Cuban zarzuela flourished for a brief period of time, from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, providing the Western hemisphere with some of its best-loved melodies. The musical and dramatic codes of the zarzuela represented both hegemonic power and social marginality. Composers took preexisting racialized theatrical types and created a phenomenon that was as pedagogical as it was entertaining, instructing Cuba’s growing bourgeoisie about the need for social and racial stability. The zarzuela trafficked in desire, supporting a white-supremacist ideology while simultaneously advocating the consumption of blackness, a strategy that it shared with the larger afrocubanismo movement.

The short lifespan of zarzuela in Cuba has frequently been blamed on the rise of cinema, which offered lower admission prices and greater realism. This article contends that rather than replacing the zarzuela, the emerging Cuban and Mexican film industries absorbed and transformed it, appropriating its plots, performance practices, composers, technical designers, and even performers. I explore the zarzuela’s transformation from stage to screen through Mexican filmmaker Adolfo Bustamante’s 1948 adaptation of Ernesto Lecuona’s 1930 zarzuela, María la O. The film’s negotiation of its borrowed content is instructive in understanding how the racialized codes of the zarzuela were reworked to speak to a larger Latin American audience. In removing cultural markers, filmmakers effectively excised any sense of subversive ambivalence from their original source material, engaging in a “flattening out” of racialized discourse and performance practice that mirrored trends emanating from the U.S. and Europe.

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