I was walking along the beach in Salou, Spain with the family who hosted me during my year abroad. Here, signs in Catalán, stores selling shell necklaces and denim vests, and bars with faux straw roofs decorate the esplanade. On the beach, Swedes with white-blonde hair bake in the sun. Spaniards on vacation at their summer houses unwrap ham sandwiches. Englishmen sip lemon beer from giant jugs. Where the sand meets the path, African men in polo shirts sell bags and wallets on white sheets from noon to midnight. 


Four minutes past noon, we marched down from the apartment to see these men. My host mother described the outing as if it were a visit to an exhibition–we were going to see “los negritos.” This literally translates to “little black people.” Diminutives, I should say, can be endearing. I’d like a cafecito. Go play with your hermanito. Negrito–a word ingrained in Spanish culture but new to me–sounded different. Spanish speakers use diminutives to express tenderness. But a linguistic add-on is only as reliable as its speaker. And as speakers, we’re scarcely reliable or original. Language is appropriated and regurgitated, reclaimed or transformed, for better and for worse. I know this, and still, that word sparked a familiar tension between knowing my place in a foreign country and reaching outside of it. To suggest that “vendors” or “businessmen” replace “negritos” would be lofty and presumptuous. My host family would have looked at me as if I was a tourist. “You Americans and your obsession with correctness.” Well, you got me. Coming up short–in language and ethics–I quietly followed my host family down to the beach. 


We walked past sections of merchandise in neat grids, all advertising ersatz labels for Moncler, YSL, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton. My host mother was on the hunt for a flat brown wallet with an orange zipper and pale L’s and V’s all over, my host sister a black clutch with bedazzled wings. They were in the right place. A zealous salesman flagged us down. ¡Guapas! He called us pretty! Flattery and good service awaited. He tiptoed deftly through his vinyl arrangement in search of the products we requested, gathered a handful of clutches, and fanned them out masterfully for my host sister, advertising their good quality and ideal price. Barato. Lo más barato. The cheapest you’ll find.


I liked his persistence and found myself rooting for him. “You ladies are my first clients! For you, these are free. A gift, a gift,” he said, winking. Rejecting his playfulness, my host sister asked over and over, “How much is the purse? How much is the purse. The purse? How much.” 


My host mother is shameless: she would haggle in Ikea. The idea of paying fifty euros for two handbags was outlandish, a conviction she tried to communicate to the salesman, reminding him that his products were fake.  The illusion was thus shattered. “Look, I have a beer to drink,” she said, gesturing to the nearest plastic-thatched roof. “Give them to me for forty, or I’m done here.” Her tone was light, her request firm. The seller insisted that at his price point, the quality of these bags was unmatched. Haggler and haggled smiled, tight-lipped and stubborn. 


After a minute of playful, almost familial discussion, my host mother bought the pair of bags for forty-two euros. Needing change, the salesman consulted a friend manning a spread of jerseys, who handed him a ten-euro bill. I wondered who worked for whom, who made money here, where did these bags come from, and how did they end up in my host mother’s hands. She would show off the purchase to her friends. She would say it came from the “negritos” at Salou. 


And they would understand her. After all, my host mother used the term in the first place to make herself understood. But to an outside ear, the term is jarring precisely because of the nonchalance of its speaker—hearing something over and over again makes it lose its shock factor, and with it, its value. Mimicry cheapens language in the same way it cheapens bags. It’s practical and convenient. But mimicry alienates words from their meanings, and it alienates our intentions from the words we choose. True, we’re born mimics; that’s how we learn. But it doesn’t teach us style, and it certainly doesn’t teach us empathy. Maybe Louis Vuitton was onto something when he invented a wallet that looks like an envelope. It was original. Still, my point isn’t about the flair of designer bags. I want to say something about the flair of language, and I don’t think “negritos” does it. 


I’m not here is not to tell you “negrito” is an insulting word in our culture. You knew that already. It doesn’t take fluency in Spanish to understand the word is belittling, and literally so–“ito” makes things little. It also didn’t take a trip to Spain to know that Europe, like much of the world, can be racist, and so it’s unsurprising that “negrito” prevails in everyday speech. I won’t pretend hearing it was some sort of epiphany about the state of the world. But it was a micro example of the disillusionment that sometimes comes with visiting faraway places.


So often we feel ourselves obligated to accept what’s foreign as fascinating. Spain, at first impression, seemed idyllic simply because it wasn’t America. Its walkable cities, its universal healthcare, its friendliness to tourists—I was in awe, as were my American classmates. It took us a while to get bored of potatoes. In more ways than one, habituation preceded critique. Now, feeling habituated enough, I venture to critique. But doing so is tricky.


To shun my host mother’s linguistic choices—really just to flaunt my own—seems easy and predictable; to dwell in my guilt—a bystander’s guilt, if you’ll allow me the cliché—is self-indulgent. So let me simply point out the bizarre: it is bizarre to make a value judgment about something so distinctly not mine. This family is just my second family, and this culture–though much more familiar than it once was–remains foreign. It’s not my country, not my language, not my city–not even my host family’s city–not my race, not my refugee crisis. But if these barriers seem impenetrable, perhaps they can be reframed. Again, words are as good as their speakers. So in the words I know best, I’m trying to do right by Spanish. I’m starting to think this fantasy–of language crossing boundaries–might be a way to turn our attention to what mimicry compels us to ignore.  


As we walked to the bar, an African woman offered to braid our hair. If I could not convince Spain to stop using the word, “negritos,” I could at least dissuade our bunch from getting cornrows. But I didn’t have to–beer awaited. My host mother yelled as we passed the woman, “I have four girls with me! We’re too many!” The woman pointed at herself and said “Diez!”  She was either selling her services for ten euros, or had ten children. She was either offering business or announcing her solidarity with the overwhelmed mothers of the world. 


We walked for a long time until we found a bar that served drinks in glass instead of plastic. My host mother hated the way plastic hit her teeth and reminded her of filth. I sipped an orange-flavored Aquarius, she a lemon beer, and we looked online at the price points of real Marc Jacobs bags. A woman from Venezuela brought us olives. On the speakers, a terrible cover of “Take It Easy” played. It was humid and everything tasted like salt. 

In a matter of hours, Salou had lost its novel sheer, and I was just passing through. Almost 30,000 people live in Salou. These permanent residents walk past shark tooth necklaces, jugs of beer, and spreads of fake bags as they go to the pharmacy. Germans, Americans, and Spaniards from out-of-town visit in summer. Stores sell things meant to be taken home to faraway places. Salou survives on this constant cycle of hosting and exporting, parading its muddy waters around the globe on hats, shirts, and shot glasses—I heart Salou. Like anywhere, the tide rolls in and out everyday, and from noon to midnight, the salesmen set up shop.

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