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Arts & Culture

Hollywood's Latino History Told In New Book

Smithsonian Books

With the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s came a burgeoning interest in the many cultures that make up our cinematic landscape that has continued unabated to this day.  Heroes, Lovers, and Others by Fordham University professor Clara Rodríguez, continues this tradition. Latinos have been a part of the movies since their inception, and there have been other books and films devoted to the subject (most recently and notably “The Bronze Screen”). Rodríguez’s book concentrates mostly on the stars, rather than the Latino film movement as a whole.

Her overview begins with silent film, where a large number of Latin actors and actresses became stars. Many names are familiar, such as Pedro de Cordoba, and Ramon Novarro (who played the title role in the 1926 silent “Ben-Hur”). But others, such as George F. Hernandez and Myrtle Gonzalez, were unfamiliar to me. Gonzalez is described by Rodríguez as perhaps the industry’s first Latina star. Never typecast, Gonzalez often played the heroine, and was labeled by Universal Studios the “Virgin Lily of the Screen.” In “End of the Rainbow,” Gonzalez plays the daughter of a timber tycoon who saves the day by exposing corruption at her father’s business. Alas, Gonzalez, who was of poor health, died young in 1918, at the age of twenty-seven. Beatriz Michelena was another major silent film star, who was praised for her versatility on both stage and screen. She also established her own production company.

Notice anything about the early stars? They kept their names intact, for the most part. Later stars such as Rita Hayworth (Margarita Cansino), Gilbert Roland (Luis Antonio Damasco de Alonso), and Raquel Welch (Raquel Tejada) would assimilate into Hollywood with more Anglo-Saxon images and names, as “invisible Latinos,” according to Rodríguez. This new era of assimilation coincided World War II, and the United States’ Good Neighbor policy toward Latin America, the idea of which was “to develop an allied hemispheric strategy” during the war, according to Rodríguez. This strategy would include film and media, and the Production Code of America worked to ensure that Hollywood films of this era portrayed Latin America in a positive light, and it is ironic, as Rodríguez points out, that the Good Neighbor policy did not seem to extend toward African-Americans on screen, and that the Latino stars that had the greatest success were those who assimilated.

Rodríguez also points out the many instances of the “Mexican spitfire” and “Latin lover” stereotype characters, despite the efforts of the Good Neighbor policy. And the xenophobia of the Cold War that gripped the U.S. in the 1950s would show on screen, even in such hits as “West Side Story.” But as the 1950s gave way to the ‘60s and then the ‘70s, Latinos, African-Americans, and even white ethnic groups began to embrace their heritage on film, and the burgeoning independent film movement of the ‘70s, from which we know names like Scorsese, Coppola, and Altman so well, also included names like Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit”), Gregory Nava (“El Norte”), and eventually Robert Rodriguez (“El Mariachi,” “Spy Kids”).

Throughout Heroes, Lovers, and Others Rodríguez offers brief but informative biographical accounts of the major and minor Latino stars of the 20th century, and offers insights into how their roles defined their careers. Some chapters concentrate more on individuals, some on the Latino film movement as a whole. I would have liked to read a little bit more of the latter, but that is another book, for Rodríguez’s purpose is to tell the stories of the individuals that made an impact in Hollywood.

If there is one quibble I have with the book, it is that I detected a dozen or so minor errors such as missed dates, or slightly inaccurate descriptions of a film. Rodríguez does offer an apology in advance in her preface for any errors that may crop up, but two-thirds of the way through the book I started to feel that it should have been proofed a little better before going to press. But these minor errors do not detract from the book as a whole, and Heroes, Lovers, and Others is a quick read (245 pages), and an informative resource for those wishing to learn more about Latinos’ considerable impact on Hollywood.