black in spain: the exotic beauty
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.
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.”
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 howguapahe 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 amorena.
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.
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.
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 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: