Thursday, July 01, 2004

A Celebration of Latinos on Celluloid

Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood by Clara E. Rodriguez ($26.95 Smithsonian Books, 256 pp. Hardcover)

Latinos are hot in Hollywood today – J.Lo, Michelle Rodriguez, Eva Mendes, Rosario Dawson, Benicio del Toro, Andy Garcia, Jimmy Smits and Antonio Banderas (to name just a few) never had it so good. This is not an accident. Latinos are now the largest minority in the United States, with millions of dollars of disposable income, and the entertainment industry is paying attention.

Latinos have a long history in film, as the author helps us discover. Starting at the beginning of the last century, the author brings scores of Latino actors back into the spotlight, describing their career trajectory, the kinds of roles they played and the political and cultural factors that affected filmmaking at the time.

From the tens to the early thirties, Latinos actors were some of the most successful and sought-after stars in Hollywood. In the silent era Myrtle Gonzalez, Beatriz Michelena and Anita Page (born Pomares) were idols alongside Greta Garbo. Latinos were so hot in the 1920’s that Austrian-born Jacob Krantz landed in Hollywood and changed his name to Ricardo Cortez in order to find work.

During the 30s and 40s, the U.S. wanted to make sure Latin America would remain allies in the impending war and instituted the Good Neighbor Policy of cooperation and friendship. In Hollywood, this meant making lots of films mostly musicals) with well-known Latino actors like Cesar Romero, Carmen Miranda and Lupe Velez. These stars worked steadily and were successful, but never reached the superstardom of actors like Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Cansino in New York) and Anthony Quinn (born Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn in Chihuahua, Mexico), both perceived as anglo.

Tying the fate of Latinos in Hollywood closely to the politics of each decade, the author clearly shows the effect of politics on art and artists. Portrayals of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in particular were deeply racist. In the decades after the 1950s, opportunities for Latino actors dried up except for a very few instances and some opportunities in independent film. Many Latino actors chose to work in Europe; some turned to television. In the late 90’s things started to turn around again.

Loads of pictures and gossipy details make this a pleasurable read; historical context and socio-political insights make it educational, and the smooth conversant style make this history supremely readable.

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