“It was completely trivial” said a spokeswoman for Iberia Airlines’ new ad. I suppose that should be expected, but it never ceases to amaze me that some people consider the degradation of historically oppressed groups as “trivial,” “fun,” or “just a joke.” Maybe that’s because our society has a history of accepting stereotypes as truths, so veiling them in humor is its feeble attempt to disguise the simple fact that it can’t distinguish between one or the other. It may also be a result of the belief some hold that we are all equals and treated fairly. If this condition of equality is a given, then debasing one group or another is not expected to cause harm, embarrassment, or any real long-term affects. Maybe Spain’s national airline felt that they were engaging in harmless fun, simply teasing their colonial little brother Cuba, but not everyone shared Iberia’s interpretation. Ruben Sanchez, a spokesperson for Facua, a Spanish consumer rights group, found the commercial to be sexist and generally offensive to Cubans. Facua called for the advertisement, which is part of a set of commercials for Iberia’s website, to be pulled. Iberia complied. They apologized, stating that the ad was not meant to offend anyone, and removed it from television on May 16th. But considering that someone had thought up the commercial and allowed it to air in the first place, the damage had already been done.
When I saw the ad for the first time, I thought beyond sexism. Before me was a representation of women of African descent that has somehow lasted for more than three centuries. I saw an animated articulation of the remnants of European colonial dominance over a Caribbean nation and its women. There was so much to take in from such a short clip that I wanted to slow down and think about it in parts. I watched the video again, this time in silence. After muting the volume, I began to mentally catalogue the images I saw. Before the clip commenced, a tableau appeared of a fair-skinned baby in a rocking chair surrounded by two brown-skinned, dark haired, large lipped women frozen mid-dance, holding maracas and wearing bikini tops with Daisy Duke cutoff shorts. Once the video unfolded, it seemed. . . fairly harmless, but three things stood out to me:
1. The color contrast between the baby and his adult playmates.
Both women featured in the commercial have brown skin, one a shade slightly darker than the other, and the men who provide musical accompaniment for the commercial are also varying shades of brown, from light to dark. This contrast is common in tourism advertisements, particularly those in Europe and the United States (with the exception of the recent Bahamas vacation ads). The tourist is almost always white and the “natives” are always brown, black, or yellow. Last time I checked, people of color also go on vacation, but maybe advertising executives don’t want to confuse the consumer audience by featuring them as tourists alongside people who look just like them. Funny enough, this never seems to be a problem in white-on-white ads encouraging people to go to European countries.
2. The caricatured bodies and faces of the women in the ad.
Given, it’s a cartoon. Illustrators are known to utilize exaggeration as a way of adding humor to a piece or simply demonstrating the breadth of their artistic abilities. The women’s bodies and faces, however, stood out to me because they were somewhat reminiscent of blackface imagery. The “mulatas” have large red lips and eyes, and emphasis was added to showcase their rotund bottoms and wide-set hips. I have lost count of how many times I have seen the image of a black and/or Latina woman with exaggerated body parts, particularly those that signify fertility and sexual prowess (i.e. hips, butt, breasts, lips), in advertising, film, and television. Another image that stuck with me is the women’s body language in some scenes. They are shown more than once with their hands on their hips, another commonly featured image of brown women but usually one that alludes to domination or anger. It’s an interesting choice to have animated the women with arms akimbo, particularly because the stance usually evokes cultural meaning that runs somewhat counter to the subservient actions of the women throughout the commercial. Their positioning seems to convey, at times, a message of surrogate motherhood, an ironically Oedipal statement considering the sexualization of the women. Yet considering slave-master relationships of yore, when rape of women and the female offspring that resulted from such forced liaisons was common, maybe this image isn’t so ironic.
3. Images of the women dancing for the baby’s entertainment and providing for his every need to secure his comfort while on their island playground.
The women’s smiling faces while dancing, feeding, fanning, and massaging the child throughout the commercial resonated with me. The image was hauntingly reminiscent of the “happy darky” representations of blacks before and after slavery and even the abolitionist ads that portrayed blacks as passive and harmless in hopes to quell fears that freed slaves would pose a threat to whites. Because of Cuba’s highly politicized global position in addition to the fact that it was once one of Spain’s colonial possessions, it comes as no surprise that the ad's creators used women, and passive women at that, to demonstrate that Cuba was safe, an optimal travel destination.
I then turned on the volume and watched the commercial again. Here are excerpts from what I heard (all to a reggaeton beat, mind you):
“me marche huyendo de panales y papillas (I’m fleeing diapers and baby food) /volando, llegue hasta estas calidas orillas (after flying, I arrived on
these warm beaches) he venido aqui por la cara (slang: I’ve come here for fun)”
The meaning here is pretty obvious. The baby needs a vacation, and quick! But what exactly would he do for “fun” and why would his “fun” involve two women? Hmm. . . He quickly explains:
. . . “mulatas dan me de comer y dan me de beber” (the mulatas (women of black/Spanish mixed racial origin) feed me and give me things to drink)/
ingrese Iberia.com, ya no quiero volver! (I typed in "Iberia.com" and I
don't ever want to go back!)
So let’s re-cap. The baby wins a vacation and is whisked away to Cuba where he is waited on hand and food by two brown-skinned multiracial women who give him whatever he wants. Then he brings it home with a few lines from the chorus:
mulatas: Esta chupao, esta chupao! (It’s easy! It’s easy!)/
baby: vengan mamitas (come here, mamitas)/
mulatas: Esta chupao, esta chupao! (It’s easy! It’s easy!)/
baby: Lleven me a la cuna (Take me to my crib)
Iberia swears it didn’t mean to offend anyone. If that were the case, however, I question why they opted to feature only brown-skinned women as the baby’s sexy caretakers? Cuba has an incredibly diverse population, after all, with many of its citizens tracing their ancestry back to Africa, Asia, Europe, and indigenous groups. Is it that brown “mulata” women are the first ones who come to mind when one thinks of Cuba? Possibly. But when you compound some of the commercial’s content with history, you end up with heavy results. For example, consider the commercial’s sly sexual references like “take me to my crib” and the fact that the baby refers to the women with the flirty term “mamitas.” These lines are framed by the lyrics “esta chupao,” a shortened, European Spanish version of a longer phrase “esta chupado,” which means something is “easy.” In English, the adjective “easy,” when used to refer to women and girls, signifies promiscuity. In Spanish, this is also the case (“mujer/chica fácil”). Combine the aforementioned with the women’s subservience, their national origin, and their physical image in the commercial. Also consider Cuba's reliance on tourism as a major source of revenue following its political separation from the USSR in the 1980s. This shift catalyzed a significant increase in prostitution, making Cuba no stranger to sex tourism, many of its customers coming from wealthier nations, including Spain. Finally, add in a few thoughts about the term “mulata,” which, though commonly used in Spanish and not in necessarily an offensive way, nevertheless has a loaded meaning and comes with its own stereotypes in Spanish and Latino history. Iberia had created a recipe for disaster.
One would think that Iberia would have re-thought the creation and airing of this ad, particularly in light of the public condemnation of racism and discriminatory behavior in Spain. After several soccer players of African descent were verbally assaulted at games by fans alike, an anti-racism group called Kick It Out was formed and Nike launched a campaign called Stand Up Speak Up in hopes of countering racism within international football. Groups like SOS Racismo and Amnesty International have criticized Spain’s handling of illegal immigration by way of a border fence and trigger-happy border patrollers.
Yet despite all this, the people at Iberia didn’t get the memo.