to do something she loves: retelling and learning about the history of the city. She really wanted to do the tours and when she’s up there speaking you can see she’s enjoying it!”

And what of star storyteller Neftali?

Neftali is young and ambitious
— Marcelle Mardon

“Neftali is young and ambitious, he wants to be an entrepreneur,” says Mardon. “He used to have a stutter when he was younger and the fact that he now stands up in front of all kinds of people and is so happy to speak out about himself and what he knows about the neighbourhood is wonderful. Apart from doing the tours, he is working as a personal trainer and running sports workshops at KOOP SF34. He is flourishing.”

Tiphanie Mellor