Black in Spain: Advice for Black American Travelers

by Sojourner

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Ahhhh what was it like being in Black in Spain? I thought you’d never ask.

At 20, I studied abroad in the sunny and southern city of Granada, Spain. I had on rose-colored glasses. I just wanted to exist. As I traveled around Spain, Morocco, Italy, and more that is what it felt like. But there were times when people would stare and point at me as I walked down the street in Spain. Other times, I was being stopped and asked if I needed to marry a Spanish man for a visa to stay in the country.

At 22, I moved to teach English as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant in Logroño, Spain. As a teacher, I wine-tasted my way through Spain’s wine region. I planned the Spring break of my dreams to vacation in Greece. However, I also had to address the n-word in the classroom and became the face of Black American culture as my students knew little about it.

Being Black in Spain had its ups and downs. Living in the south, then moving to the north, provided me with two opportunities to understand how. I am not here to disparage the entire country. I want to share some lessons and experiences. So, here are some things for Black travelers to be aware of in Spain.

Black Travel in Spain Tips

Blackface is still very common in Spain

During my time in both Granada and Logroño, I witnessed blackface. Coming from the U.S., I had seen it before so the sight of it was not new. However, its prevalence caught me off guard.

Blackface came up during Spain’s Three Kings parade and celebrations. It was on commercials, in-school celebrations of the holiday, etc. Asking some Spaniards about it, many did not understand its implications. A few did, but still, it was not a pressing issue to change for them. 

Your English level may surprise people

Throughout my experiences in Spain people always seemed surprised that I knew English. Or rather, that I was fluent in English as it is my first language. To be honest, I do not really understand why this was always a shock. People know who Beyonce and the Obamas were, so obviously, they were aware Black people are in the U.S. Thus, if you are a Black American, be prepared to shock a few people when you open your mouths.  

Our “American” status may surprise Spaniards too

Oh the lovely, “what part of Africa are you from?” question. Don’t we just love it? NOT. I got this question often on my travels in Spain and Europe as a whole. People often assumed I was anything but from the U.S.

It was exhausting when I attempted to explain Black American history in Spanish. If you are a Black American, this question may arise. You do not have to answer it. You can play the dumb, “I don’t speak Spanish” card. Just know, it may be a question that comes up often.

Do not assume there are no Black people in Spain

Black people are in Spain y’all! This was an assumption I had, and due to my own ignorance, I was wrong. Afro-Spainards exist whether they are immigrants or first-generation Black Spaniards. Their visibility is another question.

Black Spaniards have and are currently fighting for representation and equality. I went to an event hosted by LMDES and there were Black Spaniards discussing these experiences. Because at the end of the day, Spain is still a homogenous country. 

Furthermore, Black people seem separate from Spaniards. In places like Madrid, there is a neighborhood called Lavapies where I found the most Black people reside. In Logroño, when I looked for an apartment, I was told not to live in a certain neighborhood upon arrival. I later found out it was a predominantly immigrant neighborhood, full of Black people.

A few weeks after, I further learned they were all Black African immigrants. I suspect that my U.S American and English language status played a role in why I was not treated the same. I will expand on my social identities more below. 

Spaniards will stare and point 

Whew, this one took some getting used to. Coming from Black American culture, we do not stare and point at people. Spain operates differently. I could be walking to class, on a bus, or on a beach, and people would stare and point. It was so blatant and uncomfortable.

Most times, I chose not to engage and tried to ignore it. Other people I know have asked what they were staring at. I was told staring is a cultural difference. But, I suspect it is due to Spain’s homogeneity, despite other races and ethnicities spread throughout the country. Black people may present, but they are still invisibly rare for the average Spaniard.

Yet, Spaniards were not the only ones who stared. During my time in Logroño, I noticed other Black people stared too. Eventually, I befriended an African woman and her son on my daily bus route. We began chatting every now and again, and she was also surprised I spoke English. When I told her I am a Black American, she responded that she knew “we were not the same.”  

Black Americans, be aware of our nationality, language, and passport privileges

In the same breath of speaking English, we should be aware of our travel privileges. While our race is one thing, our U.S. American and passport privilege are magnified when we travel. As mentioned previously, there were instances in Spain when I was treated differently than Black people who didn’t speak English nor are from the U.S. 

However, this is…complicated. Our travel privileges are not like others. We know that many of our privileges we do not feel when we are in the U.S. Black Americans ended up in the U.S. due to the colonization done by Europeans, including Spaniards.

Even though we may not be fully conscious of our nationality, language, and passport privileges, they still exist. And they impact how we move through the world and are perceived by others. It is good to have self-awareness and understand the complexity of our identities.

Black women can be and often are fetishized

People dating outside of their race is not new and you are free to do as you please. That is not what I am referring to. There were multiple occasions where Spanish men attempted to caress my skin because they wanted to touch a Black girl.

When I studied abroad, I walked to and from the place where I volunteered. On one occasion, a Spanish man old enough to be my grandfather chased me down to ask if I wanted a husband. He said he loved Black women and had been “looking for one.” Ew. 

Pack hair care things you will need

Beauty supply stores or Black hair care stores are rare. Do not rely on buying any products related to our cultural grooming practices in Spain. While some cities may have some things, it is still very limited compared to our normal.

This means packing any Black hair care tools and products before you visit. If you are in need of Black hair care abroad packing list, I got you covered here. We have our priorities and hair is at the top of the list!

Being Black in Spain? Racism still exists

“Is Spain racist?” is the question everyone asks. Truthfully, I do not like generalizing entire countries. I have not met nor interacted with every person in Spain. Each person’s experience is different based on where they are and who they interact with during their visit.

But, Spain is the home of Christopher Columbus and we know how his exploration ended in the U.S. They are the original colonizers. So yes, there is racism in Spain. I would be lying if I said it was not.

Occasionally, people had clutched their purses around me when I walked past them. I got my bags randomly checked in grocery stores more than my white counterparts. I heard stories of people being denied entry in clubs because they did not want too many Africans or Black people. Afro-Spaniards are fighting for the same representation in Spain that we do in the U.S. That is no coincidence. Racism is a global issue. Even a popular tourist destination such as Spain cannot escape the ugliness of it all. 

My final piece of advice for Black travelers in Spain

I’m not here to make a decision for you. That’s on you. My two times in Spain were not perfect. And the funny thing is, I never intended to go to Spain. As a Spanish major in undergrad, I was a girl who just wanted to go abroad. Literally anywhere. Given what I know now, I still would not change my decision.

Yes, there are experiences I wish did not happen. But, I learned so much about who I am outside of those experiences too. I learned I could, not only survive but thrive in another country and its language. I saw places I dreamed of and met people I’m friends with years later. So go and make your own adventure too, in Spain or beyond.

Want to know more about Black experiences in Europe? Read this post

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24 comments

Odelia June 2, 2021 - 1:47 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this helpful blog post. I’m actually planning to travel to Italy soon, so I enjoy reading about your experiences.

Reply
Sojourner June 2, 2021 - 5:24 pm

No problem! Thanks for reading.

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B July 5, 2021 - 5:53 am

Thank you for sharing. Do you think racism in Spain is mostly due to ignorance as opposed to racism in the US?

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Sojourner August 2, 2021 - 8:16 pm

In a way possibly because I heard from other English teachers in Spain that colonialism and slavery is taught like “we gave them languages and they gave us labor.” I don’t know if that’s everywhere (I don’t want to generalize), but in some places. So I guess it comes down to what history people are taught (which also happens in the U.S too). All this to say honestly it’s so hard to tell sometimes at this point lol.

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Linda August 2, 2021 - 2:22 pm

What was your reply to the African woman after she said that she knew “we wasn’t the same?” Because, this is the same attitude of African immigrants in the USA… Trying to distance themselves away from African Americans. Me, being a resident of Los angeles… Chicanos or Mexican Americans act exactly the way Spaniards act… Far as making condescending and racist remarks against Black Americans.

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Sojourner August 2, 2021 - 8:03 pm

Hmmmm I don’t think it was in that regard. It was more of “we’re both Black but still different.” I didn’t take it negatively. It was more about noticing that even though we shared a similar skin color (Black but she was dark-skinned) she knew we were culturally different. It wasn’t condescending at all in that case! But I know everyone’s experience is different.

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BBZ August 25, 2021 - 8:03 pm

Do you have any advice on learning Spanish as an adult?

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Sojourner August 30, 2021 - 5:28 am

Here’s what I can suggest: watching Netflix shows in English with Spanish subtitles and language learning apps such as duolingo, babbel, etc. Also consider listening to music in Spanish, labeling things in your house with Spanish words to beef up your vocabulary, and/or getting a tutor.

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Asha March 1, 2022 - 2:08 pm

Thank you for sharing this. Traveling to Barcelona, Spain and Rome, Italy with a few of my black girlfriends in a couple weeks and was curious about the black experience over there.

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Sojourner March 20, 2022 - 11:04 am

No problem! I hope y’all have fun!!

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Mr Isaac March 29, 2022 - 2:07 pm

My wife and I – both black, educated, in our 60s and comfortable – put on our ‘aristocratic’ look when traveling Europe. We dress very well – always. Then, when we get stares, we look up and down at our poorly attired gawker’s clothes and turn away in fake disgust. That always works! We only stay in the better hotels or the pricier Airbnbs to avoid true barbarians. We rent luxury SUVs so we can look down on goofy people staring at us from their cars or the street, and then we turn away hauntily, nose in the air. It’s all in fun, just like their blackface, yes? I’m there to golf and cycle; she does the museums and tourist stuff. In between, we’ve met some great people, but we take no BS from the others. It takes a little money for blacks ‘to be above it all.’ But it’s well worth it.

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Sojourner April 29, 2022 - 2:55 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience!

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Shirley June 5, 2022 - 11:05 am

Hi Sojourner.

Thanks for the blog. I’m planning on living in Spain. Stepping out and try something new. I’ve mostly had negative comments but, hey, crabs in a barrel right!?

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Sojourner June 11, 2022 - 8:24 am

Hey Shirley! Listen do you – whatever makes you happy.

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M July 1, 2022 - 4:38 pm

Hi !
I’m not African American (I’m black french) but I read a lot of stories of POC traveling or living in Spain. I have the opportunity to work/volunteer for one year in Northwest Spain but I am a bit worried because this part of Spain doesn’t have many foreigners.
Have you visited or do you know other POC who visited or lived in Galicia, Asturias and Castilla Y León regions ?

Thanks !

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Sojourner July 1, 2022 - 6:30 pm

Hi! Thank you so much for commenting. I have not visited that far of northwest Spain as much, but I did live in Logroño for a year which is a city south of Bilbao in northern Spain. Logroño did not have many foreigners either. So I would say be prepared for the stares and questions about where you’re from. I also got a ton of questions in the school I was working in from students about my culture, appearance, etc. Not gonna lie it was overwhelming at times but I never had any major life-threatening incidents. I don’t regret my experience, it just took more emotional labor than I anticipated sometimes haha. Hope that’s helpful and let me know if you have more questions!

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Chris July 25, 2022 - 12:14 pm

Thanks for taking the time to lay out this information. Its hard for some people to understand why information like this is essential for us. I’m black from NYC and visiting Fuengirola, Spain later this week. In every travel video I’ve seen from the area the only black men I saw were selling handbags on the corner. I’d like to enjoy alot of the local food and bars and am hoping I won’t be treated like a street merchant everywhere I try to go!

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Sojourner August 1, 2022 - 7:28 pm

Thank you for your comment Chris! I know Black men can have different experiences from Black women while traveling but I hope you have a wonderful time!!

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Natasha September 3, 2022 - 5:06 pm

Hi Sojourner,

I’m considering living in Granada for a couple of months as a solo black woman. Are there any safety concerns that I should be aware of? Also, compared to other parts of Spain, how racist is Granada?Obviously, you can’t generalize an entire city, but is the probability of encountering microaggressions (or even overt racism) lower since it is more south and a college town?

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Sojourner September 9, 2022 - 9:22 pm

Hi Natasha! So happy to hear you are going to live in Granada. I would say I had less racist encounters while I saw there. I think it is because they are used to college students being there. Do be warned though that regardless of where you go in Spain you will probably be stared at as a Black woman. I also feel like I got more questions about my Blackness in southern Spain because I did not look like the other Black people (whether Afro-Spaniards or African immigrants) who lived there. Overall, I loved my time in Granada!

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John September 15, 2022 - 12:24 am

Great post. Thanks!

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Sojourner September 15, 2022 - 5:32 am

You’re welcome!

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Sndra September 22, 2022 - 4:17 am

As a Black British woman, I moved to a town just outside Alicante, Spain with my two young daughters in the early 2000s. Yes, in the beginning the stares were a little uncomfortable but as the years went by, I do believe we were accepted by the locals. My children feel they they were never discriminated against, but being young maybe they never recognised the signs…. My children are grown up and have moved back to the U.K. I am now here on my own and do wish there was more of a black presence here. 5 black people to maybe 25,000 people!

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Sojourner September 26, 2022 - 6:07 am

Wow that’s amazing! I’m glad you and your family had such a great experience.

Reply

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