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White Gypsies. Race and Stardom in Spanish Musicals by Eva Woods Peiró (review)
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White Gypsies is the first micro history of the 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” (p. x) explains Eva Woods Peiró in the opening lines of her valuable book. With the first ground breaking, and timely, critical study, the author fills a gap in an area that required more in depth research. So far, Spanish film musicals have received little attention as a noteworthy genre. Traditionally, they were associated with the early Franco dictatorship of the 1940s and 1950s and mainly, but not exclusively, related to Gypsies. As such they were considered as an escapist form of entertainment produced for the realm of mass entertainment.

This book traces the development of a racial vision whose most salient expression manifested itself through the Gypsy-face and characters in early to mid-twentieth-century Spanish folkloric musical comedy films. Woods Peiró argues that folkloric film has its origins in a range of Gypsy histories, story cycles, media and performance practices. These various texts give range and depth to folkloric film’s melodramatic narrative and stars called (folklóricas) exposing viewers to historical discourses of a race particular to the Iberian Peninsula. Folkloric musical films were commercially profitable but reduced Spain mainly to a country being associated with flamenco and bullfighting. The author reminds the reader that ever since Spanish Gypsies have been the subjects of literary works – starting as far back as Rojas’s La Celestina and Cervantes’s La gitanilla, there has been a recurrent paradoxical tension in their representation which took on a different form in the years of pre-Franco’s regime.

Woods Peiró’s systematic account of the Spanish musicals from the first half of the twentieth century is full of references and comments on two proceeding studies namely of Richard J. Pym on the early history of Gypsies in Spain and that of Lou Charnon-Deutsch’s extremely well documented book about the history of a ‘European obsession’ that includes the representations of Spanish Gypsies in literature and film.

Both these studies serve as a good foundation for Woods Peiró’s current work and facilitate understanding of the history of Spanish Gypsies, different modes of their representation and a fascinating tale of the evolving notion of Gypsy identity.

As Woods Peiró rightly points out, Charnon-Deutsch’s book is a historical journey through the European imaginary, taking us from Golden Age Spain to eighteenth-and nineteenth-century France and England, and finalizing the journey back to twentieth-century Spain. Charnon-Deutsch also traces the origins of the many myths and stereotypes that surround the Gypsies and analyses how these myths have contributed to create a Gypsy identity.

With the wealth of preceding information Woods Peiró focuses on the Gypsies’ story as told through the medium of Spanish musicals in which questions of perception and representation of national as well as ethnic identity constitute part of her narrative.

She reminds us at the beginning of her study that Spain’s constitution does not recognize or define ethnic minorities and that she terms Gypsies to refer to the fictional or filmic construct that is different to the terminology of actual, historical people whom she refers to as Roma. She explains that film study in her book serves as a vehicle for understanding the social, legal, and structural inequalities presented in the films and how racial, sexual, and class anxieties reverberate within their filmic forms and their complex meanings.

The book is also about the development of a vision of Gypsy characters in early to mid-twentieth-century Spanish musical comedy films. In the years forming the basis of this study, Spanish films portrayed Spanish Gypsies as the world wanted to see them, romantic stereotypes that were conveyed in prose by French travellers which established the fiery Gypsy Carmen as a Spanish icon. From Prosper Merimée and his story of Spanish Carmen in 1845 Andalucía became an escape for tourists from industrialized countries.

The study consists of six chapters. The first chapter relates to the silent films and their melodramatic use of the colonialist narratives that in...

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