Lending a Second Hand

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photo by Gabriel Wu

photo by Gabriel Wu

With “Thrift Shop” steadily riding the top spots on every European hit list since we arrived in January, you’d think the hand-me-down boutiques that the song glorifies would be a bit more popular, but we’ve only ever found one of note in Oviedo.

AIRA is the closest you can come to a literal meaning of a “hole in the wall” establishment. Nearly hidden from view on a side street near the Milan Campus sits this tiny, one-room market. Poke your head in and you’ll see that it’s no Buffalo Exchange. Upon entering, you’re greeted weakly by a half-dressed mannequin, trying desperately to appear fashionable in its red t-shirt, probably leftover from some free give-away, despite its taped-up broken leg. The only things that appear organized on any level deeper than basic category are the books—most items seem to have been hastily added wherever they fit upon arrival, and if you want a sweater you might have to dig through a cardboard box. It looks like the only thrift shop to have given up on the pretense of not being a garage sale.

AIRA bookshelves

But you’re unlikely to find anything for more than three euros, and most is cheaper than that. Several of us started coming here months ago, before I ever even knew what the place’s name was, to buy hats scarves, books, and one unbelievably fresh fur-lined coat. It also didn’t take us long to discover that the money we were spending wasn’t going to the store.

The reason the AIRA thrift shop looks like an afterthought is because it is one. AIRA stands for Asociación de Inmigrantes Residentes en Asturias (Association of Immigrants Residing in Asturias), and the offices are right next door to the shop.

Sometimes cultural deja vu is so pervasive that it feels like you never left home. Talk of immigrants as “thieves” robbing money from the country, reactionary xenophobia, and pure, virulent racism can be found here all the way in the north of Spain just as well as it can be found in any one of the United States. The people of AIRA are working against the same kinds of problems we’ve gotten accustomed to hearing about since our very own immigration debate started years ago. Dirty looks from people on the street, difficulty with the law, and the police doing everything just short of shutting the operation down have been obstacles for AIRA since the beginning.

But as in all places, there are people of every ideological stripe. A number of AIRA’s direly small work force are volunteers, and those who come to the store looking for books or even just for something cheap to wear have no illusions about the store’s intents and purposes—they spend knowing that they’re doing so to help out.

Since life is never colored in black and white, some of AIRA’s operations, though good-intentioned, remain in a moral and legal gray area. I learned that the men going about the streets selling CD’s and DVD’s procured through blatantly illegal means (mostly Senegalese immigrants) receive the bags to carry their wares from AIRA. Good move or no?

But if there were easy answers to these problems, then AIRA wouldn’t have to exist. The fight for immigrant’s rights will continue until AIRA sees its slogan repeated in the minds of the people:

Ningun ser humano es ilegal.”

“No human being is illegal.”

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