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.
I’m standing in the convenience store, transfixed, struggling to reconcile what I’m seeing with what I’m feeling. I swivel my head around from one side to the other, hoping to spy someone else who is just as shocked and appalled as I am at the image I’m standing directly in front of. There isn’t anyone, of course. I am the only one here that is even remotely concerned or paying any attention to this figure. If anything, the few people in the store may be beginning to wonder why this tall brown woman has been staring at a candy display for so long. After mumbling a few ‘hhwwhat the f*cks’ and ‘is this real’s under my breath, I realize that there is only one thing I can do. I slip my hand into my bag and retrieve my phone, position myself in front of the image, and snap a picture. If it’s still there when I look at my phone later, I’ll know I’m not crazy and that this shit really did just happen.
The image – a bald, chocolate-colored infantile figure with bulging eyes, grotesquely exaggerated smiling red lips and a perfectly round mid-section – is the well-known icon of the ubiquitous Spanish candy, Conguitos. It’s not only seen on packages of the candy – where the little chocolate figure is usually pictured with one hand on his hip and the other giving the thumbs-up sign (in older versions of the image, he was holding a spear) – but also in 3D in-store displays that use the protruding belly of the little Congo man as a container for small packets of the popular chocolate treats. These displays are usually located right at the front of the store, next to the impulse buys and the cash register. Which is handy, since this common placement of the figure has given me frequent opportunities to examine it up close and be completely, head-shakingly shocked and appalled at it… just like the very first time.
While the image of the woman on the bottle of Negrita is one that could be considered questionably racist, in my mind, there’s no question at all that the Conguito mascot – the Spanish equivalent of a tar baby – is about as racist an image as there could be.
If the little Negrita and the little Conguito were the only racially offensive product images I’d come across during my time in Spain, I might not be as baffled or concerned. Yet, there have been more. Many more. Cola Cao – an extremely popular breakfast beverage (similar to Nesquik in the US) – features as its brand image a pair of black people – 1 woman, 1 man – hauling baskets filled to the brim with cacao pods set against a backdrop of what is, presumably, a chocolate plantation. The sugar packets produced by the Ciudad Real-based company Cafes Barrenengoa, which would show up alongside my coffee at roughly 1/3 of the cafeterías around town, were imprinted with an image of a smiling, black-faced, bug-eyed, red-lipped little man dressed in all white and posed in ‘I’m a little teapot’ fashion pouring a thin stream of coffee into a cartoon cup on the other end of the packet.
Then, there was that one inexplicable inanimate image that I encountered on a trip with a local friend to his small village just outside of Valladolid. I entered a tiny neighborhood bar with 2 other Spanish associates. Before we were well inside, I spotted the statue on the far side of the room, in a corner under an unused television. It was the figure of a young boy, black-faced, red-lipped, and barefoot. He was clad in a simple green jacket with too-short sleeves and plain brown short pants, a straw hat placed atop his kinky, sculpted hair. He sat looking absently at the floor in front of him, a docile smile plastered on his lips, his hands neatly folded in his lap, his legs crossed at the ankles. I drew an instant parallel between this figure and the racist American images of Little Black Sambo or pickaninnies. But. Why was it here? Given that the bar and its few patrons were quite likely relatives of my host (he’d already mentioned that he was related to almost everyone in the tiny village), I refrained from questioning the bar’s owner or my associates about the statue, not wanting to bring tension into an otherwise tranquil weekend getaway. Instead, I satisfied myself with another picture, another documented piece of evidence regarding Spain’s troubling depictions of black people.
Still, if these corporate-sponsored, mute, and unmoving depictions were the only ones I’d encountered while living here, I might be able to convince myself that these images are simply leftover, untouched relics from a distant past that no one has bothered to update (though other companies with racist brand images have successfully done so). That, even if there is widespread, complacent acceptance of such inappropriateness, surely no living, breathing person in today’s Spain would actively perpetrate or stand in support of such imagery. Of course, that was not to be the case.
What’s Behind the Mask?
In the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays, you see them everywhere. The Reyes Magos, or Three Wise Kings, those legendary Biblical figures who are said to have traveled from distant lands bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to present to the newborn baby Jesus. Since the Middle Ages, one of those wise kings has been depicted as a black man, a representation of the ancient Christian kingdom of Ethiopia in East Africa. In Spain, the Reyes Magos are much more popular than Santa Claus or Papa Noel. Whereas in the States you have actors who dress up as that jolly old man who brings gifts to kids, In Spain, the actors dress as the Three Kings. They make appearances at schools, churches, and local functions. Proud parents and smiling children line up for a photo with the kings just like kids in the US wait to have their picture taken with Old St. Nick. And when it comes to the black king, most often, a black actor isn’t cast to play the part. Instead, it’s far more common to see a Spanish actor wearing blackface portraying the role of Baltasar, the black wise man. Though I was spared from seeing any real-life blackface versions of Baltasar with my own eyes, friends who lived in other parts of Spain would send me pics of the painted wise man showing up in their town squares, their schools. I could only shake my head. It was at least a small comfort to see and hear that, in some cases, organizers of Three Kings appearances actually went to the trouble of finding a black actor to play the role of a black person – a novel concept.
Months later, I would experience my first Carnival, and, with it, more examples of everyday people – most of them young – dressed up in blackface. In Spain, the entire Carnival celebration is a time for absurdity and lampooning. Large choral groups perform in parades and at concert halls, singing scathingly humorous songs that make fun of the government, political officials, historical figures, society as a whole. Meanwhile, on the streets and squares of almost every Spanish city, groups of friends who have spent weeks planning and selecting elaborate matching costumes, show them off at huge, public, alcohol-fueled gatherings that last all day and all night. Among the myriad of costumes I saw in both Cadiz and Miguelturra, there were at least a handful that relied on the use of blackface to achieve their full effect, but one of them in particular stood out. As I rounded a corner near the main square in Miguelturra, with my black Cuban friend in tow, my gaze immediately fixed on the guy hanging with his friends outside the nearest bar. His costume was basic – a pair of large googly eyes, huge plastic red lips, and a big, curly afro wig affixed to the outside of a pitch black stocking that was covering his face. Just a moment after I saw him, he saw us. I could tell because he snatched the black stocking-mask up over his head quickly. The mask off, his own face was sporting a look like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. This action was more disturbing for me than the mask itself. It was an act of confession. An admission by this man that he knew his costume was racially insensitive, offensive, unacceptable. But he was only willing to make such an admission if there happened to be someone there who could call him on it. It’s one thing to do something racially insensitive or offensive and claim ignorance; it’s an entirely different thing to do it with full knowledge that it’s wrong and potentially hurtful. Was there no other cute, amusing, or creative costume this guy could have come up with without relying on racial stereotypes that even he knew was wrong?
Throughout the week-long Carnival celebration, I saw many Spaniards dressed as fictional characters, animals, religious figures, even cross-dressing, but I saw no other cultural or racial stereotypes-as-costume. This is not to say that there weren’t any – only that I didn’t see them.
After months of being confronted by these images of black people, I found that I was still surprised, still questioning. How does a so-called modern society still quietly tolerate and vocally celebrate this kind of imagery so blatantly and out in the open? Where’s the public outcry? Where’s the independent criticism? What year is it? Why is Spain so very stuck in the past when it comes to issues of race?
To understand and find an answer to these questions, I decided to take a step back and try to examine Spanish culture itself. I wanted to find out where these images originated from, and why they still persisted so openly today. Baltasar Fra Molinero’s thorough examination of the representation of blacks in Spain in art, literature, and theater at the start of the European colonial era does much to explain the present-day media images and public perceptions of black people, not only in Spain, but in western civilization as a whole.
These excerpts from his 1995 book, La imagen de los negros en la España del Siglo de Oro, shed light on the characterization of black features and humanity in early Spanish media:
“…ciertas características biológicas externas (piel, pelo, nariz, boca) pasaron a convertirse en marca o significante de la condición social de esclavitud. De ahí se pasó a una consideración moral: su inferioridad social empezó a verse como inferioridad natural. De esa forma el color negro de la piel adquirió un nuevo sentido: los negros no eran humanos completamente. El nuevo significado de piel negra pasó a ser el de la brutalidad y la inferioridad.”
“Certain external biological characteristics (skin, hair, nose, mouth) became trademarks or symbols of the social condition of enslavement. From there, it came to be a moral consideration: the social inferiority of blacks began to be seen as natural inferiority. In this manner, black skin acquired a new meaning: blacks were not completely human. The new meaning of black skin came to be that of brutishness and inferiority.”
“La risa y el tono humorístico fueron las respuestas literarias a la esclavitud de los negros, que eran representados como seres graciosos e inocentes. En palabras del crítico Lemuel Johnson:”
Laughter and a humoristic tone were the literary responses to the enslavement of blacks, who were represented like cute and innocent beings. In the words of the critic Lemuel Johnson:
There is nonetheless, a tolerant mockery in these representations. One might almost say benign, were it possible for an essentially malignant historical process to be so described. “
Molinero even recognizes that the racist tropes of Spain’s Golden Era are not just a thing of the past:
“Siguen vigentes hoy en la literatura, el cine, y la television: negros graciosos e infantiles, mulatas que invitan a sexualidad prohibida, negros santos de alma blanca y defensores del statu quo del Imperio…”
“[These images] still persist today in literature, film, and television: cute and childlike black men, mixed-race women who entice with a forbidden sexuality, saintly negros with white souls and defenders of the status quo of the Empire….”
Worth a Thousand Words
In the collective consciousness of the Spanish people, images of black racial stereotypes represent the persistent, though often under-the-radar idea that the black person is a cartoon character, a not-quite-person whose differences require exaggeration to ensure that there is little confusion about his status in the society – that of the ‘other’ who is as grotesque as he is exotic. Even in a modern economic environment where products like rum, sugar, and chocolate are no longer produced through a system of forced labor – some of the images associated with these products in Spain still favor the depiction of the black person as a happily content slave.
Even a black American head of state like Michelle Obama is not safe from the Spanish tendency to caricature black people as the exotic slave. In August 2012, the Spanish indie mag, Fuera del Serie caused international controversy – perhaps intentionally – by featuring a cover photo of Michelle Obama’s visage superimposed on the image of a slave woman with an exposed breast alongside the title, “Michelle Se Come A Obama” (Michelle Is Eating Obama). The magazine contended that the image, and the accompanying article, titled, “Michelle Tataranieta De Esclava, Duena De America” (Michelle: Granddaughter of a Slave, First Lady of America), was intended as a tribute to the First Lady – a nod to both her American slave ancestry and an examination on how she’d been able to “seduce” the American public into liking her even more than they liked her husband. Of all of the associations, images, and terminology to use to highlight the pedigree and accomplishments of Michelle Obama, it seems… odd that slavery, seduction, and a vague reference to cannibalism would top the list.
Not all of the troubling depictions of black people in Spain are linked to the country’s legacy of African enslavement, however. On a rare evening when I decide to join my 3 Spanish roommates and a few of their friends in the salon for some TV watching, the hugely popular Spanish sitcom, La Que Sea Vecina comes on. In this episode, one of the recurring male characters meets a lady for a blind date in an expensive restaurant. Unable to pay the tab, the guy snatches the unattended purse of another woman dining nearby. When the victim returns from the bathroom and finds her purse missing, she asks the couple if they saw anything. The blind date woman – who witnessed her beau’s pilfering – quickly covers for him and replies that it was, “un hombre moreno vestido en un traje” (a black man wearing a suit). I involuntarily smack my head. My roommates and friends react neither to the character’s statement nor to my reaction, but there is a palpable tension, a pregnant silence in the room. At the next commercial break, I excuse myself so I can go to my room and make better use of my time by catching up on some work.
As I walk down the hallway, I think to myself, “Well, at least he was wearing a suit.”