Visual Retrospective: Latino Film Stars
Clara E. Rodriguez
The photos in this chapter give us an idea of the long, but often buried, history of Latinos in film. Although there are important similarities between the history of past Latina stars and that of their male counterparts, there are also important differences. The photos also indicate that this past was very different from the present in a number of significant ways. Just how different was this past from the present situation of Latinos in film? To some degree, this depends on whether we are speaking of the history of Latina stars or Latino male stars.
In the case of women, some differences between the past and the present are striking. First, there were leading Latina stars in major movies. Second, they had clearly identifiable Hispanic names. Third, they played diverse roles and were cast in a variety of social positions. Today, it is difficult to find such equivalents. The early dichotomy between rich, valuable, and virginal señoritas and the spitfires or "catineras of easy virtue" ( Garcia Berumen, 1995:11) has been reduced to a single more negative view of the spitfire. We see in the histories of the Latina stars pictured here the struggles of subsequent actresses against what became the predominant spitfire stereotype. We also see in these photos the development of highly successful but "invisible" Latina stars, that is, actresses whose Spanish origin was generally not known by the public.
The early dichotomy between spitfire and señorita is most strongly seen in the characters played by Dolores Del Río and Lupe Vélez. Dolores Del Río, the first Latina superstar, early established herself in varied popular and often aristocratic roles, whereas Lupe Vélez, another major star of the same era, was early associated with comedies and the "hot tamale" image ( Hadley-Garcia, 1993:30-31). Contemporary writers unfortunately often measure Vélez against Del Río and find Vélez wanting. Moreover, they derive the current, rather negative, Latina spitfire image from Vélez's earlier spitfire character. As a result, Vélez is often not recognized for her real comedic abilities or her highly successful movies. Her "Carmelita" character in these movies was a spitfire, but she was also the star, the protagonist. Carmelita was spunky, funny, and smart, often outwitting others and getting the guy in the end. This is in sharp contrast to recent spitfires, marginal characters who never get the guy. These are easy, supersexed, or vio-