Tradition or Plain Disrespect?




I have been in Seville, Spain for a week now and while the place is enchanting, it has its faults. We often talk about how behind we are in the U.S. socially and culturally and I agree with this wholeheartedly. However, stepping out to another country makes you question whether the U.S. is really that behind or whether we have work to do, but we are well advanced into becoming a more inclusive society.

During the second day of orientation for my program we were given a talk on diversity pertaining to Spain. The talk was given by someone from the organization, a native Spaniard. During his presentation, the speaker made a couple of comments that made me cringe. The comments made me feel like I had taken a time travel machine to the 1700s, instead of a plane to Seville. The speaker talked about the idea of accepting the culture of Spain as it is, because that is part of experiencing the culture. He talked about not getting worked up over anything, because there is “nothing we could truly do to change the culture.” He told us Americans were just too sensitive and that not being sensitive was part of assimilating to the Spanish culture. As a student studying abroad, I was confused as to my purpose at this point. While I am here to learn from the Spanish culture, I thought I could also share my culture. In my culture we speak up, we come together, we create change.

At one point in the presentation we talked about Semana Santa (Holy Week), which is huge is Spain due to the great Catholic devotion. During this week los Nazarenos (Nazarenes) dress up in a tunic, a pointed triangular hat, and with decorative emblems. The speaker said “they are basically the KKK.” While the garments are similar, I found it disrespectful to compare a role in Holy Week to the KKK. The fact that he chuckled after his comment left the American audience confused. We did not understand why we would laugh along with him if it were that case that the Nazarenes played a similar role as the KKK in Holy Week. I later asked and found out that garments were worn during the Spanish inquisition and drew no reference to the KKK. Maybe Americans cannot take such a joke or a comparison like this one lightly, but are we in the wrong? Is it better to be sensitive or to just let it go?

Los Nazarenos en Sevilla en Semana Santa — NOT the KKK.

Later in the presentation, we talked about how the Spanish celebrate the Epiphany and the fact that kids here receive their presents from the Three Kings, instead of from Santa. The Three Kings are Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar. Baltasar happens to be Black, but due to the small Black population in Seville, when children go and tell the Three Kings what they want for Christmas they are greeted by a Baltasar in blackface. The speaker talked about how we should not get flustered by this, because even if we did no change would surface, since this is a tradition. In the U.S. people are very opposed to blackface and for good reason. Here we were being asked to simply disregard it. I know I am a foreigner in this country, but why should that be the reason I cannot create change here? Why can I not share my views?

Baltasar in Blackface.

The comments did not stop in the diversity talk. This week in my Spanish intensive course regarding the history of Spanish cultures, we visited the archaeological museum here in Seville. During the visit, our professor, who is also a Spaniard, acted as a museum docent during our visit. He pointed out everything pertaining to class and gave an explanation along with it. We bumped into some kitchen supplies that were Roman remains and they were displayed in a case. The room in which the display stood was small and my professor said “chicas a ustedes les va interesar más, vengan a ver los utensilios de la cocina.”  The fact that our professor believed that the womxn in the class would be more interested in looking at the kitchen utensil remains, than the men, infuriated me. Living in a progressive city like Chicago never prepared me for a statement like that one. He laughed. I stood in shock.

Entrance to Archaeology Museum in Seville.

While I am falling in love with Seville, I am perplexed by the lack of social progression that they have experienced. Perhaps cities in the U.S. are a bit more progressive due to the great ethnic diversity, so how can other places (such as Seville or predominately white institutions) socially progress when diversity is not a factor in their everyday functioning? How can we help these societies, big or small, understand the value of inclusivity when they are so undiversified?

This is how I smile when I remember that the only house womxn must play an active role in is the House of Representatives.