Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why Did Michelle Obama Visit Spain?

I think it was to control the damage caused by a now-rescinded US State Department Travel Advisory containing this phrase:
...racist prejudices could lead to the arrest of Afro-Americans who travel to Spain...
UPDATE: A friend writes:
Michelle Obama happens to be the First Lady, not an ordinary African American visiting Spain.

I believe the warning should remain in effect. I say this because I, as an African American, experienced racial prejudice while on holiday in Spain. In late May of 1999, to be precise, I landed at Barcelona's airport sometime in the afternoon on a weekday. As I awaited my baggage, I was approached by a female security official who asked what I was doing in the baggage claim area. "I'm waiting for my baggage." I answered, somewhat baffled by her inquiry. She remained standing next to me until I retrieved my bags. She then inspected my ticket to verify that they actually belonged to me and then watched me walk out of the airport. What perturbed me about what I had been asked to do was that I did not see her question any of the other passengers who had been in the baggage claim area with me. And then I slowly began to understand why. I had been the only African American in the area and had been singled out because of my race. It was an insulting and rude welcome back to a country I had visited a year before.

Once in my hotel in Calella, a former fishing village an hour north of Barcelona by train, I twice overheard the owner ask one of his managers what I was doing there. On both occasions the managers replied that I was an American and that I was a guest. Still I could never rid myself of the feeling that I was an unwelcome guest the two weeks I stayed in that hotel. I must say that most of the people I met in Calella and Barcelona were cordial and pleasant. The maltreatment I received seemed to come from those in official positions, such as the police or security guards and/or Spanish men who owned or managed business establishments.

Strolling around Barcelona's old town or Barri Gotic, I noticed two uniformed police officers who seemed to go wherever I walked, matching me stride for stride. Finally I stopped and asked them if they were following me. "Si". One of them replied. "Why?" I asked in english. Apparently they understood me, since one them said I looked like a terrorist. Needless to say I found it simply ridiculous. What did a terrorist look like in 1998 Europe? Earlier I had been in the Las Ramblas district and picked up a newspaper that I still carried. The police officers pointed to the paper while explaining that it was published by a radical Spanish group who had been suspected of various terrorist acts. Whether they were being truthful or not, I had no way of knowing. But there were a few more people in Barri Gotic who carried the exact same newspaper who were not followed or stopped. The exception: They weren't African American or of African origin. Nonetheless, I was allowed to carry on without further incident.

One night back in Calella, an African acquaintance and I attempted to enter a disco near the beach. We were stopped by two Spanish doormen who informed us that we weren't allowed inside. My African friend asked why. "No blacks," was their bursque response. Though I had already experienced a couple incidents of subtle racism, I was still shocked by what I had just heard. And it was difficult for me to comprehend fully the why of it. Gabriel, the African from Gambia, was fluent in Catalan. He argued furiously with the two doormen to no avail. Fortunately, there were a couple of other discos we were able to get into.

It was Gabriel who encouraged me to visit Girona, a short distance by train south of Calella. It was siesta time when I arrived. Most of the shops were closed. I walked around until I found a gift shop that was open. But as I did, I sensed I was being followed. Glancing back, I saw a man in plain clothes who stopped each time I did. Once inside the gift shop, I greeted a woman who appeared to own the place. She politely returned my salutation with a smile. The plain clothes man entered and uttered something in Catalan what I deciphered to be: "Are you okay with him in here?" In Catalan the woman replied that she was fine. And the man, who was certainly some sort of police official, departed. Again I was not the only individual on the streets of Girona that afternoon. There were others out and about. Naturally I was a stranger, but obviously a tourist and not a criminal. What made me stand out? I was African American, and the only one in the eye view of the plains clothes police officer. I made a vow that day - that I would never return to Spain again. Nor would I recommend the country to anyone I knew, no matter what race or ethnic origin.

It has been eleven years since I last visited Spain. If the U.S. State Department has issued a warning to African Americans not to visit the country because of the threat of arrest, what has Spain been doing to clean up their act in all the years gone by? Apparently nothing. Maybe it would be a good idea for the State Department to make available to the American public specific information they may have that prompted officials in Washington to issue such a warning. The Spanish could use a little inducement. If our First Lady's visit was one of reconciliation, we owe them absolutely nothing.