It’s not that I don’t like museums. It’s just that with limited time and lots of things to see and do on a trip, spending hours looking at old or odd things inside of a building doesn’t seem like the best time management strategy. Usually, I’ll save a museum visit for a second or third visit to a destination, or if I happen to stay in a single place for a long period of time.
Yet, even on a first trip or a short stay in a city, I like to get a feel for the culture and energy of the place – and viewing the work of local artists is a great way to do just that.
The Unexpected Value of Street Art
Street artists, in particular, often combine their art with a message that is highly relevant in their surroundings, their work can convey a sense of the politics of a particular area – what’s going on beneath the surface of the neighborhood or city you’re in. There’s also an ephemeral quality to street art that makes it more precious somehow. While a traditional work of art might show over and over again at a number of galleries, a piece of street art you see today may not be there tomorrow or next week.
Capturing street art – whether stumbling on works by accident or intentionally seeking them out – has led me down some of the most unexpected paths and into some of the best memories (and photos) during my travels.
Here are some of my favorite cities for capturing impressive works of street art:
I really can’t say enough good things about Lisbon. It’s a city I love for many reasons, not the least of which is the delicious and inexpensive food that I ate while I was there.
Here’s a rundown of the best food I ate in Lisbon:
Dorado dinner and wine at Cerqueira
A plate of fresh fried dorado steaks with all the fixings and a bottle of wine for under 10? Restaurant Cerqueira is worth the short but steep walk outside of the main tourist area of central Lisbon.
The famed dish of Lisbon. I love fresh fish that’s simply prepared. These sardines were both fresh and simple, yet full of flavor.
Pastel de Belem
Seductively creamy, subtly sweet, surrounded by a light flaky pastry and topped with an angelic dusting of cinnamon. The pastel de Belem begs to be eaten with a strong cup of espresso. Who am I kidding? It begs to be eaten whenever, wherever and with whatever.
Salmon burger w/seaweed ‘slaw’ on choco ink bun
Once again, my love of fish was perfectly sated in Lisbon. At the Mercado da Ribeira this gourmet burger stand served up a grilled salmon patty on a bun tinted black with squid ink. Unbelievably good.
Bacalao w/garbanzo puree
There were so many gourmet and well-priced food options in the Mercado da Ribeira’s dining hall, that my travelmate and I decided to split one (the salmon burger), so we could both have two dishes. My second – this perfectly cooked cod filet over a warm garbanzo spread was as delightful to eat as it was to look at. I’m pretty sure I embarrassed myself slightly via my inappropriate moans while eating this dish.
Just before leaving Lisbon, I stopped by Café Beira Gare, which is rumored to serve the best bifana in Lisbon. This deceptively simple pork sandwich had my mouth watering for hours after. It’s best accompanied by a cold Portuguese beer.
Have you eaten your way through Lisbon yet? What are some your best food finds in Lisbon?
The tortilla española has to be Spain’s most iconic dish. It’s ubiquitous. There’s hardly any tapas bar or restaurant worth its salt in the whole of Iberia that doesn’t have it on the menu. It’s as Spanish as the hamburger is American. It is consumed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, as a main, a side, a sacrament at the lowliest and holiest of occasions.
At first, I didn’t understand it. I’d imagined Spain as some exalted culinary capital. After tasting the famed tortilla, I thought to myself,
Really? This is your trademark dish, España? Eggs, taters, and onions? And salt… is there even salt? I can’t tell.
But after months of eating tortillas in a variety of settings, I eventually grew to love the dish. Even if you never learn to do so yourself, it’s only a matter of time before you become intimately familiar with the sight, the smell, and the taste of it.
Over the past couple of years, I have seen and eaten Spanish tortillas at the beach, at backyard barbecues, birthday parties, school functions, botellon pre-games, and white-tablecloth restaurants. I even remember the tortilla getting a prominent mention on an episode of the popular Spanish sitcom, La Que Sea Vecina. In it, a spiteful Spanish mom was shooting down a girl who wanted to hook up with her son. After a string of put-downs, Mom dealt the final death blow:
“She can’t even cook a proper tortilla!”
The studio audience erupted in laughter.
So, Dear Reader, if you ever hope to impress your Spanish friends, or win that dashing Spanish beau, or simply avoid being laughed at by a make-believe studio audience, you’ll have to learn to whip out a proper Spanish tortilla. Here’s how.
6 Secrets for A Perfect Spanish Tortilla
1. Rough-cut the potatoes
I learned this secret in the home of my friend and fellow English teacher, Juana. Instead of slicing or chopping the potato into neat, evenly shaped cuts, she used her knife on the potato in a sort of cut-and-turn motion that released rough-edged, irregularly-shaped (though still similarly-sized) chunks of potato. The extra surface area and the cutting method allows the tater release a little more starch, which ultimately makes for a better mouthfeel and texture in the final product. Of course, you can slice them more uniformly as well, and still yield a favorable result.
2. Use a dedicated pan
If there’s any one secret that is essential to having your tortilla come out perfect every time, it’s this one. Keep one pan in your cabinet sacred, reserved only for tortillas and other egg cookery (and maybe pancakes and crepes). This pan does not have to be fancy or expensive, but it should be non-stick and it should never, ever be touched by utensils that can scratch or scrape its surface – so, no metal forks or spoons, only wooden, rubber or silicon spatulas and the like. Keeping your tortilla pan unmarred will ensure that your tortillas consistently slide out of the pan with ease and don’t stick to the sides and fall apart when you try to flip or serve them.
3. Let it rest
After cooking the potatoes and onion, draining off the oil and adding them to the beaten eggs, give the egg mixture a couple of quick stirs, and then… walk away. This is the perfect time to ready your non-stick skillet, get your plate out of the cupboard for flipping, and arrange the rest of your tortilla add-ins and seasonings. Letting the mixture rest allows the flavors to meld a bit, and helps the tortilla set properly when it’s cooked.
4. Make it your own
There’s something to be said for simplicity. Sticking to the basic tortilla ingredients of potato and onion is perfectly fine, and honestly, recommended until you feel more comfortable with the cooking technique. But once you’ve mastered the process, it’s time to get creative. The first tortilla I had that strayed away from the tried-and-true ingredients was in Cadiz. An artisan shop in the central market there was serving tortillas with goat cheese and apricot marmalade. After tasting it, the rules of tortilla cookery changed forever for me. Since then, I’ve enjoyed adding in all kinds of ingredients to the basic tortilla, from spinach, to breakfast sausage to mushrooms. Basically, anything you might put in a quiche would also taste good in a tortilla.
5. Don’t fear the flip
Flipping the tortilla is the most intimidating part of the tortilla cooking process. But it shouldn’t be. As long as you approach this step with confidence, you’ll be fine. Be sure to use a plate that’s slightly larger than your pan. Invert the plate onto the pan and move the covered pan over to the sink. Use your left hand to keep the plate tight against the pan while you flip the pan over with your right hand. Lift the pan away from the plate. You should now have a tortilla on a plate in your left hand and an empty pan in your right. There may be a little spillage – that’s ok. Don’t sweat it. That’s why we came to the sink. Just slide that sucker back in the pan, return it to the stovetop, then rinse and wipe down the plate to get it ready for serving.
6. Know your preference
Do you like your tortilla jugosa – or, as a Manchego friend of mine would say, ‘cuando los huevos lloran’ – or cuajada? I’ve found that most people – Spaniards or no – tend to prefer their tortilla jugosa – or with the eggs still a bit runny on the inside. I, however, belong to the cuajada camp. I want that sucker to stay firm when I cut into it. Nothing ruins my day more than digging into a tasty slice of tortilla and ending up with a plate of room temperature yellow goo in front of me. Blecch.
[See that there? That’s called a very strong preference. It’s what most people have when it comes to their tortilla.]
Get to know your own preference and how to alter your cooking time to achieve the desired result. Practice making tortillas often. Hopefully, in the process, you’ll also become familiar with exactly how long you should cook your tortilla española to achieve the desired results of your friends and kitchen guests. So when your would-be Spanish mother-in-law comes over, and you whip out her version of the perfect tortilla without breaking a sweat, she’ll know just how much of a tortilla master you are.
Have you perfected making Spanish tortillas in your kitchen? What secrets do you have to share?
Coming home after a period of time living abroad isn’t always easy. Things aren’t the same as you remember. You aren’t even the same. Finding your place again when everyone and everything has moved on can make readjusting to your new old life seem a little bit like learning to walk again. Plus there’s the emotional toll of leaving behind new friends and abandoning what had become your new normal.
To make matters worse, unlike many other major life transitions, repatriation doesn’t always come with its fair share of support and understanding. The opportunity to live in a foreign country is often seen as just that – an opportunity. Something that you’re lucky or blessed to be able to do. On one hand, that’s true, but like any other self-initiated, out-of-the-norm endeavor (e.g., going back to school, changing careers, becoming a parent) it’s also a matter of sacrifice, risk and day-to-day struggle.
Yet, to friends and family back home (and thanks in part to that steady stream of stunning photos in exotic locales on your Facebook and Instagram feeds) you’ve been living on vacay for the past few months or years. And since ‘coming back from vacation’ isn’t exactly a struggle, you may be left to navigate re-entry back to ‘the real world’ on your own.
I’ve been through the repatriation process twice now – actually, you could say that I’m still going through it – and while I don’t claim to have the science of it all figured out, I felt compelled to share my own process of dealing with and ultimately triumphing over the repatriation blues.
6 Stages of Repatriation
Reverse Culture Shock
From the moment you step off the plane, everything about your home country seems familiar, but in an eerily unfamiliar way. It’s like you’re in The Truman Show or The Matrix. You recognize it all, yet it all seems just… a little… off. Things that you once took for granted as completely normal are now shocking, weird, amusing or maybe even offensive to you.
In my first two weeks back in the US, I had the following moments of reverse culture shock:
At the airport, waiting on my bags:
Why is everyone so fat and poorly dressed?
When greeting old and new friends:
Must remember to shake hands, NOT double-cheek kiss. I almost made out with that guy just now.
Shopping for groceries:
Gawd, it’s expensive here. I mean, $8 for a bottle of wine… and it’s not even good!?
Catching up on TV shows:
Seriously? Is EVERY commercial on TV for a prescription drug?
Getting behind the wheel for the first few times:
Wow. Atlanta drivers exhibit a LOT of aggression.
At any given moment on any given day:
This feels suspiciously comfortable. What is all this knowing where I’m going and understanding what everyone around me is talking about?
Even though seeing an old place through new eyes may initially be disorienting, eventually your vision adjusts and things begin to appear a bit more normal. It may take a while, but it will happen.
Mourning / Loss
Once the excitement of being home and the disorientation of reverse culture shock start to fade, a new feeling may settle in. It may come on as just a bit of a funk or it may swell into full-blown depression. For me, this stage was much like the aftermath of an amicable breakup.
At the start, it was all too raw and tender. I’d be prone to spontaneous outbursts of tears, complete with shaking my fists at the heavens wailing, “WHYYYYYYYYY!!!?? Why can’t we be together anymore? Why did I have to leave you so soon? We were just getting to know each other! Will I ever see you again?”
Even after the initial pain had dulled and I found myself only thinking of my long lost other home maybe once a day – I couldn’t bear to look at pictures of the place. The images brought back too many emotions, too much of that feeling of loss. I couldn’t stand to hear anyone else speak about my host country or talk about what they knew of my once-beloved. When others told of their trysts with my ex – whether good or bad – I’d invariably think to myself, “But you don’t know it like I do. You can’t possibly. It was mine! All mine!”
Melodramatic? Yes. But true nonetheless. The feeling of grief that I experienced on returning the US, I found out, was common for many returning expats. Expats interviewed by the Wall Street Journal described their own feelings of loss as: “a punch in the gut,” and, “like having somebody dying.” Though I didn’t know that my feelings were common, I did know that they’d have to pass eventually. I remembered an old rule-of-thumb I’d heard ages ago about how long it took to get over an old flame. According to this completely water-tight scientific rule, it takes one week per each month of the relationship to get over post-breakup heartbreak. I tried to use this as a point of solace as the days on the calendar crawled by.
Comparison / Nostalgia
“It’s 11 o’clock here. If it were 11 o’clock there I’d be….”
“What I wouldn’t give for a churro or a cortado or some boquerones right now.”
“The eggs here are nothing like the ones I could get at the stores in Spain.”
“You know what I never had to worry about there? Mass shootings.”
This stage could be part of the mourning and loss stage or it could be a separate stage all its own. This is when you begin comparing even the smallest details of your daily life with your life in that other place. And invariably, your old life is always much, much better than your new life back home. Or, at least, that’s how you’re remembering it now.
Suddenly, all of the little things that used to absolutely irritate me about living in Spain were forgotten. I could only remember her virtues. While America, my home country, suddenly appeared to be riddled with flaws. In my mind, I was only verbally registering all these little humdrum things that I’d taken for granted while living in Spain, things that now had value since I no longer had them. But I’m sure I sounded like I was constantly kvetching. Either way, friends and family are likely to find you insufferable during this stage. Some may even let you know it.
Isolation / Withdrawal
You think nobody wants to listen, so you cut them off. You don’t go anywhere. You don’t speak to anyone. You’re starting to feel like you can’t talk about anything that happened to you in that other place. You think you’re only sharing tidbits about what’s been your daily life for the past months or years, but you know all other people hear is you bragging – yet again – about how awesome your time abroad was. Your friends all talk about what’s been going on in their worlds for the time you’ve been away. Parties they went to. Dates they’ve been on. Jokes they’ve shared. You don’t think they’re bragging. But you do feel like you keep walking in on the middle of a conversation where you have no idea what anyone’s talking about, yet you’re still expected to follow along. So instead of going out, you’d rather stay at home and Skype or Whatsapp with friends from that other place, or watch movies in your host country’s language. Or, if you’re lucky enough to know another former expat, you’ll only hang with them.
In small doses, a bit of isolation can be good. It gives you time to examine your own thoughts and feelings, take a break from the sensory overload and recharge your batteries. But too much isolation and withdrawal can be detrimental, so it’s important to keep up with regular social activities, even if it’s only with one or two close friends.
You don’t want to forget or discard all those memories you made, the lessons you learned, all the beautiful people and places you saw during your expat life, but you know that you can’t keep living in the past. Sharing stories with friends isn’t going over like you expect it, so you begin to think of different ways to capture and honor your experiences. Creative projects like writing, scrapbooks, and films are good ways to preserve your travel experiences. Speaking engagements at local schools or clubs offer opportunities to share your travel stories to more receptive audiences. Even speaking with a therapist can be a much-needed outlet for your memories and emotions. The most important thing is that you find a suitable medium that lets you express the highs and lows of your expat experience in a way that can be appreciated over and over again, not forgotten.
In the final stage, you recognize that you don’t have to completely abandon everything about your old life in order to adjust to your new life. You begin to adapt the things you gained from your expat experiences or things that you miss about your life in your former host country to new contexts and your new locale. For me, cooking has always been a passion. After my return from Spain, I began cooking more and new dishes in my kitchen – not just Spanish tortillas and paellas, but dishes I’d eaten at restaurants and in homes that were German, Ghanaian, Moroccan. After getting used to a daily bike commute in Spain, I began biking more upon my return to Atlanta. I noticed that I was now able to understand every single word of the Spanish conversations that I overheard when I was shopping at the farmer’s market or paying a visit to my favorite Mexican taquería. I was even unafraid to reply back in Spanish (something that used to make me nervous). I felt like I had gained a superpower! One that would allow me to engage with the world and its inhabitants in ways that I couldn’t have done before. All of a sudden, I started to feel less sad that I didn’t have Spain in my life anymore, I was simply grateful to have had it. For weeks, the lack of it was all I could think about, all I could focus on. Now it felt like a playful streak of color in my hair. Something that added just a little pop of interest to my backstory.
And in the end, that’s what each expat experience is. It’s an extra patch on your personal quilt, a new sworl in your uniquely patterned self. You have been irreversibly changed by it. And you will carry it with you always.
What was your experience returning home after living abroad? Did you find the transition challenging or did you have no difficulty at all adjusting to life back home? What helped you cope with the repatriation blues?
The difference between mastering Spanish vocabulary and grammar and being able to hold a fluid, casual conversation in Spanish is quite vast. That’s because – just like in English – a lot of the nuance and fluidity in a conversation is due just as much to little, seemingly meaningless words as it is to vocabulary and proper verb conjugation.
These little ‘meaningless’ words and phrases are also known as linking words or transition words. As a native English speaker, I had no idea just how important they were until I realized that I had no idea how to say them in my host country’s language. A fact which often left me frustrated and frequently caused me to either: 1) come to a dead stop mid-sentence, or 2) simply insert the English word in place of the Spanish word I didn’t know, leaving whoever was listening to me totally confused or amused.
To spare you and your listeners the same amusing confusion and frustration, I decided to compile a list of 30 essential Spanish words that helped me take my conversations from stilted to fluid.
30 Essential Spanish Transition Words and Phrases
Aunque – even though, although
Además – furthermore, in addition to
Mientras – meanwhile
Por lo menos – at least
Entonces – then
Pues – well
Como – like, as
Al principio; al final/por ultimo – to start, in the first place; to finish, in the end
Desde luego – of course, certainly
Ya / todavía – yet, already / still
Asi que; por lo tanto – that’s why; for that reason
Por si acaso – in case
Lo/la que sea; donde sea; cuando sea; cualquier – whatever; wherever; whenever; whichever
Por ejemplo – for example
Sobre todos – above all, especially
Por fin – finally
Un rato, un ratito – A little while
Luego – next, then
De repente – suddenly
Sino – rather, but, instead
Apenas de – barely
De todas formas, de todas maneras – in any case
Por otro lado – on the other hand
Sin embargo – nonetheless
De hecho – in fact
Pues nada, venga – anyway…
Sabes – y’know
Es que – honestly, I have no translation for this one, but it’s one of those non-meaning albeit ubiquitous conversational words like ‘like’ in English. As in, “Like, so are we gonna go to the movies, or maybe, like, get some food, cuz I’m, like, hungry as hell.”
A ver – let’s see
Qué va – no way! I dun beleevit. Yeah, right.
Of course, the list above isn’t a comprehensive collection of all Spanish transition words – click here and here for more.
What are some Spanish transition words and phrases that you’ve found useful? Share them in the comments!
Back in the US, I have developed a sort of shorthand when it comes to recognizing the many faux pas, microagressions, and downright blatant acts of racism that may occur at any given moment on any given day. After a lifetime of experiencing them, the form and structure they take are familiar, they seldom vary. I am rarely taken off guard. Like finding my keys in the bottom of my purse, I’m skilled at detecting American racism not by sight, but by the sound of it, the feel of it.
“…many times, because of my own filters – I interpret something as racist that really isn’t or, at least, isn’t very racist. This has often created a disturbing sense of disorientation.”
Here in Spain, though, the structures, the patterns are different. Much like the language itself uses different sentence structures and verb forms – the acts of racism or colorism that I experience are of an almost entirely different composition. For all but the most blatant occurrences, I often don’t recognize that they’ve happened until after they’ve happened. And many times, because of my own filters – I interpret something as racist that really isn’t or, at least, isn’t very racist. This has often created a disturbing sense of disorientation. I second guess my own emotional reactions, my shorthand no longer serves. I regularly try to remind myself to assume the position of an observer; recording and noting these occurrences, becoming more conscious, more aware of the subtle variations in understanding and interpretation.
Language plays a big role in the need for this adjustment. Even the words used to describe my flesh, my race, my skin color are words that would make me cringe, then lash out if I heard something even close to them being said in the US. Negra. Which literally means, black. Morena – which can either mean dark-haired or dark-skinned. When I hear them said aloud in public, I often have to quash an instant and conditioned fight-or-flight response that initially surfaces; an instinct developed after generations of hearing words that describe my skin color come from the mouths of people who don’t share that color. An instinct that comes from knowing that this particular speaker-subject combination usually either spells awkwardness or trouble.
Almost every time I go clothes shopping here, I am likely to catch a snippet of conversation between other shoppers discussing some article of clothing. For me and my black American ears, the words that most frequently penetrate through the background buzz of a crowded store is, ‘las negras’. My ears involuntarily perk up. Are they… talking about… me? I doubt that they are. But… they could be. If I were in the US, I’d never pause my shopping to try and decipher if the shoppers next to me were discussing black blouses or black people. Mainly because it would be unlikely to hear a non-black person in the US saying out loud in public, ‘I like the black ones,’ to actually refer to a black person. In Spain, it’s quite possible that you could hear this language being used to describe either shirts or people. So, because I am here, I pause and listen for a moment, even though I realize that if they are talking about people and not blouses, I’m the only one in earshot who’ll think anything of it.
Of course, there are the times when no translation is needed; when there is no mistaking exactly what is happening. Like the time I was walking down a busy Barcelona street at night with another black person and passed a young 20-something-year-old woman. I couldn’t tell if she was Spanish or not, but I did hear a heavy accent when she turned in our direction and shouted out, “Nigger!” with a look of vicious glee, as we walked by.
During my first Semana Santa, I was travelling through Seville with another black American friend. On our way back from a very pleasant dinner, we got stuck in a crowd of people who’d gathered to watch one of the many religious processions happening during Holy Week. Unable to move either forward or backward, we found ourselves unintentionally positioned in front of a group of seated spectators. A few of them were extremely displeased that we were blocking their view, and began to spew disparaging remarks at us. “Negras! Jillipollas!” (roughly equivalent to, ‘black assholes!’) they grumbled loudly enough for us to hear.
My friend tried apologizing in Spanish, explaining that we couldn’t even budge. After a while, a space opened up and I attempted to move further along down the sidewalk. I was blocked by a middle-aged Spanish man, who, after letting a stream of other people (all white) pass by, repositioned himself so that I couldn’t pass. Fed up, I turned myself sideways and forcefully nudged past him, rubbing against his arm in the process. He snatched back his arm, produced a handkerchief from his pocket and proceeded to vigorously wipe the place on his forearm where my touch had apparently soiled him. The surrealness of the whole scene was underscored by the imposing, heavily adorned statue of Jesus slowly passing by above our heads, a look of resigned sorrow plastered upon his face.
” I felt slightly sorry for these clearly ignorant people, and concluded that I was simply better than them, if not on the basis of my external color, then on the basis of my internal character. Of course, this reaction was as problematic as the expected one.”
In both of these incidents, it was clear to me that the perpetrator’s intent was to somehow make me feel inferior, to make sure that I knew that they knew that I was less than them because of my skin color. But, as is often my tendency, I responded contrarily. Instead of feeling denigrated or even really angry, I noticed a mixed feeling that was 1 part pity and 2 parts superiority beginning to grow within me. I felt slightly sorry for these clearly ignorant people, and concluded that I was simply better than them, if not on the basis of my external color, then on the basis of my internal character. Of course, this reaction was as problematic as the expected one. I developed the tendency of walking around town with my headphones always in – preferring a soundtrack of 90s ‘conscious’ rap to the possibility of overhearing comments on my appearance as I passed. I noticed myself scowling, looking down my nose, or shaking my head at Spaniards I passed in the street who I thought looked at me disapprovingly. I was disengaging in a way that was making me feel even more alienated than any racial slur could have. I resolved to check my own internal prejudices as much as I could. Perhaps, I thought, instead of distancing myself from these ‘others’, I should focus my efforts on finding and connecting with other others like me.
All my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk
Before I moved to Spain, I lived in Atlanta for over 16 years. As of the 2010 census, Atlanta’s population was 54% black. I was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, where black people make up over 65% of the population. I attended an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for my undergraduate degree, and the neighborhood I lived in before moving abroad was roughly 95% black.
Suffice it to say, I’m not only very accustomed to, but I also like being around black people.
However, I’m also quite accustomed to working, living with, and getting to know people of other races and cultures. Whether in corporate or educational settings, I’ve often been the only or one of few black or brown people in the mix, yet I’ve always adapted easily to any environment, regardless of the demographic makeup. So, the idea of living in Spain where I knew I’d be one of relatively few black people didn’t faze me. Still, I, like many black Americans and other expats who’ve lived apart from their own for weeks and months, tend to actively seek out others who look like me. My interactions with other black people from across the Diaspora while living in Spain – black Latinos, black Europeans, and black Africans – have been an interesting study not only in our cultural similarities and differences, but also in how we are viewed by the racial majority here, as well as how we view each other. Whenever I’ve either proactively engaged with or actively acknowledged another black person that I encounter here in Spain, I usually find that they’re either:
Not willing or able to engage with me – often because of cultural or language differences that limit or prohibit communication,
Willing to engage with me, but only to ‘profit’ from me in some way – either men hitting on me, someone trying to sell me something (from umbrellas, to drugs, to ‘tours’, etc.),
Or, willing to engage me on regular, friendly terms – in some instances, this only happens after we’ve quickly moved past the other 2 phases above.
After several months of living in Ciudad Real, a smallish town in the interior of Spain with very few black people among its inhabitants, I remembered joking to some of my American friends that the ayuntamiento or the policia local must have warned all the brown people in town not to get too friendly with one another while living here. I’d even developed a faux slogan for the town:
Ciudad Real. Where even the black people don’t like black people.
My friends and I laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. Yet, after months of getting the same chilly treatment – avoided eye contact, un-returned salutations – from brown folks I passed on the streets, I started to wonder if it wasn’t such a ridiculous notion after all.
The one tentative friendship I managed to develop was with Eduardo, a black Cuban who’d lived in the area for roughly 7 years. “Los negros en este ciudad estan en conflicto,” he told me, in an attempt to explain why I felt that other black Latinos in town were dismissive of my attempts to be friendly or engaging. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were in conflict about. Eduardo didn’t explain further. After a while, I wondered if the internal conflict that Eduardo alluded to was similar to the conflict that I’d observed in some black Americans when deciding whether to engage with certain black people in Europe – specifically, Africans.
In one of the online travel groups that I’m a member of – one that targets black travelers – another member, a black American, recently asked for advice on where to find other black people in Barcelona. He clarified his request by specifying that he was interested in meeting black Europeans. Since I know that there are tons of Africans to be seen on the streets of Barcelona, I found it a bit odd that the request for other black people specifically left them out of the equation.
It occurred to me that there seems to be an unspoken rule among black Americans (in addition to many Spaniards and other expats in Spain), that one simply does not make friends with Africans. And even though I don’t tend to follow that unspoken rule, it’s not until I find myself in the company of another American that I realize how unusual I am. In fact, sometimes I feel like I have a guilty secret. A thing I should probably not confess if I don’t want to be looked at as strange, misguided, or even a little crazy by my fellow brown countrymen. But I confess it anyway, because I often forget to be self-conscious until someone reminds me. Like the time I received an unexpected reaction from a well-traveled American friend visiting me in Spain, when I casually mentioned:
“Yeah, so, I went to dinner with this Ghanaian friend of mine the other day….”
Her head snapped in my direction, her facial expression a mixture of incredulity, disapproval and concern.
“You actually went out with him?”
Or the reaction from another American visitor, when we were in a small bar-slash-club in the center of Naples. When 2 African guys approached us to dance, she shooed them away and later referred to them as “those 2 ugly dark Africans!”
For my part, I make friends with Africans for several reasons, most of them entirely selfish. As I mentioned earlier, I like black people – our way of being, our easy laughter and joking even when things aren’t always that good. The way we walk as if there is music playing just for us. Our style – the way we adorn ourselves – jewelry, colors, hair. There’s a comfort in the familiarity of appearance and mannerisms of black people that relaxes me, puts me at ease. I like hearing patois and pidgin as much as I like hearing street slang and Southern drawls from back home. And then, of course, there’s the food.
My African friends here in Spain have fed me often and each time, it has given me a taste of home, especially since a lot of my Southern culinary and cultural roots presumably have their origins in West Africa. My African friends know how to properly fry up a fish. I don’t have to explain to them what okra is or why I miss it so. When they put a plate of chicken yassa, jollof rice, thiboudienne, black-eyed peas or huge slices of summer-sweet watermelon on the table in front of me, I see, smell, and taste traces of home – both the America that I know and the Africa that I’ve imagined as one of her orphaned offspring. When the sounds of azonto, kizombo, West African hip hop, or South African house music coming out of their speakers sets off an impromptu dance party, I find myself remembering blue lights in the basement, slow-dragging at the supper club, and backyard booty-shake contests from back home. I pause my bobbing and two-stepping only long enough to think, ‘how can I not want to be around all of this?’
My African friends have also helped me learn the language of this country that we both live in. Some of them speak very little English, so Spanish is the only language we have in common. Many of them came to Spain without knowing very much Spanish, but have mastered it in a few short years. They introduce me to new Spanish words and phrases I haven’t heard; are patient when I struggle with the vocabulary and verb tenses, or ask them to explain things I don’t understand. I also listen to them speak amongst themselves in their native tongues, occasionally asking them the meanings of words I hear them repeat often in their conversations. Because of this, I now know how to distinguish the sounds of Wolof, Mandinka, and Hausa, and can even say a scant few words in each.
“…despite the many cultural similarities that my African and black Latino colleagues and I share, and our ability to bridge the language gap that often exists between us, it isn’t always easy to surmount the other gaps that separate us…”
One of my most memorable, albeit short, friendships with African expats in Europe was with a Senegalese and Ghanaian duo that my friends – another black American and a white Italian – and I met on a trip to southern Portugal. We met the Senegalese half of the duo by chance, at a bus stop. After failing to communicate in English and Spanish (which he didn’t speak) and Portuguese (which he spoke, but we didn’t), we resorted to – of all things – Italian. As it turned out, he had lived in Italy for several years, and was pretty fluent. After showing us around town, paying our train fare and introducing us to his Ghanaian friend – who, thankfully, spoke English and Portuguese, and happily shuttled us around town in his car – we shared drinks, a home-cooked meal, and sat up all night telling stories to each other; each of us speaking in a different language that at least one other person at the table could translate to the others.
Yet, despite the many cultural similarities that my African and black Latino colleagues and I share, and our ability to bridge the language gap that often exists between us, it isn’t always easy to surmount the other gaps that separate us and make us regard each other with as much unfamiliarity as the native residents of our host country often regard us both. These gaps are sometimes due to gender, or our relative socioeconomic status, but more often they’re attributable to a little blue booklet known as an American passport.
In a beachside restaurant in Malaga, I am having an early dinner with my Ghanaian friend. The sand and waves aren’t quite enchanting enough to offset the peculiar happenings closer to our table. Throughout the meal, the wait staff speaks almost exclusively to me. Our waiter conspicuously places both the check and the change in front of me, even though my friend pays the tab. While we’re dining, a waiter shows an elderly couple one of the last available tables on the outdoor terrace – it’s directly next to ours. The woman in the couple glances at the table, then scowls disappointedly in our direction and asks loudly and incredulously, “AQUI?”
Weeks later, I head out to one of the most popular clubs in central Malaga with a motley group of friends – 1 white Italian guy, 1 mixed-raced French girl and 2 West African guys. At the door, there’s a bit of a delay as the bouncer brusquely asks for, then takes his time thoroughly examining the IDs of the 2 West African gents. The rest of us simply exchange confused looks, wondering (yet knowing) why none of us was even given half a glance before being allowed to pass into the club.
In Ciudad Real, Eduardo – my black Cuban friend – and I are exiting a salsa club in the center of town. Just a few paces beyond the club, we pass 2 local police officers headed in the other direction. All of a sudden, they stop and question Eduardo for his documentation. He produces his papers. One of the cops rudely snatches his documents, and starts peppering him with questions. Meanwhile, I’m standing there, unidentified and unquestioned, watching as the tension starts to build. The more the cop questions, the more upset Eduardo gets. Soon, the rude cop escalates things. He grabs Eduardo’s arm and shoves him against a wall nearby before starting to pat him down. Realizing this all-too-familiar scene, I whip out my phone and start recording the incident with my camera. Rude cop finally pays attention to me. He comes over, snatches my phone and barks at me that it’s illegal to record the police (at that time, it isn’t). Reluctantly, I pocket my phone. Rude cop returns to harassing Eduardo. His partner stands silently in front of me, looking a bit embarrassed. “Is this how it works in your country? Is this what your job is?” I ask him, frustrated and angry at the whole ordeal. After a few more moments of shaking Eduardo down, rude cop has enough, and lets us go.
When we discuss this incident later, Eduardo will say that things are different for me – because I’m a woman and because I’m American. I’d like to say it’s not true, but I know that it is. I even take advantage of it sometimes. Like when I notice someone eyeing me with that ‘untrustworthy immigrant’ look, I speak English loudly in their presence to command a little additional respect from them. It almost always works. When I present my passport at airport checkpoints, I smugly relish in the slight bit of surprise I sometimes see on the attendant’s face. I know that I can pass more freely into certain spaces – restaurants, shops, people’s homes – because I am an American, and therefore assumed to be an expat with financial means, not an immigrant with financial needs. I am aware of the privilege that my passport bestows on me in this place, and of how it can not only distinguish but also alienate me from other black people living here.
“Eres mas toubabo.” (You’re more like a white person). This, from a Barcelona-based Senegalese friend of mine who is explaining – in less subtle terms – why my experience as a black person in Spain is often different from his. I’m pissed at his choice of words. Growing up, I would often get teased by other black Americans for ‘acting white’ or ‘talking white’, so I’m definitely not pleased to be confronted with the same accusation years later and halfway around the world. He continues, assuaging my anger by explaining in greater detail. As a black person born and raised in America, he says, I understand and am more familiar with European values and social norms than he is or ever will be. While we may both see differences between our cultures and Spanish culture, for me, the differences are subtle, while for him they are comparatively vast. Even though he’s lived in Spain for years, he’s prone to saying, “This is not my way of life.”
Langston Hughes, one of the first black Americans to travel extensively in Spain made note of his own experiences interacting with other black and brown people in the country. During the Spanish Civil War, Hughes, a poet and journalist, worked as a war correspondent for 6 months in 1937. During his time in Spain, Hughes drew several parallels between fascism in Spain and racism back in the US. And in one poem, Letter from Spain to Alabama, Hughes uses a fictional encounter to share both his confusion at seeing black Africans fighting on the side of the fascist regime and the difficulty of bridging language and cultural gaps with his would-be kin. Decades later, I find traces of my own experience in his words.
Letter from Spain to Alabama, by Langston Hughes
We captured a wounded Moor today. He was just as dark as me. I said, Boy, what you been doin’ here Fightin’ against the free?
He answered something in a language I couldn’t understand But somebody told me he was sayin’ They nabbed him in his land
And made him join the fascist army And come across to Spain And he said he had a feelin’ He’d never get back home again.
He said he had a feelin’ This whole thing wasn’t right. He said he didn’t know The folks he had to fight.
And as he lay there dying In a village we had taken, I looked across to Africa And seed foundations shakin’.
Cause if a free Spain wins this war, The colonies, too, are free – – Then something wonderful’ll happen To them Moors as dark as me.
I said, I guess that’s why old England And I reckon Italy, too, Is afraid to let a workers’ Spain Be too good to me and you – –
Cause they got slaves in Africa – – And they don’t want ‘em to be free. Listen, Moorish prisoner, hell! Here, shake hands with me!
I knelt down there beside him, And I took his hand – – But the wounded Moor was dyin’ And he didn’t understand.
There are no Black Americans
I am walking past the cluster of bars that line one side of Plaza Merced in central Malaga. A group of gregarious young men shout out as I pass by them,
I snicker to myself, shake my head and keep walking.
Nope. I shake my head again.
It appears that I am not the only one here who occasionally struggles to reconcile my Americanness with my new environment. Often, when I introduce myself to other people here, the question is asked, “De donde eres?” (Where are you from?) With my typical response being, “Soy Americana.” (I’m American.)
On more occasions than I can count, my answer has been received with a mixture of surprise and slight disbelief. The person I’m speaking to either repeats the word, as if to confirm that they’ve heard me correctly,
…or, I’m peppered with more questions to help the listener clarify my response.
Such as when a Cuban guy sitting next to me at a bar queries, “Pero, tus origenes…?” (But, your origins?) Or when my new roommate presses, “Pero, que mezcla tienes?” (But, what mix do you have?) Or even the European guy who I bumped into at a rooftop BBQ in a hostel who accepted the fact that I was American, but not too American, since he was convinced that my grandmother must have been a slave from Africa. I calmly assured him with as much shade as humanly possible that my grandmother was born in the 1930s. I resisted the urge to append the statement with ‘dumbass’, choosing to punctuate the sentence with a look that conveyed the same sentiment.
In fact, the only reason my grandmother even entered into the conversation is because I’ve developed a boilerplate response to the persisting questions about my being a full-blooded American. When I’m ready to put a quick end to the questioning, I simply respond. “Mi madre es Americana, y la madre de mi madre es Americana, asi que, soy Americana.” (My mother is American, my mother’s mother is American, so for that reason, I’m American.)
Even though many internationally known film stars and popular music icons are clearly both black and American, even though the President of the United States and his family are all black Americans, for some reason, it’s hard for some Spaniards and other Europeans to easily accept that there’s one standing right in front of them. But if I’m honest, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I’m American.
“Kisha, is it true that the police shoot black people in the US?”
This question comes from one of my students during an English conversation class when I’m encouraging them to ask me about life in the US. Lately, the news from home has been filled with images of police brutality and excessive gun violence by law officers against unarmed black people. Images and commentary surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, the related non-violent protests and the violent Baltimore riots have made their way all the way over to Spain. My students are shocked at the graphic nature of it all, they can’t seem to believe that the police can actually kill citizens without any real punishment.
Even my other black associates here in Spain – who are used to being profiled, harassed or occasionally mistreated by the police, confess that the situation is far more severe in America. As Eduardo says to me, “I may be treated differently or badly here due to the color of my skin, but I’m not going to be killed because of it.” I can’t help but think that maybe one of the reasons many Spaniards find it hard to believe that there are black Americans, is because our own country doesn’t treat us or make us feel like we’re Americans.
For this reason, I don’t always feel the nostalgia or the tender longing for my home country that my brown kin from other parts of the world do. When my Senegalese friend speaks of home, how he wants to go back there, and how simple life is – even though it can also be tough – I almost envy his longing. When my Cuban friend speaks of spending days at the beach, catching and eating huge fresh fish right out of the ocean, having anyone open the door of their home to you for a bite to eat, a drink, a little dancing… I am more than a little jealous – even though we both know that Cuba, at least politically speaking, ain’t no island paradise.
The place that I do have longings and nostalgia for is actually something of a non-place; a sub-category of America known as black America. I long for the taste of my (and other) grandma’s food – sweet potato pie, cornbread, mac-and-cheese, collards – and that of the black people from my region – fried okra, gumbo, shrimp and grits, low country boil. I desperately miss the sound of Southern-speak on the streets of my steadily gentrifying black neighborhood, rubbing elbows with the elders at the neighborhood grocery store. Even the not-as-familiar but still recognizable and treasured sounds of my colored cousins from other parts of black America – the ‘over-hoard’ pronunciation of the LA homeys, the mellifluous bravado of black New Yorkers, the in-between-north-and-south speech patterns of folks from the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. But this, I realize, is different from missing America herself. I have no wistful yearnings for her purple mountains majesty or her fruited plains. I, like many black Americans, regard my home country with a double-mindedness. Yes, I am from there. But, I am also not. That is, the American identity as it is most often portrayed both within and outside of my native land, is not my identity. This is something that seems uniquely different from the relationships that others in the diaspora have with their countries of origin. Even though their color may be different from others in their home country, their culture – language, history, music, cuisine – is almost completely shared. As a black American, I have always known that I exist as part of 2 cultures. My history has its own month. My music has its own stations. My literature has its own shelves in the bookstore or library. My cuisine – which I consider to be the only truly American cuisine, found nowhere else in the world – is not commercialized and widely recognized around the globe as American. The larger American culture – that of fast food, football, movie stars, and big cars, and the culture of black America – that of gospel, hip-hop, and soul food are not consumed domestically nor exported under the same label of 100% American, even though both of them are.
And so while I occasionally flaunt my Americanness – the passport, the perfect English – as a badge of privilege, I, like “los negros en este ciudad,” am conflicted about my American identity. When I say, “I’m American,” I sometimes feel the need to affix an asterisk to the end of the statement.
The eloquent black American actor, singer, civil rights activist, and occasional expat Paul Robeson sums up the feeling rather nicely. When asked by an interviewer, “Do you still feel American?” Robeson responds:
“I would say that unquestionably I am an American – born there… upon the backs of my people was developed the primary wealth of America…. There’s a lot of America that belongs to me yet. But just like a Scottish American is proud of being from Scotland, I’m proud for being African…. So I would say today, that I’m an American who is infinitely prouder to be of African descent. No question about it. No question about it. I’m an Afro-American and I don’t use the word American ever loosely again.”
Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the “black experience” in Spain and the US.
I remember the first time I saw the bottle. My eyes widened in surprise, and I let out a half-sigh, half-chuckle sound.
“You gotta be f***in’ kidding me.”
I briefly wondered if my roommate had stashed the bottle of rum under the counter, way in the back, with the label turned to the wall by sheer coincidence or because she was trying to be culturally sensitive. Or… maybe it was because she knew how much I liked rum.
Either way, I wasn’t expecting to see the brand name and image on the bottle.
Above the bold, block print was the image of a black woman’s face and decolletage in profile. The woman looked like she was from colonial (read: slavery) times – she was wearing a brightly colored tignon-like sash around her cropped curly hair, complemented by ethnic-looking gold hoop earrings and a chunky beaded necklace. Her pouty lips were only slightly lighter than the color of the bright red beads around her neck.
I held the bottle in my hands, close to my face, examining the image, then the name, then the image again. I shook my head and chuckled once more.
“Welcome to Spain,” I said aloud to myself.
This would not be the first time that I would find myself bemused, perplexed or completely shocked at an image or representation of a black figure in this country.
It’s a Friday night, and I’m at one of my favorite tapas bars in Ciudad Real – a place where I usually go alone. Tonight, though, I’ve invited some new friends to join me for a couple of quick rounds there. As is usual for the start of the weekend, the place is packed to overflowing. We order our first round, drink and eat and chat as much as we can over the din from the crowd of Spanish folks inside. A few minutes later, I go to the bar and order a second round for myself. When my tapa comes out a little while later, the bartender isn’t able to make eye contact with me since I have my back turned talking to my friends. He shouts to get my attention. But it isn’t until after a few shouts that I finally hear him.
“La morena! La morena!”
Given the fact that I am, indeed, the only morena in the place, I know he means me. I retrieve my tapa and rejoin my friends, chuckling a little at the incident and commenting to them how that was so very particular to Spain. A bartender in the US would never shout out, “Black girl! Black girl!” My comment is meant to be a lighthearted, amusing observation like all of us expats regularly make when we observe a particularly Spanish practice or custom. However, the one non-American in our foursome seems not to take it this way. The Romanian girl, who has been living in Spain for several years, appears to have her feathers ruffled by my comment. “No,” she says, shaking her head strongly. “They mean that for your hair. It’s about your hair color.”
“Uhhh… no,” I begin, “I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to my hair color.”
“Yes, yes! Morena means brown-haired. They call me rubia.”
I could see how she’d be confused. She was right, Spaniards do use morena and rubia to refer to someone’s hair color. But, only if you’re white. The term morena, I explained, was used both ways. It could mean either brown-haired or brown-skinned.
“No, no!” she persists. “You’re wrong. It’s only about hair.”
At this point, I’m beginning to get my feathers ruffled. I mean, why would I make this up? Does this twenty-something year old Romanian girl really think she is about to school me on what the word that has regularly been applied to me in a very specific manner for over a year now means?
She goes on. “I have experienced it!” She insists.
“Oh. Well, then.” I quip sarcastically. “Yeah. You’re probably right. You probably DO know more about what it’s like being a black person in Spain than I do. So, sure. You got it.”
We go back and forth a couple more times. The Romanian girl digging in her heels about the hair-color-only usage of the term. Me continuing my sarcastic retorts telling her that, yes, I was sure she was right because I couldn’t possibly have any idea what I was talking about.
Later, at another bar, I see the opportunity to ask for a second opinion. The bartender at this place is quite friendly with us, as we frequent the bar often, and he stops over several times to chat with us throughout the night. Just before closing, we each order a drink. I happen to choose a drink called La Morenita – a rum cocktail. When the bartender stops over, I ask him, “Can you answer a question for us?”
“Sure,” he replies.
The word morena, does it refer to someone’s hair color?
“Yes,” he confirms.
“Does it also” – I pause to look at the Romanian girl – “Refer to…” and let the sentence hang unfinished.
The bartender takes his cue and completes the phrase. “Color de piel? (Skin color?) Siiiii….” he drones as if to say, of course.
The Romanian looks dissatisfied. She shakes her head as if she still doesn’t want to accept his answer.
Adjusting the Color
“When moving to a new country, there are tons of cultural adjustments and considerations one has to make…. But… there was one I had never even considered. What do I call myself here?”
African-American, black, colored, negro. All of these terms are familiar to me. They have been used to describe my features, my race, my people – both in the past and present – in the country I call home. When moving to a new country, there are tons of cultural adjustments and considerations one has to make, many of which I was prepared for when I decided to move to Spain. But of all of those I had given thought to – the food, the language, the way of life – there was one I had never even considered.
What do I call myself here?
Two of my early attempts at literal translations proved both confusing and frustrating. The first came when I was having a casual chat with a potential roommate – an Egyptian guy – in San Pedro de Alcantara. I don’t recall exactly what we were speaking about – maybe I was telling him something about life back in Atlanta – but I do remember that I used the word negro to refer to black people. He stopped me short. “No,” he said. “We don’t say that. It’s not nice. It’s better to say moreno.” Oh. I stood corrected. Feeling an alien sort of embarrassment at being scolded by someone else for the language I’d chosen to use to refer to myself.
The second instance was when I was teaching a lesson on jazz to my bilingual students in music class. A part of the text we were reading and translating mentioned something about notable African-American musicians. I thought this would be a good opportunity to help them understand what the word meant. I pointed to myself, “I’m African-American.” “Whaaat?” My students responded with shock and surprise. I was shocked and surprised at their response. What did they think I was? Where did they think this brown skin and kinky hair came from? It wasn’t until much later that I realized that my students’ shock came from them misunderstanding that the term African-American implied that I was actually African, and had just grown up in America.
Moros y Negros
And then there’s that peculiar Spanish term that’s neither moreno nor negro. Moro, which literally translates to Moor, is a Spanish word denoting certain people of color that – when I first encountered it – left me feeling more angry than confused. It was my first full day in the town I’d be teaching in, and I was walking around familiarizing myself with the area, when I saw the scrawled graffiti on the wall of an empty little plaza – the image of a faded red swastika with the words ‘No Moros’ emblazoned over it. Previously, I – like many other black Americans – assumed that the term Moor was synonymous with Africans, and therefore with black people. So, naturally, I was not only pissed but also a little concerned about where I’d landed when I saw that bit of racist wall art.
“Since sorting out the variants of Spanish racial terminology… I’ve heard all of them used in different situations by different kinds of people. In some instances, I can even get a feel for how racially clued-in or clueless a person is by which terms they use.”
Since then, I’ve discovered that, for Spaniards, there’s a distinction between moros and morenos, or, negros. This excerpt from Baltasar Fra Molinero’s 1995 book entitled, La Imagen de los Negros en la España del Siglo de Oro (The Image of Blacks in Golden Age Spain), succinctly explains the difference:
““Negros” eran los africanos que no eran “moros.” Esta clasificación ya venía de antiguo. Los nombres usados para referirse a los esclavos negros–etíopes, negros, morenos, prietos, pardos–reflejaban en mayor o menor medida ciertas tensiones ideológicas…. Había que crear una teoría del género humano que los incluyese, pero que los diferenciase también. Los tonos de pigmentación distintos se convierten todos en uno solo, el “color negro”….”
“Negros” were Africans that weren’t “moros”. This classification came from older times. The names used to refer to black slaves – etíopes, negros, morenos, prietos, pardos – reflected in greater or lesser measure certain ideological forces…. There was the need to create a theory of the human species that included them (blacks), but that differentiated them as well. The distinct tones of pigmentation were all transformed into a single one, the ‘color black’….”
In short, moros are Africans, but they’re the Africans that aren’t visibly denoted as black, e.g., Egyptians, Moroccans, Arabs, etc.
Since sorting out the variants of Spanish racial terminology that could and could not be applied to myself, I’ve heard all of them used in different situations by different kinds of people. In some instances, I can even get a feel for how racially clued-in or clueless a person is by which terms they use. Like the one Spanish gent in Ciudad Real that I struck up a conversation with on a biking trail. He used negra, and explained that it was because he used to date a black girl and she preferred it. Or the woman who was sitting next to me and my visiting cousin in a bar, talking in none-too-quiet tones to her friend about how she liked – here she silently pointed to her own non-black skin, presumably out of respect for the two lovely morenas within earshot – but not subsaharianos. My black Cuban associate, Eduardo, would use both negro and moreno interchangeably. And my latest roommate, when recommending a barber to our other roommate – a curly-haired Italian guy – assured him that the barber would be able to do a good job with his hair because he was, “un moro de Marueco.”
As for myself, I’ve adopted a kind of double vocabulary about race much like I do in America – I prefer to use 1 term (negra) when I’m around others who are like me, and another (morena) when in mixed company.
And when it comes to bartenders in crowded tapas bars, I generally tend to let them know my name early on, so we avoid any future complications.
Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the “black experience” in Spain and the US.
“Que guapas morenas!” the guy from the beachside restaurant shouts in our direction. My friend Dominique and I turn toward him, smile, and simultaneously issue a coquettish reply of “Graciaaaaas!” We’re on our way back to my place after hanging out at the beach in Marbella for a few hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A few paces later, I turn to Dominique and remark, “You know if some random dude had shouted that to us in the States we wouldn’t be thanking him, we’d be looking for a fight!” We both laughed at the ironic truth in that statement. If we were back home in Atlanta, and a white guy exclaimed, “How pretty you two black girls are!” as we passed, our response would be markedly different.
In general, Spanish men (and quite a few women) are openly appreciative of attractive ladies they see on the streets. In my orientation class when I first arrived here, our coordinator even dedicated a section of her presentation to warning us about piropos, or catcalls, that the ladies in our group were likely to experience from men on the streets. Since that time, I’ve noticed that there’s a distinction made when a piropo or sentiment of attraction is directed toward a black or brown girl. Even the simple usage of the more specific morenas versus chicas or just plain “que guapas” to express admiration demonstrates that there’s some ‘other’ lens I’m being viewed through as a brown-skinned girl. The first time I got such a comment was on a solo trip to Barcelona about a month after I’d arrived in Spain. A 20-ish something guy passed me walking in the other direction, smiled and nodded his head with the look of someone appreciating a nice painting or a souped-up automobile. He mumbled loudly enough for me to hear, “Que buena esa morena,” before continuing on his way. At my age, I know how to appreciate a genuine, non-creepy compliment, so I quickly smiled in his direction without halting my stride. Still, every time I hear the sentiment echoed on the streets of Spain, I wonder to myself if the equivalent in English would translate to that dreaded not-quite-compliment, “She’s cute… for a black girl.”
Don’t Fetishize Me, Bro
To the collector, you are one-dimensional item. Everything of value or interest about you is tied up in the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, and the mythology surrounding them both.
Of course, there have been several instances when the ‘guapa morena’ comment hasn’t been so welcome. Take, for instance, the guy who I encountered on one of my first trips to the local library in Ciudad Real. Only minutes after introducing himself to me, and telling me how guapa he thought I was, he asked me for a kiss. I was completely taken aback and more than a little creeped-out by the incident, and when I recounted it later to a friend – a Spanish man – he explained that it was rather common for some Spanish men to assume that a brown-skinned girl equals easy prey. He went on to explain that most of the black women in Spain have immigrated from Latin America or Africa, and some of those who are experiencing financial problems or looking for a way to remain in the country permanently are eager to accept the advances of almost any Spaniard if it means financial security or the promise of becoming a Spanish citizen. For this reason, some Spanish guys will test the waters, so to speak, to see how much they can get away with when meeting a morena.
Then there are those who take their brown-skin attraction in a slightly different direction. I call them ‘collectors’. They – both men and women – are intrigued by the rareness of black flesh. To them, what is rare is seen as more interesting. And the person who’s able to possess a rare thing for themselves is made more interesting as a result. The having of this rare object then, is something of a status symbol for the collector, even if the having is only temporary. To the collector, you are one-dimensional item. Everything of value or interest about you is tied up in the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, and the mythology surrounding them both. Ironically, this pretty much makes the collector the bizarro version of your garden variety racist, for whom everything odious and worthless about you is based on your skin color and its associated mythos.
It doesn’t take long to identify a collector. He or she will probably lead with something that specifically refers to your race. They may even confide in you – completely unsolicited and out of the blue – the fact that they’ve always wanted to ‘be with’ a black girl or have mulatto children. While you’re struggling to put your eyes back into your head from the ridiculousness of such a remark, the collector will probably be leaning in to get an appreciative stroke of your skin or tug at your hair, or quite possibly even commenting lasciviously on another black person passing nearby, completely oblivious to the fact that they are creeping you all the way the f**k out.
The Mouths of Babes
“Mommy, that man has black skin!”
I involuntarily snap my head in the direction the voice came from, and wrinkle my face up at the little girl’s overly loud comment. We are at a seaside resort in southern Spain – a place heavily populated with both Spanish and non-Spanish holiday makers from other parts of Europe. Among the rest of the crowd tanning on the nearby shore, playing in the pool and sipping cocktails at the bar, my friend – a native of Senegal and a longtime resident of Spain – and I are the only brown faces (and bodies) in sight.
The little girl who made the comment looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. From her accent, it sounds like she’s from the UK, where I assume that she would have had more exposure to black people than a girl of her age from Spain. Why, then was it so novel, so unusual to see a person with ‘black skin’ that she felt compelled to blurt it out in public? Why had her mom who was sheepishly grinning in our direction and hurrying her little one along before she could say anything else – not yet trained her that blurting out such a thing in public wasn’t exactly appropriate? Meanwhile, my friend, who’s probably well accustomed to receiving such comments and stares, is completely unfazed. He smiles and waves at the little one while I brood silently in the background.
Days later, when I’m reflecting on this incident, it occurs to me that this little kid was no different than many full-grown Spaniards I’ve encountered that momentarily lose their cool and some of their senses when they see a black person – saying and doing something that leaves the unaccustomed (like me) frowning and wondering, “What the f**k?”, while those who are used to these outbursts (like my Senegalese friend), simply offer a patronizing smile and the equivalent of, “Awwww… Bless your heart!”
Can I Touch It?
It’s Christmas season in Spain. Even though I’m missing family time and the Christmas traditions I’m accustomed to back in the US, I’m still enjoying my first Christmas in my host country. I’ve finished checking off the last of the gift recipients on my relatively short Christmas list, and I’m looking for the finishing touches to put on the gifts that I need to wrap and deliver to local friends in Ciudad Real before the long winter break.
I ducked into the little store thinking they would definitely have the gift ribbon I was looking for. It was, after all, a chino*, and chinos carry at least 4 of everything ever made. As I was preparing to check out, the Spanish girl working in the store who’d helped me find the ribbon remarked to the Chinese lady behind the counter, “Que guapa, no?” (Isn’t she pretty?) “Si! Es guapa!” the other woman enthusiastically replied, smiling in my direction. I thanked them both profusely. Before I could finish my ‘gracias’, La China (the Chinese lady) recounted in her heavily accented Spanish that she used to work in a neighborhood in nearby Toledo where there were other girls… here she paused to rub the skin on the back of my hand to indicate what kind of girls they were. She said that she loved seeing them, and whenever they would come in to shop or talk, she would rub their skin. Here, she paused to stroke my hand again. “Muy suave!” (very smooth!) she beamed, then suggested the Spanish girl have a go. “Siiiii…” La Española replied in awe, after stroking the back of my hand for herself. “Que suave!!” By now, my eyes were as big as saucers, my brow furrowed, and my smile a tentative, bemused one. “Como un bebe,” (like a baby) La China continued, smiling brightly with confirmation of her knowledge. As I handed her the coins for the ribbon, she couldn’t resist one more stroke. The transaction complete, I hurriedly stuffed the ribbon in my bag, managed to bumble out another ‘gracias’ and a ‘feliz navidad’, then swiftly pivoted and exited the twilight zone.
As a black person living in a country like Spain where the population is largely homogenous – at least in outward appearance – it’s not an uncommon occurrence to find out that you’ve instantly become a walking museum exhibit.
In Spain, and there’s a sort of no-holds-barred, ‘I’m not even gonna question if you’re ok with this because I know you’re ok with this’ aspect to the commenting on and touching of black skin and hair that is markedly different from the US. Here, complete strangers feel no qualm about remarking loudly about your ‘different’ features or even getting in a quick pet. Like the one time, when I was walking through a crowded club in Malaga, and a woman I passed yelled out over the din of the party, “I like your hair!” Then proceeded to shove her hands into my picked-out ‘fro just before asking if she could touch it. Or like an entirely different chino incident, when I was perusing the aisles for some household necessity, and another shopper – a middle-aged Spanish woman – decided to grab a few of my braid extensions and marvel aloud at how they got that way, how long it must have taken to do them, and what sort of material they were made of. Part of this uninhibited touching is cultural – Spaniards have a completely different concept of personal space than Americans. That is to say, by American standards, Spaniards don’t really have a concept of personal space. Close-talking, double-cheek kissing, resting a hand on a shoulder or back while conversing with someone – all of these are interpersonal conventions that might make the average American feel uncomfortable.
As a black person living in a country like Spain where the population is largely homogenous – at least in outward appearance – it’s not an uncommon occurrence to find out that you’ve instantly become a walking museum exhibit. For many, you’re one of the few chances they have to get an up-close look – or touch – of this rarely-seen specimen that is a black person. Does that mean it’s ok for someone to breach your personal space for a rub of your skin or a grab at your hair? No. But it does help explain why it’s happening. Why you’re being stared at on the street, in the grocery store, on the metro. Yes, even now, in the 21st century, where black people are more prominent in international media than ever before, and you’d think that the sight of a black person walking down the street minding their own business wouldn’t cause a stir.
Yet, if I’m completely honest, I can’t gloss over the fact that I’ve experienced some unwanted touches from my fellow countrymen in the United States. Particularly when it comes to my hair. The fact that I wear my hair natural and often change the style it’s in, has frequently sparked interest from co-workers and associates, to the point where they can’t resist a touch. Usually though, this kind of uninvited touching only happens with people whom I share space with regularly or have known for a period of time. And even then, the social norms regarding personal space in America makes them do so with a bit of timidity and hesitation that seems fitting for putting your hands on someone without explicit permission.
I often find myself torn between feeling weirded out and feeling honored and appreciated in a way that I’d never be on my home turf.
I also have to admit that sometimes it feels damned good to be positively noticed for the color of your skin. Back home in Atlanta, there are so many beautiful men and women of color of every shape, size, and type that I would scarcely garner a second glance on the streets. Being good-looking and black isn’t really worth commenting on when damned near everyone around you is good-looking and black. So, after each of these experiences, I often find myself torn between feeling weirded out and feeling honored and appreciated in a way that I’d never be on my home turf. After many months of being guapa’d and groped in public and private, I’ve finally learned to take it all in stride, and more often than not I have a laugh at it – if only to myself.
Case in point: one afternoon, late in the school year, one of my Spanish roommates knocks on my bedroom door. She wants to introduce me to some family members who are visiting. After greeting them, my roommate’s mom says, as sweet as she can, ‘Me gusta tu color’ (I like your color).
What I think is…
What? This old thing?
Girl… you better get a good look while ya can! I’m about to hop in the shower!
Ya sure? Cuz, ehhh… I dunno… I was thinking of changing it.
Oh. I… like… yours… too?
I’ve been growing it since birth.
But, what I say is:
* Throughout Spain, a chino is a one-stop-shop or convenience store that sells a wide array of household goods, snacks, and personal items for a very low price. They are almost invariably owned and operated by Chinese immigrants – hence the fitting, albeit politically incorrect, name.
Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the “black experience” in Spain and the US.
I can make a ritual out of almost anything. Perhaps it’s my Catholic past. Maybe my inner bruja. No sé. Rituals help me mark the time. Moments. Hours. Days. Seasons. States of mind. They are asterisks on experiences. A reminder that I was a little more aware, more present in this moment. That I took the time to appreciate a gift – no matter how tiny – that was given me by god, nature, the universe.
One of my daily rituals here in Spain is having a coffee. On the rough, cold winter days I had in the place we do not speak of, it was reason for me to get out of bed and drag myself across the chilled marble floor of my little piso. On others, it was impetus for me to get dressed, leave the house, and will myself to a nearby cafe where, hopefully (could today be the day?) I’d meet someone willing to strike up a friendly convo, but, usually, I’d just sit taking small comfort in both the sound of voices other than my own and the smile from the person behind the counter serving me my beverage. At other times, it’s been my way of noting to self that this is the start of a new day, and I’m ready for it. In fact, I now have a saying: I haven’t woken up until I’ve brushed my teeth, and I haven’t started the day until I’ve had a coffee.
Early Adult Education
The cortado at the high school where I work is the best in town. Perhaps, the best in all of Spain; possibly, even, the known universe. But only when Emi, the lunch lady, makes it – not her husband. For some reason, he never steams the milk quite right, and the fluffy ‘capa’ that I love, is always missing when he makes it. I once intimated this to Emi. Now, when I enter I don’t even have to order it anymore. As soon as she sees me, she starts pulling the shot and warming the milk.
Adding the sugar is a subritual in itself, and can vary slightly depending on if the coffee is for wake up, post meal, or hangover treatment. For the first, about a third of the packet is sprinkled lightly on top of the foam; the resulting design appreciated before it submerges and disappears into the caffeinated depths of the cup. For the second, very little sugar is used. Sometimes, it’s skipped altogether. For the last, a little more sugar is added after every sip, so that the final swallow is absent of any bitterness, and can be considered more sweet treat than am beverage.
The perfect cortado is often elusive. But once you’ve had it, you’ll never stop searching for it again. Anything less will seem like a huge letdown, a testament that the preparer is a novice or just completely out of touch with Spanish coffee culture. At my neighborhood coffee shop, they change and add new bar staff so often, that at least once a month, I find myself side-eyeing the new blood for serving up an inferior product. I have become part of their initiation. The old head notices either the confused look on the initiate’s face when I order, or the dissatisfied slight scowl on mine when my drink is received. Oldhead rushes to instruct. “Es como un solo, pero con poca leche. Y te metes la leche enfrente de ella, hasta k ella te dice, ‘Ya’.” The noob attempts, presents. I taste. Of course, it isn’t quite there yet. But. She’ll learn. I’ll be back again tomorrow for more practice. Yesterday, the new new girl was alone on her shift. No old head to guide her. Ok. Let’s see whatcha got, dahlin. She doesn’t do well. My cup is full of more not-quite-hot milk than coffee. The cup looks like it’s full of very dirty dishwater. I return the beverage, apologetically explaining that that’s too much milk for me (I’m going to the library next. Please. Think of the others.) She attempts again. It’s better. But only slightly. I try to drink it, but the excess amount of milk starts to work on me almost instantly. I return the cup to her half full, pay and exit swiftly. I’m miffed. The superstitious part of me links a bad coffee to a bad day ahead.
The following day, Saturday, I have work to do. I have no time for instruction. I ride slowly past my neighborhood bar to see who’s working. It’s new girl. Alone again. Not on today, sugah. I U-turn and head to a cafe in the town center. I rarely go there, because their prices are higher. But there’s a reason for that. I order. A few moments later, perfection is placed before me. The beverage, a few shades darker than me, which lets me know that not too much milk has been added. A beautiful, fluffy cloud of steamed milk rests at the top of the cup, its bright white nucleus like a target that silently suggests, ‘add sugar here’. I sigh delightedly. It’s been too long. I savor each sip until the very last. At the finish, the last remnants of fluffy foam cling to the sides and bottom of the glass. Some people read tea leaves. Me? Coffee foam. I can see the future. It’s going to be a great day.
Stories about travel, food, expat life, and teaching English in Spain