Can the First Black Female MP Change Spain’s Perception of Race?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her path to power is atypical — and that’s mighty powerful.
“Do you have your ID with you?” asks Rita Bosaho, Spain’s first female Black member of Parliament, at the entrance of the Congress of Deputies of Spain, in Madrid. “It’s weird asking this question to a white man after having been asked for my papers so many times by the police.” She laughs unapologetically, and it’s clear she knows something about racism.
“Identity is a complex question,” Bosaho continues once we reach her office in the area occupied by her parliamentary group, the left-wing coalition Unidos Podemos (United We Can). And identity for this 52-year-old congresswoman is both complex and central to her political path and opposition to Spain’s conservative and pro-austerity government. As she enters her third year in office, she’s become an outspoken activist on gender issues, pushing the authorities to do more to address violence against women while raising the profile of women in government.
Spain is not white. And it’s never been.
Bosaho is dressed all in black, with a burst of color from an African necklace and the word “Afroconciencia” (African consciousness) printed in white on the bag she carries. Born in Equatorial Guinea in 1965, Bosaho moved with a relative to Spain in the early ’70s after an authoritarian regime took control of the newly independent former Spanish colony. She was raised by a foster family in Alicante, but the experience of exile leaves an indelible mark.
Forty years later, with her son in tow, Bosaho returned to her birth country — still ruled with an iron fist by the Obiang family. “I didn’t feel as Guinean there,” she recalls. “But I’m Guinean, and I needed those places to be able to tell my own story.” Her story took root in Spain, but she admits that feeling Spanish doesn’t come any easier: “I often say that I’m a Spaniard as a way of rebellion. The Spanish state denies us [immigrants] the right of belonging here. So I state it as a tool of protest.”
For some 20 years, Bosaho worked as a nurse’s aide at a hospital in Alicante. At 35, she earned a degree in history and started a Ph.D.; her studies, her son and her work consumed her time. Then came 2008 and la crisis — the Spanish term for the worst economic meltdown in decades: Unemployment soared past 25 percent, stoking social discontent. Bosaho, who’d never been affiliated with any political party, felt compelled to join the anti-austerity movement pushing back on the government’s policies to cut public spending. The group took to the streets throughout Spain on May 15, 2011, in what Bosaho calls her “awakening moment.” Three years later, she helped launch Podemos in Alicante.
Critics brand the party as populist and radical because it was born amid the protests, but Bosaho disagrees, explaining that they are not rebels but a new alternative left party fighting against corruption and for social justice and transparency in democratic institutions.
After representing Podemos in regional elections in May 2015, Bosaho was selected as the lead candidate on the Podemos list for Alicante that November. The general election saw a record number of women voted into the country’s lower Parliament, with about 138 female MPs, compared to 125 women elected in 2011. Gender parity for Spain’s Parliament, however, is still a way off: Women account for 39 percent of MPs.
However, in a country where roughly 13 percent of the population is foreign-born, just 1 percent of the 350 MPs are of immigrant origin. For Yeison García, an activist of African descent, and a close aide of the congresswoman, this is a “symptom” of “how much there is left to do.” García, a political scientist, is helping Bosaho to promote the agenda of the U.N.’s International Decade for People of African Descent and to work toward greater “ethno-racial diversity” among Spain’s elected representatives.
As a role model within Spain’s African and Afro-descendant community, Bosaho says, “I bear a triple responsibility as a woman, an African and a Spanish.” But echoing García’s lament, Bosaho acknowledges that Spain must do more in terms of recognizing and celebrating its ethno-racial diversity: “Our children are born here and they need referents.”
But compared to other EU countries, such as the U.K. or France, immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Spain, starting toward the end of the 1990s, and assimilation takes time. “We see a process of Spain accepting itself as a diverse and multicultural society. It has its ups and downs, but the trend is to acknowledge multiculturalism,” says Juan Carlos Triviño, a researcher at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies.
And there are those who accuse Bosaho of being more concerned about Guinea than her own constituency — with a local paper claiming she asks as many questions about Guinea as Alicante — and she has been at the center of several controversies, including being accused by the governing People’s Party of trying to “indoctrinate” students after being invited to give a talk at a local high school.
But if Bosaho is ruffling the feathers of the more established circles in Spanish politics, she’s fine with that. “I’ve been criticized in the media since I started questioning racism in Spain,” she says. “It’s tough for us racialized people to be told how we have to talk about racism … That’s something we have to tackle.”
And while Spain has managed to avoid the xenophobic surge gripping neighboring countries, there is the threat, says Beatriz Souto, a law professor at the University of Alicante, of “unconscious racism.” Souto, an expert in hate crimes, believes these latent impulses “are very common in Spain” and constitute a “dangerous kind of racism.”
For Bosaho, a key to unpacking — and combating — racism is to recognize how a country sees itself and what it looks like in reality. “Spain is not white. And it’s never been,” she says more than once during our conversation, adding that this simple fact is “too often forgotten.”
It’s a fact far less likely to be overlooked with Bosaho in office, as she does her best to increase visibility for Blacks and women and keep the spotlight on the issues of racism and inequality.