An Iberian Dichotomy
By Jacob Taylor-Mosquera
As a Colombian raised in Seattle travelling the Iberian coast from Barcelona to Lisbon for the first time, Jacob Taylor-Mosquera recounts his differing experiences between Spain and Portugal, explaining why one country feels like a more viable destination for a man of colour than the other.
The cab drivers’ eyebrows almost crawled off his forehead as we drove to Málaga’s bus station. “You are a teacher? Are you sure?!” The interaction between us for the rest of the relatively brief drive suddenly enjoyed an elevated status. It became friendly, almost as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Had he originally imagined me as an illegal immigrant? His body language indicated he removed me from that category once I revealed my profession.
To some degree I am well-accustomed to such introspection about the interactions between myself and others based on the colour of my skin. I self-identify as an Afro-Colombian adoptee who was raised in the Seattle area of the Divided States of North America. For the time being, I am an adolescent cat-herding Spanish enthusiast (or, if you prefer, a middle/high school Spanish teacher). Yet, people who look like me, perhaps more in Andalucía than in many other places, are perceived with an almost palpable disdain.
For example, one night I sat at a street cafe enjoying some tapas and sangria in the historic centre in the southwestern city of Cádiz. The party of four Spaniards sitting next to me abruptly changed the subject of whatever they were talking about as I sat down. One of the men took his wallet that was on the corner of the table and jammed it quickly into his pocket. One of the women followed by zipping her purse and placing it in her lap underneath the table. A few moments passed and a Senegalese girl appeared before us trying to sell some handmade bracelets and keychains with her noticeably beginner Spanish. The party of four avoided eye contact and motioned for her to leave them alone with their hands. She looked at me and simply said the prices of the cheapest bracelets. I asked where she was from, she told me, and in my minimal French I was able to learn she had been in the country for only four months, she had come with a cousin from Dakar and eventually planned to make it to France or Belgium. I bought a small elephant keychain and watched as she sauntered to other tables, all dismissing her with identical repugnance of the kind afforded to drug addicts and beggars.
By the time I had arrived in Cádiz I was familiar with the Spaniards’ way of engaging with me from the beginning of many interactions. The short, one-worded answers to my questions. The avoiding of eye contact. The blatant ignoring of a ‘good morning’ or ‘how are you?’. This last one in particular was a massive challenge. In Colombia to not respond to a greeting, however seemingly futile, is a colossal social faux pas and will be met with immediate scrutiny from witnesses, albeit quietly. Not so for me in Spain.
It is here where I pause to contemplate what transpires during those initial assumptions of me and what I represent. I am reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book about this very subject: Blink. In it, Gladwell addresses the psychology behind first impressions and whether or not we should trust them. The majority of Spaniards I encountered, it seems, have been conditioned to assume the worst of those of us on this side of the melanin fence.
Another interesting element of all this is the role of language. I have a distinctly Colombian accent when I speak Spanish. I have a relatively flat North American accent when I speak English. In either case, one will assume I am a native speaker of both when they hear me in public (yes, that has taken considerable work!). Many times, in Spain, the first assumption was that I did not speak Spanish but instead French. On three occasions I was asked, in broken French by Spaniards, where I was from. One afternoon in a cafe in Málaga, I was handed a menu in French and the waitress simply walked away, again without making eye contact. When I achieved a level of cordiality while speaking Spanish with bartenders, waiting staff, librarians, taxi drivers, etc., most of the time we would find ourselves discussing Colombian politics or Colombian football players. I have no problem with this, but it is curious to see where things go because of an accent.
Heads turned (or eyebrows jumped, as with the taxi driver described above) when I did not fit neatly into the box reserved for me by whoever was assessing me. In no other aspect was this truer than when people heard me speaking English. One particular example comes to mind from my brief pass through Sevilla. An Australian couple sat at the table next to me in a cafe and were having difficulty articulating what they wanted to order. The waiter and the couple seemed frustrated at the linguistic impasse. Finally, I turned and casually translated what the woman was trying to tell the waiter. All three of them stared at me without saying anything. The waiter simply asked, “colombiano?” to which I nodded. The couple smiled, asked where I learned English and continued their conversation. There was no ‘thank you’or ‘gracias’from anyone.
The juxtaposition emerges when we consider the other set of experiences I had as a result of my colour in Spain: being unabashedly sexualized. In Barcelona a homeless woman, obviously intoxicated, asked the following question while giggling hysterically: “chico, puedo probar tu chocolate caliente?!” In Málaga a homosexual man on the beach informed me he had never been with a man of colour and asked if I would consider joining him for a drink. In Cádiz, while I walked around the Santa Catalina castle on the water, the all-female painting crew hissed at me, calling me “niño chocolate” and almost in unison licking their lips. These are the most extravagant examples of this during the trip and the ones I was made fully aware of.
My trip did not end in Spain. After spending a few days relaxing on the perfect beaches in the Algarve, my bus pulled into the Sete Rios bus station in Lisbon. Immediately I was pleased to see more black people in my half hour at the bus station and walking five minutes to the metro than I had seen in two and a half weeks in Spain. Of course, the colonial history of both countries plays a major role in constructing that reality. Still, it was a powerful and welcome shift for me.
I do not speak any Portuguese. The only full sentence I can utter with any confidence is “I do not speak Portuguese”. Yet, getting back to the notion of first impressions, people in Lisbon expected me to speak their language and looked completely perplexed when I would tell them my one sentence. In a way, it felt good to be thrown into their uncertainty. This was proof they genuinely thought I was from Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde or any other Portuguese-speaking place. Essentially, I belonged, at least more than the Scandinavian or other obviously foreign people they came across. This represented such a stark contrast to what I had tolerated in Spain. All of a sudden walking into stores, bars, cafes and other places I was not met with immediate suspicion, I was addressed as “senhor” instead of “muchacho” or “chico” and conversations as fellow respectable human beings were the norm.
The conclusion I feel most comfortable with regarding this short journey to the Iberian Peninsula is the following: I am happy I finished in Portugal and not the other way around. Had I ended the trip in Spain I may have been severely disillusioned and flown back to Seattle with feelings of mild hostility. In my travels I have come across numerous places I would return to but only a small handful of places I would consider living in. Lisbon fits comfortably into the latter category. Spain, however, failed to earn a place in my mind as a livable destination.