By Abena Wariebi
Insights from an African-American student in Barcelona on the lack of a “black community” and the gulf, both literal and metaphorical, that lies between economic migrants and student ‘expats’.
Someone here in Barcelona once asked me what the one thing that I miss about the US was. As a person who has lived in the capital of Catalonia for ten years now, he had fallen in love with the city and felt that there was nothing it lacked. However, when he asked me that question, in my mind an immediate list of things popped up, but I decided to name just one. My answer to him was, “the black community”. He looked at me a bit puzzled and responded, “but there are black people here”. I turned to him, full of apprehension because of what I was about to say and quietly replied, “Yes there are. But it is not the same.”
I hated that I had to say that, but it was my most honest response.
But what did I mean that it was not the same? That we were not the same? What was so different between them and me? Well, in my third week here in Barcelona my phone was stolen. That can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time so it doesn’t have so much to do with this essay but more so who stole my phone and how he did it. It was a guy from a neighbouring country to where my family is from in West Africa. That night on the beach when he stole my phone he came over to my friends joking and laughing. He showed the most interest in me, calling me names like “sister”, “beautiful” and even saying things like we need to go back to Africa and we don’t belong here. I wasn’t buying any of it, but at the same time I had let my guard down. Fast forward and a few moments before he said goodbye, he grabbed my phone from my pocket and ran away. When I told this same story to my mother, her response to me was, “be careful with your ‘brothers’ out there. You guys are not the same.” But what did she mean by that?
A few weeks after the phone incident I went to Las Ramblas which is the famous shopping street here in Barcelona just to take a walk. As usual there were lots of African men on this strip selling false merchandise. I stopped to talk to a few of them and ended up spending my entire evening out there with them. We talked about the different reasons for which we had come to Spain. Many of them had come as young teenagers to work. I came for graduate school. We talked about what we did for a living. They sold fake goods on Las Ramblas Monday to Sunday, in some cases morning till night. I babysit 6 hours a week. They asked me where I was living and consequently how much I was paying to live there. I found out that a few of them were living together in an apartment outside of the city with no light or heat. Throughout our conversation we would continuously have to move around as the police would come and make the guys tie up their mats and move their pitches elsewhere. In these conversations, on this night, I understood what my mom had said to me weeks beforehand. As much as I didn’t want to accept it, or pretend that we were just the same, we weren’t. While I was in class writing essays about immigration, they were out in the streets of Barcelona living that reality. Every law and policy I was studying was actually impacting their lives. I could be considered an ‘expat’ and they would forever be stigmatized as migrants.
So when this guy asked me that night what it was that I missed about the US, and I answered the ‘black community’, I knew what I meant, but I was embarrassed to say it. I missed going to the malls and also seeing black people shopping at the same stores as me. Or walking down the street in my neighbourhood and seeing my black neighbour also leave his or her home. Or going to the bank and having my cheque deposited by a black man or women. Not just seeing them struggle to survive selling fake things on the street. It’s hard and it’s frustrating. The reality is that even if I may see us all as being the same, our life circumstances, society, and the world we live in construct such a difference between us and in the end I feel more different from them than anyone else. We are more different than I would like to admit. I guess this is the power of social class and social mobility. I do not share the same spaces as the black people here, we are not in the same classes, and we are not at the same events. Though we may find ourselves similar in other ways – perhaps we both like Hip-Hop, understand what the pan-African nod of recognition means, share an appreciation for similar struggles – these differences in our lives set us worlds apart.