As a sophomore at Wesleyan, I spent a semester in Madrid. Typically, only juniors completed semesters abroad—but I was an eager student and a Hispanophile, and I bargained my way into the program.

On a mild August day, I found myself on my host's front steps, her building old and ornate. I rang the bell, then smoothed my skirt. When the heavy door opened, I smiled. "¡Hola! ¡Me llamo Chrishaunda!" The small Madrilenian woman stepped backward and shouted, "¡No eres china!"—"You are not Chinese!"—and abruptly shut the door.

I stood there bewildered, until I realized: My last name, Lee, had led her to expect an Asian woman, not the almond-eyed, full-lipped black girl before her.

When I was 9, I'd stood in a white friend's living room feeling almost sorry for her mother as she stuttered a thin excuse for why her daughter couldn't sleep over at my home. I was not yet a teenager when a white boy's mother learned of my crush on him—he was also sweet on me—and declined to pass the phone to him so often that I stopped calling. Those wounds were more subtle. Until my Madrid host, I'd never been blatantly denied something because of my race.

Maybe I was young and naïve. Or angry. Whatever the reason, I couldn't accept her response. I rang the bell again. Slowly, the woman opened the door a crack. After I showed her my ID, she sat me in the foyer and made a call, presumably asking my school what had gone wrong.

I watched the woman speak, a trembling hand lifting a cigarette to her mouth. She appeared to be in her mid-60s, old enough to have grown up under Franco, whose dictatorship hadn't exactly inspired brotherly love among Spaniards. I'd been told how scarce dark-skinned people were in Madrid. I thought, She's probably never met a black person before. My pulse began to slow, as though I were returning to myself. She handed me the phone.

Speaking in Spanish, so the woman could understand, I told the administrator I'd like to stay. "She just doesn't know me yet," I said. Smiling, I handed the phone back to my host, who seemed embarrassed and reluctantly agreed.

So I moved in. It took a week for the woman to stop shutting herself in her room in the evening. Gradually, we started to build a rapport, eating at a small kitchen table as she asked about my day. I would respond in Spanish and she would correct my accent until, after many days, she declared I spoke perfect castellano. I don't eat meat, and she joked that my fondness for lentils would save her enough to buy a fur coat.

We watched a game show, Lo que necesitas es amor (What You Need Is Love), in which people were embraced or rejected by a past flame. I showed her El príncipe de Bel Air and the Spanish version of the Wesley Snipes film New Jack City (she loved both) and played her D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" as I buffed her nails. "Las uñas me recuerdan a las uñas de mi abuela," I'd say. ("Your nails remind me of my grandmother's.") She'd just smile and hum along.

Once, as we walked home hand in hand after a movie, we ran into a few women she knew. They looked stricken. "¡Pero, ella es una morena!" one said. I knew morena could be used as a slur, like the N word. My Spanish mother shot back, "Ella no es una morena. ¡Ella es mi hija!"—"She is not a n-----. She is my daughter!" Her arm around my waist now, we continued on.

I've often thought about what would have happened if I hadn't stayed with her. My peers' hosts had children and careers; my friends had been left largely alone. Meanwhile, my host introduced me to foods like the cherimoya, a fruit I love to this day. For my birthday, she made me a vegan-friendly fruit pie instead of an egg-filled cake.

Had I left that first day, I wouldn't have learned that love can change us. If two people who possess a spirit of openness spend enough time together, they will grow fond of each other. Our humanity makes this so. I'd like to think that semester in Madrid changed my host mother. I hope that after I left, if she met people who looked like me, she left the door open.

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