So Christmas, the New Year and Three Kings Day (Epiphany) in Spain again.
Lots of presents for the kids, delicious cakes and chocolates, festive feasts, colourful parades and the annual debate about blackface for the people playing Balthasar in the Wise Men (Three Kings) processions that delight youngsters across the country after they have written their letters asking for lots of toys and put some carrots out for the camels.
This year, football star Andrés Iniesta is in hot water after posting a photo of himself on Twitter smiling away next to two friends with blacked-up Wise Men faces. In Alcoy (Alicante), there’s a local group of 200 “black boys” who dress up and run round giving kids presents.
Blackface even made it onto the popular kids cooking programme MasterChef Junior this week, on TVE, Spain’s equivalent of the BBC. It’s just tradition, most Spaniards will tell you, Spain isn’t racist, it’s the Three Kings, that’s just how it’s done.
To be fair, great strides have been made in recent years, after pressure from anti-racism groups, with many towns now using actual African men for the role, instead of a Spaniard painted black, but that too has its risks. On Saturday night, as people all around Spain uploaded videos of their Wise Men processions for the Internet to see, a howl of outrage and horror suddenly ripped across Spanish Twitter.
A Balthasar in the Basque town of Andoain, an African immigrant, gave his little speech from the balcony of the Town Hall, with all of the kids and mums and dads below, and blurted out that “you should know that parents are the real kings” (like telling kids in the UK or US who Father Christmas really is). What…!?
Este es el discurso de Baltasar en el pueblo de Andoain, Gipuzkoa. Final inesperado ??? pic.twitter.com/DgfsHcQJ1I
— Carlos V (@ElCarlossssSs) January 5, 2019
A local news crew interviewed the poor man shortly after and he explained he had meant to say that “parents are the kings at home, that they are the bosses at home”, but got a bit confused with the language and nerves with everyone watching his big moment.
The damage was done, though, and these things now resonate far and wide in an instant.
Ten years ago, it probably would not have been noticed much beyond Andoain. In 2018, it went from the town square to Twitter and WhatsApp all round the country in about ten minutes.
Ten years ago, the “alt right” wasn’t a thing and Vox – the new right-wing political party making waves on Spain's political scene – wasn’t trying to be that option in Spain. Not long after the video from Andoian appeared on the Internet, two of Spain’s alt-right news sites rushed out their xenophobic headlines.
“This is what happens when an immigrant, with no joy for our traditions” takes part in the procession, wrote Caso Aislado, suggesting the local authorities will “always regret” choosing “an African man” for the role this year. Mediterráneo Digital went much further, about as far as these things can go, and mixed racism with dehumanisation in its article, using the word “negrata” in the headline which translates as the highly derogatory term “nigger”.
“A nigger plays King Balthasar and messes up the procession in Andoain” read the headline, “he’s a real rat” said the first line of the first paragraph, “his heart is as black as coal” was the conclusion.
@nytimes @washingtonpost @blackvoices @bbcmundo @nytimeses @BET This is what POC have to endure in Spain: Normalized Racism in every aspect of society, even media: “A Nigga poses as Wise King Balthasar and messes up #Andoain 's Three Wise Men Parade” #Spain #Racism pic.twitter.com/M8yqiboFML
— MAPA 12N (@12Nsin_racismo) January 6, 2019
Andoain Town Hall put out a statement afterwards saying it was “worried” by the “racial and xenophobic prejudices” the incident had generated, “because [someone] had not mastered the language”, noting the video “has spread unimaginably further” than might have been thought from the event itself.
A similar incident in the village of Santa Fe (Granada), where a Spanish postman played Balthasar, has received much less publicity. The last few days have also seen other problematic videos posted online. Spaniards in the village of Casariche (Seville) tried to lynch two Romanian burglars. Civil Guard reinforcements were dispatched and a tragedy avoided.
Local policemen in Madrid dragged a black woman off a bus and scuffled with her and another black man in the process. Police unions said in a statement it wasn’t racism: they were refusing to get off an overfull bus after “many other” passengers had already done so.
Vox was mentioned in many of the tweets about the Balthasar in Andoain on Saturday night.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal made great political and media use of the immigration crisis on the southern coasts over the summer. While the party is trying to frame its approach to immigration as greater border control, the whiff of an underlying xenophobia has not disappeared or been dispelled.
Mr. Abascal highlighted Manuel Valls as “Ciudadanos’ Frenchman” in December, and over Christmas an official party account twice used a controversial word, “negrero”, to refer to the NGO migrant rescue boat Open Arms, which was allowed to dock in Algeciras (Andalusia).
“Negrero” might just be translated as “slave boat” or it might be “black slave boat” or “slave boat full of blacks”. The party threw in a bit of George Soros conspiracy theory with its defence: “What is the ugly part of this, calling things by their name or the complicity of Open Arms-Soros with people traffickers?”.
Beyond the specific question of immigration, Vox’s offer to voters includes a heightened sense of traditional Spanish identity (which allows it to position itself strongly against Catalan separatists, for example). On January 2nd, it commemorated the 527th anniversary of the end of the siege of Granada in 1492, in which Christian Spanish forces “brought to an end eight long centuries of reconquest against Muslim invaders”.
The Popular Party under its new leader, Pablo Casado, is shifting its discourse right to meet the challenge from Vox. With so much political power up for grabs around the country in 2019, it would be a grave mistake if political leaders were to amplify certain anecdotal aspects of Spanish culture or to knowingly make use of historical details in a populist xenophobic manner in order to win votes, and damn the consequences for a society whose collective conscience is now fuelled by Twitter and WhatsApp.