They say a picture paints a thousand words—with so much to say, a single image can be interpreted in ways that are poles apart. A case in point was seen recently in Barcelona: between November 2007 and last month, the publicity for the theatre show Cómeme el coco, negro festooned the streets of the city, the sides of buses and walls of metro stations, portraying a cartoonish black face with a wide-mouthed grin and large white lips. The show, by Catalan company La Cubana, was a revival of a production they put on when they formed over 25 years ago.
To the members of the company, the audiences watching night after night and, apparently, many of those who saw this image around them, there was nothing objectionable about it. The director of the show, Jordi Milán, told Metropolitan that he could see nothing wrong with it, that it was a “modern concept”, and he was shocked and angered at the suggestion that it might be offensive.
“It would be a lie to say that Spain isn’t racist, but it’s not this,” he said, questioning why North Americans and Britons should expect other countries to be the same as theirs when it comes to such matters. “The problem isn’t with us, it’s with you.”
Milán said that black people had been to see the show and not had a problem with it (indeed, there is a black person performing in it, taking a role that in the original version was played by a white person with a blacked-up face). However, he also admitted that when the show started he received a letter from a black American woman saying that she felt insulted by La Cubana’s poster.
Concern was also voiced by Ana María Arango, an anthropologist from Colombia who has lived in Barcelona for three years. She wrote in her blog in November 2007 that the image is a characterisation that ridicules the African aesthetic, done by a company that isn’t African. She told Metropolitan, people in Spain don’t think in these terms. “Here, there doesn’t yet exist consciousness about the damage that stereotypes can do in the day-to-day life of people of African descent.”
What has caused this divergence in attitudes? How can certain portrayals of black people be blatant racism in one country and totally matter-of-fact in another? This gulf is something that foreign residents from places including the UK or North America quickly become familiar with in Spain, finding themselves confronted with images that have been socially unacceptable in their home countries for many years. A visit to the local supermarket, for example, brings one face-to-face with tubs of Cola Cao chocolate powder, illustrated by two smiling black people collecting cocoa pods. In the next aisle is the chocolate Conguitos, with a logo of a dark brown pygmy-like character with a perfectly round head, equally round body and (on some products) disproportionately large red lips.
Expatica.com blogger Sal DeTraglia, originally from the US, wrote in 2006 of his “bittersweet love affair” with Conguitos—on the one hand, he couldn’t get enough of the “irresistible chocolate peanuts”, but on the other, while not wanting to pass judgement, DeTraglia expressed his “uneasiness with the branding” (and such uneasiness would in all likelihood be much greater had he seen the figure before it was ‘updated’ and his spear removed).
When DeTraglia asked a Spanish friend whether she thought the figure was offensive, she didn’t understand what he meant at first. After some consideration, she told him, “I never really thought about it. The Conguitos cartoon has been around since before I was born.”
Her comment seems to encapsulate Spanish attitudes towards such images and portrayals of African people—they have never challenged or questioned them, but apparently simply take them at face value, denying any racist connotations. “People don’t give it the importance that it deserves because of ‘unawareness’,” Begoña Sánchez, spokeswoman of anti-racism organisation SOS Racisme, told Metropolitan.
In contrast, those countries that have had a slave trade, colonies and oppressive laws against one part of the population due to racial differences, and where such images were once a common cultural feature, cannot claim unawareness. From the 15th century, when Europeans started exploring African countries, occupying them and trading the locals as slaves, the notion of the indigenous people as ape-like savages needing to be civilised gave rise to ‘darky’ iconography: caricatures with prominent eyes, shiningly white teeth against dark skin, exaggerated lips in terms of both colour and size, and often portrayed naked. These kinds of stereotypes reinforced the idea that people of other races were inferior to Caucasians. In time, the representation of black people came to incorporate not just perceived physical attributes, but also other ethnic stereotypes: slaves in the US were portrayed as lazy, lacking intelligence and less than human.
Gradually, this has changed. In the States, it did so as a result of the civil rights movement, a gathering wave of protest against those states that had institutionalised the segregation of black people, that became a more general, ongoing striving for real equality. In some European countries, particularly Britain, inhabitants of colonised countries were encouraged to move from their homes to help support the economic rebuilding of nations after the Second World War; they did so in great numbers, settling, raising their families and making those countries home. In the resulting multi-cultural societies, depictions of black people in ways that stereotyped them and identified them with the historical roles they had been forced into, particularly in terms of servitude, became less and less acceptable over the past 20 to 30 years; so when people from those places encounter the images abroad today, they are surprised, to say the least.
It is clear that the issue of racism in Spain is much larger and more complex than trying to understand why certain portrayals of black people are still common here, but the fact that they are can be seen as representative of the wider issue. On the one hand there is a lack of effort at educating the public, and on the other, there seems to be a fundamental attitude of denial.
The idea of tackling racism (including challenging ethnic stereotypes) is not one that has been seriously embraced by the authorities here. In April, human rights organisation Amnesty International published a report about racism in Spain, entitled ‘Between Lethargy and Invisibility’. It argued that the political and judicial systems are uninterested in dealing with racism in a country that has significant numbers of both new and longer-term immigrants, the latter including a population of gypsies who, despite centuries of living in Spain, are still treated as outsiders by many. And although 10 percent of the country’s population now comes from abroad, SOS Racisme’s Begoña Sánchez said that change is slow in coming. “The debate here is still, ‘immigration, yes or no?’, when immigration is already here.”
While Spain does not share the multi-cultural history of the UK, the US or Canada, it is now home to an ever-growing immigrant population and that brings challenges at many levels. Perhaps the best indication of this is the fact that even in those countries where stereotypical images of black people would cause an outcry, racism continues to be a daily issue.
First published: June 1st 2008.