Somewhere in-between all the hey day, thousands of adjustments, millions of failures and just plain trying to figure shit out, five months have passed since the green light flashed and I said a resounding, “Yes!” to living my life as an expatriate.
I’ve changed addresses twice. I’ve made fast friends with people only to realize the people I befriended I couldn’t stand. I’ve quit teaching jobs (and of course, been fired, heh) and re-embraced the philosophy central behind the reason I left my life behind in the States–my comfy lifestyle with my expensive car and driving to a job everyday that I hated–slowing down enough to be present to enjoy the gifts life offers. I’ve started writing more, or should I say consistently, versus going days, weeks and months without trying to make sense of life as it unfolds with my words. I’ve cooked the most amazing meals of my life in a kitchen the size of a pantry and an oven the size of a shoebox. I’ve slept in twin sized beds so little and compact my feet dangle off the edge if I don’t sleep in the fetal position.
While so many things have changed, while various components of life as I know it, my Madrid experience as I refer to it when I’m all by my lonesome, other things have remained static, unchanging and rather, things I’ve not wanted to consciously deal with or think about so most of the time I (try to) ignore them.
The ill-fated r word: race. And it’s dear friend, the ill-fated cousin: racism.
When I was home for Christmas, many people asked me if there were many “Black people” in Madrid. So many people looked at me, doe-eyed, wanting to know if there was an inkling of people of color, people who looked like me or them. Most of them were shocked or confused (or both) when I declared there weren’t and that because I was one of the few and I was quite tall, it made me a spectacle. I found (and still find everyday) stares lingering far past the typical “Spanish stare.”
But the way Spaniards deal with race in particular is quite…interesting. They won’t come out and say really prejudiced and racist things that would shed light on the way they view other races and other people in general that are different from them. Instead they box those “other people” into these neat little categories. I suppose categories which make it more comfortable to wrap their minds diversity and enable them to distance themselves of the concept of being open to the concept of diversity altogether.
Here’s a relevant example I’ve received from Spaniards as well as fellow expats quite a bit:
There’s this neighborhood in Madrid, which, although I don’t go there often is easily my favorite. It’s called Lavapiés, also known as a vibrant, thriving melting pot of culture.
The first few times I ventured to the barrio I was in search of delicious food because the bland and greasy Spanish dishes weren’t quite hitting the spot. I’ve had delicious Indian food on a table lining the streets while languages whooshed past my ears that certainly wasn’t Spanish and enjoyed the tastiest tacos with equally invigorating margaritas in the same barrio as well.
Africans, Jamaicans, Indians and numerous other ethnicities call this barrio home. I love being in that neighborhood because there I feel less like an alien. I can look onto to the faces of people who look like me, who are clearly different, whose heritage is closely aligned like mine and for once, I don’t feel shame. I don’t feel inclined to try to ignore the racist rubs and inclinations I’m faced with almost daily.
When the subject of the neighborhood has arisen naturally in conversation with either my students or others of Spanish descent or fellow expats or even other immigrants here who aren’t those of color, they say the same sort of things. They frown up at the neighborhood. They immediately say the neighborhood is composed of immigrants, as if it is bad thing. They’ll say the area is notorious for crime and to “watch your purse and belongings” if you venture there. They’ll also mention the alleged bed bug infestation and how the buildings look dirty and the area is dirty in general. There’s never a positive nod to the abundance of rich culture there.
And it reminds me of the same notions from back in the States. As an Atlanta native, these are the exact same sentiments I’d hear about people not going to “that part” of Decatur or Stone Mountain or Lithonia on the Eastside or anywhere on the Southside past a certain time because of course “thugs” abound. Because of course, any area where there are a lot of people of color there’s sure to be crime and it’s not safe and it’s not anywhere anyone would want to be. Right?
I used to live in Tetuán, a surburb roughly 20 minutes north of Madrid. I only lived there for three months and moving from there had much more to do with me not liking being compadres with the three cats and dogs (along with three human roommates). I got sick of cat hair being on all my belongings and also being so far from the city center. The commute drained and depleted me. But again, if you ask many people their opinion of this barrio, all negative. They’ll mention, immediately, the number of immigrants. And how the area isn’t pretty to look at. And how there’s nothing to do there. Same things said about Lavapiés.
But these notions, these reactions, these thoughts I’m continually bombarded with has me thinking: is this how I am viewed when I’m just innocently walking around, commuting on the Metro, eating in a restaurant? Are people in Madrid automatically thinking negative things when they see my face or are they already internalizing the type of person they think I am because of the media and other negative interpretations of what it means to be a person of color, to be Black, to be African?
As I’ve stated before, I’m not interested in changing any aspect of me just to fit in or be desirable and to not get the rampant amount of lingering stares. But at one point or another, one has to wonder whether or not it’s truly worth calling yourself a temporary resident of a country, despite its beauty and slower pace of life and many, many, many enjoyable things, that in one way or another is committed to misunderstanding you, to othering you and plain out making you feel like you don’t belong.