El intercambio

First Prize in the 2019–20 Writing Contest

Cinque Carson, ’21, who participated in the Barcelona Civ program in Winter 2020, reflects on an unforgettable exchange, a microwave room discussion of race and identity in Spain.

My time in Barcelona took me to places far beyond the walls of a classroom or covers of a book. Conversations and daily interactions with locals and fellow students were a central part of my study abroad experience. I adopted the most useful Spanish phrases and some slang: “vale”, “claro”, “espere por favor”, “solo efectivo”, “guay”. I observed and learned more about social issues impacting Spain and Europe. I also became cognizant of the political, ethnic, and economic diversity of Barcelona and social stratification that exists. Recounting one specific conversation and my general experiences in Barcelona, it is clear that I left the experience both having gained and imparted something—a true exchange.

Two students take a selfie at Park Güell in Barcelona.
The author and Paula (courtesy of Cinque Carson, ’21)

At least once a week, I met with Paula, a Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) student that I was matched up with for the foreign language exchange program or “el intercambio lingüístico”. I was simply expecting that the program would consist of Paula and I meeting once or twice to have awkward and stilted Spanish and English hybrid conversations over coffee. After I got the email from UPF introducing us as partners, I got an email from Paula where she told me how excited she was to meet. We exchanged a few messages on the extremely popular WhatsApp platform and made plans to grab lunch at a café across the street from the university. When the day came, I met her at the campus library. Paula greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks, a level of affection (and slight invasion of personal space) that I was not expecting as an American, but something that is commonplace among Spaniards. We went to the café and I made a valiant attempt at carrying out a conversation in Spanish. After five minutes and about one hundred mispronunciations, I switched back to English and we carried out the rest of the conversation in my native tongue. Despite my butchering of her language, Paula and I both had a great time getting lunch together and we quickly planned our next hangouts. The next few times Paula and I met, we explored the exhibits of MACBA, ate sushi at a hidden Japanese restaurant in El Raval, and trekked to the historic Park Güell. The facade of Paula and I meeting with the sole purpose of improving our linguistic skills quickly dropped as she and I engaged in deeper and more meaningful conversations. We discussed the differences between the American and Spanish educational systems and the failures of both, the greater purpose of the work we do as students and young adults, Spanish history and the sanitization of important historical events, the perception of immigrants in Spain, and her opinions on Catalan independence. However, one of the most impactful experiences I had with Paula and in Spain was actually a group discussion.

After a few weeks of meeting with each other, Paula began inviting me to eat lunch with her friends in the “microwave room” of UPF, a break room with a bunch of tables and two tiny microwaves for an endless line of students clutching their Tupperware meals. Paula’s friends, a small group of girls and one guy from her classes, were inviting and inquisitive every time that I ate at their table. One day, after playing a game where I guessed the meaning of various Spanish colloquial phrases, one of Paula’s friends asked me, “What is your experience as a Black woman in America?” This question killed the mood and took everyone at the table by surprise. Some of Paula’s friends apologized on her behalf, as if the question should have offended me. But I knew that they were genuinely curious and that they probably do not often get the chance to talk to someone with my background on these kinds of subjects. So, I told the table about my experiences in the US and made sure to impart that my life was not as dramatized as the things depicted in the movies (I especially emphasized this point as many people had already asked me if the colleges and parties were like what they saw on the screen). I talked to them about intersectionality, systemic racism, microaggressions, and African American history. However, I made sure to also tell them about my experiences as a young Black woman in Spain. This conversation quickly spiraled into me recounting a series of experiences that impacted my time in Spain, with much conjecture from Paula and her friends.


I told the table that one of the first things I noticed in Barcelona was that people would stare at me in public spaces like on the street or on the train, but refused to make eye contact when I looked their way. I wondered what the reasoning was behind this behavior. Does this happen to everyone? Was I clearly someone who “stood out”? Clearly, I was not the first Black person to visit or live in Barcelona. I saw at least one Black person and many other people of color every single day I spent in the city. So why did I feel like people stared at me as if I was an alien? Marta, the girl who initially asked me the question that kicked off this conversation, admitted that she would likely stare at me too because she thought I was beautiful and relatively tall. However, Marta expressed that my comment scared her. She told the table that she finds herself staring at Muslim women on the train because she believes they have “really beautiful long noses” and she was now worried that they thought she was staring because she was critical of their religion. In response, I told the table that when it comes to being a religious or racial minority, a woman, an immigrant, a member of the LGBT+ community, or something else that “otherizes” you, it is hard to determine why someone is treating you a particular way and if it has something to do with your identity.

The table generally agreed with me, but I wanted to make sure they realized that the staring is not happening because every onlooker is thinking something positive or gazing in admiration, but that it can also be malicious. I recalled a group assignment, where four girls and I were tasked with “getting lost” in Barcelona. We had to wander around Barcelona using a random algorithm to tell us where to go. Being a group of women from America, and most of us being people of color, forced us to be extremely cognizant of everyone and everything around us. We noticed the looks and stares from people, but it was not until after the assignment was complete that one group member informed us that people would sometimes stare and make racist noises or comments when we were walking around or leaving a place. This was something that surprised and saddened me. At the same time though, I met many people like Paula that accepted me and tried hard to make me feel welcome in Barcelona, so I made sure to let the table know that the negative experiences did not cause me to dislike living in the city.

Xenophobia, Racism, and Other Social Sensitivities in Spain and Europe

Marta told the table about her Peruvian friend and fellow UPF classmate, who has been told many times by native Spaniards to “go back to her own country.” Irena, a Barcelona native and one of Paula’s most outspoken friends, scoffed in disbelief. Irena retorted how she and no one that she knows would ever do this. Marta, a native Venezuelan who moved to Barcelona to attend school at UPF, expressed that she has never personally been told this because “she looks white and blends in”, but her friend is Peruvian and “looks like it.” I expressed how this was not too different in the US where Mexicans and many other ethnic groups, regardless of being born in America or immigrating, are harassed and constantly reminded that they are not accepted. But I was shocked that this also happened in Barcelona, until I recalled all of the immigrants I saw in the city and how they are regarded.

I noticed a lot of African immigrants, mostly young men, pushing around shopping carts of scrap metal or carrying huge black bags that are filled with cheap goods to be sold at popular tourist stops. I also saw the Pakistani immigrants concentrated on La Rambla, Barceloneta, and Barrio Gotico that sell cheap trinkets and advertise nightclubs. I recalled how I read an article about the struggles of immigrants to gain citizenship in various EU nations and this being a barrier for them to obtain legitimate employment and for upward mobility. I even talked about disparities in health outcomes of immigrants and white Europeans. All leading to my point that racism is extremely prevalent in Europe and Spain was no exception. This led to Damiano, an Italian student on Erasmus at UPF, immediately denying this and saying that America was the true racist country. He said that racism in Europe was solved after World War II and the bigger issues to worry about now are LGBT acceptance and women’s rights. I told him that his outright rejection of what I was saying and deflection from my argument proved my point even more, particularly since his response ignores the issue of intersectional identities. I noted that it was particularly ironic that he says this because recently, a Black Italian politician got so many racialized comments and death threats that she needs special security and Black soccer players have gotten bananas thrown at them during matches in Italy. I told the table that no nation is perfect or void of dark periods in its history. We all have a long way to go on these issues surrounding race and identity and my experience in Spain only cemented this fact.

The first example I recalled was a conversation I had with Paula during one of our meetups at Parc del Mirador del Poble-sec. As we walked around, Paula and I were talking about my experience of getting kicked out of a bazaar in Barcelona and she said “no voy al chino”[1]. I asked her what she means by “chino” and she explained that “chino” is what Spaniards call the bazaars in the city because they are often run by Chinese immigrants. She also said that they call the shops and supermercats run by Pakistanis, “pakis”. My initial reaction was to tell her “that’s racist”, but after her shock from that statement, I backed down to say that it would not be socially acceptable to refer to shops in that way where I come from. Another instance was where Asian students in my group were leaving a restaurant together in Barcelona and a city worker on the street repeatedly shouted out “corona” as they passed, in reference to the Covid-19 virus or “coronavirus”. Not only was this extremely embarrassing for my classmates, but it was an ugly reminder of how much progress that we have yet to make. This leads to the most blatant example of racial and cultural insensitivity I saw in Spain: blackface. Blackface does still happen in the US, but it often results in some sort of public backlash or repercussions. I witnessed it when I visited Sitges, a city south of Barcelona, for their famous Carnaval celebration. I noticed that Carnaval in Spain was similar to Halloween in the United States, where people dressed up in costumes. And similar to the US, many people like to wear other cultures as their costumes. There were people in kimonos and other Asian styles of dress. Featured prominently were parade performers dressed up as Aztecs, which I found to be extremely ironic given Spanish history of conquest. But the most shocking thing that I saw was the blackface that seemed to be openly accepted[2]. This was my first time ever seeing someone doing something so offensive and blatantly racist in person. A man was on stage dancing with his skin painted dark brown and a cheetah print dress. All I felt I could do in that moment was record and post it to social media. When I told the UPF table about the blackface and how it truly offended me, they made it seem like it was harmless and just something people did for fun. I had to break down that blackface has a shameful history of playing upon the most harmful stereotypes of Black people and the table began to understand a bit more. These experiences in Spain, which I’m viewing from the lens of a woman of color, made me ultra-sensitive and cognizant of my race and identity. Spain and other European nations are not the racial utopias that its residents often describe it to be.

Trial and Error: Learning Culture

A view from inside a building on the UPF campus, with its dramatic glass ceiling.
The inside of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Cinque Carson, ’21)

As our earlier game of “guess the Spanish phrase” revealed, struggling to learn the Spanish language characterized a lot of my experience in Barcelona. I learned from my instructor in Spanish class that the verb “coger” is commonly used in Spain, but the word has an extremely different connotation in Latin American countries. Marta told us that even though she already spoke Spanish, it was extremely difficult for her to surmount the linguistic differences between the Spanish spoken in Venezuela versus Spain. The students also admitted they not only had trouble understanding different accents in Spanish, but that my US accent was also extremely hard to understand because they had learned to speak English with a British dialect. We laughed about my Midwestern American accent and noted other cultural differences. We discussed the difference in drinking ages, the extremely low cost of higher education in Europe versus the US, and perceptions of crime and safety in Europe. We would have talked about more if I did not have Spanish homework to do and if they did not have class to attend. We wrapped up the discussion, gave each other hugs, and parted ways with smiles on our faces.

While everyone left the table having learned something, I admit that I could have handled the conversation in a better way by imparting knowledge without attacking, avoiding sweeping generalizations, and listening more than I talk. I was glad to have the discussion and get a few things off my chest, to finally exhale and feel heard. I was also grateful for an opportunity to learn new things. I was looking for an opportunity for a meaningful exchange and it was clear that I found it. When the day came to leave Barcelona, I was extremely sad to go. Despite the challenging moments, I felt truly free in Barcelona. The conversation ended that day in the microwave room of UPF, but the exchange lives on forever.


[1] An article about this exact phrase: “Cada vez que dices “voy al chino” o “voy al paki” estás siendo racista”. https://www.playground.media/news/cada-vez-que-dices-voy-al-chino-o-voy-al-paki-estas-siendo-racista-2329

[2] An insightful Instagram post I found about blackface during Carnaval, with a comment section that echoed the discussion I had: https://www.instagram.com/p/B8vwSg_qJEw/?igshid=16rrf06ekfosr