A tale of two Ritas

Rita Hayworth and Rita Moreno are two of the most popular actresses of the classic Hollywood era but while one is celebrated for being a Hispanic trailblazer, the other had that chance taken away from her in the United States. Rita Hayworth’s Spanish roots are now discussed as a piece of trivia in her life and as a horrifying reminder of whitewashing in Hollywood. When Moreno arrived in Hollywood, she came as Rosa Moreno and has said she was heavily influenced by Hayworth. Hayworth’s paternal uncle actually coached Moreno in dance and Rosa ended up changing her name to Rita in her honor.

Rita Hayworth was born in Brooklyn, New York as Margarita Carmen Cansino. Her parents were both dancers. Her father, a renowned classical Spanish dancer, wanted Rita to follow in the family’s dancing footsteps. She eventually became a part of his act and they made their way to Hollywood. Rita was noticed by the head of Fox Film Corporation and he ended up signing her to a short contract. Because of her, what they called “exotic and dark” features, she was reduced to playing “foreigner” roles such as an Egyptian and Russian under the name Rita Cansino. Her time at FOX was underwhelming as the roles for foreigners and dancers were few and far between, she was dropped but then Harry Cohn and Columbia Pictures signed her to a seven year contract. Believing there were not many roles for “exotic foreigners” at his studio either, Cohn had Rita Cansino’s name changed to Rita Hayworth to amplify her mother’s American roots. If that wasn’t enough, the studio had her hair dyed red and she underwent a painful electrolysis procedure to raise her hairline. Rita Hayworth was born. With her Spanish features all but gone from her looks, she appeared in eight films in 1937. The general public began to notice and fan mail poured in. She continued to work steadily which led to a breakout role in the film Blood and Sand for 20th Century Fox, the same studio that dropped her. In a cruel twist of irony, she portrayed a Spanish woman in the film named Doña Sol des Muire. But this character was (surprise surprise) a sultry temptress! It was the first of many screen sirens she would portray during her career.

ritahayworth_colorHayworth had a long and prosperous career in Hollywood. She was so popular that a photo of her was one of the top two pin-ups requested by GI’s in World War II. Hayworth even served as the cultural ambassador to Brazil for President Roosevelt under the Good Neighbor Policy. Although Hollywood whitewashed Rita, there are elements of Rita Cansino you can pick up on when you watch her films knowing her background. In a film like Gilda, her dancing scenes in the nightclub showcase her roots as a dancer and commanding of the crowd. Then comes The Loves of Carmen. This film is close to the Rita that came to Hollywood more than any other character she portrayed. In this retelling of the opera Carmen, she portrays a gypsy in Spain and performs classical Spanish dances, the kind she grew up with. Watching this film, it’s hard not to be heartbroken by thinking of what may have gone on in her mind as she performs dances she used to but now as woman with an image that was completely overhauled by Hollywood. The studio may have whitewashed her looks but they couldn’t take those pieces of her Spanish identity.

I often wonder how frustrated she must have felt in films where she did play a Hispanic woman such as Blood and Sand, Carmen, and You Were Never Lovelier. Many of these parts, save for Carmen, were just beautiful women that didn’t have much to do aside from dance, seduce and smile. They also had heavy American overtones to them. She wasn’t given the opportunity to showcase the character’s dimensions and Spanish backgrounds as she should have been. It wouldn’t be until Rita Moreno’s Anita in 1961’s West Side Story that audiences would finally see a fully realized Latinx character, this time of Puerto Rican descent.

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As Anita, Moreno brings to life a character who is loyal, hard working and fierce. During her solo America, we learn more about her struggle with leaving behind her home country, making it in the United States, and her dual identity. This song does so much for progress and representation that it still packs a punch today and is still very much relevant. Moreno won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita beating out the tough competition of Hollywood icons such as Judy Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg.  Progress was made that night as Moreno became the first Latinx actress to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It was quite the achievement but was this lauded in the papers the next day? Nope. To make matters worse, Moreno continued to be offered stereotypical ethnic roles after her groundbreaking achievement. She wouldn’t work again until seven years later! Even before Anita, she was playing the roles that Rita Hayworth was being offered before her whitewashing including the slave girl Tuptim in The King and I and what she herself called “conchita” roles in westerns and other pictures.

After her self imposed exile from film, she found work on television and expanded to theatre where the roles were richer. This would lead to her winning the EGOT in the shortest amount of time of any performer. Moreno continues to be challenged in a wide range of roles to this day. Last year, she starred as the matriarch of a Cuban family in a reboot of One Day at a Time on Netflix. At 85, there is nothing stopping her.

But the stories of these Ritas are still very similar to the kind of struggles Latinx performers face today. Look at Lin-Manuel Miranda for example. He has made a name for himself on Broadway but he had to write those roles himself, those weren’t coming his way. When was the last time you saw a Latinx actress portray the starring role in a film? Bonus, when was the last time you saw a Latinx actress portray something other than a maid or a sexpot? The careers of Rita Hayworth and Rita Moreno should be celebrated but if you look deeper, they serve as a cautionary tale that Hollywood still needs to do better when it comes to Latinx representation on the big screen.

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Why Ricky Ricardo was more groundbreaking than you remember

ilovelucy_lucydesiIt’s hard to imagine since it’s been in the public conscience for decades but this year, I Love Lucy will celebrate 66 years! It’s an incredible milestone for a show that hasn’t been off the air since it went on the air in October of 1951.

I Love Lucy is remembered and celebrated for its hilarious comedy and the standout performance of Lucille Ball but looking back on the show, it’s amazing to see just how groundbreaking it was. We take for granted the couple of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz because of all that we know about them but for audiences in 1951 seeing a Caucasian woman married to a Cuban man was really a sight that wasn’t all that common and at worst, not easily accepted.

Arnaz and Ball were very vocal about this during the production of the series and in retrospectives. The story goes that Ball wanted Arnaz to play her husband on the show but studio execs said no because no one would buy that the two would be married because of their differences but the duo fought back pointing out that they had already been married for 13 years!

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Beyond the interracial relationship, one can not deny what Ricky Ricardo means to Hispanic and Latino culture. It’s easy to point the finger at his broken English to say Ricardo was a stereotype but in actuality, he was a more groundbreaking character than you think. Ricardo was a loving husband and father, he spoke Spanish, English, and even though his Spanglish was a point of comedy on the show, nobody made a big deal about Ricardo being Cuban. It was accepted and appreciated. He’s one of the most positive representations of a Latino character we’ve ever seen on television.

For starters, in the Ricardo household, Ricky was the breadwinner with a successful nightclub act. At his job, he was a leader and we see that in many episodes where he interacts with his band and the club manager. In his nightclub act, he was always pushing the envelope infusing Spanish music, dance and costumes. Later on in the series, Ricardo took full control by opening up his own club, Club Babalu, referencing his most famous song.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated on I Love Lucy is how they dealt with the cultural differences between Lucy and Ricky in a way that was relatable. In the episode ‘Be a Pal’, Lucy thinks Ricky is losing interest in her and tries several methods to win back his affection. With the help of Ethel, she tries to transform their home into Cuba or what she thinks is Cuba by going out and buying a bunch of things she believes will remind him of his childhood home. She takes it up a notch even further by dressing up as Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda. The situation she gets herself into is even more hilarious when you see that the only things she could find were what America in the 50’s and even now thinks is Spanish when it’s actually more of a Mexican influence: donkeys, ponchos, chickens and fruit. Then she sings a song in Portuguese but she thinks it’s Spanish. All of this makes Ricardo’s reaction even funnier because he’s so lost in the situation. None of this is anything like what he grew up with. It’s a very American situation that displays the lack of cultural knowledge, but Ricardo reminds her of his love for her, that he’s happy in America just the way things are and tops it off with a sweet kiss.

Ricardo’s English is always a source of comedy on the show, and there are moments on the show where Lucy tries her hardest to communicate with Latino characters specifically Ricky’s mother and other members of his family. Arnaz was committed to pointing out multiculturalism in the United States and worked with the writers to address that. One of my favorite moments of the series is when Ricardo reads a bedtime story to his son, little Ricky. There are two things at play here. One, we see a Latino character caught between two worlds trying to tell a bedtime story to his son who will grow up to be bilingual. Two, we see a Latino character as a devoted father when often times society tells us that isn’t the case. The touching and hilarious moment below:

I love the episodes where we meet Ricky’s family most notably when Ricky’s mother visits New York and ‘The Ricardos visit Cuba.’ The episodes showed the audience his relationships with his mother and uncle. For a 30-minute situation comedy in the 50s it’s easy to skim through them but as I revisit these episodes, I see the added depth these relationships had on Ricardo as a character. Ricardo, like Arnaz, never forget where he came from and was always committed to being the best he could be in America, the place that gave him a shot. That was something very important to Arnaz that he spoke about often. In this moving clip from Ed Sullivan’s ‘Toast of the Town,’ he describes this transition giving a deeper insight into his legacy.

Desi Arnaz was a television pioneer whose commitment to the industry is still thriving. If it wasn’t for Desi Arnaz, you wouldn’t have reruns, tv shows wouldn’t be shot with multiple cameras, writers wouldn’t be acknowledge at the Emmy awards, the list goes on but never forget his acting and what he brought to American audiences when it comes to Latino representation.

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Olga San Juan: Hollywood’s Puerto Rican Pepperpot you probably haven’t heard of

olgasanjuanWhen it comes to Puerto Ricans in classic film, the default is to mention Rita Moreno but we must do better and make room for Olga San Juan. You might be asking who is Olga San Juan? While her career may not have been as prolific in Hollywood with accolades like Moreno’s, she still must be credited for helping to bring Latin images on screen during the 1940’s.

San Juan danced with Fred Astaire, sang with Bing Crosby, was a side-kick to Betty Grable, and performed with “El Rey” himself, Tito Puente. She didn’t get the big, leading roles she deserved but this tiny, sassy Latina made her presence known as a scene stealer. Hollywood dubbed her the “Puerto Rican Pepperpot” because of her short stature of 5’2. Alongside Carmen Miranda, San Juan helped Americans escape the horrors of WWII with her turns in “Good Neighbor” films that combined musical numbers with Pan-American flair. But unlike Miranda, San Juan wasn’t restricted to the stereotypical spicy Latina characters, in some films she’d pass for white, a Mexican posing as an Indian, and even a Norwegian!

Before arriving onscreen, she dazzled crowds as a nightclub and theater performer. San Juan began dancing at a very young age, her L.A. Times obituary says 5 or 6, but we may never know for sure but what we do know is that the discipline she learned at an early age helped her success. She grew up in Spanish Harlem in New York with Puente and during her childhood she performed shows in his mambo act. They’d perform at a nightclub started by mothers called “Las Estrellas del Futuro” which means “stars of the future” in English. As we’ve seen now, those women were clearly onto something. It was clear that San Juan loved performing and her talents only expanded.

olgafredastaireShe would continue to perform in nightclubs in her teens mixing in radio work. Eventually she caught the attention of Paramount Studios. She was signed to a contract in 1943 at 16. Work didn’t come easy though. She was reduced to chorus girl parts but in films like Duffy’s Tavern and Blue Skies she stood out. Her attractive looks, dance moves, and spunky personality made an impression. Blue Skies features a great number of Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” where San Juan performs a sultry dance with Fred Astaire. It was perfect for the time as Latin American landscapes were all the rage at the time. It wasn’t until the star-studded buffet film, Variety Girl, that audiences saw Olga San Juan the actress.

In this film, she shares above the title credit with Mary Hatcher as two best friends who switch identities to try and make it big in the movie industry. I watched this film a long time ago and remember being captivated by San Juan and confused. She’s blonde here and her character is named Amber Lavonne but the credits say Olga San Juan, a really Latin name, but I had to remind myself, this is 1940’s Hollywood. San Juan is hilarious in this role, she’s the more colorful character of the two and gets herself caught in some slapstick hijinks. Her energy is perfect for the part amidst the star studded cameos that include anyone and everyone who was on the Paramount lot: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, and the star-studded finale features a singing William Holden and Ray Milland with a dad joke about a ham. That alone is worth it. San Juan manages to steal the show here as the over confident Amber as she tries to get attention from studio bosses in order to become the next big star.

olgasanjuanbettygrableShe’d follow Variety Girl with a few more roles. Standouts include the Ava Gardner-Robert Walker comedy One Touch of Venues and the Preston Sturges black comedy The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend. The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend was seen as a hot mess when it was released. It features Betty Grable against type as a gun-toting saloon singer but over the years it’s been lauded as an ahead of its time work. But for me, it’s a reminder of the kind of career Olga San Juan should have been given. San Juan is perfect as Grable’s side-kick Conchita. In this film, Grable’s character Freddie shoots a judge with a bullet met for her cheating boyfriend, she and her friend (San Juan) attempt to flee assuming the identities of a school teacher and her American-Indian student respectively. This film is all over the place but it’s a Sturges so it’s not meant to be taken seriously and you’re introduced to an array of zany characters along the way. This is a non-musical role for San Juan which allows her to flex her muscles in comedy and commit fully to the pepperpot label that Paramount bestowed upon her when she started out.

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend would be the last major role San Juan would have. She essentially retired from the screen to devote her time as a mother and wife. San Juan was married to actor Edmund O’Brien for twenty eight years. Like many ethnic actors of Hollywood’s golden age, you’re left wanting more and wondering what their careers could have been if executives knew how to utilize their talents and if films were written with diverse actors in mind. San Juan was the package – she had the looks, talent, and was a chameleon who could adapt to the different roles offered to her. While her screen credits may only be 17 according to IMDB, she helped audiences during the dark times of WWII and put the island of Puerto Rico in the public conscience. So the next time Latinos in Classic Hollywood comes up in conversation don’t forget the Olga San Juans when you talk about the Rita Morenos, they are worthy of a place in the discussion.

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The Good Neighbor Policy and the Latino image

One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s foreign policy initiatives during World War II was “The Good Neighbor Policy.” With the United States cut off from European markets, FDR’s administration focused on Latin America to strengthen relations. The policy’s objectives were to increase trade and foster good relationships. But FDR couldn’t do it alone and enlisted Hollywood’s propaganda machine to help. One studio was above the rest when it came to the policy: 20th Century Fox. Their answer to the policy? Carmen Miranda.

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The Portuguese-born singer gained success in New York which caught Fox’s attention. They put her in the musical Down Argentine Way in 1940. Down Argentine Way was supposed to be a vehicle for the reigning queen of Fox, Alice Faye, but she was replaced with Betty Grable. Down Argentine Way had a lot riding on it as it was one of Fox’s first films to deliver for the policy. It was a huge success grossing over $2 million but the Argentines didn’t see it that way. Like many of the films during this era, it lacked authenticity. Don Ameche and Leonid Kinskey portray Spanish men even though they are both American but hey, they have dark hair, give them mustaches and they’ll be ethnic Fox said. The film is clearly Hollywood’s version of Argentina, no photography was shot there except for maybe some newsreel footage but the rest is clearly on a Fox soundstage. Argentina is a mountainous country but if you watch the Argentina in Down Argentine Way, you’d think it was a tropical paradise. Most troublesome is the portrayal of the Argentines in the supporting cast. In the film, these men are crooked and lazy.

These images weren’t created by Hollywood, Hollywood only projected them into the American mainstream. You have to go way back to the Mexican/American War in the 19th century to understand where these images came from. Mexico lost the war but it led to the creation of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Texas. Mexicans were displaced and found survival by taking low paying, dangerous jobs Americans wouldn’t do. Eventually Americans felt threatened and began branding Mexicans with awful characteristics such as ‘lazy,’ ‘criminals,’ ‘stupid,’ and ‘aggressive.’ Because they thought they would take their jobs, Mexicans quickly became ‘the other.’ It’s a sentiment felt when you watch any of the ‘good neighbor’movies.

Fast forward to the 1940’s, the negative reaction to Down Argentine Way didn’t stop Fox from delving deeper into South American stories with its new star.

That Night in RioWeekend in Havana, and The Gang’s All Here were some of her biggest hits. Unlike Down Argentine Way, her roles in these films went beyond musical numbers. While these films are nothing but good fun (I personally love them), their portrayals of Latin Americans are hard to watch. Carmen Miranda’s characters are all the same: they are fast-talking, short tempered women with jealous streaks and broken English. She is sexualized with elaborate, crop-top gowns accentuating her breasts and very large headwear.

But in her performances, Miranda had a self-awareness of this ridiculousness that made you feel comfortable. It was as if she played along knowing this really isn’t how it is where she’s from. The Gang’s All Here gave us Miranda’s most famous dance number, ‘The Tutti Frutti Hat,’ which is basically the Chiquita banana girl coming to life. It is a splashy number with scantily clad chorus girls and some very phallic bananas.

While the ‘Good Neighbor’ films succeeding in providing audiences an escape, they only perpetuated Latin American stereotypes that are still present today. Her image is very visible in Latin American festivals such as Carnaval in many Latin American countries as well as gay culture but that isn’t all Latinos contribute to society. But Fox can’t solely be blamed, RKO had Flying Down to Rio, MGM danced around the policy with the Esther Williams’ musical, Fiesta, Republic had Brazil, Walt Disney pictures did The Three Caballeros, and years later our television sets would have I Love Lucy.

I don’t think 1940’s Hollywood or the few Latin Americans involved in making these pictures knew these portrayals would have such longevity nor did they care. It’s obvious this was what they thought being a Latina meant. Fast forward to 2015 and what do you see when you look for a Latina?

Sofia Vergara in Modern Family, Jennifer Lopez in her music video for her song ‘Booty,’ and Eiza Gonzalez in tv series, From Dusk Till Dawn, only illustrate not much has changed.

This post was a contribution to Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Citizen Screen.

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