If this is what they think of Michelle Obama, what are thinking of me?

Today I find myself about 26 km outside of Santiago in direction nowhere … I’ve just spent the last 17 minutes in a small café waiting for the proprietor to ask me what I would like to drink.  In the slow 17 minutes that have just passed by I have watched him joke and serve a table of four, then pour wine and chat it up with a gentlemen who was seated before me (this was 13 minutes ago) and now have watched him serve and smile the other two individuals who have walked in since I sat down myself.  And I wish this was the first time.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t wear my invisible cape today.  But, appropriate this is happening, as I have been feeling a bit more uncomfortable than usual since Sunday (again) as each place I have walked in since Sunday morning for a café I have been greeted by topless Michelle Obama … the image accompanying this blog today.  Last I checked I haven’t seen a shirtless Queen Sophia or Princess Leticia gracing any of our nationwide periodicals … and in googling I certainly didn’t find Laura Bush ever portrayed with her blouse missing.

So if they think that of her what are thinking of me?  And now, as I enter minute 21 of waiting for this gentlemen to ask me what I would like … a simple bottle of sparkling water … I struggle to find a positive.  (Side note: I haven’t left yet because I am meeting my significant other here shortly – otherwise I would have survived about 5 minutes without picking up my stuff and leaving as this is not the first time).

Being the only black woman in the room is nothing new, growing up in a multiracial family in Northern California, attending university in New England, and working in communities along the east coast.  There are plenty of opportunities to educate and stimulate (have to try to work the word in here) each time you walk in a room, open your mouth, choose your reaction, etc. etc. … but living here has taken the “learning moments” a bit far … instead I am stuck with the feeling that I have somehow landed in a place that is the American South from a generation ago.

Again, I found myself “one of the only” on the Camino, but wearing ‘neutral’ pilgrim gear people here were always friendly – so besides jokes of being a Pere-negra (I do have a sense of humor most of the time) my skin color was never an issue.

With the exception of one house in Chancela (a story that has caused more tears than I would care to count), most every person that you’ll find along the Camino is part of the special energy that we bring from around the world.  So that is the surprise as I now am on minute 28, and I continue to wait.  At least, I can thank the guy for good material.

So, as pilgrims, or anyone from the outside world, we do have a special opportunity to stimulate those we encounter.  Not only as a woman a color, perhaps as a senior citizen, an American, a person with a disability, or whatever demographic you count yourself as a part of.  Galicia is a monochromatic place, the last stop before the ocean that connects back to my dear land of liberty so I find myself honored by the opportunity to “rep” my own mix of Black/Mexican/Indian/Californian/American … although today will be a struggle to find that positive.  (There are now 8 more people here who have all been served).

But, the reality is, it is no joke that only when the very-same Michelle Obama traveled to Spain in 2010 did the U.S. Department of State quietly lift their almost two-year warning to African-American travelers to be weary of ‘racial prejudice’ in Spain.  This issue is a real one here and I strive to use this as an opportunity to show my neighbors here in Galicia that people with a bit more melanin are equal to those without, and that it is not okay to put our first-lady on the Sunday Magazine’s cover portrayed as a baby-feeding Mammy.  Not cool … not cool at all.

Minute 37.


20 responses to “If this is what they think of Michelle Obama, what are thinking of me?

  1. I totally relate as I too have lived in several places in Europe where people still have it twisted. Including Spain~ sign when will this ever end?

    • Thanks Indi! Not sure sometimes but it is sad and a struggle they have here in Galicia because on one hand they want to portray themselves as a destination of the world, but on the other they are weary to outsiders … generally speaking of course. But it is TIRING some days.

  2. Racist folks need to get down from their high horses and the truth will set them free. Posterity will have no space for such arrogance and ignorance.

  3. This is painful to read, Si … no one should be treated like you are being in any service-oriented establishment. However, the USA is a great place for service, at least in the places I have been, so anyplace else would be bad in comparison.

    The only other First Lady to appear nude is the former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni … however, those were art/fashion photos, taken at her request, so quite a different matter.

    A USAnian cartoonist published a cartoon of President Obama riding naked on the back of a Unicorn, but that was before he was elected. That same cartoonist has just published another one, this time of Michelle, that is certainly more demeaning that the MAGAZINE cover above …

    Without being able to read any article that might be associated with the magazine cover, so not knowing what the point might be, I don’t find it particularly offensive at first glance. She is a beautiful woman … but again, the context makes all the difference.

    But the main concern of your post today is how you are being treated. Is it a matter of colour, or “simply” misogyny … he is waiting for an “important” male person to appear at the table with you before they think to take your order. His serving the one man seated there by himself would seem to say that’s so. My late father-in-law loved his granddaughters, but it was obvious when his grandson was born that he would be the important one [even though, as it turned out, he was the least of them all!]

    Perhaps you’ll have to become more aggressive in places you wish to frequent until they learn to respect you for who you are, and not for any other reason.

    Every blessing, always …

  4. Hey sorry for that whole 37 mins.
    I’m doing my camino now on Sept 12th.
    Pass me the name of the place so I can
    Inquire as a darker skin Puerto Rican.

  5. I live in Palencia, in a camino village. My skin is white, my hair is blonde. I frequently am left standing while every male in the place is served first, and none of the women says a word. Worst of all is at the peluqueria, where a man can step off the street and have his haircut done instantly while a roomful of women wait without comment. I used to think I was last served because I was obviously a foreigner. Now I see it is because I am female. I am not sure how one goes about “raising consciousness” in a little market town when one is the only foreigner within 40 kilomters, and has to keep living here indefinitely.

  6. Disgraceful behaviour. Cannot understand the mentality. Just goes to show that prejudice is everywhere ….. but thankfully only held by a minority. Chin up and think of all the fantastic people you met along the way, who helped you, greeted you warmly, made you smile. Bet they count in the hundreds.

  7. Ummm. This is bad, sad story and as a US citizen, long-time resident of Spain, pilgrim on the Road and yes, white, I apologize for the actions of someone in a small village in Galicia (near Arzua?). They should know better, Spain was a culturally diverse melting pot long before the USA even existed. But I can also say as all of the above, I have sat waiting many times in many places in Spain while other people were served before me. I have felt the same things you describe so maybe it is not all about race, but about difference from locals (I am obviously not Spanish), which may say something about the isolation Spain was under for so long in modern times, when seeing really different people was rare and even a little alarming. Also, some locals fear they will not be able to communicate so may try to avoid a situation (experience speaks) …. and of course, time works differently in rural Spain; every time I’m out of Madrid I must slow down. The Road should have gotten beyond the issues of difference, but hasn’t everywhere.. Please don’t think badly of Spain, once you get beyond that first bit they are mostly wonderful, open people, and the Road is a fantastic cultural exchange between pilgrims of different origins, and pilgrims and locals.

  8. First of all ,whoever that regal looking woman is on the cover of the magazine ,it isn’t Michelle Obama. Secondly,the Spanish title on the magazine is complimentary to Mrs.Obama and says that she is even more popular than her husband and that she’s going to be a key figure in the November election. In small print under that I seem to be able to make out something about what she has that we ordinary women don’t

    . The woman on the cover is an attractive woman and she’s in an attractive,classical pose ,wrapped in a flag or bunting of the United States. There are similar portraits in this style of French women leading the revolution with both breasts fully exposed. She’s only an illustration for the article.

    Most Europeans aren’t uncomfortable with partial nudity if it isn’t starkly sexual and this cover isn’t even pornagraphic in its conception. It’s not my taste but I certainly do not find it offensive.

    If the café/bar owner slighted you by making you wait so long ,he’s a
    jerk and shouldn’t be in that business but I don’t think you can leap to the conclusion that he’s a racist. Americans from the U.S. are taught to see racism everywhere. Jews are always finding antisemitism lurking. Women there are always on the lookout for sexual harrassment and children are paranoid about child abusers. At least that was pretty much my experience in the US and the experience of many other Europeans too.

    With respect to the Spanish royal family, they have been portrayed in specifically explicit sexual acts in acid humour magazines. If you don’t read Spanish then I assume that you don’t read the Spanish press with any great frecuency,so you wouldn’t know that there is freedom of speech and of the press.

    I find Spain and the Spanish naturally far less racist than what I have found in the US. People in that country are afraid to act naturally .They are afraid that someone is going to throw the race card at them and read them the riot act for the slightest thing.

    Since you told your story,I’ll tell an anecdote too.
    One day a shipload of illegal aliens (who cross the straits between Africa and Spain illegally by the boatload,sometimes in precarious conditons and at great danger to themselves) came ashore on a rather posh beach where everyone was sunbathing and swimming. The long canoe was overflowing with Africans of all ages, in the last stages of exhaustion. One poor woman had a comatose baby at her breast and both mother and child were half dead from thirst and exposure to the elements. Everyone rushed to help the medics and police attend to these poor people . One woman ,who was there with her own baby spending a morning at the beach with her family, grabbed the half dead African baby and suckled her to her own breast until the baby began feeding. She stayed with the baby and the baby’s mother for hours until it was clear that the African mother had recovered enoughto take over. The Spanish mother gave the African baby two more feeds at her breast before this happened. Both mothers wept togeher when they separated. The Spanish woman got angry at the press for even wanting to interview her as she had only done what any decent person would have.
    This is the natural kind of behaviour I am used to seeing with respect to Africans here in Spain where I have lived for 45 years.

    I know Nigerian and Senegalese people quite well,people who have been living here for some time and they tell me that the Spanish are not racist and neither treat them with kid gloves just because they are African nor with contempt either. They feel treated just like anybody else. The only people I hear with this type of complaint are ,strangely enough, always from the U.S.

    Once I was in New Orleans and I made a mistake and got off the wrong bus-stop and found myself in a part of town where I was the only white person for blocks. I didn’t actually realise this until I noticed everybody nudging each other as I passed them on the street .Then I began to notice the hostlity and rude remarks . Finally a very nice lady told me as politely as you can say something like that ,that I should get out of that neighbourhood as fast as I could. I asked her what I was doing wrong and if I had offended someone by my behaviour .No,she said. It’s because you aren’t black.

    Ok, so people in that neighbourhood of N..O were racists(at least accordingto that kind lady). However, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t issue warnings to Spanish citizens that they may be the victims of racism if they travel to the U.S. Perhaps they should.

    It’s a pity you didn’t know that if you were not happy with that jerk’s service all you had to do was to ask him for the Book of Complaints and you could have registered your complaint and he’d probably have lost his license. That book is taken very seriously and is inspected periodially by the tourism board.

    I’m not making the claim that nobody in Spain makes value judgements about people based on their skin color. Yes, there are bound to be a few chronically stupid people everywhere. But in general people here have a relaxed attitde to race and skin tone and everyone is expected to put up with some joshing..fat people ,thin people, very short people and exceedingly tall people ,geeks and nerds and dim-wits,people with ig noses ,and people with big ears,and anyone with any outstanding characteristic. No one is going to ignore this characteristic as if it weren’t there(which is what you do in the U.S. because it makes you uncomfortable to acknowledge it ). If it’s a part of you then it is YOU and is accepted as such. I really think your problem was cultural and not racial. But then, I wasn’t there and I can’t make that a categorical affirmation,can I? What I do know is that I am truly sorry that you felt bad nough to write the article.

  9. They’re just younger souls. This is earth school. You are in 12th grade, they’re in 1st grade and you can’t skip grades. And as unbelievable and hurtful as it is, that’s the only way to look at it to make it less painful and not lose who you are, a very loving person. They do not and cannot know any better for at least a few more lifetimes.

    I’m trying my best to stay loving in spite of others and this is how I choose to do it. Hope it helps you as well! Love & Hugs!

  10. why is my comment from yesterday still awaiting moderation? I can’t believe that it takes this long to approve a post which doesn’t contain any objectional words,slurs or insults and only a dfference of opinion.

  11. Didn’t experience similar when doing the CdS with African-born/African-American teens in ’05…but we were pretty well set up in advance.

    I asked an eminent new media expert and native Galician for his take, “Awful, although I don’t really think it qualifies as racism. This has been done with other non-black people.”

    If I were in a small café seeking some form of sustenance and five or 10, at most, minutes passed with no service, I expect I would have approached the proprietor to request something. That’s what we pushy Americans do, after all.

    It’s good to know about this “Book of Complaints”…I had no idea there was such a thing! For future reference (I’ve done some googling):
    Spanish: “Libro de Reclamaciones”
    Gallego: “Libro de Reclamacións”
    Catalan: “Llibre de Queixes”
    Basque: “Kexa Liburua”
    Portuguese: “Livro de Reclamações”

    • Rebekah – Thanks for your comments and opinion of your friend … that is a typical Galician reply. If I can tell you the times I was mistaken for a South American prostitute, the times I was told to bring my US passport with me when I went out to each alone for the weeks after my Camino, the times when the only seat on a bus left empty is next to me, and the fact I can’t enter the house of my signficant other’s parents’ house because I am that “negra” and all the other uglies that have passed here I MIGHT agree with him … in this case, maybe it was I am a woman, maybe it was because I looked busy … but that coupled with Michelle Obama’s bare breast looking back at me lend to other explanations.

      • And thank you, Sienna. Your experiences disappoint me—as I have rather elevated the region/country from my Camino and subsequent visit—while trying to bear in mind the misogyny, the RCC influence, and other less than idyllic aspects of the real ESP. I trust there are positive aspects for you, beyond the CdS, that help balance the negative there? Gosh, I so want Spain to be better than us/U.S. I am sorry that it’s not the case, and for your experiences.

  12. To me as well … The U.S. is so spread out that I am sure if I spent some time in rural U.S. I would have more stories than what I have here … my good fortune is that, until now, I have always lived in fairly metropolitan settings that are distinguished by their diversity … this is less, however, a story of waiting forever to be served (yes normally I would just ask so there would be no story – the energy in this place and the looks I received were different – instinct doesn’t usually lie and I am NEVER looking for stories like these). My Camino experience is 100% positive and this town is off the Camino by about 20 km and that small fact makes a difference in the people. But Spain (let the US Dept. of State’s warning) is no “better” than the U.S. in this category in no way … anywhere where it is okay to yell monkey sounds at your top Black athletes here says something about what is acceptable here. But thank you sincerely for your two cents … love the dialogue (especially as I sit here in my little town)!!

  13. I’m loving the dialogue, too, Si … A couple of anecdotes of my own.
    My late Dad, a veterinarian and Ham Radio operator, was at a Vet conference at the Ford Center in Detroit. He wanted to pick up some radio parts while he was there, had a map to the store about a dozen blocks away and headed there on the lunch break. About halfway there a police car car came screeching to a stop just ahead of him and the policeman got out, grabbed my dad and pushed him into the back of the cruiser. Then he proceeded to give my Dad a tongue-lashing about putting himself at such risk, wanted to know where he was going, then drove him to the store and back to the center. Where I grew up is fairly “white bread” though there are a good number of various ethnic families in town, black, hispanic, asian, and dear old Dad didn’t think anything of it that the only people he saw on the street were black. To her credit, a black woman called the police and asked them to come and get this crazy white guy before he gets himself killed!

    Years earlier, I was in California with a couple of buddies, all of us on leave from the Canadian Army. We were in a bus on the freeway when the bus was pulled over by the Highway Patrol. The patrolman got onto the bus with his gun drawn and shouted that he wanted the f*#&$g wetback who threw the paper out the bus window. After threatening everyone who looked like they might be Hispanic, he left when the bus driver called him out of the bus. After we were underway again the driver announced on the PA that he had to inform the CHP chap that all of the bus windows were sealed … if there had been a piece of paper at all, it was something that the bus pulled up from the road as it passed.

    There is no perfect place in the world …

    Blessings on you as you continue your Way …
    ¡Buen Camino!

  14. Just another item about “home” in the USA: Nothing like a world-focussing event like the Olympics to bring the racists out of hiding:

    Did NBC Just Air A Racist Commercial?
    After Gabby Douglas won the gold and Bob Costas spoke about how amazing this was for the first African-American to win the women’s all-around gymnastics title, NBC aired a commercial of a Monkey doing gymnastics which has caused quite a stir. Racist, or just bad timing? Tons of people on Twitter seemed to think it was more on the racist side.

  15. Of all of the books I have read about the Camino to date ~ just over a dozen ~ this is the first that has spoken about anti-pilgrim sentiments in Spain. Perhaps it will resonate with you, Si? http://wp.me/pARTD-4

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s