Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain.
I’ll be repeating that sentence in this article several times in this column to try and make it as clear as possible. Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain.
Walter Elias Disney was born December 5, 1901 at 1249 Tripp Avenue in Chicago, Ill., in a house built by his father and designed by his mother. There is no birth certificate because they were not required by law in Illinois at the turn of the century, especially for a birth taking place at home without a doctor in attendance.
However, there is documentation that Walt was officially baptized at a Chicago Church on June 8, 1902. Twice, Walt’s mother signed affidavits that Walt had been born on December 5, 1901. The first time was when as a young man Walt needed a passport so that he could go to France as a volunteer for the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. In order to meet the minimum age requirement to join, Walt artistically changed the year to “1900” and this document exists at the Disney Archives where the change looks a little clumsy to the suspicious eye.
When Walt rose to international prominence in the 1930s, a rumor started that he had actually been born out of wedlock to a young Spanish woman and was later adopted secretly by Elias and Flora Disney. Over the years, the rumor grew and grew so that some believe the child was the result of an affair Elias had—and this illegitimate child and was actually born in Spain in a small town called Mojacar.
However, Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain.
From the Disney News, Vol. 1 No. 3, June 1966 issue, when Walt was alive and active, this short news article was obviously reprinted for its humorous slant:
“Walt Was Born in Old Mojacar? From Mojacar, Spain via Reuters and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, comes some startling news that so far has not been included in Walt’s official biography: ‘Walt Disney may not know it but this town claims him and villagers here keep Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck dolls to remind them of the Mojacar boy who made good. The 3,500 natives insist Disney was born here and scoff at records listing his birthplace as Chicago, Illinois. Mojacar’s leading historian, Doctor Gines Carillo, 85, said Walt was less than 2 years old when he went away.’ But, Chicago, it was, not Mojacar. Walt’s dad was Irish-Canadian and his mother of German-American descent which, when you add it up, leaves little room for that claim from Spain.”
Leonard Mosley brings up a version of the story in his book, Disney’s World and wisely dismisses it as being without foundation. Unfortunately, Marc Eliot in his deeply error-ridden book, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince devotes an entire chapter to “The Mojacar Connection,” yet another much more elaborate version of this wild fable. Eliot claims, “Source material for this chapter comes from a research personally conducted by the author in the village of Mojacar, Spain in February 1990.”
I am not going to perpetuate the story by reprinting it in whole in this column because, after all, Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain.
However, since the town continues to publicize itself as the birthplace of Walt Disney, the story continues to be whispered as the true story. Just as for many years, tour guides at the Pentagon regaled tourists with the story that Walt Disney was dishonorably discharged from the Army. Walt was never in any branch of the armed services. He was a volunteer with the Red Cross. He could not have been discharged either dishonorably or honorably for that matter.
Apparently, logic, facts and common sense cannot dissuade people from believing what they want to believe about Walt Disney. In fact I wrote about one of those outrageous Disney legends at this link.
Where do these stories come from? Does someone just wake up one morning and decide they’ll tell the world that Walt is a space alien born in a loch in Scotland who has 13 toes and assume people will believe it to be true? It is not true. Walt was a larger-than-life figure and he accomplished many remarkable things in his life that have never been duplicated—and Disney historians are still discovering incredible things he did.
Certainly, Walt Disney grew up in the era when celebrities did try to hide secrets from their public from adopting children to homosexuality to drug usage to all sorts of intriguing activities. Most, if not all, of that information is now easily available and confirmable.
However, Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain.
If Walt had been born in a little Spanish town, I am positive his curiosity would have taken him exploring there at some time in his life, even under the guise of doing research for a new film. After all, Walt visited every other location world wide connected to the Disney family ancestry.
Thanks to some time, money, and research, I have tracked down what I believe to be the first printed origin of the rumor. It appeared in the October 27, 1940 issue of Primer Plano, the second issue of this Spanish movie magazine. The story was written by Juan de Alcaraz, who was on the staff of the magazine.
Like most American movie fan magazines and current tabloids, the story is filled with gossip, unsupported information, vague innuendo and not even the most basic foundation of fact checking. The cover of the magazine is a smiling photo portrait of Walt and the interior pages include standard Disney animated publicity artwork and photos of the time.
I paid two different Spanish-born translators to independently translate the article, which was more challenging than they first realized since it was written in an archaic form of Spanish. As a former California public school teacher who taught English for many years, I have gone through and tried to make any corrections on punctuation, verb tense and agreement but have left the content and implications intact.
Most Disney historians have never seen this document or took the time and money to do the translation and so as an exclusive treat for readers of this column, here is the probable written source for the rumor about Walt being born in Spain. I am reprinting it here not just as something special for MousePlanet readers, but so that future researchers can use it to measure misinformation when it crops up again, as most untrue but juicy stories do.
As you read, just remember: Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain.
This is a story filled with conveniently missing documents that vanished mysteriously, faulty memories, wild assumptions, outlandish characters, and not the least bit of truth except for the fact that in Spain there is an impoverished little village that would perhaps like to attract unsuspecting tourists by claiming a connection to a beloved and well-known Hollywood producer.
How much misinformation can you find in this story with just the little knowledge that you have of Disney history? For instance, did you ever hear of near-bankrupt Elias Disney hiring someone to work on his farm in Marceline? It never happened.
Primer Plano - October 27, 1940
“Is Spain the place of birth of Walt Disney?
“Some time ago a sensational letter from the United States was sent to the priest of the Mojacar church. This letter impacted the simple life of the town. The letter was asking for the birth certificate of Jose Guirao Zamora, baptized in Guazamara in 1901. And this letter, which was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, was signed by Walt Disney.
“A few weeks later after the documentation of Jose Guirao was sent, Walt Disney got married in a Catholic Church to Lillian Bounds. And the life of the genius artist and creator of a new movie technique continued its course, at a great distance of Mojacar, the Moroccan town of the Almeria province.
“But in Mojacar there was a window open to the world through the U.S. postage stamps that came with the letters from far away America. There was also the intrigue about Walt Disney’s request in his letter. Based on this, the mayor and the priest of the town started to search for additional information as they were suspicious of the request.
“Almeria, the place of birth of Antonio Moreno, had a certain relationship to the movies. It was learned, through the old ladies of the town, that Jose Guirao Zamora was born at the turn of the century in Mojacar and he was the son of a woman named Maria Zamora and a farmer named Jose Guirao. They immigrated with the family to North America during the year 1903.
“The child was only 2 years old when his father started to work at the service of the Disney family in a farm in Missouri. The natural father died and the Disney family adopted the child and provided for his education in the School of Arts in Chicago.
“These are the facts that triggered our interest on this extraordinary information. There were too many coincidences on this case for Primer Plano to ignore.
“Juan de Alcaraz brought from his trip to that area the sensational information that we are publishing.
“On the side of the mountain, the houses of Mojacar hang in front of the sea like bird cages under the sun. There is no other town in Spain that is similar to the interesting town of Mojacar, the Roman’s Sacred Mountain, the Moroccan’s Muxacar, with a critical strategical location during the period of the Spanish Civil War. Through the years, like the stones that are around the town, Mojacar preserved the strong Arabic character, not only in the racial aspect of its habitants, but also in their traditions, the architecture and in the special beauty of their women.
“The town is at the oriental starboard side of the mountains Sierra Cabrera (the houses piled up in the labyrinth of streets on the side of the hill that faces the coast), many miles from the mountains of Sierra Cartagena, to the east, up to the Roldan Masa mountains, to the south and in front of the Argel beaches. The waves of the Mediterranean sea create a pleasing feeling of brotherhood.
“The seal of Mojacar displays a great bicephalous (two-headed) eagle, the symbol of the house of Austran, a sword and a key and the words: 'Very noble and very faithful City of Mojacar, key route and protection to the Kingdom of Granada.'
“Is this the place of birth of the genius and well-known Walt Disney? This is the question we ask ourselves while climbing through the labyrinth and steep streets, very similar to those found in the towns of Marruecos. The barefooted ladies with their faces covered in the typical Arabic style, walk to the fountain with a curious look while balancing the vases with water on their heads.
“Don Antonio Cuesta Lopez and Don Gines Carrillo, the priest and mayor of the Mojacar town in that order, received us with a cordial welcome that it will be very difficult to forget. They provided the first information while showing me the back alleys and perspective of this unique town.
“'This is where a lot of the Walt Disney family live,' the mayor of the town indicates, 'others moved to different places in the province, and some moved outside of Spain. The mother of this celebrity married forty years ago in the nearby town of Guazamara to somebody named Guirao of which we do not have specific information.'
“'Is this lady alive?' we ask with interest.
“'No,' replies the priest. 'She died many years ago.'
“'Walt Disney,' the priest added, 'despite being born here, he was baptized in Guazamara. It is a pity that you will not have access to the birth certificate and baptismal documents of this great creator of cartoon animated movies since the archives of the church of Guazamara, like the archives of many other churches, were destroyed during the disastrous domination/intervention. What we know is from investigations and references provided by his family.'
What was the name of Walt Disney mother? – 'Isabel Zamora Asensio.'
And the name of Walt Disney? – 'I suppose if he is the first son of this marriage then his name should be Luis Guirao Zamora.'
“'Emigration here,' adds the mayor, 'is very prominent. There are now 4,500 mojaqueros in the town. There are few opportunities in the town; it is a poor place. This situation forces the people to go to different places in the world, some with such incredible fortune like this universally known genius of beautiful cartoon movies, Walt Disney.'
“The priest and the mayor smile with pride while narrating other anecdotes of Mojacar and the people of the town.
“One of the Las Cucas, close family of Walt Disney’s aunt of his mother, is named Catalina Asensio and is 90 years old. Deaf and almost blind, she is answering with difficulty the questions that we ask. In reality she does not belong to the world of the living or at least to the world of conscious people.
“'Did you know your famous family member Walt Disney with a different name, Jose Luis Guirao Zamora?'
“'Of the last name,' responded the old lady with a fragile voice, 'Yes, something was mentioned. I have never heard the other name [Walt Disney]. It is not a Christian name!'
“'Is this the place where you live all your life?'
“'All my life, and the place I want to be buried when God calls me.'
“Agustin, the brother of Walt Disney, is absent from Mojacar. One of the Rejeras that is believed to be a second aunt, not of Walt Disney (she does not know this name) but of Jose Luis Guirao Zamora, indicates that Agustin is in Almeria and is coming back in one month if he does not have the opportunity to go to America.
“In general, all the family of the famous creator do not know his name. They live in very poor conditions, almost in misery, like most of the people of Mojacar, a town where the houses and streets show the marks of time and war.
“When talking to the aunt of Catalino Asencio, we were introduced to two interesting characters from Mojacar: the Cinnamon Fortune Teller and a mojaquero that did work for 17 years in the United States as an actor in movies.
“'I know Walt Disney very well,' said the actor. 'I have talked to him many times in San Francisco, in Los Angeles and in Hollywood. He honored me with his affection since we were from the same country. We both were from Mojacar, and this, in a foreign country gives a lot of strength to a friendship.'
“'Did you meet any other famous person from this country while in America?'
“'Yes, I was also honored with the friendship of famous actor Antonio Moreno from Almeria.'
“The Cinnamon Fortune Teller, known by this name because she lives on a street of this name, does not know anything about Walt Disney despite of her ability to see the past and anticipate the future. She has never watched a movie since she thinks that is something from the devil.”
And that is where the article ends.
Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain. In an interview with Walt’s supposed Spanish step-brother in 2000, the man told Madrid’s El Mundo newspaper: “This stuff about me being Walt Disney’s brother is fiction. The journalist from Primer Plano had obviously heard something about Walt Disney and Mojacar, that’s why they came here in 1940. My father liked a good joke, so he said ‘yes’ to everything they asked.”
I have recently been informed that the editor of Primer Plano at the time, who is now 92 years old, has agreed to an interview about the whole affair. Once I find out more, I will let any curious readers know the follow-up.
I hope you enjoyed this column but more importantly, I hope you remember: Walt Disney was NOT born in Spain.
(Send an email to Wade Sampson)
Wade Sampson grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Wade describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.