A popular chocolate sweet has brought to light the bitter truths behind Spain’s troubled relationship with racism. In the wake of the global protests against racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd, many companies have been scrutinised for their use of racial branding and imagery.
Among them are Spain’s chocolate-covered peanut treats Conguitos, which feature a dark figure with large red lips as its mascot. As a result of the global protests, an online petition was created demanding Lacasa, the company behind the product, remove its Conguitos imagery and issue a public apology.
Unlike brands across the US such as Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima, Lacasa has defended its use of the racialised imagery and issued a statement defending the mascot’s “friendly character” and “good vibes”.
There’s this super racist candy brand in spain called conguitos. Trust me the image is self explanatory. And if you disect the name it roughly translates to “little ones from the congo” pic.twitter.com/rbFwlJqZWN
— Ian C. Wood (@ianwoood) July 5, 2020
A similarly contemptuous reaction was seen online, with Twitter users taking a jibe at the petition’s demands by creating the hashtag #ConguitoLivesMatter, which later became a trending topic in Spain.
The response has laid bare Spain’s failure to come to terms with issues of racism and revealed that the country still has a lot of ground to cover if it is to shift the national psyche.
“Spain’s relationship with racism is different than it is in the US, and so attitudes toward race are different,” explains Diana Palardy, professor of Spanish at Youngstown State University and author of The Evolution of Conguitos: Changing the Face of Race in Spanish Advertising.
A primary example of this is the habitual use of Blackface during popular celebrations across Spain, which has drawn criticism in the past. In January 2019, hundreds of teenagers in the town of Alcoy donned Blackface and red lips as part of the traditional Three Kings parade celebration.
“Blackface makes people very uncomfortable in the US, due in large part to the history of minstrel shows. However, in Spain, there is a very different reaction because they do not have that tradition, nor the history of chattel slavery, followed by years of Jim Crow laws. In Spain, Blackface may be more associated with childhood nostalgia, so it has much different connotations,” Palardy states.
This lackadaisical and dismissive approach allows Spain to distance itself from issues of racism, which have very rarely held any importance in the national agenda. So much so, that Spain is one of only two Council of Europe countries not to have its own independent national racism watchdog, along with the micro-state of San Marino.
AFP. Protesters hold Spanish and Catalan Senyera flags along with Cross of Burgundy flags during a demonstration organised by Spain's far-right Vox party to preserve a statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona on June 27, 2020 as statues of slave traders and colonial figures tumble worldwide in a wave of anger against racism.
“When we talk about racism people think that we’re talking about when someone insults you or assaults you, but that is only a small part, that’s just what you see,” explains Alba García Martín, a member of the anti-racism NGO SOS Racismo.
Last year, Spain’s National Security Council warned the government about a rise in xenophobia and racist hate crimes, while a study from the Universidad de Valencia found that black people in Spain are seven times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people. There have also been numerous counts of racial discrimination towards prospective tenants and home-buyers.
Though not as common as in the US, instances of racist police brutality have also been experienced. Most recently, the Senegalese street vendor Mame Mbaye died of a cardiac arrest after he collapsed while being chased by police officers in Madrid.
Whereas in 2016, an off-duty Guardia Civil officer shot and killed a Moroccan father-of-two. When asked why he had done so, his reply was simply: “before an Arab blows us up with a bomb, I’ll blow him to bits first.” His sentence was reduced in 2019 on grounds of mental health.
“There is very little perception that Spain is a racist country, from its laws to its education. Issues with race are structural issues, and we’ve always denounced them as such,” says García Martín.
Protesters hold placards reading “Racism kills” in Barcelona, on June 7, 2020, during a demonstration against racism and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. AFP
She identifies Spain’s immigration laws as a key element that upholds said structural issues that foster such racial negligence.
“The immigration law is racist to its core. It is a law that does not allow you to regularise your migration status for three years, it pushes immigrants to employment off-the-books and is a law that does not provide you any kind of rights as a citizen.
“All the other racial issues derive from this law. There is no anti-racist legislation, for example, for crimes related to racism. There are just no anti-racist laws,” she adds.
García Martín criticises this ingrained racism and states that it has not allowed for a national dialogue on the issue to come about, therefore delaying attempts to make amends.
“There is no political will to create a space for dialogue on racism. It’s a historical denial of our colonial past, it’s as if it had not existed, as if it had not happened here,” she said.
For those struggling to understand Spanish society’s racial shortcomings and the issues that organisations like SOS Racismo work to shed a light on, García Martín has a simple message.
“Open your eyes and listen to us.” A seemingly achievable task.