March is Women’s History Month and we decided to kick off the celebration with an homage to the strong, talented, and beautiful Latin American women who were representing on the silver screen long before Salma Hayek and J. Lo brought their sabor Latino to a generation of cheesy romantic comedies.
More than mere footnotes in some film history text, these women were trailblazers whose names and likenesses are virtually synonymous with the history of classic Hollywood. Despite stunning appearances, their beautiful faces belied a depth of talent not only as actresses, singers, and dancers, but ultimately as human beings. Together, they forged an image of Latin American women as strong-willed, ebullient, and unapologetic and to this day they are remembered as icons of American culture.
Here we take a look back at their lives and legacies.
Dolores del Río
August 3, 1905 – April 11, 1983
Born in Durango, Mexico
Widely hailed as one of the most stunning beauties of early Hollywood, María de los Dolores Asúnsolo López-Negrete nevertheless had a career full of difficulties and setbacks, but ultimately shines through as a true artist with a deep sense of social responsibility. Raised in the bosom of an aristocratic family that thrived under the controversial government of Porfirio Díaz, Dolores was discovered by American film director Edwin Carewe while dancing tango at a dinner party. After a string of early box office hits during the silent era, del Río transitioned seamlessly into sound film, acting in a number of highly successful features such as Bird of Paradise, directed by King Vidor, and Flying Down to Río, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. By the late 1930’s, changing tastes in Hollywood led del Río to reconnect with her native Mexico, where she began a much more artistically-oriented phase of her career throughout the 1940s. In her personal life, del Río is known for her charity work and activism, including the founding of a number of philanthropic societies and cultural organizations.
July 18, 1908 – December 13, 1944
Born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico
“Miss Hot Tamale,” “Miss Chile Picante,” Lupe Vélez was a force of nature known for her outsized personality and emotional volatility (she apparently shot at her lover Gary Cooper in a crime of passion, among other salacious anecdotes), as well as her disdain for her prim and proper rival, Dolores del Río. Like del Río, Lupe Vélez was born into a comfortable family that thrived under the Porfiriato, and was educated for a time in the United States. When the revolution changed her family’s fortunes, she moved to Mexico City and began working as a vaudeville performer. After being introduced to actor Richard Bennet, Vélez made her way to Los Angeles where she acted in a series of films that solidified her brash, outspoken, comedic persona. Among her most successful works was the 1939 comedy Mexican Spitfire with Leon Errol, a film which eventually gave way to a number of highly successful sequels. Vélez tragically took her life in 1944, at the age of 36.
February 9, 1909 – August 5, 1955
Born in Marco de Canaveses, Portugal
You don’t have to know her films to recognize the oversized fruit turbans and gaudy dresses of “Miss Chiquita Banana” herself, Carmen Miranda. Raised in Rio de Janeiro from the time she was an infant, Miranda first made her career as an immensely popular singer in her native Brazil, where she became intimately associated with the rise of Samba. It wasn’t until the late 30s that she caught the attention of Broadway impresario Lee Shubert, who invited her to perform in his summer musical, The Streets of Paris. After a year on Broadway, Miranda starred in her first film, The Argentine Way, which opened the door for a thriving career on both stage and screen. By the late 40s, Miranda’s star began to fade and she eventually died of a heart attack at the age of 46, after struggling for years with alcoholism and substance abuse. While she continues to be the object of criticism for playing homogenized, stereotypical Latin roles, Miranda is also credited with bringing traditionally marginalized, African elements of Brazilian society into popular culture.
June 6, 1912 – September 7, 1951
Born in Barahona, Dominican Republic
“The Queen of Technicolor”, María Montez was the Dominican-bred daughter of the Spanish consul to the Dominican Republic. After moving to New York in 1930, Montez began a career modeling and acting for the stage before ultimately accepting a contract from Universal Pictures which led her to figure prominently in the swashbuckling adventure films of the 1940’s, working with world-renowned directors such as Max Ophüls in The Exile, and acting alongside the likes of John Hall and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. When her career began to stall in the early 50’s, Montez moved to Paris with her husband, French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, where she continued acting in local film productions and dedicated herself to writing poetry. She died tragically at the age of 39, when a heart attack led her to drown in her bathtub.
December 11, 1931 –
Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico
You know Rita Moreno. The Puerto Rican-born, New York-raised actress, singer, and dancer is one of twelve elite artists that have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award (EGOT.) That’s huge. Beginning her career on Broadway at the age of 13, Moreno had supporting roles in classics of 1950s Hollywood like Singin’ in the Rain and The King and I, but it was her role as Anita in 1961’s West Side Story that solidified her throne in the pantheon of American performers. Yet despite her critical acclaim, Moreno has been outspoken about her struggle with stereotypical Latina roles, something which never prevented her from giving her all. At 83, Moreno’s career is still going strong, with recent roles in the animated-feature Rio 2 and the TV Land sitcom, Happily Divorced.