Classism In Spanish Society

street protest with placard calling out classism in Spain's educational systemI moved from Boston to Madrid 10 months ago. Among the barrage of cultural differences and neoliberal similarities between my home country and my adopted one, I’ve noted several instances of classism in Spanish society.

Bearing in mind that I have a severely limited understanding of class structures in this vast and complex nation, I can simply share the instances in which classism has become apparent in my everyday life. I’ve noted and contemplated issues of class and its intersection with race, immigration, cultural signifiers and regional differences.

Expats vs. Migrants

I would be remiss to espouse any observation-based analysis of class in Spain without first looking at myself. I am a recent college graduate from the United States, teaching English in the capital of Spain. While in this position, I’m only making enough money to get by. But I’ve noticed that my pay is relatively higher than my Spanish counterparts in comparable professions. The Spanish economy is still struggling to rebound from the financial crisis. And in a nation with 17.6% unemployment, there are hundreds of English teaching expats in Madrid alone.

I note my own privilege in this position daily through the blatant poverty on the streets, as well as through talking to some of my lower-income students who don’t have the opportunity to explore and enjoy their country as much as I do. The term “expat” itself has classist connotations. Workers from the global north are termed as such, while those from the global south are more often called “migrants” and regarded differently by Spanish society.

The Insidious Combination of Class and Race

people dressed in blackface like the ubiquitous Spanish candy ConguitosOne of the first times I noted the intersection of racism and classism was while walking by an alimentación (Spanish convenience store) with a group of non-Spanish friends. We were all equally appalled by a giant racist caricature filled with chocolate. It was the logo of popular Spanish candy Conguitos, whose name basically translates to “Little Congolese” and whose logo “features a tubby, little brown character with full, red lips” (description via the Wikipedia page for “Blackface”).

While blatantly racist imagery like this has been phased out in the other parts of Europe and the United States, or at least is sparking a dialogue presently (e.g., Golliwogg, Chief Wahoo), this ubiquitous candy is seemingly untouched. Every Spaniard I’ve asked about this (I bring it up a lot) has been adamant in their denial of it being anything more than just a candy. Reactions (from people I expected to be able to discern racist imagery) ranged from It’s not racist, racism doesn’t exist in Spain to one person posting a Facebook status asking their friends about it and calling my questioning of the logo “typical American political correctness.”

This Facebook dialogue seemed to be the first time many of the participants had been presented with such an idea. And upon further research, the logo has barely been problematized, primarily by one college professor over 10 years ago.

Racist logos and imagery have existed for centuries. However, the specific historical context of Conguitos (one old advert features a white hand swooping in and kidnapping/devouring the Conguitos) directly connects Spain’s oft unacknowledged colonial history to the also unaddressed current state of racism.

Immigrants Face Unacknowledged Bias

People of color in Spain, specifically those of African origin, of course, experience racism. Fleeing postcolonial repercussions, many face violence trying to cross the border, and once here are faced with extreme structural and interpersonal discrimination.

The term “expat” itself has classist connotations. Workers from the global north are termed as such, while those from the global south are more often called “migrants” and regarded differently by Spanish society.”

I’ve heard a surprising amount of overtly racist comments from students, friends and strangers, and see and read about the way these biases play out to create race/class disparities. One instance of these interpersonal and structural stratifications relates to the aforementioned alimentaciónes (convenience stores) or as Spaniards more frequently refer to them “el chino” or “el paki.” These names, literally translating to “the Chinese” and “the Paki,” refer to the ethnicity of the owners. Nothing they vend is culturally Chinese or Pakistani.

Alimentaciónes are everywhere in Spanish cities. There’s often more than one per block. As demand for the basic goods they sell are high and unwavering, they are a reliable and long-standing business model for immigrants without the resources or safety net to try riskier business ventures. Thus, this disrespectful yet pervasive labeling of the alimentación-owning class of immigrants, which once again seems to be only troubling to non-Spaniards, is typical of the classism I’ve witnessed.

Cultural Class/Race Discrimination

Roma woman in Spain living in poverty, as do many Roma facing classism and racismThis intersectional classism does not only apply to immigrants. The Roma, who have inhabited Spain nearly since roughly 600 A.D., are still subjugated to a permanent economic underclass, as in much of Europe. When I arrived here, I immediately heard people speaking jokingly and negatively about “gypsies,” a concept which I came to understand to be the Roma.

The Roma are unable to transcend this discrimination, find economic footing or integrate into European society due to rampant segregation and discriminatory educational and economic practices. A staggering example is that a quarter of female inmates in Spain are Roma, and schools are segregated to the extent that many have 50% to 100% Romani students. These are just some of the elements that make a population that has lived in Spain for hundreds of years unable to integrate into Spanish society.

protesters in the Catalan region of Spain holding letters spelling out independence

The main context in which I’ve actually heard classism mentioned in Spain is within the contentious Catalan independence movement. The government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is viewed as classist in its suppression of Catalan culture and identify – a tradition continuing from the days of Franco when speaking the Catalan language was banned.

In contrast, those critical of the independence movement assert that it is nationalistic and classist in the sense that the movement is propagated by the wealthiest section of Spain partially out of not wanting to essentially subsidize the poorer southern regions of the country.

A Striking Lack of Class Consciousness

These are some of the ways I’ve perceived class issues during my short time in Spain. While all of them are influenced by the porous nature of the globalized world, they culminate to form a unique and specific scene based on the history and current political climate within the country.

From a personal standpoint, the most striking element of this has been the lack of consciousness or dialogue about any of it among those I’ve encountered. Since there’s so much unacknowledged classism in the United States, I didn’t expect merely commenting on blatant discrimination in Spain to be regarded as “typical American political correctness.” So I’ll qualify my observations one last time as being through the lens of a politically-correct American.

2 Responses

  1. Sandra Sanchez

    Very good piece,and thanks for acknowledging that classism in the U.S.A. is equally in a state of denial! Sadly, in most Latin American countries, such racism has continued to be in existence since the conquest from Spain and Portugal, respectively. And it also goes largely unacknowledged 🙁

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