Me, a poor girl from the South Bronx, got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a teenager-still very much in my formative years- I got the chance to live abroad in the beautiful and somewhat haunting city of Barcelona, Spain. I had the great fortune of living near the Sagrada Familia-both an architectural marvel and a monster by Antoni Gaudí and that was my entry into the world of contrasts in which Barcelona existed. A cosmopolitan city often mired in its fascist past. A strong Catalan identity (wanting its own individuality) yet not so open to other cultural groups. Awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals in the same environment as magnificent contemporary buildings. The city is known for hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics as well as many international sport tournaments; yet sports attendees have been known to throw bananas onto the field when African players are on the grounds. I myself was not immune: I was exotic yet commonplace simultaneously.
This city of contrasts goes as far back as its supposed founding. The founding of Barcelona is the subject of two different legends. The first legend notes that the founding of Barcelona was taken on by the mythological Hercules who was the son of Zeus (Roman equivalent Jupiter) and the mortal Alcmene. Hercules is famous for his strength and for his numerous far-ranging adventures. The second legend attributes the foundation of the city directly to the historical Carthaginian Hamilcar Barca father of Hannibal, who named the city Barcino after his family. Hamilcar commanded the Carthaginian land forces and led a successful guerrilla war against the Romans in Sicily. What a contrast between being founded by a demi-god from a long line of “superheroes” (in modern parlance) and being founded by a guerrilla warrior. And in some ways, you see that tension still in modern Barcelona.
Upon arriving in Barcelona, I recall walking down a narrow alley street where there were some men climbing a ladder. They looked down upon me and started calling me “morena” Now, in Puerto Rico, “morena” can be of a more kind, intimate communication. But in Barcelona, when they were calling me “morena” that was not the case. They were pointing out that I was literally darker than them-That I was different. When I went into one of the many bakeries I visited during my year long stay there, the staff would often stare openly, wide-mouth and would without reservation, ask me what I was. In psychological literature, when someone is stigmatizable, they are often asked to account for their characteristic (for instance, someone in a wheelchair will repeatedly be asked “so what happened”).
Throughout my year there, I do not believe a day went by without me being asked what I was or who I was. At one point, I was on a train platform returning from the small coastal town of Ripoll (where the beautiful Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll is located) to Barcelona and an elderly lady came up to me. She asked me “where are you from dear” and I replied “well, I am from New York, the United States”. She looked at me, smiled, and shook her head at me. “no, no, where are you really from?” Ok. I took that as a cue that she really wanted to know my ethnicity. So, I replied “I’m Puerto Rican.” She shook her head once again and wandered off to her husband. Two minutes later, she stood beside me again with her husband in tow. She proceeded to tell him “this is the girl that says she is from the United States but she is really from Tunisia.” Yes, she invalidated my identity because she couldn’t conceive of someone brown-skinned being from the United States. See, when I lived there, Spaniards were still getting over Franco’s reign of fascism. They had been closed-off for so long, that foreigners were truly strangers from a strange land. Spaniards seemed obsessed with Tunisia. I didn’t understand it; especially since my 17 year-old South Bronx mind and worldview didn’t even know where Tunisia was actually located. In the board game of Trivial Pursuit, geography was the category that others could use against me. Of course, however, in my defense Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa. Needless to say I didn’t quite understand why I could not be a Puerto Rican American. Or just American for that matter?
Then there were those Spaniards that exotified Caribbean individuals. There was a club that played salsa, merengue and the likes. I went to that club a few times. I’m not necessarily sure why I went to that club considering that till this day, I still don’t know how to dance to salsa or merengue. To the patrons of that club, I was this beauty that represented a barely understood world. There was no real sense of connection between the Spaniards I met and the Caribbean: Meaning, there was no real connection between Spaniards and Hispanics (oh, the irony). I hadn’t gone to Spain with any specific expectations about a sense of camaraderie but I was struck by how little of that there was.
While I lived in Spain, I didn’t become Latina. I didn’t become Hispanic. I became American. I was an ex-Pat of sorts that just loved her country. Yes, I missed long hot showers the most, but I came to miss not having to explain myself at every turn. I was living the epitome of stigma: observed carefully, interrogated at every turn, and constantly reminded that I was different. I do remember being extremely excited when I came across a Peruvian group playing their panflutes on a street corner. It wasn’t so much that they were Peruvian that excited me. It was the fact that they too were foreign and different. I actually had never seen such a group perform before. Now, I kind of expect a Peruvian panflute playing group in every country I travel to.
Now, with that enhanced stigma experience you would think that I hated Spain. But I didn’t. I loved the city despite my stigmatizing status. I loved walking down the Ramblas. I loved walking down to the Barrio Gotico. I loved eating churros at midnight while en route to a nightclub. I loved my Tortilla de Patata. I loved (although I was irritated at first) the tomato paste that replaced actual tomatoes in my bocadillos (grinders, subs, roll). I loved the non-stop techno music that would blast from all the clubs and the ubiquitous dancing moves that accompanied said techno. I loved the art strewn about the city and the conversations one could have in mid-afternoon about art history. I acquired a great love of art that has permeated my subsequent home spaces. I loved going to the Corte Ingles to window shop as I most assuredly could not afford to buy anything. I would go to the one in Plaza Catalunya: It is Barcelona’s answer to Selfridges or Macys. I was introduced to Turandot (Puccini’s last masterpiece) which is now my now favorite opera. I loved walking the city every day. At the end of my year in Barcelona I had lost 15 pounds. The weight loss was not only attributable to the walking but also to the fact that I barely ate. Back then I was a vegetarian and Spaniards love their ham. Now, look at me: I am a pork aficionado. Can’t get enough of it. I even liked that movie Jamon Jamon (1992) that starred Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (her first starring role). The movie has been described as an allegory of Spain as it puts forth a juxtaposition of the old and the new in Spain and emotional contrasts such as erotic desire and food. That’s the Barcelona I knew-the land of contrasts. While ham (and its saltiness) dominates the cuisine, there is also a love of the sweet. Flaky pastries, cream puffs, palmiers, croissants, Churros, and thin crispy wafers coated in honey and sprinkled with pine nuts, could be found everywhere. Cream puffs still make me weak-kneed.
Nowadays, about 7% of Barcelona’s total population consists of foreigners. Supposedly, a plurality are from Central and South America with 17% of foreigners coming from Ecuador. I have experienced harsh environments as “an other” as well. Having lived in Spain for a year, when they weren’t that familiar with Caribbean Hispanics, when Yankees (Americans) were treated with suspicion, and when I was still learning about my brownness, Barcelona was an unbelievable experience. I was there when Spain was starting to find itself and when I was starting to develop an ethnic and national identity. I don’t think I would be who I am today -a confident and proud Nuyorican with a mixed-race baby –without that time spent in Barcelona. It showed me a whole new world, made me start defining myself and introduced to me cream puffs and ham –how yummylicous is that?