January 6 is an important day in the Christian calendar: it’s known as Epiphany or, in Spain, as Three Kings’ Day.
In Western churches, Epiphany is considered to be the day the Three Wise Men, or the Magi, met the baby Jesus after following a star.
On Epiphany, Spain commemorates this moment with parades dedicated to the Three Kings.
But a controversial tradition linked to the celebrations involving blackface continues, despite numerous calls for it to come to an end.
How is Three Kings’ Day celebrated in Spain?
In Spain, people celebrate the three kings who visited the infant Jesus in a festival known as Three Kings’ Day.
In cities across the country, there will be parades of people dressed as the Three Kings – Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar – plus camels, horses, marching bands, and more.
The Three Kings give out sweets to the city’s children, who will also receive more presents from their families on this day.
Families will also enjoy a Roscón de Reyes, or Spanish Kings’ Cake, together.
However, the parades continue to spark outrage due to the portrayal of Balthasar, who is sometimes depicted by a white man wearing blackface, particularly in Igualada in Catalonia and Alcoy in Valencia.
Balthasar, a magus, is thought to have been of African or Middle Eastern descent, often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, according to Britannica.
In some Spanish towns, hundreds of people dress in blackface, to depict Balthasar’s assistants.
Calls for an end to blackface at Three Kings’ Day parades
Afrofeminas, an anti-racist group in Spain, is leading calls for the blackface practice to come to an end.
One member, Elvira Swartch Lorenzo, said in a statement: “It doesn’t matter what you think you’re trying to represent. It doesn’t matter that you think it makes kids happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tradition. If you paint yourself a colour that’s not yours, it’s racist.”
The group started a petition for blackface to be banned from the parade in Alcoy, a town near Alicante, that’s been signed by more than 34,000 people. The Alcoy parade is considered to be the oldest in Spain.
The petition reads: “At a time when all the world debates about the still prevailing racism in our societies – due to events [such as] in the United States the death of George Floyd and many others; at a time when in many countries, parties, and movements from the far right gain territory; at a time when the heritage of colonialism is debated and museums are involved in discussions about returning stolen art from past colonial times; at a time when countless refugees from Africa drown in the Mediterranean trying to get to the shores of Europe – at such a time a practice like the tradition in Alcoy can no longer be tolerated and needs urgent change.”
Deputy mayor of Alcoy, Jordi Martinez, defended the practice, and told newspaper La Vanguardia: "For those that dress up it’s an honour, it’s not a degrading thing.”
But parades featuring performers in blackface are banned in some areas of Spain.
Catalonian television channel TV3 told CNN that it only broadcast from the parade in Barcelona, because the city does not allow blackface: “TV3 has rejected proposals to broadcast some cavalcades live precisely because blackface was performed.”