Literary representations of the marginalised female immigrant in Spain

The motifs of social, religious and political repression, xenophobia and patriarchal dominance have reverberated down the ages in Spain, appearing in Golden Age picaresque novels, Aladaraca’s El ángel del hogar and becoming politicized in 19th century bourgeois ideology and Francoist edicts. 

In comparatively recent memory, Spain was essentially isolationist and was politically ostracised by many of its more progressive and liberal Northern European neighbours, as the country spent 36 years under a military and misogynistic dictatorship. At the time, a common saying which somewhat illumines the views of Spain by more democratic and capitalist countries, suggested that: “África empieza en los Pirineos,” [roughly translated as “Africa begins at the Pyrenees”] (DiFrancesco, 2015) and female rights and representations in society and the arts were notably scarce.

In spite of the alleged move towards open, democratic, egalitarian and forward-thinking politics in the postmillennial EU-minded Spain, female immigrant representation in a significant proportion of recent cultural publication is still predominantly that of the exotic, the pathetic or the visually fetishistic and spectres of paternalism remain in the sociological mindset.

In pursuit of a coherent and collective female memory, it is difficult to pinpoint, since the female (perhaps especially the female immigrant) often appears merely voyeuristically. Nevertheless, my research has been conducted by examining aesthetic, sociocultural and philosophical variation in the portrayals of female immigrants in postmillennial Spanish films, novels, documentaries and empirical sociological data and through these cultural investigations, certain representational trends have emerged.

Female immigrants regularly appear as generic and two-dimensional characters whose presence allows the author or commentator to broach just one more trending issue or sensationalise a storyline. This issue is often introduced as one of many, prohibiting the possibility of any lasting reader empathy or intrigue for resolution (as in some of Goytisolo’s latter work), and often female narrative itself comprises one amongst many others in a series of varyingly brief introductions of female characters (as in Los besos en el pan by Almudena Grandes and the film Princesas).

Furthermore, coming from a historically male-dominated literary tradition, there is an overall majority of indigenous male-authored output on feminist and immigrant literature and criticism on works which broach the issues I am researching. This statistic is notable, considering the contradictory sociological data, which points towards an increasing ratio of immigrant females in the population.

This initial observation seems to suggest that would-be female authors, artists, commentators and directors seem largely to "accept the fact of being an outsider, they pose willingly as the “other,”” (Oppermann, 1994). However, with such a variation in the make-up of the authorship, it will prove interesting to investigate whether there are any notable signs to the contrary and whether there is, in fact, a forward-thinking agenda in Spanish literary and artistic output.

In both visual and literary genres, character introductions, scene imagination and evaluative descriptions of female protagonists employ symbolic metaphors, similes and adjectives to poeticise them and the effects of these introductions immediately establish their likelihood or otherwise of success as individuals or as representatives of the female condition in general.

Women are frequently presented in a multisensory manner, either as or alongside material items: thus readers are led to imagine them through the prism of allegory, possessions, colourful clothing and religious iconography.

One effect of this allegory, whether intentional or otherwise, is to cast women in a capitalist, consumerist world, where they are either shell-like shoppers without moral depth and independent gravitas or, more often, items to be consumed and cast aside.

In many such instances, female characterisation, embarked upon through the lens of the consumerist goods and the false hopes of capitalist consumerism, halts without giving them true personal embodiment and attention switches back to the male experience.

Whilst more female-produced novels and films are available for public consumption, figures for popularity levels and market sales success also continue to show a national predisposition to lean towards male literature.

With an eye towards potential social trend changes, however, it is interesting to note that one of the most talked about new authors of the last 5-10 years has been Najat El Hachmi, an author who represents the marginalised in four key ways: she is a female, an Amazigh Moroccan, an immigrant and a Catalan author. Perhaps the public’s increasing awareness of her thoughts and publications does begin to indicate a long-awaited shift in cultural politics.

Niven Whatley, PhD Candidate in Hispanic Studies.
(Research Title: Representations of Marginalised Female Immigrants in Postmillennial Spain).