Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
White GypsiesRace and Stardom in Spanish Musicals$

Eva Woods Peiró

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780816645848

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816645848.001.0001

Show Summary Details

(p.ix) Preface

(p.ix) Preface

White Gypsies
University of Minnesota Press

While I was writing this book, several global media events resonated in all-too-familiar ways with the films that I discuss. In 2004, in anticipation of his performance in Madrid, Ben Harper, the popular African American musician, was lauded as “Cantautor negro, corazón blanco” (Black singer, white heart) (El país, 28 May 2004).1 The surprising cachet that this expression still has in the early twentyfirst century was echoed by the tragic death and subsequent perverse memorialization of Michael Jackson, whose desire to be white replicated the fate of the Afro-Cuban protagonist in El negro que tenía el alma blanca (The black man with a white soul).

In the political sphere several European governments, among them Spain, established the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005, suggesting that public opinion was leaning toward a more hopeful and expanded political consciousness of people of Roma descent. In January 2010, Spain assumed the EU presidency, and the year was labeled the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion;2 immediately after, the Roma advocate George Soros called upon Spain to lead Europe in bettering the conditions of the Roma. Following this request, the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, announced that during his presidency he would push for initiatives for the pueblo gitano (Gypsy people), and in April 2010 he officially recognized the celebration of the Second European Roma Summit.

Yet in the aftermath of the August 2010 order by French prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy to dismantle three hundred Roma camps and expel from French soil thousands of Roma men, women, and children, a curious article by Andrés Cala appeared in the September 16, 2010, issue of Time magazine. The title, “Spain’s Tolerance for Gypsies: A Model for Europe?” opportunistically showcases the purportedly good behavior of Spanish governmental authorities toward their Roma, in stark contrast to the French deportations. Cala’s article embellishes the past and present of Roma with questionable statistics and (p.x) euphemistic references to the sedentary Spanish Gypsy population, a misleading term that whitewashes centuries of violent assimilationist protocols—restrictions on language, dress, and profession—as well as state-sanctioned segregation.3 Spain has not, it is implied, misused European social funds in this time of austerity. “Spain is different,” he explains. Any reader remotely familiar with Spain’s history would wince at this expression, which was coined by Manuel Fraga, Spain’s minister of information and tourism from 1962 to 1969. Whereas most writers today use the expression for sarcastic emphasis, Cala blithely offers this cliché as if it were a novel tourism slogan. Perhaps, he knows full well that if Spain became a new and better destination for European Roma, the grandiose façade of tolerance would crumble.

Whatever Cala’s aims, his (faux) tourist catchphrase dovetails perfectly with its human interest story, anchored by a racial uplift narrative. Including just one interview with a token Roma person, a certain Antonio Moreno, owner of a four-bedroom home replete with a swimming pool and a photography and video studio, Cala simplifies and naturalizes the remarkable success of one individual within a complex macrocosm, erasing the Roma’s long history of virtual economic slavery in Spain. In other words, Time makes commonplace the unique trajectory of Mr. Moreno, who has risen above the drug trade while living on “Madrid’s most dangerous street.”

Time’s story displays remarkable similarities to the films discussed in this book. Like the quasi or white Gypsies who starred in these films, Moreno’s gumption and inherent talent allowed him to “make it,” to move up and secure a spot on the stage of Spanish modernity. Both Moreno and Morena Clara’s protagonist demonstrate the powerful ideology of this mobility narrative, which continues to appease and inspire non-Roma audiences by whitewashing the historical violence toward Roma in Spain. Whether literary, journalistic, or filmic, stories of hypervisual (white) Gypsies constitute an archive organized under a regime of racialized vision whose contents—folkloric (primarily Andalusian) musical comedy films popular between the 1920s and the 1950s—are linked to important geopolitical strategies and conflicts.

White Gypsies is the first microhistory of these musical comedies to focus on the intersection of race and modernity and thus runs counter to most academic, critical, and virtually all mainstream views of the genre. My analyses will probably not coincide with how Spaniards have (p.xi) remembered or interpreted these films. Movie audiences of the time might have enjoyed these comedies as escapist fare or even as comforting, or bracing, flirtations with lawlessness and transgression. With the energy of song, the appeal of stardom, and the accompanying lure of film fan and marketing culture, these films, at least since 1975, have triggered nostalgia for a past unburdened by the demands of history and politics.

Exactly how such films were consumed when they were released is elusive, but their critical significance lies in the historical terrorization of the Roma, popularly known as the Gypsies, and other groups of color in Spain. The way these groups were known—gitanos, mulatos, negros, moros—was directly influenced by language and law, knowledges built upon the construction of otherness. For this reason I have carefully chosen my terminology so as to separate the fictional or filmic construct—what I term Gypsy—from the actual, historical people, whom I refer to as Roma.4 In this book film study thus is not an end in itself but a vehicle for understanding the social, legal, and linguistic constructions of race and their material effects, a structural inequality which is in turn transversely present in cinema. By laying bare the inscription of race into film, this analysis demonstrates that the story of self and racialized other is a key structural component of Spanish mass entertainment.

Film’s role in the racialization of Spanish culture has largely been ignored, however. Racialization refers to the process by which race was used descriptively in “situations in which it was previously absent” (Murji and Solomos, 17). But it is not enough to merely point out racism. We must probe racial constructions and their dynamics. David Theo Goldberg encourages framing such analyses of racialization so that they are “regionally prompted” and “parametered”—or mapped within their own material and intellectual histories, prior conditions, and specific modes of articulation—in order to avoid categorizing different modalities of racialization in broad, ideal terms (“Racial Americanization,” 87). Goldberg seeks to analyze racial Americanization, but the concern of this study is with racial Spanishization. In Spain racialized social practices such as the written or visual representation of otherness were in place long before Columbus’s voyages, and they were manifest in the Spanish state’s structures of government and representation—in short, in its management of populations (p.xii) (Mariscal, 15). Therefore, although the conversation around discourses of race has changed over time, continuities are evident in the way that strategies of coercion converged in the imperialist drive to protect an authentic, unitary national identity while simultaneously participating in the larger European project of capitalist modernity.

In the 1990s immigration flows from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Latin America and the Caribbean, prompted a range of reactions from scholars, media networks, and politicians. Conversations about race thus reemerged and vacillated between reactionary fears of an invasion by Arabs and angry postcolonial subjects to progressives’ condemnations of these views. Many film scholars, who have rightly located these discussions within the racialized social practices and historical contiguities of coloniality, have restricted their focus to the genre of immigration cinema of the 1990s to the present. Detaching the racialization of recent immigration as it plays out in film from the larger archive of Spanish film enacts historical and philosophical blindness. It denies that racialized visions—frameworks such as borders and visibility—have been fundamental to the production of knowledge under Spanish modernity and that they inhere as much in today’s cultural processes and artifacts as they did in the cinema of the early twentieth century.

In the visual regime the overly visible figure of the Gypsy plays a disproportionate role in representing Spain in fiction and film (Charnon-Deutsch, “Exoticism,” 254), embodying the popular understanding of racial realities and molding these realities in the process. In this book I show how racial, sexual, and class anxieties reverberate within the filmic forms and throughout their complex plays of meaning. Exploring the racial parameters of a filmic genre obsessed with identity, I reinterpret these texts and their contexts in light of their Gypsy-faced white Gypsies or racialized characters and performers. These imaginary individuals index how racial thinking is projected and understood in a broad swath of Spanish cinema. Understanding these racialized mappings does not in itself enact social change, but it can inform the attitudes of scholars, teachers, and students toward the seemingly endless struggle against poverty and racism that continues in twenty-first-century Spain. It is to this committed, critical reading of the white Gypsy archive that we now turn.


(1.) Throughout, all translations of Spanish-language sources are mine.

(2.) See “Comienza el año europeo de lucha contra la pobreza y la exclusión social,” http://www.gitanos.org/index.html, February 2, 2010.

(3.) Spain’s constitution does not recognize or define ethnic minorities. Although there is emphasis on the protection of the individual, this individual is positioned as a white European. In statistical terms, then, Roma are not distinguished from the rest of Spaniards but are considered citizens equal to all other citizens under the law. Since the law does not allow for the gathering of disaggregated census data based on race, sex, or gender, theorizing or quantifying the historical and present condition of Roma as minorities thus is not possible. As a result existing data on groups such as the Roma is primarily secured by sociological research in universities and in private studies (see the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Article 3, http://conventions.coe.int/treaty/en/treaties/html/157.htm), while official governmental organizations such as Spain’s National Institute of Statistics and NGOs are incapacitated when collecting offcial statistical data on Spanish Roma.

(4.) According to Humberto García González-Gordon from the Fundación Secretariado Gitano, gitano is the term used today by most Roma and non-Roma Spaniards, while Roma is employed by organs of the European Union. Yet because Gypsy has negative connotations in North American English, as well as among North American Roma, I have opted to retain the term Roma for the historical people and Gypsy for the stereotype.