Ser mujer negra en España is an autobiographical narrative mixing Bela-Lobbede’s personal history growing up in Barcelona with cultural criticism focused on race and Afro-descendant people in Spain. Nuria Valera, author of Feminismo para principiantes (‘Feminism for Beginners’), calls it a contemporary political biography that shows what is invisible all around us if we don’t take the time to pay attention.
I may have been six or seven the first time it happened. At that time, my mother was living with a white man who owned a furniture shop in the small town where I grew up with my tata; this allowed me to alternate evenings after school between his boring furniture store and snack time at my tata’s house, which I made sure to visit. There, I watched Sesame Street and, when I was a bit older, Los Mundos de Yupi (1).
One afternoon, I had stayed at the furniture store. I went out for a while to play in front of the door. I played alone in front of the store, as it wasn’t my own familiar little village, and I had almost no friends. What’s more, the store had moved to another part of town, as it had expanded and needed a larger space, and, in that area, I hadn’t yet had time to make friends. A couple of kids passed by and yelled, ‘Black!’ at me. I froze.
Now, when I think about it, it brings to mind the poem ‘Me gritaron negra’ (2) by Victoria Santa Cruz. I have the feeling that many of the black children who have grown up in Spain like me have had the same feeling, as the poem recounts:
What is it to be black?
And I didn’t know the sad truth it hid.
I went into the store and told my mother that some kids had called me black. I’m unable to remember exactly what she told me, but I know she dismissed its importance, and made me feel misunderstood. I know she did this to keep it from hurting me, but to downplay its importance didn’t prevent me from being bothered by being called black the way they did. The feeling of discomfort did not disappear. After that time, there were other instances. My reaction was always the same. It paralysed me. I didn’t know what to say. In fact, was there anything to say? And, if there was something to say, what was it? I didn’t know, so I didn’t react.
What is it to be black?
Whatever it was, I felt bad. Now, when I reflect on it, I don’t know if it was the fact that they called me black that bothered me, or how they laughed at me as they said it. Or maybe the explosive mixture of both. Yes, definitely, that’s what was bothering me. Fucking awesome combo!
What is it to be black?
What should it be? How bad could it be for them to say it and laugh? ‘Black!’ They were mocking me. They were laughing at me.
I remember another situation like that. We’d left school for a cultural outing with the class. We were there, on the street, waiting. I think it was a theatrical performance, and there were many boys and girls from other schools in the city. Then, a voice, quickly joined by others, began to sing:
I’m that little black boy from Africa tropical,
who sings, while he is farming, the song of Colacao.
They stared at me while singing. They looked at me and laughed. And there I was, motionless. Just like the first time they called me ‘black’. Suddenly, my little classmates became my shield. They stepped in front of me, protecting me behind them, and began scolding the kids making fun of me. I don’t know what they shouted. I don’t even remember. I know that I remained paralysed, ashamed and humiliated. Of course, they were laughing at me, how else I was going to feel?
After that, my girlfriends continued to kick back those kids who insulted me whenever it happened again. A stream of shouted insults spurted from the girls’ mouths and never stopped until the aggressors stopped and backed off. Then they’d turn to me and say comforting words: ‘Don’t worry, Desi; we’ll defend you. We’ll defend you.’ And they always defended me. Always. In any outing with my class, at whatever shouting of ‘Black!’ that could be heard, my classmates jumped to my defence. Like a spring. Immediately and without hesitation.
Remembering it now and knowing what little girls we were, it seems to me a wonderful and moving display of sorority. It was my first experience of ‘if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us’. They always materialised. They never kept quiet. They absolutely always responded to verbal aggressions. Always. Sisterhood.
by Desirée Bela-Lobbede
Translated by Layla Benitez-James
1. Los Mundos de Yupi (‘Yupi’s Worlds’) was a children’s programme (back when public television only had children’s programming until five in the afternoon, which was when we didn’t get out of school until around eight). It was an educational programme, in the style of Sesame Street, puppets and lots of songs.
2. In this video you can witness the testimony and the beauty and the empowering poem by Victoria Santa Cruz, ‘Me gritaron negra’: <http://bit.ly/vsantacruz-negra>.
From SER MUJER NEGRA EN ESPAÑA
(‘Being a Black Woman in Spain’)
By Desirée Bela-Lobbede
Introduced and translated by Layla Benitez-James
Published by Penguin Random House (2018)
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Desirée Bela-Lobbede is a Spanish writer, anti-racist activist, and feminist. She works as a columnist for Público and is the author of the book Ser mujer Negra en España. She defines herself as a promoter of Afro identity from an ‘experiential’ point of view and claims the empowerment of Afro women through personal image.
Layla Benitez-James is the author of the prize-winning God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode, but He Had To Make Sure. A 2022 NEA fellow in translation and 2022/23 National Book Critics Circle Fellow, more of her work is published in Poetry Magazine, Black Femme Collective, and Poetry London.