Tag Archives: black expat

Black in Spain: Clearing My US Customs

Reading Summary:

Checked Baggage

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.

black in spain - cheked baggage

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.

Too much pride was pulling me into the dark side.
Too much pride was pulling me into the dark side.

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:

  1. Not willing or able to engage with me – often because of cultural or language differences that limit or prohibit communication,
  2. 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.),
  3. 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.

black in spain - US passport

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,

“Cubana!”

I snicker to myself, shake my head and keep walking.

“Dominicana!”

Nope. I shake my head again.

“Brasileña!”

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,

Americana?”

…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.

I, too, sing America.
I, too, sing America.

 

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.

Read the other posts in the series now:

 

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Black in Spain – Icons and Images

Branded Identity

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.

Negrita.

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.

black in spain - image of negrita rum

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.

Continue reading Black in Spain – Icons and Images

Black in Spain – What’s In a Name?

Morenas
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!

black in spain - what did you call me

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 - what do you call a black person

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

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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