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(CNN) — A Spanish tradition of people wearing blackface to represent one of the Three Wise Men — or Three Kings — in parades across the country has sparked calls to end the controversial practice.
The events are held on January 6 to celebrate the arrival of the wise men (“reyes magos”) into Bethlehem for the birth of Christ. People fill the streets and exchange gifts in the evening to mark the end of the Christmas season in Spain.
One of the wise men, Balthazar, is often depicted as a Middle Eastern or Black man in art, according to Western church tradition.
In several Spanish towns and cities, including Alcoy in Valencia and Igualada in Catalonia, Balthazar’s assistants wear blackface during parades.
Criticism of this controversial practice has grown in recent years, with calls for the use of blackface to be scrapped and for Balthazar to be played by a Black person.
People at the parades wear blackface to emulate Balthazar.
Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images
Afrofeminas, an anti-racism group, wants the practice to be abolished.
“It doesn’t matter what you think you’re trying to represent. It doesn’t matter that you think that’s how you make children happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tradition. If you paint yourself a color that is not yours, it is racist,” said Elvira Swartch Lorenzo, a member of the group, in a statement.
“The parade helps to normalize slavery as something harmless and inconsequential in the collective imagination, which is completely untrue,” Lorenzo said.
Afrofeminas argues that the old tradition perpetuates modern injustices. The “dehumanizing stereotypes” peddled by the practice stoke further prejudice against migrant populations in the places where the parades are held, the group adds.
TV3, a television channel in Catalonia, told CNN that they only broadcast from the parade in Barcelona, where blackface is not used.
“TV3 has rejected proposals to broadcast some cavalcades live precisely because blackface was performed,” said a spokesperson for the channel Thursday.
Yet despite criticism, preparations for this year’s parade, which will be held on Friday, press on. The organizers of the event in Igualada told CNN that “about 1,000 volunteers” will participate in the parade.
“Participation for this celebration is open to the entire population, without any type of distinction or discrimination,” said the Organizing Committee of the Cavalcade of the Kings of Igualada. They said the volunteers are “the reflection of an open [and] inclusive” city.
The organizers said “we are always respectful towards criticism,” adding that “critiques are analyzed and taken through an internal process of debates.”
The organizers said they had trialed solutions “that continue to include the historical side of the celebration, the volunteers and the citizens of the city.” However, they did not specify what these solutions involved nor how they planned to respond to the criticism faced by the parade.
“This year, 2023, and like it has been done since 1899, the parade in Igualada will be majestic, and most importantly, it will be magical,” organizers added.
Jordi Martinez, deputy mayor of Alcoy, has defended the tradition. “For those that dress up it’s an honor, it’s not a degrading thing,” he told newspaper La Vanguardia.
He conceded that “in time steps will have to be taken” to reflect the concerns of those who oppose the practice, but ultimately “the success of the parade is that we make it as traditional as possible.”
CNN’s Jack Guy contributed reporting.