Located in a peaceful corner of Barcelona’s trendy El Born neighbourhood, at first sight Espai Mescladis could just be another hip café. However there’s a lot more to this cosy locale than its home cooking and colourful furniture. Espai Mescladis is the face of a not-for-profit organisation using food and drink as a way to foster social cohesion in the city.
Barcelona’s El Born neighbourhood is known for its vibrant nightlife, its designer boutiques and the charm of its ancient streets. Unlike the neighbouring Gothic Quarter, this is still a part of town where locals come to relax and socialise at weekends.
Walking down one of the main streets of El Born, the Carrer dels Carders, you eventually stumble upon a colourful outdoor terrace, tucked away in the corner of an old building. Espai Mescladis has all the allure of yet another cool Barcelona hang-out. Except this one does a lot more than just serve good beer and decent tapas.
Espai Mescladis is the flagship project of a local not-for-profit organisation called Mescladis – a play on the Catalan word mesclar, meaning ‘to mix’. Mescladis’ aim is to promote social cohesion in the city, and in particular to combat the fear of ‘otherness’ that can arise in increasingly multicultural societies.
According to an official report, in 2018 an estimated 18 percent of the population of Barcelona were not Spanish, and of those some 70 percent came from outside the EU. The top three countries of origin for foreign residents are Italy, China and Pakistan. Barcelona is also receiving a growing number of migrants and refugees in the context of the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
Arriving in a new country and not speaking the language or having family to rely on is often a great challenge for a lot of migrants. What’s more, many face prejudice and stigma based on race, religion or nationality. Some 48 percent of respondents to a survey on ‘what factors make it difficult for Barcelona’s culturally diverse residents to live together’ stated “lack of knowledge of the other, as well as current rumours, stereotypes and prejudices about the other…” as the main reason.
Mescladis aims to combat this fear of otherness and difference by fostering opportunities for dialogue and exchange. They organise workshops for adults and children that seek to address the origins of certain forms of stigma. They also run community projects in public spaces across Barcelona such as the 2015 project Invisible Dialogues, which involved a series of large-print photographic testimonies from migrants who arrived in the city.
Perhaps the organisation’s most important tool is the Espai Mescladis itself. For one, 90 percent of all the organisation’s funding is generated in-house through the café and associated projects such as catering services. The Espai Mescladis – espai means ‘space’ in Catalan – serves a daily changing lunchtime menu as well as a selection of homemade tapas. The café works with providers who have been carefully selected and share their commitments to fair trade, supporting the local economy and working as much as possible with organic produce.
What’s more, though, the café plays an essential role in one of the organisation’s core activities: the Cuinant Oportunitats project. Roughly translated as ‘Cooking Up Opportunities’, the project offers hospitality training to people on the fringes of the labour market and often society, too. Not all participants on the course have legal status in the country, but this doesn’t deter the organisation. They believe in giving people a chance to learn a skill that will enable them to support themselves and make a positive contribution to society.
The full course lasts three months and involves some 30 hours of training per week, focused on either waitering skills or food preparation. There are also other elements to the course, such as art therapy and social skill classes, which can prove just as important for some participants’ ability to move into the job market afterwards. As part of their training, participants work in the Espai Mescaldis and put into practice the skills they have learned in class. This means that not only do they receive a qualification at the end of the course but also a valuable first experience to put on their CV.
The hospitality sector is one of Barcelona’s most important industries and many of Mescladis’ former trainees have gone on to find work in the city. Others chose to stay on. The current manager of Espai Mescladis, Soly Malamine, is a former Cuinant Oportunitats trainee who arrived in Barcelona after a perilous trip from Senegal. By giving people a chance to learn and demonstrate their professional worth, Mescladis hopes to help build bridges between those arriving in the city and those who have always lived here. In a city like Barcelona, it’s perhaps no surprise that food was one of the easiest ways to bring people together.