The Spanish myth of dark eyes, dark hair

The Spanish myth of dark eyes, dark hair

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Zach Frolich discusses the paradigm abroad of the Spanish dark-eyes and hair stereotype, quite opposite to the many physical features that appear in Spain's different regions.

There is an opening scene taking place in Sevilla in Mission Impossible 2 (2000) that is hilarious for its many inaccuracies about Spain, Sevilla, and its local festivals. For example, for some reason the Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession has falleras and fire, which are traditions of Valencia's non-religious Fallas bonfire festival not Sevilla's very-Catholic Holy Week.

The flamenco scene that follows in the movie is perhaps a bit better (flamenco is actually from the Sevilla region), but it reproduces a common myth about Spain that is, though more subtle, much more pervasive and intractable, that all Spaniards have dark eyes and dark (thick and straight) hair.

Not Hemginway's Spain: The Hemingway paradigm is… dark eyes, dark hair, thick lisp
Italian silent film star Rudolph Valentino as bullfighter in Blood and Sand (1922), the original "Latin lover" and embodiment of the stereotype for dark eyes, dark hair

The image of Spaniards as dark eyes, dark hair and speaking with a thick lisp is quite old. As early as 1846 the English writer Richard Ford was encouraging others to find 'a more worthy subject [in Spain] than the old story of dangers of bull-fights, bandits, and black eyes' [my emphasis added]. And it must be tied to Andalucía's predominance in images of Spain abroad.

In Hemingway's time, the embodiment of this stereotype was Rudolph Valentino, perhaps the original Latin lover, who though Italian by birth was cast in a whole assortment of nationalities in Hollywood films in the 1920s, among them as the bullfighter Juan Gallardo in Blood and Sand (1922).

A tacky tourist industry for very staged, Valentino-style flamenco shows sprouted up in Andalucía in the 20s leading Hemingway to spurn the region and to prefer the more 'authentic' bullfighting experiences of Madrid, Navarra and the Basque Country.

Even today, I think Spanish actresses who physically fit this Spanish mold are more likely to be 'exported' to film industries abroad (take Penelope Cruz or Paz Vega, for example).

Not Hemginway's Spain: The Hemingway paradigm is… dark eyes, dark hair, thick lisp  
Hollywood's present-day Latin lover, Spanish (Andalusian no less) actor Antonio Banderas

And while I can say much more about it than I will here, Americans greatly exaggerate a lisp in Castilian Spanish. The hard 'th' sound (called the 'ceceo') used to pronounce the 'c' and 'z' is officially never used to pronounce 's'.

Andalucía is the only region in Spain where some people do so, no doubt further evidence of the region's central place in the imagination of Americans; though there are also areas in Andalucía where Spanish pronunciation more closely resembles Latin American Spanish, and the 'c' and 'z' all become an indistinguishable 's sound.

But returning to physical stereotypes, the reality in Spain is quite different.

There are vast regional differences and variations in hair type and eye colour. Fair skin, blue and green eyes, light brown, blond and even red hair is common in many regions. For example, in Alicante many people have distinctively green eyes and in the northern regions, such as the Basque Country and Asturias, it is common to find Spaniards who would be hard to distinguish from our common stereotypes of northern Europeans. This is not to mention the light brown and wavy hair that is characteristic throughout the Mediterranean regions.

Not Hemginway's Spain: The Hemingway paradigm is… dark eyes, dark hair, thick lisp
Andalusian actress Paz Vega, who probably best represents the classic dark eyes, dark straight hair Andalusian look.
Not Hemginway's Spain: The Hemingway paradigm is… dark eyes, dark hair, thick lisp
Famous Madrid-born Penélope Cruz, representing a similar dark eye, dark hair Castilian look.

Not Hemginway's Spain: The Hemingway paradigm is… dark eyes, dark hair, thick lisp
The new look of Spain? Spanish actress Elsa Pataky, of part Romanian heritage and with bleach-blond hair

And what nature hasn't diversified, international fashions and migration have.

Were I to re-edit that scene in Mission Impossible 2, I would be sure to dye almost everyone's hair blonde. The popularity of bleaching or dying one's hair in Spain is such that you might think everyone in the country was blonde or burgundy.

Moreover, Spain has a lot of immigration, almost even with US in terms of per capita, and much of that immigration, from Romania and certain countries in South America and Africa, hardly fits the Castilian or Andalusian dark eyes, dark hair stereotype.

So chalk this one up to yet another Romantic misconception about Spain we seem unable to shake.


Reprinted with permission of Not Hemingway's Spain.

Zach FrohlichOriginally from Austin, Texas, Zach Frohlich has been traveling between Spain and the US for over a decade, and has been living in Valencia for the last few years. He is a historian by training and is married to a Spaniard. He shares cultural insights on Spain at Not Hemingway's Spain. Updated by Expatica 2016 / Photo credits: Petr Novák, Wikipedia (Antonio Banderas), Joe Maslaton (Penélope Cruz, thumbnail), Informador Digital (Elsa Pataky).

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11 Comments To This Article

  • Freshfielder posted:

    on 3rd November 2016, 07:56:11 - Reply

    When studying in Salamanca I met many blond and slim women. I realised as would many travelling in this beautiful country that there are many regional differences. In Salamanca the boys in the street followed the few blond female students in my group, adoringly chanting "Rubia,rubia,rubia." It seemed that they were enthralled with blond hair, but there were many in their own city. It was strange to me.
  • christinaki posted:

    on 20th September 2016, 15:53:43 - Reply

    Well I have black hair and blue eyes, my cousin has blond hair blue eyes, the other one dark hair dark eyes, we are all from Galicia.. so bye bye stereotype
  • Bejarano posted:

    on 17th September 2016, 14:23:44 - Reply

    Most Spaniards have brown and brown eyes with differing shades of skin colour - depending on where they live of course. Sure there are Spaniards with blue or green eyes but it's uncommon - Germany has people with brown hair and brown eyes alongside the more stereotypical blond hair and blue eyes - are the brown eye and brown hair Germans common? Not particulary! Same in Spain, most Spaniards have a 'look' as for the lack of that 'look' in Bilbao? You must be wearing the old blinkers 'Cokobo'.
  • Cokobo posted:

    on 15th July 2016, 17:06:55 - Reply

    Uh, Mike, sorry, but no, it is not that obvious. At the north of Spain (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, Navarre, Aragon, Catalonia and a big part of Castile) a dark haired-dark skinned person is hard to find. And that means aproximately half of Spain...

    The post is very accurate, indeed. And Alice's answer too. Although it is not so known abroad, Spain is very hilly, and that has become in many different populations across the country, only really mixing across the last century. And many of them have characteristics far from that "dark" steoreotype.
    It happens the same with many cultural events and traditions, like food (there is not really an Spanish Cook, there are many different regional foods, and if you taste food from Galicia or Basque Country, it has nothing to do with mediterranean food) or music (you can say flamenco is the typical Spanish Music, but the traditional music instrument in Galicia is the bagpipe and in Castile the traditional were percussion instruments).

    And believe me, it is not a matter of being ashamed at all. It is just that we are really proud of that diversity. You cannot say that Spain is like all the Mediterranean just because most of the country just does not fit the Mediterranean culture, nor the weather, nor the physiognomy, as most of France or the north of Italy doesn't either...
  • Mike posted:

    on 21st May 2016, 10:46:37 - Reply

    What is the concern? Obviously most Spanish people are dark, like EVERYWHERE else along the Mediterranean. Are people ashamed? Dark is beautiful, stop admiring pale white people on TV, stop watching TV in general, and don't be ashamed. White guys from Texas saying that Spaniards are are not darker than Scandinavians, people in Africa getting their skin bleached, girls in Iran getting nose jobs to look more "Western." It's sad. I say this as someone who looks stereotypically Swedish, hates all forms of racism, and would find the world a very boring and unsexy place if everyone around the world continues to try to look like my mom.(shudder)
  • Alice posted:

    on 26th February 2016, 23:02:21 - Reply

    Sorry, but I feel like there are a lot of missconceptions regarding the period in which Spain was invaded by muslims. Frist of all, they were an elite, a few thousand among millions of natives. Most of the "muslims" were actually natives converted to islam. Second, marrigaes between people from different religion were forbbiden. Of course, for sure some marriages occurred, but not many. People in the Middle Ages really thought they would burn in hell for eternity if they went against their religion. Also, they were expel from the country. I'm not saying they didn't leave ANY heritage at all, but recent studies have shown that only around 7% of Spaniards show any significan Northern African genetic traits, and Northern Africans can very often look very European. In my opinion, although there are people who resemble the stereotype, most don't. The most common eye color in Spain is hazel, follow by brown and very little afar, blue. Spanish people don't usually have dark skin either, it may not be pasty white (though many people have that kind of skin), but not dark at all. There have been several studies denying this as well. I can assure you that in 90% (if not more) of the cases, you won't be able to tell the difference between a Spanish person and a French person.
  • Kef posted:

    on 26th January 2016, 03:10:37 - Reply

    The responses are alkl interesting however one only need look at Spain's History . More specifically between the years 811 and 1492. They were indeed ruled by the Moors ( North Africans/ Arabs) . There is your source of Darker skin. 7oo years. That will do it. Oh and that is also how Europe got the numbers 0-9 to replace the old Roman numerals. Yes it was the Islamic rulers. Back then they were all a peacable people, educators etc.
  • TTanin posted:

    on 2nd November 2015, 17:32:52 - Reply

    Agree. Having family in Spain, it is true that the most common look is that of a dark haired person with brown or hazel eyes, and a light beige skin tone. My own relatives vary across the spectrum, some naturally blonde, some olive skinned, some blue eyes, and some pasty white.

  • BJR posted:

    on 30th October 2015, 18:11:49 - Reply

    Hmmm, I've read somewhere that Irish people descended from Spaniards a few thousand years ago. Irish are known for green eyes, that seems to make sense now.
  • Jordi posted:

    on 6th September 2015, 18:30:14 - Reply

    Interesting article. I'm Spaniard and in my opinion the way Spaniards look is something that can create a big verbal fight because Spaniards like to believe that they look like an average central-European while Americans have the cliches about Spaniards that we look like Latin Americans, In my opinion, after living 10 years abroad I would say that only 5% of Spaniards are real blonde or red haired, then you have about 20% that are black haired but look like another black haired average not south european and then you have about 75% that look very similar to the average Mediterranean person from Greece, Cyprus or South Italy and there's no chance that they coild be mistaken by a German. So 1/4 of people are not like the cliche, 3/4 are like the cliche.

  • Jordi posted:

    on 6th September 2015, 18:35:30 - Reply

    By the way, what is not true is that everybody has brown or black eyes in Spain green is a very common eye color (blue not as much but is not something very strange)