Every year, hundreds of people in the small Spanish city of Alcoy, in Alicante province, paint their faces black. They dress up in head-to-toe black clothing and draw on big red lips. For those outside of Alcoy, the effect is startling: a minstrel show on steroids.
It’s part of the town’s Three Kings parade, an elaborate affair held on January 5 complete with camels, people dressed up as Roman centurions and ... black pages.
Since the 19th century, this festival has been perpetuating racism year after year
Afrofeminas collaborator Nathalie Labeau
These black-painted court servants, elfish figures known as pajes negros, have become the subject of heated debate with many accusing the tradition of perpetuating racist stereotypes.
“It is offensive. It is very offensive because it stereotypes, falsifies and makes fun of our image, which is not included. We are real people, we are not fantasy characters that can’t be found in the streets of Alcoy and the rest of Spain,” reads a recent article published by Afroféminas, a digital magazine based in Zaragoza.
During the parade, the pajes use red ladders to climb up onto balconies and deliver presents to children. The tradition dates back 133 years, making it the oldest such parade in Spain. Around 2,000 people take part in it and around 300 people volunteer to be a page. Often they are the parents of children in Alcoy, painted black to remain anonymous, explains Lorena Zamorano Gimeno, Alcoy councilor for heritage and tourism.
For Zamorano and many people in Alcoy, the pajes are a symbol of magic and wonder. There is no harm intended.
“The pajes are the most important part of the procession, almost more important than the kings themselves, because they deliver the presents,” says Zamorano. “Kissing or hugging a paje is a magical and marvelous moment where the children believe all their dreams have come true.”
But Nathalie Labeau, a collaborator with Afrofeminas, insists that it is not just fun and games: “Since the 19th century, this festival has been perpetuating racism year after year. It is based in an imperialist and colonial history that celebrates white superiority over the racial inferiority of communities of Afro-descent,” says Labeau.
To Labeau, Alcoy’s black-painted pajes are no different from the exhibitions of “noble savages” in Paris’ Exposition Universelle during the 19th century. Or the figure of the “happy-go-lucky plantation worker” in minstrel shows across the United States. Or Hottentot Venus, the stage name given to Sarah Baatman, a Khoikhoi woman who was paraded in a freak show because of her large behind – after she died her genitalia was put on display in a Paris museum.
Blackface, which has been used in the advertising for Alcoy's festival, reaches the Atocha train station in Madrid
Zamorano however argues there is no comparison between these racist caricatures and Alcoy’s “heart-warming” celebration.
“We respect all opinions but in this case we believe there has been an interpretation that is not in any way connected to the experience that takes place in Alcoy. What has hurt the people of Alcoy most is that we have been called racists by people who haven’t even experienced our procession first hand,” she says.
The debate over whether Aloy’s pajes are racist comes as the town steps up its efforts to have the Three Kings procession recognized on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. The procession is already recognized in Spain as a Fiesta of National Tourist Interest and listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Labeau has described the move as “worrying and intolerable.” She is not alone in her concern: A petition against the town’s efforts has been launched on Change.org, garnering over 3,500 signatures.
Rita Bosaho, Spain’s first and only black parliamentarian out of its 616 deputies and senators, came out in support. In a tweet, she argued “discrimination and institutional racism cannot be confused with cultural activities.” The tweet was later deleted following blowback from Alcoy residents and Podemos colleagues.
The issue has been very divisive. Counter-petitions in defense of the tradition have sprung up , receiving over 11,000 signatures. Alcoy’s town hall has also passed a motion to “reaffirm our traditions and festival with respect, equality and tolerance,” according to the Socialist
“We haven’t censored anyone or deleted a single comment, we want freedom but also education and respect,” says Zamorano.
Alcoy’s pajes are by no means the only Spanish tradition to attract criticism. Be it the re-enactment of wars between the black-painted Moors and white Christians, the frequent choice of non-black performers for the role of King Balthazar in the Three Kings parades that take place across the country, or even the Spanish-made sweets Conguitos – Little Congolese, there are many examples of Spain's naivety to the representation of black people.
We have been called racists by people who haven’t even experienced our procession first hand
Alcoy councilor for heritage and tourism Lorena Zamorano Gimeno
Nor is Spain the only country to come under attack for disguising racism as culture. The Dutch celebration of Black Pete, a blackface character who works as Santa Claus' helper, has been particularly controversial, provoking criticism from the United Nations. And while minstrel shows have been banned, blackface is still very common. Just yesterday, Atlético Madrid star Antoine Griezmann was accused of being racist after dressing up as a black basketball player.
The question of racism goes beyond Alcoy and its pajes. But as the date for the 133-year-old tradition approaches, perhaps there will be greater reflection this year about what it means to represent groups that have been historically marginalized and exploited.
Zamorano insists that "being a paje in Alcoy is the greatest honor," but says her government is "open to listening to all political groups and citizens about their positions on the subject."
For Labeau, there needs to be more than just dialogue.
“Until there is a more concrete and thorough reexamination of racial discrimination in this country as well as tangible punishments and penalties, there will be no respectable solution.”