The Pecking Order in Spain, According to African Migrants

Pecking order is the colloquial term for a hierarchal system of social organization (Merriam-Webster).

As I sat in warehouse substituting for a worship center I spoke to a Nigerian literary scholar turned pastor about the hierarchy of race in Madrid and what it meant for those who come from Africa in search of work.

Pastor Richard* allowed me to speak to women from his congregation before talking to me himself about his own experience. I spoke to four women, all who were in their early to late thirties and all of who were unemployed. I asked them about their experience. What they found difficult, adversities they had face, how they overcame these adversities and what kept them going.

The common issue that I came away with from all four women was that of unemployment. However, considering that unemployment is not uncommon in Spain, so you might ask, what makes their cases any different?

One story that I heard in particular demarcated the difference between the stories of these women and others who found it difficult to secure work in Spain.

One of the women, name Angela shared a story which struck me as sad.

She came to Spain six years ago. Angela was not formally educated, she had never attended school passed secondary school in Nigeria and had no degree. However, she had a desire to learn and an even greater wish to survive. While in Nigeria she learned how to sew and could repair clothing. When she arrived in Spain, she used this skill set to sustain herself. She would repair clothing for members of the Nigerian community in exchange for money, and through this she was able to provide for herself and send a little money each month back home to her family. Like anyone with ambition she wanted more though. She looked for work and was able to find an apprenticeship with a local clothing boutique. She learned and worked for 2 years and it was promised that at the end of the two years, she would receive a contract for full time work.

The end of her apprenticeship came after two years and Angela expected to be rewarded for her dedication with permanent work, however this was not the case. While everyone else was kept, she was let go without pay or contract. The only difference between her and her coworkers was the fact that she was African, and everyone else was Spanish. Without an explanation or any compensation. Angela was left jobless and penniless, and very much where she started.

She attributed this to discrimination in the work force in Spain. According to Angela and others the social hierarchy in terms of job discrimination goes as follows:

Spanish nationals are the first to be hired when a job is available, second would be Eastern and Western Europeans, third Latin American immigrants and at the bottom of the pyramid are black people, specifically black Africans.

I definitely noticed that in various stores that I visited in Spain, there were rarely any African employees working in grocery stores or clothing stores. I knew of one Malian women who was working for a Spanish company, El Cortes Ingles. But she was working behind the scenes in the kitchen as an assistant.

It might be ironic or intentional that the hierarchy coordinates with the spectrum of skin tones, from lighter to darker. But it is no doubt that black bodies are just not visible as a part of Spanish society. Even in my research it was difficult to find literature relating to the black African population of Spain, as there is very little information available on the topic. There is obviously a disinterest and unwillingness to acknowledge this part of the Spanish community, for what reason, I can not imagine other than it may be believed that they are insignificant.

I do not want to speculate or draw conclusions as to why there is discrimination against Africans in Spanish society, but it is quite obvious that it is present.

Merriam-Webster. Pecking Order definition


Prevention of Upward Mobility for African Migrants Then and Now: A look in the past

From the 1970s to the 1980s, Spain saw rises in the numbers of African migrants living in the country. The majority arrived to Spain in search of work and found their places in the agricultural sector. Now at this time, Spain also saw significant number of their citizens leaving the country for abroad in search of work. You might ask why a country who previously was sending its citizens outside of the country in search of work, was accepting migrants from abroad for just the same reason. The answer is though to be because most of these migrants were entering the country from Africa to work in agriculture and farming.

According to a study (Zapatto-Barrero 2008) agricultural work provided the first Spanish job for almost half of the African workers interviews. An indication that farming is a major employer of Afro descendants here in Spain. Even despite the high levels of unemployment it was still Africans that held many of the open agricultural positions, few farmers even citing that they hired limited numbers of Spaniards because it was proven that African were harder workers.In interviews, farm owners stated that “Africans are good workers, and are used to the hard working conditions of farming. Africans have a good physical endurance so they put up with hard agricultural tasks”.

However it can be assumed that the hiring of Africans meant there were fewer legal obligations toward their workers, as unfortunately the Africans were not informed of their workers rights and were more often worried about keeping the job they had than whether they were treated justly or not.

Exploitation of African migrants was not uncommon and often prevented them from upward mobility. Spanish law stipulated that a worker had to be contracted on a permanent basis after working for the same employer for three years (Zapatto-Barrero 2008). But in order to avoid paying social security for workers, Spanish landowners found ways to get around this clause. They would fire their migrant workers and then offer them a new work contract after a period of time, as to be able to claim that their workers had not been employed with them for three years.

Unfortunately for African workers, it was stipulated in Spanish law that, yes, workers could come to Spain with a one year work permit but they had to renew it at the end of the one year. With successful renewal of a work permit, they could maneuver throughout the country more fluidly because this now meant they could hold a permanent residence as well. But in order to renew they had to have held a contract of employment and fully-paid social security contributions from their employer. However, with the system of firing and rehiring, it was hard for immigrants to prove that they had consecutive and consistent work for the time period required by the Spanish government to obtain legality. Hence it became very easy for migrants to cross the very thin line between legality and illegality, restricting their mobility and their opportunities.

According to Zapatto-Barrero, the work left for African migrants is described as low-skilled work where little formal education is necessary to perform it. But it also yielded poor pay and was made available in fields which were of little to no interest from the local (or in-migrant) Spanish population. This being said, the work is the lowest of the low in Spanish society and not even Latino immigrants, no matter how desperate for work they are, would willingly stoop to do it. The probability of Africans being able to rise from this type of work was very small. And if they were unable to move freely within Spain, how could they gain access to bigger cities where their were more opportunities for not only them but their children as well in terms of work and education?

In a survey it was recorded that 41.9 percent of Africans with more formal education (secondary or higher education) wished to leave Spain dour to lack of access to professional work in country. A observation that was affirmed during my investigations in Spain. It is almost as if their is a glass ceiling preventing African nationals from upward occupational mobility.

Words of Wisdom from the Nigerian Embassy  

As I sat in the lobby of the Nigerian embassy, I received some words of wisdom from Nnamdi Nze, the Senior Counsellor to the Nigerian Embassy of Spain. I’d walked into the embassy with the intention of obtaining the contact information for various Nigerian cultural organizations in Spain. I went to the front desk and saw a woman, without thinking, I opened my mouth and went on a tangent of what I was looking for.  Stupid me, was so nervous, I didn’t even think to introduce myself, forgetting something my mother always taught me to do, the first thing you need to do is introduce yourself. The woman at the desk gave me a blank stare, which shut me up really quick. “Who are you and who do you represent?” I told her and she said, “Why do you want these things?” I went into further detail, because of course you can’t just waltz up into a foreign embassy and start demanding contact information for people, that’s not how things work, no matter where you are from.

She pointed a long fingernail at the lobby to a group of men and told me “see that man in the glasses; ask him if he can help you”. I went over to the group and sat down until I could be seen. After sitting down, I began to introduce myself and was almost immediately stopped, apparently I was not speaking clearly enough, although I thought I thought otherwise. “You talk like an American” “Where are you from?” I told him and mentioned my parent’s Nigerian origins as well. He asked me if I spoke Igbo, and I replied “no, I understand some though”. He exclaimed in dismay and began to speak about how we are losing our children to Western countries. As he talked, he began to speak on the importance of knowing where one is from and embracing ones heritage. You see, as Nigerians, second generation Nigerians, living in Western countries, especially America, we have something that a lot of Americans don’t have, knowledge of where we come from. My parents know exactly where in Nigeria their parents were born, and have a home to go back to. A place where the color of their skin will never determine their social class, or bearing in society. A place where they are free to roam without a target placed on the back of their head because of a part of their identity that is unchangeable.  If my parents up and decide one day that America is not for them they can go back to Nigeria without a problem. Or if one day(hypothetically) America decides to expel people of African descent, or all who cannot trace their American ancestry to 200 years ago, my parents wouldn´t even bat an eyelash as they have homes in Nigeria to return to.

When he asked me why most people decide to stay in America, I pondered and replied, “because of the level of comfort they find”. He said to me “No, because comfort has to do with happiness and many of those who have emigrated to the United States or Europe, are not happy at all, often times, they are depressed.” He began to explain to me that just because you have light that is uninterrupted, running water and security, does not necessarily mean you are comfortable or happy. You find more comfort and happiness in having a home base and a family to go home to and knowing where you are from. He stressed to me the importance of remembering where you come from and knowing that no matter what you will always be welcome with open arms. He told me that he hopes that one day I go back to Nigeria, as I have not been back since I was 8 years of age. I hope it will be sooner rather than later.

He then proceeded to take out his phone and make calls to presidents of Nigerian organizations in Spain on my behalf and ask them to put out a call for help for me. He really reminded me once again one thing I love about Nigerians. Nigerians are loyal to their people, there is no me, and there is always we. That Nigerians will go above and beyond for their own people, they will make sure that you have whatever you need. They only ask that you remember others on your own way. We Nigerians are a generous and loving people and always think about our brother and sister, even if they are not blood. He talked to me that day as if I was his daughter and he was giving me advice to last me a lifetime. Because that is exactly what I am, I am a daughter of Nigeria, however removed, and everyone is a father, mother, uncle or aunty to me, because we are all family, we are one.

Home, Sweet Home: Lavapies

Lavapies is one badass place I´ll say that! It´s my third post about the neighborhood, if you can´t tell, I love it.

So the other day I went to hechar un vistazo. (That´s take a look in Spanish)

I got off at metro Embajadores and walked looking around for a cafe I´d found online to do some writing.

As soon as you exit the metro, there are beautiful murals surruonding La Tabacalera, a place where I am told that I absolutely must visit before I leave Madrid.

After wandering up and down the street looking at the murals I decided to do a little exploring to get some inspiration.

I passed multiple hair salons, walking in and asking for appointments which I had no intention of keeping. (shame on me, boohoo). Then after wandering up the street a little bit more, I happened upon this arts and crafts store! I walked in and was blown away by rows of buckets that were filled with colorful beads, seeds and various amulets of all different types. It was absolutely gorgoues.

I left the store and finally went to the coffee shop, Swinton and Grant, after getting a little inspiration. Not sure of what to order, the woman at the cash register was kind enough to suggest a couple of things that weren´t coffee but were cold and caffeine filled. I settled on a Matte-Cola and was pleasantly surprised and satisfied. For those of you who don´t know what matte is, it is a caffeinated herb similar to green tea but a LOT stronger, typically the drink of many Argentinians. Make it a soda pop and it is hell of good (:

I´d heard of this restaurant by the name of Baobab, a popular Senegalese restaurant in Lavpies frequented by locals and expats alike. My phone was almost dead at this point and I had no idea where to find it but the owner of the coffee shop was kind enough to search the restuarant for me on her phone.

I headed in the direction of the restaurant and low and behold it was closed. HOWEVER, there happened to be another Senegalese restaurant quite a short distance from Baobaba. Talk bout neighborly competition. I went to that one instead and sat down, ordered a Baobab drink, which is made from the fruit of the Baobab tree and happens to have all types of delicious nutrients (along what must have been a gallon of sugar). I ended up talking to the waitress for a little bit, who happened to be from Kenya (imagine that). We talked a little bit about her persepctive on African women in Spain, she told me that the biggest issue is that women seem to have forgotten where they came from and the cultural values they were raised with, but it´s not entirely their fault as they do what they feel they must to fit into society.

I enjoyed our talk immensely and walked out with the intention of returning another day. I was wandering off to the metro when I was distracted (what´s new) by a restaurant with windows decorated by music notes. It read in big white letters “The Love Supreme“. I noticed that it had some really cool looking black and white blow up photos and it was pretty empty, so I decided I could walk in without being looked at funny.

I walked in and asked if they were a jazz bar, and a short man with glasses replied to me, and said that they were a restaurant and held performances at night. Clearly amused at my interest and awe, he told me to go up and take a look, so I did just that. After 5 minutes of perusing, I was in love, the walls were decorated with jazz musicians from the 20th century, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, The Rat Pack, John Coltrane, and in the back there was a beautiful grand piano, accompanied by a bass and a saxophone. I didn´t want to leave, ever. The man I´d first spoken to asked me how I liked it and struck up a conversation with me where he showcased his immense knowledge and love for jazz and hip hop alike. I learned his name was Sidney and he was from Guinea-Bissau but was born in Portugal and raised in Spain. He told me he´d traveled all over Europe but had never been to the United States although he would love to visit California. I ended up meeting a good portion of his staff as he was the owner of the restaurant, all who were good-natured people. I stayed for two hours soaking in the ambiance, got fed for free and was offered an invitation to come back for a drink and to perform some night.

It was honestly one of the best days I´ve had in Madrid. Safe to say, I found a second home in Lavapies.

“Natural” Beauty: African beauty as requested by Spain

I walk out the metro of Embajadores and step out into the square and am immediately accosted by a Pakistani man, handing me a card that red “Laiba Cosmetics: Pelo Natural Africano, Latino Europeo”.

Sidenote:  I looked Laiba up, it is an Urdu name. Laiba translates to something akin to “Angel of Heaven”.

He urges me to take a left and then another left and come visit his store. I asked if he was the owner and he said yes. Curious that a man who knows probably next to nothing about the upkeeping of African or Latino hair is the owner of a shop catering to exactly that customer base. Of course I decide to go and take a look, no intention of buying anything but for the sake of research I  give in to his urging and walk over to his shop.

I enter and see a small, one-roomed store, two walls lined with cosmetic products while another wall is lined with all different types of extensions. I walk over to the extensions, and it seems to me like just any other store I would see if I were to be in the U.S. Only difference in the hair is that there are fewer colors and fewer textures, more of the texture varying from wavy to straight, and no kinky Marley Braids like I would see in the U.S, the type of hair usually used for kinky twists, crochet braids or to amplify an afro. I turn in the direction of the cosmetic products and notice two things

1. That there is a limited amount of products compared to what I am used to in the States.

2. I sit back and observe the products and realize that there are at least 4 rows filled with perms, hair straightening creams and skin lightening and bleaching lotions and soaps. Nowhere in the shop do I see anything that I would consider remotely “natural”.

Looking at those shelves, I pretty much wouldn’t have used any of those products on my hair, unless I was looking to have to cut my hair off in a month or two. Much less put any of the lotions on my skin, as I know the extensive damage that can happen as a result of using skin whitening/bleaching creams .

Even in the United States large corporations such as Wal-Mart and Target have began to cater to the natural community, offering a small but good selection of products safe for naturalista consumption. However here it is not the case. The chances of you finding anything like a curling cream, or a sulfate free shampoo are pretty much slim to none. You’re much better off making your own products here to escape the damage that you could incur to your hair by using these.

Not to even speak of the fact that all of the products I saw seemed to be geared towards a demographic who clearly desired to achieve the Eurocentric standards of beauty that plague our Afrodescendent community of women. Straight hair and even straighter extensions accompanied by fair skin seems to be what is sought after by those who would frequent the store, and that is African women in Lavapies and whoever else happens upon the shop in search of beauty products. It says a lot about the standards of beauty on the continent of Africa and outside the continent and how are women have embodied these standards, desiring to do away with their kinks and curls and no longer loving the gorgeous, glowing melanin rich skin that they were born with.

One World: Lavapies, Madrid

Embajadores, isa metro stop located in the neighborhood of Lavapies, a zone notorious for being one of, if not the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in Madrid and large immigrant population. Walk down one street and you see more Arab restaurants than you can count with your two hands, ranging from Turkish and Lebanese to Moroccan. On another street, an Indian restaurant is situated next to a coffee shop and right beside it to it is a Spanish bar. A couple of blocks down is a Ecuadorian restaurant and a Senegalese restaurant co-owned by a Senegalese family and a Spanish family, with its terrace full of Spanish and African customers alike, enjoying the flavors of  West African cuisine. Walk down another street and you count no less than four tiendas de pelo and five peluquerias. The tiendas de pelo are owned by Arab and Indian immigrants who sell their products to the various African immigrant women who then sell the hair for double the price in their shops. The women wait at the doors for any women with textured hair to pass by, luring them into their shop to hand out a card and a sharp cry of “come back next week”.

Walk down another street and you can see an Art Shop filled with stones and jewels, selling price starting at 30 centavos. These same stones line the strings of the necklaces sold by Senegalese men on the streets of Gran Vía and the metro stations through out the city of Madrid. Ask where the stones come from and the response is from different countries in Latin America, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and a few Asian countries as well. What about African countries? The response is “Not that I can think of”. But looking at the craftwork of the men and you would think that they were brought with them straight from the red clay streets of Senegal or Nigeria. What does that tell you? We aren’t that much different than we think we are. We are all human, although from different parts of the world, we are all the same? The same products that come from my country could just as easily come from yours. We immigrants come from all over the world to different countries to seek better opportunities, no matter the circumstances or methods of arrival, we all want the same thing. Why do we treat each other so differently? Why is there this hierarchy? The need to differentiate and identify who is better than whom? Can’t we just all be equally as good? We are brothers and sisters in the world, luchando, fighting the big fight. We’d all be better off trying to build one another up, instead of tearing each other down.

Are you sure you´re American? : Day Trip to Ceuta

My roommate and I decided to take a day trip to Ceuta during our stay in Morocco.

Ceuta is a Spanish exclave located about an hour and a half drive from Tangier. As an exclave, it is governed by Spain despite it’s location in Morocco and in order to cross the border you need an official European or American passport or a visa. Ceuta is one of the two Spanish ports in Morocco, the other being Melilla. Keep this in mind as a tell the story of our little trip.

We took a grand taxi for 700 Dirham (70 dollars) round trip from the Gare de Routier in Tangier, after a heated argument with two taxi drivers on prices, we were given a “deal”. As we approached Ceuta, we saw groups of men standing on the side of the winding road in the Moroccan heat, attempting to hitch hike. The melanin of their skin, glistening under the unrelenting sun, they must have all been exhausted and dehydrated but they were persistent in their quest to flag down cars. All of these men were clearly of African descent, and by African, I mean sub-Saharan Africa, as it was obvious they were not Moroccan by the color of their skin, which was akin to a deep chocolate.

After my talk with Joseph, I learned that many of those who try to cross the border fence at Ceuta, hide in the forest by night to escape the persecution of the Moroccan police, as those who were found out were often brutally beaten and taken into custody, left at the mercy of the Moroccan justice system, or lack of one. They only came out during the daytime to look for sustenance. So my guess was that these men were attempting to catch the attention a kind traveller who could spare them food, money or a a ride to look for both.

When we arrived at Ceuta, I noticed a few things, many of those who were waiting to cross the border patrol were either Spanish citizens, Americans, or Moroccans with a visa.  Also, I noticed that many of those who were Moroccan and waiting to be given permission by the border patrol were either old women dragging behind them seemingly empty grocery carriers, or young men with backpacks.

As we approached the border patrol ourselves, I took note of one last thing. I was definitely the only POC (person of color), there, and by POC, I mean black person. Given the circumstances of where we were, I braced myself for any possible reactions from those waiting to stamp my passport, as it was not uncommon for Sub-Saharan Africans to attempt to illegally pass the border with a fake passport, and considering my name and heritage I was prepared for anything. You would think that in the age we live in, I would be able to travel without doubt of where I was from and who I was, but we do not live in a post-racial society, and just because I was traveling with another Caucasian person, meant absolutely nothing.

I stepped up to the window and handed the border patrol my American passport. Before even looking at the passport, the guard gave me a funny look, one of curiosity. He opened my passport and once reading my name began to look between the small booklet and myself as if gearing up to interrogate me. He said something to his companion in Arabic, then began to ask me questions. “Where are you from?” he asked. I replied, “from the United States”. He then asked me, “no where are you really from?”. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Excuse me sir, my passport says that I was born in Miami, Florida, I was born in the United States of America, I am American”. All qualms of being polite were gone at this point, I was livid, and people were beginning to stare. The guard continued to look at my suspiciously and speak to his colleague in Arabic, at this point I was about to lose my patience and had to actively stop myself from snapping at the guard, as not only was it humiliating to be stopped because my name was not your typical American name, but it was racist and unjust. Finally, after some moments of speculation, the guard stamped my passport and allowed me through.

Once we had passed the first set of border patrol guards, we had to walk through a security system much like that you would find in an airport. I wasn’t sure whether I would be interrogated again or left alone to pass. As we were passing through the security system, we were stopped by another guard. This one opened my passport looked at it, then looked at me, I prepared to be berated yet again with another set of questions about my identity and citizenship. However, this time the guard was interested in my hair. I had Senegalese twists in my hair which I’d paid to have done before I left Madrid. The guard asked me,”where did you do your hair?” I told him in Madrid in a Senegalese salon. I prepared to be questioned, but he simply said, “I like it, it’s beautiful.” and kept it moving. The incident left me angry and stunned to say the least, but I was not surprised. In the United States, this would have been considered racist and I probably could have reported him to his supervisor or such. But this was not the United States and me filing a complaint would only be laughed at, and dismissed. Considering that what Ceuta is known for, it would only be “reasonable” to question any person of color who tries to cross, as who known who I could have been.

The rest of our trip in Ceuta passed without incident. We noticed that Ceuta is much like a small Madrid which had been uprooted and planted on the coast of northern Africa. A totally different world from the Islamic, Arabic Tangier or Marrakech. Many of those who were walking the streets were obviously culturally Spanish. We noticed women dressed in Western fashion, from shorts to skirts to bikinis on the beach, a far cry from the conservative style of dress of many Moroccan women. Something that you would never see anywhere else in Morocco except maybe the other exclave of Melilla. The language spoken here was Spanish, I was finally once again able to use my language skills. We also noticed that Ceuta, much like the rest of Spain, had adopted the Spanish tradition of the siesta and not opening stores on a Sunday. As it was a Sunday, many stores were not open, and around 3:00pm the few stores that happened to be opened for the day closed down shop to enjoy lunch and lounge the afternoon away. We were able to find one Spanish clothing store which was open during the siesta time but other than that, nothing else.

As we left, I once again saw old women leaving with their grocery carriers, no longer empty but laden with goods. I asked Sadaf about this later on and she told me that apparently because Ceuta was a Spanish port, it was easy and cheaper to receive European goods through the city. Many Moroccan gangsters made their money by employing old women and young men to use their visas to go across to Ceuta and come back with Spanish goods ranging from alcohol to washing machines, as long as they could carry it, they were allowed to bring it across.

Ceuta was an interesting experience, although it was off to a rough start, it was a breathe of fresh air for me. I once again felt free and able to express myself, free from the leering eyes of Moroccan men and the cultural norms and regulations which surround women in so many Moroccan cities.