Xenophobia and Racism in Contemporary Spanish Cinema
Yolanda Molina Gavilán
Thomas J. Di Salvo
Ever since Spain embarked on the cultural voyage of rescuing its European condition, with 1992 as a symbol to mark this outward mission, most of the country's efforts have been directed toward its political, economic, social and intellectual integration into Western Europe. Spain's political move to the right in the 1900's with regard to immigration policy comes as no surprise, since it mirrors Europe's restrictive policies that began in the 1980's (Agap 1997:138). (1) In spite of recent declarations of good will toward illegal immigrants on the part of British and Spanish political leaders, Western Europe's supranational identity is becoming increasingly dependent on the cultural and racial barricade, or what is popularly referred to as "Fortress Europe." (2) "Spain has to protect its own borders," stated in 1998 Enrique Beaumud, a Spanish government representative in Melilla, adding: "And we also have a big responsibility towards Europe. We can't let Ceuta and Melilla become trampolines to get into Spain" (García-Zarza 2000).
Scholarly works show that immigration is not a pressing political or social problem in Spain, where foreign migrant workers only comprise a small percentage of the population (Mendoza 1997: 51, 71; Apap 1997: 147). (3) In spite of this, the media often conveys the distorted and frightful idea that Spain is undergoing a veritable invasion from the South. Telling metaphors in newspaper headlines such as: "Immigrants: the tide grows: Each year the Number of African who Try to Enter Europe Grows (Inmigrantes 1999)" suggests that there are hordes of unskilled, poor, black, Arab or Latin American immigrants who are destitute and desperate to reach the European Promised Land by way of Spain. Although exaggerated, the alarmist response found in press releases and also in isolated instances of anti-immigration violence in different parts of Spain is nonetheless indicative of a xenophobic mentality that has dangerous implications for Spaniards, for marginal groups within Spain, and for the immigrant population to which their country is host. There are at least forty different neo-nazi groups in Spain today, a fact that explains such fears as the one expressed by Esteban Ibarra, President of Youth Against Intolerance, when he states that "a new generation of extremists could resurface in Spain, boosted by the strengthening of the organized right in Europe (Qassim 1998)."
It is this same xenophobic attitude that several prominent Spanish filmmakers such as Montxo Armendáriz (Cartas de Alou, 1990), Imanol Uribe (Bwana, 1996), Carlos Saura (Taxi, 1996) and Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón (Cosas que dejé en La Habana, 1998) have sought to expose and combat. Focusing on Spain's conversion from an exporter to a receiver of migrant workers, these films function as a fictional mirror in which Spaniards can critically look at themselves face to face with the racial, economic, national, political, religious and gendered Other. Guillermo Gómez-Peña's (1993:47) observation regarding Hispanic immigrants in the United States applies to the Spain of the nineties: "Fear is the sign of the times...They are scared of us, the other, taking over their country, their jobs, their neighborhoods...To them, 'we' are a whole package." As we shall see, these films call first and foremost for acceptance of the migrant and the marginal subject on the part of the intended Spanish audience, and ultimately question the legitimacy of racial isolationism for the purpose of constructing an idealized supranational European identity. (4)
Winner of the San Sebastian Film Festival Golden Seashell award in 1996, Imanol Uribe's cinematic adaptation of Ignacio del Moral's 1992 play La mirada del hombre oscuro [The Look of the Dark Man] was hailed as a breakthrough for "its loud and clear criticism of xenophobia European-style (Bwana 2000:2)." The fact that Bwana was shot in Almería, in the extreme southeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, adds an important dimension to the film's treatment of xenophobia. Given its position, Almería constitutes one of the European frontiers with Africa and thus lends itself to the metaphorical border police function, which is inscribed in the film's theme.
In the film, Antonio, his wife Dori, and their children leave behind the city in search of a restful day on the beach. The family makes a stop at an isolated restaurant, where the owners begin to harass and poke fun at Antonio, a city dweller that they consider worthy of scorn, especially because he is a taxi driver. Antonio's first brush with danger is repeated when, believing that he has lost his way, he approaches a lone recreational vehicle in the middle of the wilderness. The occupants are a trio of skinheads, two Germans and a Spaniard, who use English as their common language. In what turns out to be the first of several encounters with this group, Antonio finds the trio engaged in strenuous physical exercise. Later on, the exercise takes the form of hand-to-hand combat, a second stage of physical training that will prepare the skinheads for their "police work."
Enforcers of racial codes and boundaries, the skinheads will punish the transgression of a white woman, swimming nude with a black man. The woman in question is Dori and her accomplice is Ombasi, an African immigrant who has had to complete the last leg of his illegal journey to Spain by swimming to shore. (5) Ombasi's partner, whose dead body lies on the beach, calls to mind the many immigrants who attempt to reach Spain and die in the process. The skinheads arrive at the scene of the "crime" on motorcycles, wearing helmets and equipped with clubs, all of which, on a visual level, reinforce their symbolic status as law enforcement agents. Their role is not limited to that of policeman; they are also jury and executioner. One of them asks, " What's the penalty for a fucking nigger swimming naked with a white girl?" to which another answers, "castration."
The intervention of the skinheads is foreshadowed on three separate occasions. When Antonio first encounters Ombasi, he says: "Get out of here or I'll call the police." In a later scene we hear him say, " When we find the police, this bastard will get what's coming to him." The call to law enforcement is reiterated by Antonio's wife, who states: "We'll have to tell the police [about Ombasi] when we see them." The desire of the couple is ironically and symbolically fulfilled by the skinheads who assume the role of the Spanish police.
It can be argued that Antonio and Dori never intend for Ombasi to be, more than likely, brutally castrated by the skinheads, but by abandoning him and refusing to rescue him from his ruthless pursuers, they are doing precisely that. The couple is fully aware of the fate that awaits Ombasi, and their failure to act thus takes on the meaning of a tacit approval of his complete elimination. This underlying desire is voiced by Dori earlier when, contemplating the negative turn of events, she focuses her attention on Ombasi. "It's all his fault," she says. " We were happy until he appeared. Why did he come?" Ombasi's fate also has implications for the spectators since, as Isabel Santaolalla (1999:122) observes, they identify with the Spanish family and thus "must share the responsibility for the black man's tragedy."
Ombasi presents a twofold threat. In a more obvious, and superficial way he has the potential of taking work away from Spaniards; but the more poignant danger he embodies has to do with sexuality. He is viewed as a rival of the white male, which includes not only the German and Spanish skinheads, but also, and just as importantly, Antonio himself. This becomes clear in Antonio's reaction to seeing his wife swimming with Ombasi. He discloses his feelings to his son, to whom he says, "what your mother is going to get is a good beating." Antonio's reaction betrays a racist mentality and situates him on the same level as the violent skinheads, who appear at the beach at this very point in the film. Later, as the couple makes their escape, Antonio's desire for punishment and retribution is fulfilled through the skinheads.
In the 1990 film Cartas de Alou, another winner of the Golden Seashell award, the message that director Montxo Armendáriz presents us is essentially the same. In this case, the xenophobic reaction is directed against the illegal African Muslim immigrants. Here, the Sengalese protagonist Alou falls in love with and has an affair with Carmen, the daughter of a Spanish bar owner. Disapproving of the relationship, the father issues a strong warning to Alou. After spending one of several clandestine Sundays with her black lover, Carmen announces that she will reveal the truth to her father. Alou, worried about the possible consequences of their secret meetings, counsels Carmen to be careful. Later, at the train station, while Alou waves to Carmen and watches the train leave, he is arrested by the police. It is worth noting that he is not apprehended by the police while engaged in illegal work such as peddling jewelry, picking fruit, or operating a sewing machine. (6) Although Alou is presumably arrested for not having an approved work contract, the film points to another reason why he must be deported. His arrest comes at the very point that his relationship with Carmen threatens to become visibly real, which has clear, racist implications.
In his last of a series of letters that function as a voice-over commentary throughout the film Alou writes: "I ask myself, why don't they accept me? Why do they treat me like a thief? They say Blacks sell drugs. If some do, that's no reason to accuse all of us. We trouble them, that's why they kick us out. They don't like us, but they won't tell us why." The course of events, as we have seen, provides the attentive viewer of the film with a concrete answer to Alou's poignant question, one that is based on the sexual threat that he poses. The film also offers a more general response: a reluctance on the part of Spanish society to give equal status to a person of a different color, language and religion. In this respect, the admonishment by Alou's landlady that "here we speak a Christian language," is revealing because it evokes the historical period of the Reconquest, with its emphasis on ousting all non-Christians in the name of racial and cultural purity. The Spanish xenophobic attitude towards Alou that results in open discrimination when Alou is refused service in a bar, is shown even more clearly in the scene of the fruit grove. Here, Alou is forbidden from consuming the very fruit that he and other migrant workers pick. "Hey you, Blackie! If you want to eat pears, take them from the ground," the Spanish grower tells him.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the inability of the people with whom Alou comes into contact to call him by his name, which would signify acceptance. Throughout the film, Alou is referred to with the Spanish equivalents of "You," "Darkie," "Black," and "Baltasar." (7) An individual identity is also denied to Alou's compatriot Mulai in spite of the fact that he is a legal resident and has a Spanish wife. When Alou first meets up with Mulai, he is surprised to learn that his friend is known by Spaniards as "Johnny." Commenting on this, Mulai states: "People here know me by that name. Mulai is too difficult for them. Johnny is pretty and sounds good. They learn it [the name] easily." Revealingly, Mulai has not been given an easily pronounceable Spanish name such as "Juan" or "Juanito", which suggests that he is not completely accepted into Spanish society either. (8) The importance of identity and acceptance comes to the foreground earlier in the film, when we hear Alou reading a letter he had written to Mulai. The letter describes the reaction of Alou's mother upon hearing that her son is leaving for Spain. In voice-over, we hear Alou transcribe part of the dialogue between him and his mother: "Don't cry. I'm not your only son. The other six are staying here. She looked at me sadly and said: None of them have your voice or your name." (9) As the film shows, it is precisely a voice and a name that Alou is denied by a society intent on policing its borders and keeping out the feared Other.
Carlos Saura's Taxi, released in 1996, reflects a general concern with the racist and xenophobic agenda of modern European neo-fascism, but with a Spanish twist: a lingering fear of the Spanish far-right's potential rise to power. Following a thriller format, the film focuses on a band of taxi drivers with ideological ties to a Spanish far-right group (the Falange) that take it upon themselves to clear the streets of marginal characters whom they perceive as a threat to supposedly eternal Spanish values. These groups include homosexuals, drug addicts, poor foreigners and blacks. The night-time taxi drivers--three middle-aged men and one woman who call themselves "the family"--roam the streets of Madrid actively seeking out passengers whom they have classified as trash to be disposed of by way of murder. The "family" label their victims as either "mierda" (shit), "carne" (meat) or "pescado" (fish), code words for blacks, drug addicts and homosexuals. The band's grisly undertakings are explicitly shown in several scenes that confirm just how far hate towards the Other can go. Several graphically violent images of the group's endeavors assault the spectator from the onset and set the dark tone of the film. These images include a young woman plunging to her death from the so-called "bridge of Segovia," a downtown spot notorious for suicide attempts; the decomposing body of a transvestite hanging from a crane, significantly set up against a luminous Royal Palace; and the bleeding head of a dead man. Taxi's "in your face" display of brutality and low regard for human life as depicted in the actions of characters that are middle-aged Spanish men and women serves to shatter the popularly held opinion that Spaniards are not racist.
The film's political agenda is so powerful that it usurps the central love story plot. In this respect, Taxi has been criticized as being heavy handed in its crystal clear anti-fascist message (Jordan 1998:100; Cimmino 1999:2). Yet, it is precisely the film's emphatic denunciation of xenophobia and racism in the Spain of the nineties that gives the film its cultural importance. The racism is tellingly revealed in a sequence that describes Paz's discovery of the meaning of la familia, of which her father and boyfriend Dani are a part. A montage of images and scenes aptly convey the nightmarish quality of a dream that has disrupted the young woman's sleep. One of the images shows someone writing graffiti on a wall, which consists of the words Europa Blanca followed by a swastika.
Crucial to the understanding of the film's political message is the intergenerational transformation and assimilation of ultraconservative values. How these ultra-right-wing ideas are passed down to a new generation shows a Spanish intent on becoming European while trying to retain a unique Spanish character. The inevitable generation gap that exists between the twenty- year old characters (Paz and Dani) and their parents is tempered by a shared taste for flamenco, a musical form Francoist Spain has identified as quintessentially Spanish and that contemporary Spain has reclaimed and labeled as modern and hip. Whereas the middle-aged taxi drivers-turned-vigilantes sport a Francoist look of clean and decent middle-class Spanishness, complete with fascist eagle pins and "Arriba Espana!" salutes, their young counterparts look and dress like northern European skinheads. A birthday party given in honor of one of the taxi drivers (Paz's father) at which sevillanas are danced and flamenco songs are heard, poignantly shows the underlying traditional bond between the two generations.
Dani, Paz's love interest, personifies the link with the Francoist patriotic past craved by his elders. His status as a soldier has a dual meaning--albeit temporary--of the Spanish military and also a soldier of the family cause: the restoration of a unified and homogenous Spain. This is what the "family" is seeking to recapture as it engages in its crusade to eliminate the diverse groups that the city comprises. In the words of their leader, Calero, "all of Spain is a dung heap, imported garbage." The elimination of the foreign elements within the country will only partially satisfy the taxi drivers, who also yearn for a bygone political unity. It is for this reason that Calero--referring to the Spanish autonomías--berates the Spanish political leaders who, in his words, "have divided up Spain as if it were spoils."
The ending of the film, which highlights Dani's conversion, is suggestively set in Madrid's Retiro Park, with the monument to King Alfonso XII as the background. The conspicuous presence of the monument invites the viewer to consider aspects of Spanish history that are relevant to the theme of right-wing fanaticism presented in the film. In 1876 King Alfonso XII became known as "The Pacifier" of the nation (Palacio Atard 1991:208) after dealing the final blow to the Carlists, who viewed themselves as the sole defenders of Spain, order and religion (García de Cortázar 1994:429). The Carlists, as Gerald Brenan (1943:204) explains, sought to keep the "poison" of liberalism out of late nineteenth century Spain by taking up arms against it. (10) the metaphorical significance of this traditionalist group is further reinforced through their subsequent backing of Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Knowing that she faces immanent danger (she has been targeted for elimination by the fanatical Calero), Paz wanders nervously through the Retiro Park, finally encountering the monument. As she climbs its stairs, she appears mesmerized and magnetically drawn to the statue that stands above. Her fascination is corroborated by the rather long reverse shot in which we see the statue of Alfonso from her point of view. In an effort to save Paz, Dani heroically intervenes on her behalf and stabs Calero after being shot by him. Then, before Calero can finish young Dani off, Paz recovers the older man's pistol and kills him. Modernity has triumphed over traditionalism--or, arguably, reason over fanaticism-- a process that is poetically reinforced by the monument and its historical connotation.
The script of Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón's Cosas que dejé en La Habana (1998) was written by the Spanish director himself and the Cuban writer Senel Paz. A commercial success in Spain, the film is a bittersweet comedy that focuses on the plight of Cuban illegal immigrants in Madrid. As in the previous films discussed, Spain is presented as a host country that exploits immigrants who, in turn, take advantage of their own kind, as evidenced by Mulai's treatment of Alou and other Africans.
We are first introduced to the two sets of Cuban immigrants whose stories are the focus of the film as they line up to go through customs at the Madrid airport. This scene portrays Spain as a paternalistic country that receives immigrants begrudgingly. The positioning of the camera behind the policemen allows the spectator to watch the immigrants come into the Promised Land from the privileged vantage point of an insider. When Nena, Rosa and Ludmila, three sisters who have come to Spain in search of a better life, smilingly present their documents to the policeman, he admonishes them to come up one at a time, muttering to himself: "These fucking Cubans." (11) In an exchange between Igor, a young Cuban man living in Madrid, and the recently arrived friend he has come to meet at the airport, the viewer is once again reminded that Spain's old allegiance with former American colonies has given way to a new pact with Europe. "This is not a foreign country; this is our motherland," says the friend, to which the savvy Igor replies: "The Motherland is now a bitch!"
The theme of non-acceptance of the Latin American immigrants by the Spaniards surfaces when the protagonists' aunt, an established emigré, enacts a scheme to gain legal status for one of her nieces. Her idea is to have Nena marry a Spanish man named Javier. The willingness of Javier's mother might lead one to think that she is accepting of Cubans, but that supposition quickly vanishes when the terms of the pre-nuptial agreement are laid before the niece. The mother insists that Nena renounce her rights to the son's property and to custodianship of any children produced by the marriage. It also becomes apparent that Javier's mother, knowing her son to be homosexual, is simply seeking the social respectability marriage would provide her own family.
The racist attitude of Javier's mother is repeated in Igor's relationship with his employer, a passport falsifier named Adolfo. When speaking to Igor, Adolfo does not refer to him by his name but as "cubanito" (Little Cuban), a paternalistic term that sets Igor apart from Spaniards. Adolfo's henchmen, the corrupt policemen who reap profit from the sale of illegal passports, are equally keen to make Igor feel like an outsider. They prohibit him from using any colloquial Cuban expressions when addressing them. As nothing more than a lowly servant, Igor, must sacrifice all signs of his identity and defer to the patriarchal order of the Spaniards, who beat him into submission when their direct order "don't speak to us in Cuban!" is not followed.
It is not by chance that Igor's merciless employer is named "Adolfo". This name constitutes an imbedded reference to Europe's fascist past while pointing to a desired transnational identity. As Stuart Hall (1999:39) observes, "New Europe" is "hastily cobbling together as a shield, not only against neighbors with whom they have peacefully dwelled for centuries, but also against Muslim, North African, Turkish and other migrants drawn to [it] from its peripheries." the "New Europe", however, is nothing more than a myth, a point that the Cuban aunt drives home in this way: "The only European ones here are the cows, the sheep and the chickens. People are still from the country where they were born. Look at the French, greedy and dirty, the English, a bit...weird, only the Germans are different...because Hitler educated them properly, even though they are trying to hide it now. But all of them are slowly becoming Belgian." She then instructs her newly arrived nieces to hurry up and become Spanish so they will be a step ahead in the race to become "Belgian", a code for the supranational identity that Spaniards are supposedly adopting.
Like Mulai in Cartas de Alou, the aunt is a perfect example of the "integrated" immigrant who is willing to sacrifice identity and take advantage of her compatriots to ensure success. As her nieces quickly notice, she has changed her speech habits to sound more like a Spaniard, while also abandoning Cuban dishes and eating habits in favor of those of her host country. In short, the aunt has internalized a set of values that leave no place for her Cuban identity. Using her nieces as clerks in her store and arranging for one of them to be married off to the Spanish friend's homosexual son, Javier, she ironically exploits her own kind as she attempts to make them belong to the new culture. Clearly, however, the Cuban immigrants are exploited mainly by Spaniards. In this respect, Cosas adds an ironic twist to the theme of Spain policing the borders of fortress Europe, since, as Igor points out, the police in the film are themselves part of a corrupt ring that exploits the illegal traffic of immigrants.
The precarious situation of Cuban immigrants in Cosas, and indeed of the host of other illegal residents portrayed in these four films, is poignantly conveyed in the scene in which Igor, trying to escape after stealing false passports for his Cuban friends, crosses from one building to the next by walking on a wooden beam dangerously suspended over the city of Madrid. Igor's escape is a visual metaphor of the plight of the immigrants, who, living in constant fear of deportation, are forced to walk a tight rope in order to survive in Spain. In the process, they are denied the most basic of human aspirations, summarized by Nena, in these terms: "All I want is a beautiful life." Nena's desire is a key thematic underpinning shared by all of the films. It is the desperate call of the outsider knocking at the Spanish/European border, as well as the voice of those who, like Nena's aunt in Cosas and Mulai in Cartas de Alou, are already inside but not fully accepted. It is also the voice of immigrants like Alou, who are not deterred by deportation and repeat their illegal entrance into Spain. This defiance of the law on the part of immigrants like Alou emphasizes the idea that the "problem" of immigration is not solved by expulsions. As Hall (1992:47) puts it: " This is an old European story--expelling the Moors at the front gate only to find them creeping in through the back."
As Santaolalla (1999:113) observes, contemporary Spanish society perceives and represents itself by a fundamental paradox: the historical awareness on the one hand of being the product of a unique fusion of cultures, races and religions, and the pervasive idea on the one hand that Spain is an ethnically homogenous nation. This group of films at the end of the millennium show a Spain struggling with the challenges that post-modernism and post-colonialism pose to the second part of the paradox. They offer reflections on the plight of non-European , non-white immigrants and marginal groups within Spanish society as they struggle to gain acceptance or merely to survive. The characters chosen to represent this plight, by virtue of their economic status, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference or nationality threaten the stability of a society intent on preserving a mythical, ethnically homogeneous quality even at the expense of becoming outright racist. These four films address issues associated with the formation of a heterogeneous, hybrid society that is the result of a new flux of migration, and in this sense they illustrate the renewed interest contemporary Spanish cinema has in representing "the exile" (Kinder 1993:286). Ultimately, these films fuel the question Homi K. Bhabha (1994:271) has identified as a key challenge today: "As the migrant and the refugee become the 'unhomely' inhabitants of the contemporary world, how do we rethink collective, communal concepts like homeland, the people, cultural exile, national cultures, interpretive communities?" Being cultural products, these films do not propose solutions, but rather invite the intended Spanish audience, as they become integrated into the larger European community, to take a critical look at themselves. In so doing the spectators are called to reassess Spain's role as the border police for a retreating group of nations with an imperialist past that are now tempted to enclose themselves in a backward-looking fortress called Europe.
1 Joanna Apap (1997:138) notices that from 1980 Northern Europe began to tighten visa restrictions, and that factor, together with the new prosperity in Southern Europe, caused Italy and Spain to become receiving countries for new immigrants. Two recent scholarly works on the subject of immigration to Spain are: Antonio Izquierdo Escribano's (1996) La immigración inesperada: La población extrañjera en España (1991-1995), Madrid: Trotta; and Jesús Contrera's (1994) Los retratos de la inmigración: Racismo y Pluriculturalidad, Madrid: Talasa.
2 See http://www.fecl.org/
3 Cristóbal Mendoza's (1997:71) study concludes that "the total number of non-EU residents in Spain is still far lower than in Central or Northern Europe and new labor inflows have experienced a remarkable decline since 1992." Also, according to Joanna Apap (1997): "Spain's immigrant population accounts for less than 2 per cent of the country's total population and the immigrant proportion of the official labor force is even smaller (about 0.7 per cent-Colectivo IOE 1990, p. 123)."
4 Other films of the decade such as Gerardo Herrero's Malena es nombre de Tango and Icíar Bollaín's Hola, Estás sola? show white immigrants from Eastern Europe, but they are not portrayed as posing a threat to society. Danger is seen only in non-European , non-white immigrants such as African Arabs or blacks and Latin Americans. Gypsies, the traditional ethnic "other from within" in Spain are given a fresh look in Chus Gutiérrez's Alma Gitana, a film dealing with internal Spanish racism. Four recent films that share the motif of the "other from without" are Cecilia Bartolemé's Lejos de Africa, Eugenio Martín's La sal de la vida, Lorenc Soler's Said, and Icíar Bollaín's Flores de otro mundo.
5 As Santaolalla points out, the black man's repetition of the word "Ombasi" suggests this is his name, although the Spanish couple refer to him as "el negro" (116).
6 Alou's illegal status is exploited also by his own compatriots, most noticeably by his friend Mulai, a legal resident himself, who profits from Alou's work at the sweat shop and charges him rent. At one point, Mulai even tries to sell Alou the necessary documents at a high price.
7 "Tú", "Moreno", "Negro", and "Baltasar" in Spanish.
8 While the film focuses on the rejection, be it subtle or overt, that these black immigrants suffer, Cartas also points to the phenomenon of "mestizaje", or mixing of the races and melding of cultural backgrounds that is occurring as a result of marriages like that of Mulai and his white wife, Rosa. Several scenes show their baby mulato daughter, undoubtedly for that purpose.
9 Alou is the familiar, shortened form of Alioune, in the Wolof language of Senegal.
10 The traditionalist group had thrust the country into a series of civil wars when Alfonso's mother Isabella assumed the throne in 1833. For the Carlists, Liberalism was but "a second wave of the old Lutheran heresy for which spain in the past had given her life-blood." (Brenan 1943:204)
11 "Joder con los cubanos" in Spanish
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