AMONG the many new benchmarks December’s general election set in Spain was the voting in of the country’s first black MP.
Rita Bosaho’s triumph in Alicante as a Podemos candidate was a powerful moment in Spain’s race relations. The 50-year-old Bosaho was born in the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea, but emigrated at the age of four.
The significance of her ascent to Congress was underlined by a statement from Bosaho herself, who described it as ‘a symbol’. ‘Symbols are important in our culture, as was the election of Barack Obama in the USA’, she wrote.
For many Spaniards, the comparison with America’s first black president is not misplaced. Lucia Asue Mbomio Rubio, a journalist, TV presenter with TVE and Telemadrid, described Bosaho’s election as ‘a great joy’.
“It’s hugely important,” she told the Olive Press. “It shouldn’t be surprising that Bosaho – well-educated with a masters degree – is a deputy in Congress. However, it is not like that, and that is due to the lack of representation of black people in Spain.
“I already knew there was a black community in Spain which was hardworking and conscientious – this will hopefully inspire other people.”
Spain currently has 4,426,811 foreign-born residents, according to the Office for National Statistics (INE), 10.5% of Spain’s 46,423,064 population. Although there are no official figures for the number of black Spaniards, campaign group Alto Consejo de la Comunidad Negra en España (ACCNE) puts the number at between 700,000 and 1,600,000. So why are black people so massively under-represented in public office?
Mass immigration into Spain is certainly a relatively new phenomenon. During the 1960s and 1970s under Franco, it was more often the opposite, with Spaniards departing for England, Germany, Switzerland or France to find work.
In the UK, West Indian communities are far more established following the arrival of the ‘Windrush generation’ which began en masse after World War Two. Consequently, there is a much higher representation of black and ethnic minority (BME) figures in British politics (following the 2015 election, there are 41 BME MPs in the UK).
In contrast, Spain’s immigrant communities only started to expand in the early 1990s as the country’s economy boomed. Up until the mid-1980s, the racial makeup was still largely the same as it had been for the last 500 years. The only immigrant community of note were sub-Saharan Africans brought to work on farms around Maresme, near Barcelona.
In 1991, there were approximately 360,655 foreigners living in Spain – just 0.91% of the population. The huge growth in immigrant numbers during the 90s was most starkly illustrated in the Valencia region, which in 1996 had a foreign population of 15,000 – around 0.4% of the total – most of whom were European. By 2003, that number had risen to 440,000 or 9% – most of them from outside Europe.
But black politicians are conspicuous by their absence in Spanish society.
Consuelo Cruz Arboleda is one of the few prominent black figures in Spanish politics.
Colombian-born Cruz is head of the PSOE-affiliated Grupo Federal Afrosocialista, which campaigns for more black representation in politics. She believes her organisation has helped pave the path for Bosaho’s election.
“I feel that in some way we opened a path of inclusion,” she tells the Olive Press.
“This has been a fight by the Grupo Federal Afrosocialista PSOE that started 10 years ago. One of our principal objectives is the visibility of the collective in institutions where decisions are made.”
Of course, there is a widely-held belief that Spain suffers more than many countries from racism. Political correctness is certainly something that many Spaniards have a loose regard for. The still-used term ‘trabajando como un negro’ (‘Working like a black person’) would certainly not be acceptable in the UK. The blacking-up ‘tradition’ during the annual Three Kings procession – recently banned by the Madrid council – is another affront to black and white race relations. At a fair in Arriate last summer, a sign on a ride read: “It makes me feel black,” by a picture of Naomi Campbell.
Professor Sebastian Balfour from the London School Of Economics’ Canada Blanch Centre of Spanish studies believes this casual racism is ‘part of a wider structural problem’ in Spain.
“There is of course racism in Spain, but there is also a more widespread and latent prejudice against blacks in general,” he tells the Olive Press.
“Hence the enormous significance of Rita Bosaho’s election. In the case of blacks, I would suggest there is a residue of prejudice from colonial times. Also unfamiliarity.
“I’m glad Podemos have made public opinion in Spain more aware of the embedded inequalities and prejudice in Spanish life and in particular in its institutions.”
However, studies have shown that, overall, racism is diminishing as a cause for concern among Spaniards. In October 2015, the CIS annual poll of Spaniards’ top four worries showed just 0.1% of respondents seeing racism as the country’s fourth most pressing problem. That’s down from 2000 when 1.8% viewed racism as Spain’s second biggest problem.
Nevertheless, clear evidence of a problem isn’t hard to find over the years. The booing of black English footballers during a friendly in Madrid 10 years ago was shocking to British audiences. In 1992, the racist murder of Lucrecia Pérez was a brutal rebuttal of Spain’s new forward-looking society. And the day-to-day experiences of Spaniards illustrate the indignities black Spaniards can endure.
“Touching my hair in the street without knowing me is a classic,” says Lucia. “Sporadic verbal aggression, not letting me in places like discos ‘for being of colour’. Throwing my food on the floor of a fast-food restaurant and telling me to ‘emigrate to Brazil or Nigeria.’”
The lack of black figures in Spanish society to help challenge these prejudices is not limited to politics. Francine Galvez was one of the first black Spaniards to become instantly recognisable to people. In 1990, she became the first black presenter on Television Espanola’s weekend news programme, Telediario. In the music world, flamenco fusion star Buika, who has earned Grammy nominations and international acclaim, is one of the few black artists in a white-dominated field.
And while La Liga fans are accustomed to watching black players from around the world, Marcos Senna – who is from Brazil – was one of the few high-profile black Spanish footballers. Prior to Senna’s first international cap in 2006, only three other black footballers had played for Spain.
Hannah Soraya, a 20-year-old politics student from Madrid, says she faces ‘agression every day’ due to her colour. She is adamant that the battle to change the status quo needs to be fought first and foremost in the political arena.
“Racism and ignorance towards black people in Spain has been rampant for as long as I can remember,” she told the Olive Press.
“There’s this notion in Spain that black people are somehow new, that we all come from another country.
“Under this view, we’re all immigrants and therefore we have little to say in national politics. We must fight that misconception first.”
Rita Bosaho’s entrance into Congress this month is as an historic step in that fight.