Remembering Ninon Sevilla, the Cuban Bombshell That Conquered Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema

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Last week, Latin America lost one of its most important cultural figures of the last century. On New Year’s day, iconic Cuban-born Mexican actress, dancer and singer Ninón Sevilla passed away at the age of 93 due to complications from pneumonia. Over the 1940s and 50s, Sevilla’s signature smile and ebullient dance routines became synonymous with the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema and, more specifically, with the Rumbera films which she helped popularize throughout the world. She is survived by her only child, musician Genaro Lozano .

Born Emilia Pérez Castellanos in Havana’s Centro Habana neighborhood in 1921, Castellanos quickly discovered her aptitude for performing and adopted the artistic name Ninón Sevilla in homage to the famous french courtesan, Ninón de Lenclos. After making a name for herself on the Cuban cabaret scene, she was invited to Mexico by Puerto Rican actor and producer Fernando Cortés, where she participated in a number of stage shows before being discovered by film producer Pedro Arturo Calderón.

Over the course of her early cinematic career, Sevilla made nearly two dozens films at a time when the Mexican studio system was more influential and prolific than Hollywood, working with preeminent directors and musicians such as Emilio “El Indio” Fernández and Agustín Lara. Following early films like Pecadora (1947) and Revancha (1948), Sevilla had the opportunity to star in Aventura, directed by Alberto Gout and considered by many to be a touchstone work in the Cine de Rumberas. During this time, Sevilla began to incorporate elements of Afro-Cuban dance into her routines and eventually made two santería-themed films, Mulata (1954) and Yambaó (1956), both of which were shot in Cuba and uncharacteristically featured predominantly black casts.

By the late 1950s, Sevilla had captured the imagination of the world, garnering praise from figures like a young François Truffaut and having her legs dubbed “the most beautiful in cinema” by a 1952 French panel. Nevertheless, as tastes began to change Sevilla retired from film only to embark upon a prolific career in telenovelas that lasted nearly five decades. Finally, in the 1980s, nearly thirty years after her last Golden Age film, Sevilla returned to the big screen in a series of features directed by Mario Hernández, winning an Ariel for her work in 1981’s Noche de carnaval.

Here’s a look at some of her most emblematic films…

Director: Alberto Gout
Year: 1949

Elena’s mother runs off with another man, her father kills himself, she runs away to Ciudad Juárez and ends up being exploited by an evil madame named Rosaura, Elena falls in love with Lucio, they run away, Lucio gets arrested, Elena moves to Guadalajara, she falls in love with Mario, Mario is Rosaura’s son, Lucio gets released… oh man. The masterpiece of the Rumbera genre, Aventurera has a plot and a half, and it doesn’t stop there. A melodramatic tour-de-force that made Sevilla a worldwide household name.

Víctimas del pecado
Director: Emilio Fernández
Year: 1951

Arguably the greatest director of the Mexican Golden Age, together with its greatest cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, and of course, Ninón Sevilla as Violeta, a cabaret dancer who discovers her friend’s baby in a trashcan and raises him as her own, tragedy ensues.

Director: Alfredo B. Crevenna
Year: 1956

In this groundbreaking film for its representation of Afro-Cuban religion and dance, Yambaó is the granddaughter of a Santera priestess born into freedom who returns to her grandmother’s plantation to exact vengeance upon the plantation owner who caused her death.

Las noches de Blanquita
Director: Mario Hernández
Year: 1981

Las noches de Blanquita is one of Sevilla’s later films with director Mario Hernández. Already into her 60s, she may not have had top billing, but the 1980s brought a whopping seven new features to the aging vedette’s filmography. A famous theater performer shacks up with an adoring fan, but her friends don’t approve of the relationship, suspecting that the fan is only after fame and fortune.