Photo: rafael-castillo

THE MOMENT my friend’s sentence left his mouth, he instantly regretted it. There was a brief pause in the conversation as he looked at me with his eyes wide open and cheeks that suddenly had a rosy hue.

I knew what was coming next. I had been around that block many times before. It was that awkward moment when someone who may or may not have forgotten about my presence makes a comment about black people.

The comments are usually harmless, but when my existence is suddenly remembered, people have a tendency to assume I’m offended. That’s when the profuse apologies and explanations begin.

Change the country and change the language of conversation, but the format of these uncomfortable situations stays the same. My clearly embarrassed Spanish friend apologized, told me he didn’t mean what he said in a negative way and that he of course had no problems with black people. After all, we were friends, he added as if that should be proof enough of his allegedly prejudice-free world. Obviously the conversation wasn’t awkward enough for him.

I assured him I wasn’t offended and that I knew he didn’t have any bad intentions. When the situation was finally diffused to the relief of everyone there, we got into a candid conversation about race and diversity in Spain.

Trabajo de negros” was the phrase that sparked the fire of this talk. Roughly translated to “black people’s work,” it is a saying used to describe a physically demanding job that doesn’t pay well. Essentially, it alludes to the idea of slavery, which is why my friend thought I wouldn’t take it so well. Honestly, if he hadn’t stopped to plead for my forgiveness, the phrase would have completely gone over my head, but with the spotlight on his interesting choice of words, I was more intrigued than insulted. From a sociolinguistic standpoint, that the saying even exists in the 21st century and is still used, although rarely, speaks volumes about how Spaniards view and deal with racial differences.

That incident was neither the first nor last of its kind that I have experienced since moving to Spain. Now I find myself reflecting on how the color of my skin has influenced and shaped my experience living abroad.

Differences As An Identity

Within a few days of living in Spain, you will quickly learn that those little corner stores that sell snacks and drinks are usually owned by people who have emigrated from Asia or are of Asian descent. Those are referred to as “chino” stores. “Chino” as in the Spanish word for Chinese. The stores that sell the most random assortment of goods from shoes to school supplies to paintings are usually owned by Moroccans. Those are called “tiendas de los moros,” which is Spanish for “the Arabs’ stores.”

Basically, Spaniards do not pride themselves on being politically correct. There is simply no other way to put that, but I must say I somewhat admire the frankness of it all. In the US, we sometimes tiptoe around the idea of race because it can be a difficult, uncomfortable and sensitive topic to casually bring up in everyday conversation. That’s not the case in Spain. Spaniards are well aware of racial differences and are unafraid to point them out or use them as a means of identifying people. I learned that lesson within my first few days of being here, when the men catcalling me on the street made me well aware of what my new label was: “Morena.”

Morena” is a term I have heard many people here use to describe me. It’s a word that can be used to describe anyone with dark hair and eyes. In my particular case, however, it becomes my main identifier because of my skin, which my English-speaking Spanish friend described as “golden brown” or “Rihanna-ish.” Yes, Rihanna as in the singer.

Although, I have lived in New York, California, and Florida, which are some of the most diverse places in the US, in my towns and schools, I was always in the minority. I got used to being the only black girl in my classes, on my sports teams, and at the frat parties I went to in my university days. My differences went fairly unnoticed to me. Other than the occasions when people pointed out to me that I was the only black girl in my high school’s honors classes or when people at parties would expect me to perform all the latest dance crazes and would drunkenly scream “Jessica, teach me how to dougie!” I did not feel different.

In Spain, however, because it is impossible for me to blend in for so many reasons even apart from my appearance, what makes me unique here also makes me feel different and at times even alienated. My differences have become my identity, my trademark, and my calling card. Sometimes it works in my favor, like when people take a genuine interest in who I am and where I’m from, or when the cute Spanish boys want to know who is that morena at the bar. In some cases it can be negative like when I am walking down the street and people shamelessly stare at me as if I am a member of a newly discovered species. Thankfully, those occasions are rare.

Usually, I love to relish in my differences and enjoy the attention or teachable moments it brings. Now, it is somewhat strange, however, to have the color of my skin so closely linked to my identity. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s very different for me. Before being a black girl, I have always thought of myself as just a girl.

“Why are you black?”

The most interesting encounters I’ve experienced have all occurred at the elementary school where I work. As the saying goes — kids say the darndest things.

I know as a teacher that I shouldn’t play favorites, but I’ll be honest and admit that one brown-haired, blue-eyed little girl has stolen my heart. My favorite student, let’s call her “Mary,” is one sassy five-year-old who always speaks her mind. One day, as I sat with Mary, she began to play with my hair and tell me how strange its texture was. Apparently my hair was softer than she had expected. I laughed it off. At that point I was already used to Spaniards’ obsession…I mean interest in my very different hair. I can’t begin to count the number of times the people here have implored me to stop straightening my hair because they think I would look so great with an afro. Imagine their immense disappointment when I had to break the news to them that straightened or not, my hair simply does not grow that way.

Mary, however, had a different concern on her mind that day. With my hair still in her hands, she looked up at me with a slightly serious face and asked, “Why are you black?” The question caught me off guard, but luckily I was able to come up with a quick-witted response. “Why are your eyes blue?” I asked. With all of the fabulous attitude I have come to expect from Mary, she answered my question with her hands on her hips and even a little neck rolling. “Just because!” she said as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. I used her perfect response to explain that I was black “just because” too. I told her I was born this way just like she was born with blue eyes. Everyone in the world is just different.

Mary seemed satisfied with my answer and went back to playing with my hair. I will never know if what I said stuck in her mind, but it was definitely the perfect Full House moral-of-the-story kind of moment. I hope the spirit of my words remain and is reinforced by others as she grows up.

Although my conversation with Mary was lighthearted and funny, we all know that kids can be just as cruel as they are cute. I’ve seen this firsthand on countless occasions, but one case in particular stood out to me.

One day, a little girl from the first grade came crying to me during recess. When I got her to calm down a bit so I could at least begin to understand her Spanish, she told me she was crying because some boys were calling her “la china” which translates to “the Chinese girl.”

That first grader was indeed a Chinese girl, but her family had moved to Spain when she was so young that culturally speaking she was more Spanish than Chinese. I knew why she was upset because I could imagine the taunting tone the boys used when they called her “la china.” I knew because just a few days earlier a kindergartner used the same kind of tone when he told me that I was “painted brown” and started chanting “Africana. Africana.” The words literally came from a snot-nosed little kid and still it bothered me a tiny bit so I can only sympathize with how this seven-year-old felt when the hurtful words came from her peers.

I wish I could say that these race and nationality-fueled comments only came from the kids, but they don’t. I once overheard two teachers laughing about a student’s French mother who came to the school asking if there were any resources for people interested in learning Chinese. They made fun of her accent and said she needed to finish learning Spanish first. I know these teachers, and they are great people. I was shocked to hear them saying those things. I was especially taken aback when one of them turned to a student in the library and said, “Tell your mom to brush up on her Spanish, then she can worry about learning Chinese.” All along the French woman’s daughter was sitting right next to them as they ridiculed her mother.

That situation, however, was nothing compared to what I overheard when the mother of a half Moroccan, half Spanish student came to the school to speak with some teachers about the problems her child had recently had fighting with other students in her class. After the Moroccan mother left, one teacher complained to the others about how the mother was wasting her time. My jaw literally dropped when I heard her say, “I didn’t say this, but I wanted to tell her, ‘Why are you complaining about the kids fighting when you come from a place where they pull out your teeth and pour acid on your face if you do something wrong?’“

I had to look away to hide my disgust. One of the younger teachers saw my reaction and assured me that it was mostly the older generations that had these prejudices against different races and immigrants in Spain. They simply were still getting used to Spain becoming a more diverse country, he explained. I understood exactly what he meant, but the encounter still left me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Spain: A Country in Transition

Up until a few decades ago, there were virtually no black people or any immigrants at all in Spain. Mass immigration to Spain is a phenomenon that only began in the 1990s. Before that time, Spain was considered to be a very poor country by European standards, and so many Spaniards migrated to other countries throughout the continent. In the early 1970s, as other European countries also began to fall on economically tough times, many Spaniards began returning to their home country. From that point until the 1990s, migration in and out of Spain was about equal. Then, the scales tipped dramatically towards more immigrants flowing into Spain than those leaving. According to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics, in 1991 there were approximately 360,655 foreigners living in Spain, which only accounts for 0.91% of the population of Spain at the time. That number has now increased to 5,711,040 in 2012, which makes up 12.1% of the country’s population.

Spain is a country in transition, not only demographically speaking but also politically, economically, and socially. Like anything in transition, the growing pains are inevitable. The incidents I have mentioned here do not change the fact that I absolutely adore Spain, and living here has been an amazing experience. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people and a rich culture. I think my background simply gives me a noteworthy perspective on what is an interesting time period in the history of this country.

The United States has been a country of immigrants since day one, and you can still see examples of xenophobia and racism rear its ugly head in that melting pot of a country.

Spain is new to this so it is understandable that there will be some friction with these changes. In the meantime, I will reserve my judgments and use every opportunity that arises to break the stereotypes and barriers that exist. I will have to endure the occasional stares and awkward moments with patience, but I don’t mind at all.

This post was originally published on She Dreams of Travel, and has been reprinted with permission.

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