Black In Spain

So, what’s it like there?
I heard that Spain isn’t a good place for black people.
I heard that Spanish guys loooove black women!
I heard that Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe.

The questions come from many places. Family back home. Friends of friends who are considering travelling here. Acquaintances on social media. And every time I get the questions, I always wish I could answer simply. No. Spain isn’t a good place for black people. Yes. Spanish men love black women. Yes. Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe. But, I can’t. There’s too much nuance, too many instances and experiences that I’ve had that both confirm and negate those statements. So, instead of a definitive answer, I reply with the equivalent of ‘It depends’, or ‘Yes, but,’ then expound on that neither-here-nor-there answer as best I can for the audience that I’m speaking to.

As with any country, the topic of race in Spain is a complex one that has many facets and requires a more-than-surface-level exploration to even begin to formulate any definitive conclusions.


“Being black in Spain is hard sometimes,” I say with a sigh.

“How so?” My friend Annie replies.

We’re sitting on a bench in a park in central Malaga, sharing a bottle of cava. I take a sip from my little plastic cup before responding.

“Welll…” I begin, “First, there are the stares. Which honestly, aren’t always that bad, but it can take some getting used to.”

In the brief space of time before I continue, my mind flits to several incidents, tiny little moments, and curious occurrences that I’ve experienced in my now almost 10 months living on the Iberian peninsula. How do I summarize all of these things to Annie in a casual conversation? How do I recount those myriad moments that have either curdled my blood or left me shaking my head in bemusement? I decide not to go into it all right now. It’s a gloriously sunny day, I’m beginning to feel the effects of the cava, and I don’t want to ruin either my sunshine- or champagne- buzz with heavy talk. I quickly sum up my previous statement about the stares with some observations on times when I felt I was stared at rudely, and others when I felt it was out of admiration or curiosity. I get the feeling that Annie gets my feeling of not wanting to go much deeper into the subject, and, soon, we switch to more situation-appropriate topics.

Over the next few days, however, my exchange with Annie comes back to mind often. How would I sum up the experience of being a black American in this country? I realize it’s an important part of my cultural immersion and exchange to make note of such sociological differences, and to analyze them both critically (as a student of culture) and personally (as a black woman with my own story to tell). So, I decided to start not only being more aware of these moments, but also to start taking notes on the experiences that I’ve had so far.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing first-hand observations and experiences with the concepts of race, color, and culture that I’ve gathered during my time in Spain. In doing so, I hope to shed some more light on a subject that – in my opinion – warrants a more in-depth examination, especially in light of recent incidents regarding race and police brutality against black people back in the United States.

One of the many cries of frustration that I’ve heard from my brown-skinned kin from back home in the aftermath of these racially-charged incidents has been ‘maybe it’s time to leave the US behind’, or similar statements that paint the non-US experience as a more suitable one for black people. I hope that my experience as an African-American living in Spain reveals that issues of color and race aren’t exclusively American, and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the pond.

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.

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Black In Spain – The Exotic Beauty

La Guapa Morena

“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.”

Stares, shouts, comments, are par for the course on the streets of Spain.
Stares, shouts, comments, are par for the course on the streets of Spain.

 

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.

 

"Can I touch it?"
“Can I touch it?”

 

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:

Graciaaaas!”

 

* 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.

Read the other posts in the series now:

 

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the cortado – my daily ritual

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.

cortado-perfection-solo-in-spain

 

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.

emis-cortado-solo-in-spain

 

Sweet Sublimation

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.

cortado-love-solo-in-spain

 

(Im)patient Initiation

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.

 

Prophetic perfection

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.

cortado-reading-the-foam-solo-in-spain