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Food and Migration: the Abacería Central Market of Gràcia (Barcelona)

A place to taste ethnic mixing and food
Le Marché Central de l’Abaceria à Gracia (Barcelone): mixages et métissages des goûts
F.Xavier Medina, Danielle Provansal and Cecilia Montero


Local food markets are, aside from being places for provisioning, spaces for meeting and social interaction. This article engages in an analysis of the social and commercial relations exhibited in the geographical area of the Abacería Central Market, in the neighborhood of Gràcia (Barcelona): a neighborhood that, over the last two decades, has seen a significant rise in the number of residents arriving from other countries (primarily Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe). The Abacería Central Market and the synergy created among the different market stalls and businesses in the market’s immediate vicinity (whether these are ethnic or not) define a material and social space in the neighborhood that is key for understanding the social relations that are established at the local level.

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1In their most prosaic and routine definition, markets are those physical spaces in which commercial exchanges occur, places where products are bought and sold in small quantities, notably food, although not exclusively. Although economic exchanges are universal in nature, markets, as places reserved for that purpose, involve –at least in principle- a certain degree of spatial and commercial specialization.

2From a more visual approach, in our part of the world markets present a strict spatial distribution in which stalls are organized with different alignments and structures, whether outdoors or under a covering or else inside a building created expressly for housing a market or simply used as such. When dealing with a market specializing in fresh food products, the simple necessity of acquiring food is turned into a true sensorial and ludic experience: those who penetrate its universe are submerged in a full gamut of colors, delicate aromas or pungent smells, as well as in the spectacular scenic design of displays of fruits and vegetables, of fish and seafood, in the profusion of the offer in butcher stalls and delicatessens… Users of the market have difficulty in resisting the urge to buy, to acquire the food on display.

  • 1 Cf. with regard to this Provansal and Levick (1991); Provansal (1999).

3From a more strictly anthropological perspective, markets are, aside from their economic functions, specific social forms that work in connection with a particular collective consensus, whose norms come from a negotiated order in which multiple interactions occur. It is a public space where people meet, talk, spread and receive information. As Contreras points out, through markets “a people and their traditions can be assessed (…) All markets allow an approximation to their peoples, to their cultures” (Contreras, 2004: 17-18). They are places of meeting and transaction for people of different origins and creeds; “privileged places for observation of those defining functions of social life, (where) the notion of exchange in its different facets (is) the starting point (Provansal1, 1996: 96). Places where, in short, local social relations are nurtured and kept alive (Medina, 2007).

4Moreover, because of the fact that they are places reserved for collectively accepted functions, markets must also be interpreted as cultural forms governed by a given symbolic order, which intervenes in the categorization of the elements exchanged and in the models of consumption that the sale of products presupposes, in accordance with a shared code of meanings and values among the different participants.

5We are dealing with social and cultural forms in movement, or dynamics (Medina, 2004, 2007b). Thus, with the presence of people coming from outside, in particular immigrants, the interior spaces of the market may divide into segments or, on the contrary, open up to each other; in like manner, social relations tend to diversify, while new significances originating from alien codes are superimposed on the local symbolic order, from which intervals of intercultural communication may commence, as we will try to illustrate below.

Municipal markets in Barcelona: the Abacería Market

6The city of Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) at present possesses the most important network of covered municipal markets in Europe: 40 municipally owned food markets, which draw together a highly prominent part of urban small businesses. In the present article, we will focus on one of these markets: the Abacería Central Market, situated in the very heart of the old Vila de Gràcia, now one of the neighborhoods that make up the district of the same name. Ethnographic observation relating to the life of the market has led us to ask ourselves about numerous aspects: first, about the synergy that is established between the market and the neighborhood in which it is placed; second, the interactions that are established in its interior.

7We began the ethnographic work by considering several questions, apparently very simple, but valid for any market, and which opened suggestive paths to us: Who goes to the market with their shopping bag, shopping cart and packages? At what times? Do they only buy food? Is the food only indigenous? From where? In short, how does buying food in the market or not influence the style of diet of neighborhood inhabitants? What goes on in the market aside from shopping?Our main objective was to draw closer to the conformation of the different styles of diet of the people that come to the market; users who, from this moment on, are as local as they are persons of different nationalities and ethnic origins. As underlined by Manuel Calvo:

  • 2 “The observation of dietary practices allows us to discover, at the heart of the global society, or (...)

"l'observation de la pratique alimentaire est susceptible de révéler, jusqu'au sein de la société globale, des situations originales provoquées par la mise en contact de réalités socio-culturelles ("modes de vie") éloignées" (Calvo, 1982: 385)2

  • 3 Colloquial expression that refers to a habit or use considered as traditional.

8Observation of this social interaction inside the market opens interesting opportunities for highlighting how ingredients and preparations “de toda la vida3 are mixed or combined with ingredients and recipes of foreign origin or, even, how certain foods are substituted by others in everyday diet, constituting a “new diet lifestyle”. In addition, during these different processes there are characters and ties that play a key role and that lead us to consider the paths between the different places of provisioning as highly significant maps in the configuration and transformation of the dietetic habits of the people who shop in the market; and inform, in like manner, about the diverse existing diet “lifestyles”. Again in the words of Manuel Calvo:

  • 4 "A group’s creativity regarding food doesn’t depend on the setting in motion of a rational, normati (...)

"Cette créativité alimentaire des groupes ne dépend pas de la mise en place d'un modèle rationnel, normatif et nutritionnel, mais plutôt d'un style en harmonie à la fois avec la culture et l'économie du marché d'insertion: la recherche d'un équilibre résultant d'un choix de denrées dont l'utilité sensorielle et culturelle est "maximisée", compte tenu des contraintes budgétaires" (ibid : 394)4.

9Unquestionably, the market is a central space in which consumption strategies are elaborated in agreement with evolving cultural models. However, beyond its social function, the market also constitutes a fundamental social axis in the neighborhood. In addition to its cultural function, it is a conservatory of continually updated local dietetic habits and an extraordinary showcase for new culinary products originating from other norms of consumption. It brings natives or long-term residents of the neighborhood, city or Catalonia into interaction with other newly arrived individuals of different origins, in the same space. Put differently, it contributes to making the latter group visible, whether directly, as users, or indirectly through the products they consume and that, often strategically displayed in shop windows, are yet other signs of their existence and of the fact that “they are here”, sharing the same neighborhood with long-standing residents.

10As pointed out by the American analyst Stephen Davies (2007), visiting and buying in a market involves twenty or so personal interactions between vendors, customers or other users, while, for example, shopping in a supermarket involves two at the most. In this sense, the provisioning of immigrants in a market requires a wide variety of brief social relations that facilitate knowledge and social relation. In spite of being generally ephemeral and limited in time, the contacts that are established between these different population categories on an everyday basis, end up banalizing the presence of outsiders, which constitutes a first –though important- step toward coexistence.

The neighborhood of Gràcia as context

  • 5 Data from the Department of Statistics, Barcelona City Council, 2007.

11The Abacería Market is located in the middle of the neighborhood of Gràcia, historic nucleus of the district of the same name, one of the ten administrative districts the municipality of Barcelona is divided into. This district, with an extension of 4.2 km², is the smallest in the city but has the second highest demographic density in the entire municipality, with a total of 50,409 inhabitants in 20075.

12In 2006, resulting from a referendum, the Barcelona City Council divided the districts into neighborhoods, reintroducing old demarcations that better corresponded with what residents understood as a neighborhood community and that, in the majority of cases, fit better with the history of the area and their festive practices. The majority of the neighborhoods are organized around a municipal market (much like the old central “square”).

Figure 1. Barcelona and the Gràcia District

Figure 1. Barcelona and the Gràcia District

Source: Barcelona Council

Figure 2. The Gràcia District (Barcelona)

Figure 2. The Gràcia District (Barcelona)

Source: Barcelona Council

  • 6 The neighborhood of Gràcia, which corresponds to the old center of the municipality of Gràcia befor (...)
  • 7 Data from the Municipal Computing Institute, Barcelona City Council, 2004.
  • 8 The total population of the district on this date was 120,587 inhabitants and the total population (...)

13From an ethnographic point of view, the new subdivision of districts into neighborhoods is much more appropriate, inasmuch as this context incorporates the multiple dynamics created around the market as a place that, thanks to the memory of a singular past and to the experience of an attractive present, retains important identifying potential. Hence, it seems important to us to mention the data pertaining to the Vila6 proper, because it is what will serve to contextualize the Abacería Central Market. While the whole of the district of Gràcia totals 418.6 ha, the Vila represents somewhat less than half of this figure, some 204.6 ha7. If we take into account the number of inhabitants we mentioned earlier, we can state that the population density of the neighborhood is high8, increasing regularly in the following years due mainly to the arrival of foreign residents; an influx that has increased in the past few years, while, on the contrary, the population born in Barcelona or in Spain has decreased.

Table 1 Foreign population in the Vila de Gràcia (Barcelona), years 2008 and 2009

Foreign population

Vila of Gràcia











Proportion of population of BCN


3.3 %

Proportion of population in the area










Source: Municipal Census, Department of Statistics, Barcelona City Council (2009)

Table 2: Residents in the Vila de Gràcia by place of birth (2007-2009)

Born in:











Barcelona city







Catalonia (rest of)







Spain (rest of)



7 702




Foreign country







Source: Municipal Census, Department of Statistics, Barcelona City Council (2009)

14The period observed is too limited in time to obtain definitive conclusions; nevertheless, it does enable us to outline a few trends, such as the apparently increasing mixing of a neighborhood that, in other respects, has been a referent of progressive Catalan identity since the end of the 19th century.

  • 9 In 2008, the municipality of Barcelona had 280,817 foreign residents and in 2009 a total of 294,918 (...)

15In the last two years, the number of foreign residents in the Vila has risen from 9,083 to 9,744, in other words, this number oscillates between 17% and 19% of the whole population9. The nationalities present in the neighborhood are, by order of numeric importance, Italian, French, Bolivian and Argentinian. Next come various Latin American as well as Asian, African and Eastern European nationalities that are represented, arriving at more than 35 nationalities present in the neighborhood. As a curious piece of data, we can point out the high number of confessions present in the Vila through its places of worship, which confirms the neighborhood’s pluricultural vocation and increasing mestization. Only a few years ago the Vila had a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 4 Buddhist centers, 1 Hindu center, a synagogue and 2 Taoist temples, leaving aside the Catholic churches (11) and Christian Evangelical temples (6) (Monteys, 2005:105). The number has increased slightly in the last couple of years, with the addition of some mosques for the growing Moslem population.

16Last, (but not least), it is worth mentioning the important historical Gypsy presence, both well-established and quite integrated in the Vila, as distinguished from that which occurs in other neighborhoods (they refer to themselves as "Catalan Gypsies", in contrast to other groups of ethnic Gypsies more recently arrived and with other origins). Essentially devoted to commerce, this collective likewise includes flamenco artists, bailaores (flamenco dancers) or cantaores (flamenco singers) who have contributed to stamp the neighborhood with their personal character and have made it one of the most important referents of the popular Catalan rumba (Álvarez, et al., 1995).

The historical memory of the Vila de Gràcia

17Earlier, we alluded briefly to the prominent history of the neighborhood of Gràcia. It seems important to us to point out some details to this effect, since this history that, in the past, differentiated the Vila from other neighborhoods, now serves as a powerful sign of identity for progressive and/or nonconformist residents. During the 19th century, marked in Spain and Catalonia by important political turmoil, uprisings, strikes and assassination attempts, Gràcia, an ordinary poor quarter among cultivated fields and far from the city center, on several occasions gained independence from Barcelona. The settlement became denser as the century progressed and specialized in the production of certain crafts. In 1830, it was given the title of “Villa”, which the present name of the neighborhood recalls. Although this does not currently signify any privilege, in evoking its past as such it exercises a significant symbolic effect.

18Seat of enlightened trends, among others Freemasonry, Gràcia later became the headquarters of the first socialist and anarchist movements and in 1870 accommodated the Workers’ Congress that brought together more than 1,000 workers affiliated to the local federation of the International Association of Workers. General strikes and clashes with the army are constants throughout the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. The Vila is in the vanguard of the protests. As of 1868 different rebellions took place, among which that of 1868 (that one of the principal squares in the neighborhood takes its name from) or the “Revolta de les quintes” (Recruits’ Revolt) when Gràcia residents rebelled against the recruitment of young men by the Spanish army to be sent to fight in Cuba. Barricades were set up on two strategic thoroughfares, Torrent de l'Olla and Carrer Mayor, amid bombardments of the army. This revolt would be, in short, a dress rehearsal for the Setmana Tràgica (Tragic Week), during which the population of Barcelona’s popular neighborhoods confronted the Spanish army over the calling of young men to the ranks for the colonial war against Morocco (Chifoni, 1997). The impact of this past on the collective memory is so powerful and potentially explosive that the Franco regime itself did not dare to modify the names of the neighborhood’s streets, limiting itself to merely translating them into Spanish. These are street names full of connotations, such as, for example, Progrès (progress), Avenir (future), Lleialtat (loyalty)… that evoke liberal ideals, or the streets Llibertat (liberty), Igualdat (equality), Fraternitat (fraternity), which are direct allusions to the French Revolution, without forgetting of course the Plaça de la Revolució (Revolution Square) (Huertas Clavería, 1995).

Nightlife in Gràcia: cosmopolitanism and plurality

19Nowadays,theneighborhood of Gràcia takes advantage of the legend of its past to attend to its vocation as the emblematic neighborhood of all of Barcelona. In the past few years, the young population, often university students and cosmopolitan, has gained presence and prominence. The considerable and lively nightlife of Gràcia’s narrow streets, full of bars, restaurants and all types of shops, has turned the district into one of the most attractive and dynamic places in the city. Likewise, the neighborhood is also distinguished for being home to cutting-edge and alternative cultural centers; especially in all things relating to the scenic arts (theaters, cinemas) and the artistic sphere in general (art galleries, exhibition halls, etc.).

20Lastly, we must point out that it is a neighborhood with a dense social network and a great richness of associative life, thanks to the activity of its numerous civic, social and cultural entities and associations. The Town Festival of Gràcia takes place in mid-August and is the high point of this associative richness. The importance of the celebration is such that many people actually confuse it with the town festival of the city as a whole. The streets of Gràcia are decorated with spectacular scenic designs prepared by residents throughout the year, and who compete for the prize awarded by the district to the best decorated street.

21Popular throughout Catalonia, these celebrations attract citizens from all over Barcelona, outsiders and tourists, who flock to the district to enjoy the summer terraces and live music that proliferate in all of the squares. These celebrations have also often created conflicts (especially in 2005, although also in another more recent edition) owing to the public disorders that occur when the police clear the squares and streets of revelers in the small hours of the night.

22However, the aspect that we are most interested in emphasizing here is the neighborhood situation surrounding the market. In its vicinity, and above all during the past few decades, urban transformations have been brewing that are linked to new migrations and to changes in the eating habits of the population.

The market: place of provisioning, meeting and social change

23The Abacería Central Market is located in the heart of the Vila of Gràcia, like a city center that goes beyond the commercial, and in which synergies converge, and from which particular initiatives and socio-cultural experiments emerge. It is situated in the middle of one of the neighborhood’s main arteries, Travessera de Gràcia and is surrounded by dozens of small shops (food or other kinds) where those of local origin mix with the exotic, the traditional with the avant-guarde... All of this makes up a singular social space, multicolored and boisterous with respect to the rest of the neighborhood, and which often serves as a reference or as a place for meeting or strolling. 

The space: The four entrances

24The market was built in 1892. In the area there were numerous merchants who traditionally joined together, and who created the new Santa Isabel Market. To the original metallic structure a brick covering was added consisting of a central nave and two side aisles. Its first name was Santa Isabel; later it came to be called Mercat de la Revolució (Market of the Revolution, name taken from the nearby Square of the Revolution of 1868) and today it is known by the name the Abacería Central Market. It has been rebuilt and altered on several occasions, the last time being in 1997.

25The Abacería Market is located at number 186 on Travessera de Gràcia; as we said above, one of the main arteries of communication of the neighborhood (and of this area of the city in general). Various pedestrian streets flow into it, such as Verdi Street (with one of the city’s principle cinemas, as well as an area full of small stores and Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Basque, Italian, Egyptian….and also Catalan restaurants). Verdi Street runs into Revolution Square. Parallel to it runs Torrijos, which is a pedestrian street, and which starts in Virreina Square and ends up in the market after passing by various “ethnic shops” selling clothing, accessories and food, and an old dairy that still sells fresh milk and that still displays its advertisements for different old brands in the shop window.

Figure 1. The Abacería Central Market in the neighborhood of Gràcia

Figure 1. The Abacería Central Market in the neighborhood of Gràcia

Source: Barcelona City Hall

  • 10 Name given to corn in the Andes region.

26Three pedestrian streets surround the market. They permit the stroller to zigzag around, guided only by their curiosity, without paying attention to traffic. You can stroll among plants, hanging clothes, lingerie, meat stalls, (announcing “Argentinian cut”), salted fish, tobacconist’s.... You can arrive at the market while snacking on a “choclo10” pasty, or stop in front of the gastronomic bookstore located in the area surrounding the market. Or else go by one of the square’s phone parlors and watch the women who attend to residents between lottery hawkers, dishtowels, Gypsy women selling lemons and garlic, or women’s underwear hanging from their arm… At the same time, groups of wide chairs screwed into the ground and large flowerpots that are used as seats pepper the streets. There we find, during the day –especially in the morning- people of all ages who stop to rest the weight of their bags or who, simply, sit to watch and chat with someone at any time of day, any time of the year.

27The main entrance faces Travessera de Gràcia, where the cars circulate that come from the large surrounding streets toward the market. The side and back entrances lead to pedestrian zones. Residents use all and each one of its doors during the morning. In the afternoon, the back door is guarded and access is restricted. It is through here that the stall owners enter when they come to work.

28The establishments facing the main street are varied, modern and much brighter and more colorful than those in the back; even so, these also make great effort to be well-decorated and display a large variety in the food they offer. In the inside back part we find the new “ethnic” stalls: the sushi stall, the Syrian-Lebanese and the first fruit and vegetable establishments to bring cassava and plantains to the neighborhood (cf. with regard to this matter Montero, 2008, 2009). You come upon the “Swiss cookie” stall (that just closed at the end of 2009, but has kept its sign up because it moved its activity to neighboring Rius i Taulet Square) just as you enter the market.

29The market opens internally toward the square, a covered space constructed inside the market and that has four mechanical rides for children and two old banks that house a work room and an Argentinian-Catalan fresh pasta stall. In front of these, there is a stall selling cooked legumes and a fruit and vegetable stall. We can also find on one of its sides a sort of stage with a kitchen; on the left, an odd second-hand book stall where everyone can leave their books and then buy another one for only one euro.

Vendors and customers

  • 11  The main ethnographic part of this work corresponds to research conducted for Cecilia Montero’s Ph (...)

30Among the vendors and customers that come to the market there are people of all origins: locals and outsiders and old and new immigrants. They all relate to one another in the market, regardless of whether or not they are natives. The fieldwork carried out in the market11 demonstrates that relations inside and outside this space, on both sides of the counter, have nothing to do with the nationality of the protagonists. Married couples whose members come from different places, people who take care of elderly people and children, university students and Erasmus, domestic workers, children or young people of immigrant origin adopted abroad by Spanish parents… All of them come to the market in search of their daily food, and there they find a good number of shops that broaden their horizons.

31In the market, in the interior square, the activity is more intense on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. All kinds of people can be found, from elderly people by themselves or accompanied by caregivers (particularly young immigrants) to small children climbing on a mechanical horse while they wait for their parents to do their shopping.

32This dense space of communication at times appears to be controlled by Sara’s gaze, who from her vegetable stall sees everything, while people open and close the second-hand books in the stall next to hers. Her expert gaze rapidly predicts whether today “they’re going to sell a lot or a little”. She is a vendor who more than ten years ago was among the first to bring in certain products, and her establishment mixes potatoes, cabbages and oranges, cassavas, plantains, coriander, papayas… On the opposite side of the market, in the area that faces the other aisle, another stall displays all kinds of neatly arranged fruits and vegetables. The owners of the different stalls compete among themselves for customers, but this doesn’t stop them from helping out when one runs short on some food item that another has.

  • 12 An important detail to bear in mind is the fact that, as we saw earlier, Argentinians are the forei (...)

33After going out of the market and onto the street, on this same side of the market you first come upon the butcher’s shop offering different cuts of meat (especially the Argentinian cut, quite in demand at present12), and which flaunts very visible signs. From there you are able to see as far as Virreina Square and, closer, the dairy, which displays the antique bottles we mentioned before behind the windows.

34If we continue on our way we come to the Senegalese clothing store, whose owners take their chairs out into the street in summer and drink their tea there, seated, together with the woman who owns the Latin American store in front of theirs. This kind of tea is very different from that of the Swiss cookie shop, currently located in Rius i Taulet Square, but which up until a few weeks ago was located in the market.

  • 13 Patatas bravas are considered nowadays as a “typical” or “traditional” appetizer of the city of Bar (...)

35If we continue on Travesera de Gràcia we run into Passeig de Sant Joan (one of the city’s large boulevards, which joins the neighborhood of Gràcia with Ciutadella Park, seat of the Parliament of Catalonia), in which aside from a large Chinese restaurant that offers patatas bravas13 (sautéed potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce) as part of their menu, there is a small Russian food store that also sells crafts and books, rents videos and where people frequently stop in to buy caviar. This area of the neighborhood surrounding the market is in full swing on weekdays; residents do their shopping in these places, as different as the products are that they include on their shopping lists.

Interethnic dietary styles

36The Abacería Market creates, together with the small businesses located on the adjacent streets a dense network of establishments of a different nature, and that combines shops of different origins and specializations in one interrelated space. This daily and continuous contact stimulates exchange, creation of creative and original hybrid cookbooks, and conveys knowledge of different aspects of the dietary realm of their consumers. In these spaces of social relation recipes, processes, ingredients and culinary wisdom go around.

37The testimony of this informant, housewife, married to a Peruvian, clearly illustrates what she shops for, how it’s cooked and eaten in her home:

  • 14 Dehydrated potato, frequently used in criollo cooking of the Andean regions.

”My son gives the final approval of our experiments in the kitchen; though my husband doesn’t go in there much, all the rest do (…) Well, the chuño14 fritters, you wouldn’t believe how good they are…, I buy the chuño on Torrijos (the street), there in that little store that brings everything from over there (the Andes region); sometimes I ask her (the shopkeeper) for recipes because my husband doesn’t remember and I make him some dishes, but we do a lot of mixing…”

38In like manner she adds:

“I buy most of my fresh vegetables here in the market and either before or after go there (…). Imagine, I got married in 1981 to a Peruvian, what bothers me the most is that he lost his language, which is Aymara, because he comes from a village that’s more than  4,500 meters high… I was one of the first, and my son has two nationalities. Don’t you think that’s better?”

39If we carefully observe the area of the interior square, we note that the pasta stall has been gaining importance and size. The owners are a mixed couple: she is a Catalan philosophy student, and he, an Argentinian with a high school education. One of her relatives comes to the stall to help with preparation of pasta in the work area, more than with selling. They make an Italian-Argentinian product with signs that are easily distinguishable, for which the utensils they use are in part Argentinian (although some of these aren’t manufactured there anymore) or Italian (such as, for example, the utensils they use for preparing various kinds of ravioli). As explained by the owner of the pasta stall:

  • 15 Grandparents, in the Argentinian dialect. From the Italian word “nonno”.  

“All kinds of people buy from us… The homosexuals were the first (…) People of different nationalities. The gnocchi and ravioli are what we sell most… We want to make noodles but we have to buy the machine and we don’t have room; I’m not going to get into it because some Italians opened another pasta factory outside there, and they argue with me about the pasta I make, that it’s no good, that it’s not made like this, and I tell them to go to hell… My mother and father learned from my nonos15. At home we ate pasta every Sunday. They’re not going to tell me how it’s made. I think that people like better what I make; because I even bring imported ricotta from Italy (…) The ravioli with provolone, onion and walnuts is a big seller… They’re recipes from Carlos’ mother, which she makes in Buenos Aires, and people really like them here.”

40However, it’s not only what is sold, but the aesthetics that the markets have in general. Some vendors decorate their stalls as a way to attract a public of diverse origins.  These aesthetic changes are added to the new foods, fruits (papayas, mangos…) and vegetables or plants (different kinds of potatoes, maniocs, cassavas, etc.). Some of the stalls add to these fresh products prepared ready to eat dishes. Traditionally, most of the salted fish stalls offer precooked dishes: stuffed peppers, codfish fritters, pasties…). Nowadays, and for some years now, the market commonly offers precooked or cooked food (macaroni with different sauces, stewed meats, green beans with potatoes, Catalan-style spinach, etc.). Some stalls –fruit and vegetable stalls, for example- seem to have been turned into take-out establishments, with dishes prepared using ingredients from the stall: prepared salads, potato and onion or zucchini omelets, spinach in cream sauce…). On their part, the vegetable and fruit stalls offer shelled peas in bags, different varieties of packaged lettuce, or peeled and cleaned or sliced vegetables displayed in containers or see-through bags…

  • 16 Here, the informant is referring to products such as ginger, cassava, manioc or green plantains tha (...)

“(…) Packaged or prepared food is becoming increasingly popular. People need things that are already made (…).In their homes they don’t have time or don’t want to clean vegetables. There are even people who take fruit home that’s been peeled and sliced. And they’re not tourists! (…) Then there are all these new things16 that people still don’t know how to peel or cook, and they ask you for advice or they ask you straight out to peel them or cut them up (…)”

41In a time like the present, in which the trend toward globalization appears to take in the entire spectrum of social action, characters come face to face on a stage where food and objects circulate, both for natives and immigrants, in unprecedented quantities and varieties. Consumers, thus, are becoming aware of specific characteristics of “new” foods, cuts or ways of cooking, kitchen utensils or ways of eating that open before their eyes a range of new possibilities.


42In analyzing the stage of choosing food in general, the market (and particularly one like the Abacería Central, including its area of influence in the neighborhood) is turned into a space that conveys social relations, knowledge, observation, perception of differences, discovery of new foods, textures, colors… and all of this together with the everyday movement of the market. In this way, the food repertoire of market users has been clearly broadened in recent years and, as expressed by one of our informants, a butcher, the circulation of products and culinary techniques is beginning to bear fruits:

“(The Argentinian cut of meat) is increasingly requested by customers. But what about people who aren’t Argentinian? I suppose they’ve tried it in other places and like it. I imagine in restaurants (…) Or people married to Argentinians, of which there are many. The case is that we have an Argentinian girl that cuts fantastically, and there are a lot of people who come to buy and want her to cut, they wait until she can take care of them (…)”

43These paths and contacts show us an active relational scene in which the market occupies center stage in everyday encounters at different times (early in the morning, quickly at noon, or in peak hours in the afternoon-evening); especially Thursday, Friday and Saturday, on which, like many others, the Abacería Central Market is packed and its murmur rises and falls in the measure that its lights are shut off.

44As we saw earlier, provisioning in the market (as much by immigrants as by natives or long-term residents) compels a multiplicity of social relations that facilitate knowledge and social relation. Although brief and limited, the daily contacts established between users of the market end up creating a certain mutual knowledge and banalizing the presence of outsiders, of “strangers”, which constitutes a first –though important- step toward coexistence.

45If one thing is clear, however, it is that markets constantly advance hand in hand with the society that created them, uses them and takes pleasure in them.  Looking toward the future, and how it has always been, markets will continue to occupy a central geographic, everyday, social and cultural place, which they have occupied for centuries, constantly changing with society and serving its needs. And migratory movements will continue to be –and increasingly- tied to them.

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Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2006, “La immigració del continent americà supera el 50% del total d’estrangers empadronats a Barcelona”, in: Notícies. Barcelona:àcia+barcelona&hl=ca&gl=es&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESixcYgW5FswbsrQHIRgcmcicjhtfNuRYcIJ2xgsOrv6o7yh6TZ33ThndrbHf_EKIJ6EnKelpbWvWVsULvTRUN969sJRhnOADmqP2uQ2rGt8xBOxhixr7ctszAkdUyI0vtHJ3m&sig=AHIEtbS650pIwrRkxb_Kw-h8naqOKJmzqA ; Consultation: October 2009.

AJUNTAMENT DE BARCELONA 2007-2009, Informes i documents estadístics. Característiques de la població. 2007, 2008, 2009 (series), Barcelona City Council, Barcelona.

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1 Cf. with regard to this Provansal and Levick (1991); Provansal (1999).

2 “The observation of dietary practices allows us to discover, at the heart of the global society, original situations caused by bringing distant socio-cultural realities (“lifestyles”) into contact with one another” (authors’ translation).

3 Colloquial expression that refers to a habit or use considered as traditional.

4 "A group’s creativity regarding food doesn’t depend on the setting in motion of a rational, normative and nutritional model, but rather on harmony with the culture and economy of the market of insertion: the search for balance in the choice of products whose sensorial and cultural usefulness is maximized, having taken into account budgetary limitations".

5 Data from the Department of Statistics, Barcelona City Council, 2007.

6 The neighborhood of Gràcia, which corresponds to the old center of the municipality of Gràcia before being joined to Barcelona, is popularly known as “la Vila” (the “villa” or the “town”).

7 Data from the Municipal Computing Institute, Barcelona City Council, 2004.

8 The total population of the district on this date was 120,587 inhabitants and the total population of the city of Barcelona added up to 1,603,178 inhabitants, occupying a total of 10,096 ha (Municipal Census, Department of Statistics, Barcelona City Council, 2007).

9 In 2008, the municipality of Barcelona had 280,817 foreign residents and in 2009 a total of 294,918, in other words, an average increase of 5% (Statistical reports and documents: 2008 and 2009. The foreign population in Barcelona 2008, 2009, Barcelona City Council).

10 Name given to corn in the Andes region.

11  The main ethnographic part of this work corresponds to research conducted for Cecilia Montero’s PhD thesis (2008), under the direction of Jesús Contreras. During the period of elaboration of this thesis (2003-2008) on migration and diet in the neighborhood of Gràcia, the study looked at the market space, although it was not completely focused on it. However, from the beginning of 2008 and to the present, the ethnographic study of the market has been reoriented and taken as the central element in its relation to the neighborhood. Currently, this ethnographic research is being carried out in the framework of a research project developed by the authors of this article and that has as its main theme the Abacería Central Market of Gràcia.

12 An important detail to bear in mind is the fact that, as we saw earlier, Argentinians are the foreign nationality with the third greatest number of residents in the district of Gràcia, preceded by Ecuador and followed by Italy. This data, however, can lead to error: a large part of the Argentinian residents in the district (and in Spain in general) currently have Italian or Spanish nationality, owing to bilateral agreements in the framework of the European Union that Spain and Italy –especially the latter- have in effect with Argentina. In this way, Argentinians of Italian descent have relatively easy access to Italian nationality. And a not insignificant percentage of Italians (and even people from other European nationalities, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary or Austria) residing in the district are also in reality Argentinians.

13 Patatas bravas are considered nowadays as a “typical” or “traditional” appetizer of the city of Barcelona. Different public initiatives (of the City Council, or the local tourism consortium) have emphasized the role of patatas bravas in so far as it is the defining “tapa” of  local urban identity (Tourism of Barcelona, 2006: 134).

14 Dehydrated potato, frequently used in criollo cooking of the Andean regions.

15 Grandparents, in the Argentinian dialect. From the Italian word “nonno”.  

16 Here, the informant is referring to products such as ginger, cassava, manioc or green plantains that she has in her establishment.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Barcelona and the Gràcia District
Credits Source: Barcelona Council
File image/jpeg, 56k
Title Figure 2. The Gràcia District (Barcelona)
Credits Source: Barcelona Council
File image/jpeg, 132k
Title Figure 1. The Abacería Central Market in the neighborhood of Gràcia
Credits Source: Barcelona City Hall
File image/jpeg, 58k
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Electronic reference

F.Xavier Medina, Danielle Provansal and Cecilia Montero, « Food and Migration: the Abacería Central Market of Gràcia (Barcelona) », Anthropology of food [Online], 7 | December 2010, Online since 25 December 2010, connection on 16 December 2018. URL :

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About the authors

F.Xavier Medina

Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia, UOC), Barcelona.

By this author

Danielle Provansal

University of Barcelona

Cecilia Montero

University of Barcelona

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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