On the surface, and according to mainstream scholarship (the little that exists) on 20th century musical films in Spain, folkloricas were nothing but fascist propaganda, based on and endlessly propagating a range of cliched narratives, performances, and myths about Spanishness, femininity, honor, drama, and comedy. No beef with this reading—on the surface, they do appear as such. Eva Peiró’s goal is to excavate and examine the layers that may exist beneath the immediate narrative of the films she studies, specifically tracing a genealogy of the development of a nationalistic vision born of racial difference.

To make her arguments, Peiro mobilizes a long history of Roma representation in the Iberian tradition, from as early as 1613 with Cervante’s La Gitanilla. As much as the censorship apparatus sought to reduce the Roma presence into a cohesive binary of law-abiding, integration-friendly Gypsies and lawless, unassimilable ones, Peiro’s mission is to demonstrate that these films negotiate the ambivalence with which Spanishness always necessarily must treat its Gypsy other. This ambivalence is not in itself exclusive to Gypsies (Jewishness, Blackness, Moorishness, all relate to Spanishness in differently ambivalent fashion), but a more nuanced look reveals the importance, for the exporting of a Spanish identity, of upholding the equivocations of Gypsy/Spanish, while also denying Gypsies all claims to Spanishness, citizenship, and therefore access to livable conditions.

During the period where these films were produced, this space of ambivalence procured a way for Spain to fashion itself after the orientalized expectations that the rest of Europe had placed upon the Spanish “race,” therefore playing a crucial role in Cold War and colonialist scenarios. Central to this orientalization were travel accounts, specially of French writers, and the role of Marimee’s eponymous Carmen figure. Chapter 4, “Law and Spatial Assimilation” focuses on films with Carmen type characters.

Chapter 4 ~ “The Gypsy Problem: Law and Spatial Assimilation”

The premise of this chapter fascinated me from the start: in it, Peiro categorizes both law and film as “narrative regimes” in ways similar to how I’ve been thinking of movement/containment in terms of citizenship/mobility (law) and bodies as archives (flamenco dancers).

Peiro’s choice to study cinema alongside Spain’s legal and social context relies on the narrativizing function that these two spheres of discourse and social control have in common. This leads her to agree with Black (Law in Film: Resonance and Representation, 1999) in the conclusion that melodrama and law are reciprocal and mutually influencing (148). Among the functions of this narrative is the anticipation of 1) a modern Spanish citizen, defined by his unshakable allegiance to the law, and 2) its opposite: a lawless Gypsy, the lived experience of whom is discursively (narratively) displaced in favor of an imagined social life of the Roma people as represented through centuries of stereotyped stories.

Important points to note about anti-Roma legislation: there wasn’t—not in Republican, nor in Fascist constitutions—any explicit language about Gypsies as a separate social/class/racial category. Peiro submits that such a language in penal codes would have meant an undesired acknowledgement of the nation’s heterogeneity. Instead, the law banned the practices of “vagrants and vagabonds,” another ancient metonymic association with the Roma in Spain and other parts of Europe.

But these laws—also important to note—never succeeded in their implementation, which led to harsher laws. On the flip side, when progressive leaders came in (Carlos III, and later “liberal” Constitutions of 1812 and Second Rep 1936), anti-Roma de facto punishments and discriminatory measures still occurred, despite government attempts to legally include Gypsy communities into the social fabric. All in all, what remains constant is the paternalistic element in the relationship between the hegemon and Gypsy communities—the main interests to be protected were those of the economic, bourgeoise classes. Even in their best intentions (Peiro here mentions Lorca without mentioning him, instead saying “the literary bourgeoise” and their attempts to revalorize the deep song and the traditional Andalusian culture), the bourgeoise class’s efforts did little to ameliorate the material, social conditions of Gypsies.

I want to think more about the figure of the folklorica. The folklorica is the female Gypsy character who embodies the narrative of economic/class uplift by representing the jump to flamenco stardom while progressively assimilating into standards of feminine modernity. As a whitened Gypsy, her ability to pass by mimicking the social norms of the bourgeoise while on her way to stardom places her simultaneously on the side of difference and assimilated otherness. Unfit for total assimilation, however, the folklorica also embodies a great anxiety about the instability of the raza, the inherent mestizaje of a Spanish national identity, a fact that, in the context of the emergence of a racialized European modern subjectivity, functions simultaneously as Spain’s modern ideal, “Spain’s ‘coming out’ as a Western nation which disavows the Gypsy/Other and affirms Spain’s advancements toward capitalism” (177).

To understand the role of the folklorica, I will have to understand a lot more about the role of the economic factor—after all, the narrative and promise of stardom is social uplift. Moreover, the economic conditions of late 19th and early 20th century when flamenco congealed as a musical style were also characterized by an inrush of northern tourism, which quickly became a large pillar of the nation’s economic structure (155), peaking in the late 1970s. From the start, flamenco stars and their filmic depictions have invested in pleasing the money-giving, foreign gaze.

In Maria de la O, the promise of marrying into the upper class family of the American visitor (who ends up being not an American visitor at all, but Maria’s biological dad), overtakes and directs Maria’s career, her love decisions (she’s tragically in love with a gitano), and ultimately the film’s narrative.

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