When Imani and I reminisce on Spain, we don’t talk about Barcelona. Barcelona is like that ex you only ever refer to by some awful nickname you wouldn’t use in polite company.
One of my main reasons for going to Barcelona was to check out the annual encounter hosted by Black Barcelona. I had found United Minds (Valencia) on Instagram, but I didn’t realize that Deborah Ekoka, one half of the bookstore’s leadership, was also a Black Barcelona co-founder. We met Deborah in Valencia, chatted about Black Barcelona, and got personal about how much representation really matters.
Tell me a bit about Black Barcelona.
Black Barcelona is an initiative in its third year. My colleague, Silvia Albert Sopale is an actress and she has a piece called No Es Pais Para Negras, and we brought it here [to Valencia]. We got along really well. I proposed the idea because Barcelona doesn’t have anything like this in terms of Afro, Afroespañol themes, even though it’s as big a city as it is. So I asked her if she would be interested in doing something, and she said yes.
There were a few things: We were Black Spanish women, we have African family, but we’re also mothers. So it’s also related to what we wanted for our little ones in terms of role models. I think in the end, all of these initiatives are born from a desire to give our young ones what we didn’t have.
What can we expect at the encounter this year?
This year we’ve moved to a different space. I really liked the space where we used to do it because people from that area could come and check it out as well and get something from it. But we found that the space was getting a bit too small for us, and to have it in the spring without air conditioning was tough. So we decided that this year we would take it a step further and get a place that was a bit cooler for the season. This year it will be in the MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona).
Why do you feel it’s important to have an initiative like Black Barcelona?
One area that we have found to be very important is around having role models. For example, a person of African descent may not consider becoming a doctor because they don’t see doctors of African descent. Or they don’t consider entering certain career fields or fields of study because they don’t see people of African descent in those areas.
Another thing we try to do is unite people; we want to create community. We want to create linkages. If I am here and you’re here, then we can meet and maybe something else can come out of it.
And how is the Black community here in Spain?
I think it’s just beginning to develop. On one hand there is a lot of separation between the newcomers who have arrived looking for a better life and those of us who were born here —but those were our parents.
Sometimes there are protests and almost no Black people show up. People complain that they don’t go. The problem is, if you don’t know your own identity, you don’t know that you’re Black because your family has not instilled that in you, then you don’t feel like what these other people are going through has anything to do with you. So for me, the first thing is to connect, to know that you are Black and that this is your story, this is our story.
We’re trying to unite these two worlds. I speak of my father but I could speak of his or hers, or anyone who has a mixed son or daughter. I think it’s crucial that they understand how important it is to give them this part of their identity. For example, I didn’t have that. My father didn’t really speak to me about Africa, so it’s almost like I stumbled into this project. And he’s really proud, but he says, “Daughter we never talked about Africa,” and I say, “Well, that’s just it. That’s what led me to this, the fact that you never talked to me about Africa.” So maybe it’s true that something positive can come from something negative. But still, I think it’s important that young people know this part of their identity to feel affirmed in who they are and how they are.
Why didn’t your father speak to you about Africa?
My father is from Equatorial Guinea [a former Spanish colony] and I think it’s also a complex history. Technically my father was born “in Spain,” so he has always felt very Spanish. Maybe he never thought I would ever have that need [to know]. I don’t know if it’s because I just didn’t ask, or he wasn’t very open, maybe it was a mix of both of those things.
United Minds at Black Barcelona
And what was it like for you being raised here in Spain?
Complicated. Very complicated. Maybe it’s that when you’re small you know that there’s something different about you. But you don’t really know until you go to school and they call you [racial epithet], and then it’s like OK now I know what’s different about me.
But at the same time, you always try to fit in. It’s not the same like in the United States England, France. For example, something as simple as natural hair. A moment comes where, because you want to fit in, you go to your parents and you tell them, straighten my hair I want to fit in and be like everyone else. On the one hand there’s that, but on the other, there’s the fact of there not being any products for your hair. And if there aren’t products for your hair, then you think OK well I’m going to change my hair to fit with the products that they have here.
It was complicated because there weren’t any role models. And with regard to models with natural Black hair, there were almost none. Even my father straightened his hair at some point. So for me, Black people with natural hair was unheard of. In my case, accepting my natural hair has been very empowering. It has been like the first step in my journey to be able to open myself up more to get to know myself better.
It has also been challenging looking back. Acknowledging how difficult it can be to have been raised in a place where you open a book and there is no Black person anywhere. You watch TV and the only Black people you see are in programs from the United States, and the ones that you see in shows from here are stereotypes. It was always, “Do you dance salsa? Oh you’re very exotic.” All my life. Or, “Where are you from? And your parents?”
Or that you have an accent…
They tell me I have an accent, I have an accent from the Canary Islands or I don’t know where… So I’m like OK, whatever you say. But in the end, you feel so questioned… they ask you where you’re from because they assume that you’re not from here.
I wanted to fit in until finally I thought, fit in for what? What sense does it make to fit in? I’m here, and I know that there are other people like me who are here, and if you don’t recognize that I can’t do anything about that.
So what was the turning point for you?
Going to Africa and coming back. At first it doesn’t feel like anything, but then you realize that there were little things sticking in your mind.
Ken and Deborah, owners of United Minds
I also met Kenny, and he’d talk to me about a bunch of things. I liked to read, I liked the culture, but I hadn’t researched. I mean, you go to a bookstore and it’s not like it’s the first book, or the second book, or the third book, or the fourth book —it will be the last book you find, if you get that far.
So it was going to Africa, coming back, meeting Kenny, meeting more people from the community, seeing your experiences reflected in a bunch of people, and sharing experiences. And that’s the part that is so important and that is why we create spaces where people can meet, so young people don’t have to wait until they are 26, 27 for this to happen for them.