Published October 11 2013, Sensa Nostra Magazine
It’s not easy to be the one who sticks out when you lack agency over it. For example if it's a physical feature. Certain ones have a long history of being singled out and made the aim of attack. One of these features is red hair. Rojo (Spanish for ‘red’), who has just finished his studies in Berlin, talks about growing up as one of the few redheads in his Spanish hometown.
Being red haired in Spain has always been about being related to the devil. The ginger color means you have been touched by the fire of hell. They considered us tainted during the Spanish inquisition when they used it as an excuse to kill redheads – often also relating it to being Jewish – and the superstition still holds itself strong in places.
Supposedly, seeing a redhead is the equivalent to breaking a mirror: seven years of bad luck. There is a superstition that if you see a redhead you have to touch a button otherwise the redhead will bring you bad luck. The priest at my school held onto that one. You could always see him touch a button when I came along. He wasn’t the only one. Once, I went to this store I always used to go to, where everyone knew me. But one day they’d hired a new girl. When I came in she frantically started looking around and mumbling, “Oh shit I don’t have one,” and then she ran out of the store. She came back a few minutes later all calm again. I just looked at her and asked, “So did you find a button?” She looked at me a bit dumbfounded and asked how had I known that’s what she’d gone out for. I was sixteen when this happened and I have never forgotten this incident.
Growing up I had tons of nicknames and most of them were insults. The one that annoyed me the most when I was a kid was zanahorio. It comes from the Spanish word for “carrot,” but it’s a personalized version for it, kind of translating into “human carrot.” I faced insults every day, probably even more than in Anglophone countries, because although they have the phenomenon of ridiculing redheads there too, it was just so much more rare to be redheaded where I grew up. In my entire city, there were maybe four redheads in total. I went to an all boys school with over a thousands pupils where I was the oldest of three redheads. In my opinion there were two options as a redhead: you either got into fights all the time, or you tried to keep out of sight.
In my case, I was lucky because I had my twin. We look different because he’s got dark hair and is a strong motherfucker; he had a six-pack by the age of four. He was like my bodyguard at school. If someone went over the limit of tolerable jokes directed at me, he’d put them back into place. Everyone knew he could take on anyone, so no one ever messed with him. He was always very protective of me. This only worked for the older ones, though. The younger kids were a different matter, since he wouldn’t have ever beaten them up, so they always came in groups to pick on me. It was easy to poke fun back at them, but that only turned them against me more, and over the years the hate just accumulated and got bigger.
The thing is I wouldn't let the kids making fun of me really get to me. I’d always keep cool and calm, but my brother lost his nerve completely when people were bullying me. I guess it’s the same for me, too; if someone would make fun of my brother, I’d see red.
Two of the younger redheads at school didn’t have brothers to protect them, so when someone was bullying them I’d go over and pretend I was their older cousin, so they would at least leave them alone for the time being.
While my brother would use physical force, I just became good with words. When people make fun of you all the time, and look at you strangely, you adapt to that in your way. I became a manipulator. Making people do what I wanted them to do was easy; if someone was making fun of me I’d deflect that negative energy onto someone else in their group, so they’d end up going after that person.
For my mother, who is also a redhead, it was worse because she was a girl. My mother comes from a liberal family and her hometown in Malaga is a fisher town and everyone’s laid back and no one cares how you dress. But then she moved to Granada for University, where it is stricter and more traditional. The first day of University was windy and cold, so she decided to put on jeans. Halfway there she had to turn back, because people were shouting abuse and slander at her. She had to go back home and change into a skirt. Because she had red hair and wore jeans, they treated her like a whore. And she was a studying to become a doctor.
But of course it’s much better now that people are more familiar with redheads. Not like back then when they’d loose their shit when they saw me. The question absolutely everyone still asks me though, then as well as now is: “Are you red-haired all over?!” If it’s an attractive woman asking I’m usually tempted to tell her I’ll show her if she likes. I’ve learnt to be very relaxed about the whole matter and not get unnecessarily offended.
The only times I didn't feel out of place as a kid by the way were the summers spent in Ireland. I was surrounded by so many more redheads. For me suddenly not standing out was a weird feeling, but it was really nice. In Granada if I got into a fight, everyone knew it was me because there were only four of us. You stand out so much it’s a hassle, and it stopped me from doing so many things. I saw many kids do crazy things that no one remembers, but in my case they would have remembered it for the rest of their lives. So I was careful to stay out of trouble. But hey, if someone gave me the choice, I’d always pick being a redhead again. It’s me. It’s what has come to define me. Not only in relation to how I learnt to deal with people’s attitudes and separate the important from what can be ignored – it’s special and I like it.