Spanish dark hair Spanish dark eyes

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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3 Comments To This Article

  • 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)