The Birth of the Latino Movie Star: Barbara Mujica’s Miss del Rio

BY CAROLINE WILSON

novel by barbara mujica miss del rio (Graydon House, 2022) evokes the glitz and glamor of old Hollywood as it follows the rise of the first major Latino movie star, Dolores del Río. Beginning with Del Río’s tumultuous childhood, Mujica captures Dolores’ charm and determination to succeed despite uncertain circumstances; and while modern audiences have long forgotten the name Dolores, there was a time when she was a household name in both the United States and Mexico.

miss del rio is told from the perspective of Dolores’ fictional hairdresser and best friend, María Amparo, but the novel adheres to the established facts of Dolores’ life. Known as Lola to those close to her, Dolores knew adversity from an early age. After being uprooted by the Mexican Revolution, she was forced to adjust to a new existence and still conform to society’s expectations. Married at the age of sixteen, Dolores was prepared to be the perfect wife and mother to her until a traumatic miscarriage ended her hopes for the future. Only then does Dolores contemplate a new path, one that takes her to Hollywood, back to Mexico, and beyond.

“Defying society and her in-laws, she became a career woman. She and her husband moved to Hollywood, where she became a star almost overnight,” Mujica explained. “Her broken English of hers was not a problem because in those days, movies were silent. However, in 1927 talkies were introduced. Many actors, even native English speakers, were terrified that the public might find their voices unappealing, in which case, their careers would be over. However, Lola made the transition beautifully. She worked hard to improve her English, taking advantage of her accent by always interpreting foreigners: French, Brazilian and even Russian”.

author Barbara Mujica

However, Dolores’s charmed life was not as rosy as her fans wanted to believe. In her personal life, she struggled with infertility and failed romances. On screen, she was forced to adopt a persona that would make her attractive to moviegoers. “Del Río arrived in Hollywood just as studios were looking for a female Latin Lover, a female version of the extraordinarily popular Rodolfo Valentino, considered the epitome of male sex appeal. As the female Valentino, she was supposed to exude sensuality, and in most of her films she did,” Mujica said. Unfortunately, Dolores would be typecast in this role for years to come, and despite some successes of hers, many of her films would flop at the box office. In 1938, she was labeled “box office poison” along with several other leading actresses of the day.

His career began to decline rapidly as the United States became more xenophobic. “Mexicans became a target of suspicion due to communist influence in the Mexican Revolution. In Lola’s case, having friends like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, outspoken communists, didn’t help. When, in the 1930s, the Hays Office tried to strip films of lewd and seditious or political content, both Dolores del Río and her cousin, Ramón Novarro, were investigated”.

Although exonerated, Dolores found herself at a crossroads. “Instead of giving up, she returned to Mexico and became one of the most important figures of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” Mujica continued. “In 1946, Maria Candelaria, a film in which he starred, won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first Mexican film to screen at the Festival and the first Latin American film to win. Dolores would star in many Spanish-language films during the period from 1943 to 1959 and garnered praise for her roles in The Abandoned (1944) and Mrs. Perfect (1951). “Many of the films he made in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s extolled Mexico’s rich cultural heritage and explored the plight of indigenous peoples. Over the years, she became a symbol of Mexican femininity, an icon of feminine Mexican beauty.

But Dolores was getting old. In 1960, she was in her mid-fifties and, although she was a veteran actress, her film roles became rare. “As she got older, her star also began to fade in Mexico, so she reinvented herself once again, this time as a theater actress,” Mujica relates. With the help of her third husband, Dolores would stage successful Oscar Wilde productions. Lady Windemere’s Fan and Robert Sherwood road to rome.

After an eighteen-year absence, Dolores returned to Hollywood, where she continued to work in film and television until the 1970s. A year before her death in 1983, she finally got the recognition she deserved, receiving the George Eastman Award for contributions in cinema.

Despite this eventual recognition by Hollywood, it was his years in Mexican cinema that consolidated his status as a movie star and his ability to reinvent himself. That is why Bárbara Mujica wants readers to get to know this pioneering star of Latino cinema. She “She was an extraordinarily resilient woman who learned early in life to cope with adversity. Lola overcame all obstacles with style and grace. I see her as a positive example of what a woman can achieve when she puts her mind to it.”

About the collaborator: Caroline Wilson is an architectural historian specializing in the social history of 19the and 20the century architecture. When not reading or writing, Caroline can be found planning her next trip abroad and co-hosting a podcast titled scandal sheets (@scandalsheetspod). She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, along with her husband and five very literate cats.

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