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
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.
““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.