Growing up as a Black kid in Florida, you’re guaranteed to be either be of Caribbean descent or know someone who is. The accessibility and proximity to those vast cultures means you have an idea of what Carnival is. You may not know the significance of the celebration or when each Caribbean country hosts theirs respectively, but you know it exists. And if you’re like me, you too found yourself enamored by the beauty and opulence. I swore to myself when I got older, I too would celebrate an authentic Carnival.
So, imagine my surprise when I fly nearly 4000 miles away from home and discover Carnival is still thriving in Spain and I get nearly a week off of work to partake in the festivities. I was beyond delighted and as if the heavens had aligned just for me, I learnt Tenerife was home to the biggest Carnival celebration outside of Brazil.
Of course, I had to go. There was no doubt in my mind. Any Carnival that beats out of the mother of all Caribbean ones – Trinidad – and rivals that of Brazil was surely an experience to be had and remembered for years to come. Once flights were booked and lodging was reserved, my countdown to sunshine and festivities began.
The truth is Tenerife’s Carnival did not live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the daytime festivities with streets blocked off for performers and dancing and drinking in the street. I observed how each band found a way to put their own twist to the deep sea theme of this year’s festivities. I was able to appreciate the culture and allow myself to live in the moment. But at night, it reminded me of Halloween in university. Everyone belligerent, standing around talking, and white girl wasted. The streets were filthy, with urine and broken bottles painting every street. It held no appeal to me.
To top it all off, the rampant blackface and brownface did not make anything better. Carnival in Tenerife was a playground to be bold and racist. I heard the whispers of people looking at my skin and Marley twists as the realization came across their faces that I wasn’t some racist caricature but the real deal.
The remix is so much sweeter. While Tenerife’s carnival has a history of defiance and perseverance – it survived the Franco ban – it was like eating under-seasoned food. Although you got a hint of taste, the flavor, the soul was absent. Perhaps my expectations were too high because, at the end of the day, Spain is still the land of “spicy whites”. Yes, they were officially denied their cultural practices at one time but they were not excluded from them as formerly enslaved people were. Spaniards didn’t take something that had been deemed above their class status and make it there own. They did not use their newfound freedom and subsequently create a tradition that would be passed down from generation-to-generation as a sign of freedom, liberation and cultural pride.
Once I managed my expectations and decided to venture away from the racist playground, I discovered the beauty of Tenerife. My travel buddy and I moseyed up to Puerto de la Cruz and Playa el Bollullo to explore some local cafes and the infamous black beaches. We hiked our way through banana fields and chatted about colorism, racism, and the comfort that came from traveling with a fellow woman of color.
We curved our way around the island to La Laguna to roam the city’s historic district and all of its wonders. We dined on Thai, Mexican, and Venezuelan food. Slowly the grime and disgust washed away and I was able to appreciate the beauty of this island so many ethnically and culturally diverse people called home.
Home. That is what Tenerife reminded me of. Racism aside, the most shocking revelation of my time in Tenerife was my longing for home. Since leaving the U.S., I haven’t been homesick. I miss people like my best friends and my mom. I find myself missing things like my Beyonce mug and black leather jacket. I miss the variety of seasonings in the grocery store but I cannot say I’ve missed my home country since my departure.
Being in Tenerife, with the sun gifting me with a small glow, seeing all the old white people roam around lost, waking to an abundance of palm trees and being surrounded by water, walking down old town where the buildings are vibrant, I felt as if I had been dropped back in Florida. I felt peaceful and light. It is the sort of comfort I only get when I return to Florida, yet this small island off the coast of the African continent had gifted it to me.
Going to Tenerife was all together was not a bust. I am glad I can say I experienced Carnival there, but I cannot say I’ll go back for that celebration. Tenerife’s Carnival did not offer me the sense of freedom and liberation I was expecting, but it did offer me a piece of home and a sense of belonging. That feeling is one the little Black girl from Florida will remember for years to come. And I couldn’t help but think it was the ancestors salvaging my trip.