Scribbler in Seville

The royal postperson comes to town: “Is it cos I is black?”

Belen (nativity scene) showing the three Reyes Magos arriving on their camels.

On 6 January the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men, or Three Kings) visit towns and villages throughout Spain, arriving by helicopter, boat, elephant or camel, depending on the extent of each ayuntamiento (town hall)’s budget deficit. This is the biggest day of the year for Spanish children – Santa Claus is also celebrated, so the lucky little tinkers get a double dose of presents, and us parents get a double whammy on our wallets – but Reyes is the biggie.

But before the day itself, there is another important event: the arrival of the Reyes Magos’ cartero/a (postperson), to collect letters from the children. S/he is accompanied by a number of colourfully attired pajes (attendants).

Pajes, or attendants, of the Cartera Real. Yes, their faces are painted black - just wait till you see the Reyes themselves.

We had the good fortune to stumble upon this happy pageant on the way back from a family lunch in the local town this afternoon – our first day back from Christmas in the UK. I was in my usual post-leaving-parents vile mood (I don’t cry for my Mummy, but I do miss my family so much it hurts), plus our internet is down again which served to compound my malas pulgas (I am only writing this thanks to my life-saving, beloved iPhone). So the fun and noise of such a joyous celebration blew away my black clouds, as well as keeping the kids entertained for a good while.

This old train repair shed has been refurbished as a hall for the hermandad which organised the visit of the Cartera Real.

For those not familiar with the who, what and where, the cartero/a real comes to town a few days before his/her bosses, the Reyes (6 January) to collect the letters from the children, who tell them how good they’ve been this year (truthfully of course – Spanish embellishing the truth? Never!), and ask for the presents they would like the Reyes to bring them. In case you’re wondering why I’m being so gender-unspecific, it’s because since our cartera was a cartera, then I can’t blanket masculinise all the carteras out there, even though that’s what they do here.

The Cartera Real (Royal Postlady) takes a letter from a small, happy girl, for special delivery to the Reyes Magos - the post box is next to the paje on the right.

This Cartera Real sat on her splendid plywood throne, backed by swathes of regal red fabric, and flanked by lackeys (pajes). Other lackeys accompanied the little cabalgata (procession) – once Postlady Pat(ricia) had heard all the petitions, she and her two chief pajes climbed onto a cart embellished with a big silver star and, preceded by a band which played mournful Semana Santa-type tunes jazzed (cheered) up by fast drum-beating, made their way through the town, along with the all-important letter box, carrying the childrens’ missives for the Reyes Magos.

Setting off to take a turn around the town in one's carriage, under a shining star.

Drums and other paraphernalia of the band - it's all about the rhythm, man.

The pajes – of various ages – blow whistles, lending the procession an air of jolly reverence, and Caribbean party vibe, thanks to the rhythmical beats.

One of the strangest aspects of the Reyes celebrations is that, although women leading roles,  political correctness doesn’t extend to race – almost all of the participants are blacked up. In a few places, they actually hire people whose skin is naturally that colour, though mostly not. Most countries wouldn’t even allow it. Do you find it offensive?

The royal postbox - carrying the dreams of many small people.

Short video of The Cartera Real procession, January 2012 – to get you into the spirit!

10 thoughts on “The royal postperson comes to town: “Is it cos I is black?”

  1. Mad Dog

    I can’t see any reason to be offended since they are not portraying the kings in a bad light. In my experience too much political correctness leads to inventing reasons to be offended.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Yes, but I think that painting your face black to imitate a coloured person is kind of childish, and disrespectful. I agree PC-ness can go too far, though precious little chance of that happening here in Spain, esp with new PP govt!!!!

      1. Mad Dog

        I don’t really see that it’s doing any harm. I’m not sure that Muslims in Spain would particularly want to join in with a Christian tradition.

  2. azahar

    I also don’t see any harm in this. In Málaga they had “genuine black people” at their post-office display in the main square, which I’m not sure was better, especially if they weren’t Christian.

  3. sevpaul

    A couple of quick points: firstly not all black people are Muslims. It would not be difficult to find black Catholics/Christians in Spain, and a black Balthazar/cartero would avoid the ridiculous “blacking up” that now happens . Secondly, it would be one small positive step in increasingly the acceptance and visibility of black people, and other minorities, in Spanish society if they were involved in such high-profile events. Not to mention the benefits to young kids, black or otherwise, in seeing positive black role models which, at present, they pretty much only see on the football pitch, and then often to an accompaniment of monkey chants…

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Some interesting points here – thanks, Paul, Azahar and Mad Dog. I’m inclined to agree with Paul. I remember one instance when my husband was working with a Moroccan guy, and they went into a well-known bar in Triana to order breakfast. Instead of asking the Moroccan what he wanted, they looked at him suspiciously and said to my husband “Que quiere el Moro?”, and were generally rude and unpleasant – treating him as a second-class citizen – the kind of outwardly racist behaviour which is now, thankfully, becoming much less common in England and the USA. This happened around Seville all the time when they were working together (and most probably still does). The idea of black people as positive role models cannot be a bad thing. Ojala!

  4. Chica Andaluza

    Late to the party – sorry! I am kind of a bit on the fence on this one. I was shocked when I first saw people blacked up, surely there are enough people with black skins in Spain not to have to do this. However, perhaps in the villages it´s another story. We certainly don´t have any black neighbours/villagers where I live and the north Africans (Moroccan, Tunisian) that do live in the village are muslim so would not, naturally, want to participate. I do find it odd though in the big cities that there should be a need to “black up”. It seems unnecessary.

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