Despite outrage, Spaniards prepare to wear blackface for annual Three Kings parade
As most households across the world begin the glum task of wrapping up the Christmas season, Spaniards are readying themselves for what they consider the most magical night of the year: the arrival of the Three Kings with bundles of gifts and sweets.
On the night of the 5th of January families gather on the city streets to watch the passing of kings Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar and their entourage of marching bands, light shows, camels, and horses in a grand parade.
The parade tradition, which dates to the late 1800s and is rooted in the kings’ visit to the infant Jesus, is a joyous occasion usually followed by feasts and the unwrapping of gifts either at midnight or on the morning after.
But what many experience as a mesmerising evening of colourful floats, others have denounced as a blatant example of Spain’s unresolved problem of racism on account of King Balthasar being represented by a white man in blackface.
Balthasar, whose country of origin is widely believed to have been either present-day Ethiopia or Yemen, is depicted in Christianity as a black man. But despite the more than 1.3 million Spanish residents of African descent, the youngest of the three kings is still widely interpreted by white men in blackened faces in cities like Pamplona, Seville, Alicante and in the Catalonia region.
Earlier this year Rita Bosaho, of the Ministry of Equality, lambasted Alicante’s use of blackface in January’s Kings Day parade. “We’re plenty of black people living in Alicante for the city council to be carrying out this type of representation,” Bosaho wrote on social media. “Blackface is a racist practice that denies the ethnic and racial diversity in our society.”
Madrid-based NGO SOS Racismo defines blackface as “a practice that perpetuates racism against black people, by ridiculing and exaggerating their characteristic traits through black makeup and afro hair wigs. Blackface is created by white people, for white people, clearly making it a racist practice.”
But this scathing definition hasn’t weighed heavily enough on the government’s conscience, which continues to allow it.
Traditionally local authorities have picked city councilors or celebrities to play the roles of the kings. In 2014, then Madrid mayor Ana Botella told local media that if they “had a black city councilor, there would certainly be no problem with having a black king”.
However, the following year recurring pressure resulted in Madrid’s authorities promising they would stop asking white people to play the role of Balthasar. But not all authorities have caught on to the gravity of using blackface, particularly in the country’s southern cities.
Earlier this month the mayor of Seville, Juan Espadas, announced that Seville FC director Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo (known as Monchi) would be donning Balthasar’s opulent robes in next week’s Kings Day Parade. As controversial as this may be, Verdejo is far from the first member of Spain’s football association to take on the controversial role.
In 2009, when he was still playing for Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos was widely criticised for accepting to interpret Balthasar. At the time, Spanish news channel Canal Sur asked viewers if they recognised the man behind the make-up, saying: “he usually plays in white, not black”. Four years later former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker, Ruud Van Nistelrooy also sparked outrage by taking on the same role in the southern city of Marbella.
While it’s far from being stamped out, campaigners and members of the Afro-Spaniard community have mobilized en masse, calling the practice a “parody”, launching online petitions to end it, and likening it to America’s nineteenth century minstrel shows, where white performers in makeup ridiculed black people.
“Painting King Balthasar is a practice that cannot be justified in a country like Spain where there is evident ethnic diversity,” Afro-Spaniard activist Amin Arias Garabito wrote in an online petition to end blackface.
“Continuing with this practice also means to continue making the afro community invisible, particularly the afro-Spaniard population, denying our right to participate as equals in the country’s distinct cultural events.”
Spain’s racism problem extends beyond the Three Kings parade, to football stadiums, schools, workplace, and other corners of Spanish society.
In a report this year the country’s ministry of equality warned that racism and discrimination against minority groups had worsened over the past few years. The blame, said the ministry, was with far-right politicians and fake news. Yet, the racist practice of blackface remains widely accepted by the country’s leadership.
As 6 January nears and children count down the days to what will likely be a smaller parade because of the pandemic, event organisers across Spain are busy sourcing the outfits for the three kings, and in many cases, the black paint for Balthasar too.