Let’s play a game. When I mention “Spain” what or who comes to mind first? Perhaps your mind went straight towards the incomparable jamón ibérico, or the contagious, thumping beats of flamenco music; perchance you imagined a fresh, steamy cazuela of paella or pristine beaches.
If you try to imagine “what a Spanish person looks like” you may be inclined to believe that Spain is abounding with Penelope Cruz-like women and Javier Bardém-esque men. While the aforementioned guesses are not wholly incorrect, they are in fact only a portion of the full picture.
What’s missing, you ask? The Afro-Spanish experience. It’s more than time that Spain be seen as the cultural mélange that it is, and arguably always has been. That said, Spain is far from perfect in terms of economic equality and race relations. That does not mean however, that the Afro-experience and Spain are any less intertwined. How could they not be? There are only 14 kilometers separating Spain’s Southernmost point from the African continent!
Spain and North Africa have a tumultuous relationship with plenty of twists and turns dating as far back as 711 AD with the invasion of the Iberian peninsula led by Tariq ibn-Ziyad.
That’s actually where Gibraltar gets its name from: Jabal Tariq in Arabic. One can find traces of Moorish and North African influence in Spanish culture,architecture, language, and cuisine. Every day, Spanish people use common words like Ojalá, azúcar, aceite, and jarra without realizing that they have Arabic and North African influence to thank for said words! In fact, 8% of Spanish words have Arabic roots.
So why then, does there seem to be such a vast distance between Spain and Africa? It’s a mere 14 km away, and there was almost 800 years of North African rule here, people!
Let’s fast-forward a bit through innumerable wars, battles, territories gained, and eventually lost; now let’s throw Christianity into the mix. Catholic kings and queens, the Inquisition, civil war, a dictator and a country that’s learning what it means to be a parliamentary monarchy with democratic practices in the rapidly changing climate of the 21st century.
This deserves way more than one sentence, however, Spain colonized Equatorial Guinea, and held the African nation in its possession from 1778 until 1968. That is, admittedly, an oversimplification. How else was I supposed to get us to the 90’s in less than 1000 words?
Why are 90’s important in Spanish history? Because that’s when Spain shifted from being an emigrant country to an immigrant country. It’s one of the first times in Spanish history when more people were coming than leaving. Spain is at its very core, a mixture of cultures and has undeniably been influenced by its neighbors to the south, Africa. There are however layers and nuances, to the Black experience in Spain.
That’s to say, it is no way, a monolith. You have, for example, African children adopted by Spanish citizens, you have children of Spain’s former African colonies, Equatorial Guinea or Western Sahara, who were born and raised in this country, you have other African immigrants who have settled here and raised their families, and you have an increasing number of Black-American expats who now call Spain home and raise their children here either with, or without another Spanish parent.
To give you an idea of some of the trailblazers in the ever-present and ever-growing Afro-Spanish community here are a few references:
Domingo Antonio Edjang Moreno, also known as El Chojín, is a rapper, poet and activist who hails from the far, and exotic land of… Torrejón de Ardóz. His father is Guinean and his mother is from Extremadura.
El Chojín is known for being very vocal about the Afro-Spanish experience in terms of visibility and equality. In 2009 he also gained international recognition for being the world’s official fastest rapper (ask the Guiness Book of World Records!)
Rubén H. Bermúdez, writer, published author, photographer and activist from Extremadura. Rubén is very obviously of African descent, and he’ll be the first person to tell you. He will also probably mention that both of his parents are White Spaniards.
So where does he get his glorious afro crown from? That’s a question for another day. We do know that African slaves arrived on the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century through port cities like Barcelona, Valencia and Cádiz. When Lisbon took over as one of the lead slave-selling and producing cities, Extremadura’s close proximity to Lisbon meant even more slave trading amongst the neighboring regions. While Rubén’s parents may be European-Spanish, he obviously carries with him traces of the complex history of Extremadura.
Desirée Bela-Lobedde, a Spanish woman of Guinean descent living in, and based-in Barcelona, is a writer, feminist, and accomplished blogger who dedicates her platform to– as she describes it– Activismo estético.
She focuses her activism on reclaiming of the image of the Black woman (and man). Her goal is to equate kinky hair with beauty, not shame; to provide positive representations of dark skin, and to remove the stigma of being “other”. It’s a steep goal, but Desirée is more than capable. She wants to create a world where her children feel beautiful, appreciated and included in the narrative.
The next time you see a Black woman speaking fluent Catalán, or an African child with the strongest of Andalucian accents, instead of complimenting them on their language skills, or asking where they’re from, remember that the African presence in Spain is far from new. Instead of wondering how it is they made their way to Móstoles or Sevilla, remind yourself that Spain has had ties with Africa since 711 AD and it’s undeniably connected to Africa on a genetic, historical and cultural level. Long gone are the days of: ‘but no, where are you really from?’
Danni Roseman is head of Content Marketing and Community at LMDES, a platform created by and for WOC who want to create a life they love in Spain, and abroad. Our platform provides insight, inspiration and the practical steps needed to make the move abroad through comprehensive courses, guides and in-person events. Danni hosts events in Madrid for WOC, enjoys writing and exploring this wonderful country she’s called home for almost 10 years. For more, visit Las Morenas de España, follow on Twitter, facebook, and instagram.