Women On Screen: Minorities, A Different Type of Role

Mexican American Women

Dolores Del Rio
Dolores Del Rio.
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-75576.

Mexican American actresses experienced more complexities when attempting to cross racial boundaries than did other minority actresses in early Hollywood.  “Due to Anglo-American racism, which specified racial types according to narrowly defined characteristics such as skin color and facial characteristics, light-skinned Hispanics moved in and out of ethnic roles more easily.  The label ‘Spanish’ removed these actors somewhat from the more negative connotation of ‘Mexican.’”25

The most famous Mexican American actress, Dolores Del Río, managed to cross many of these racial boundaries because the lighter color of her skin allowed her to “pass” more easily as Caucasian. Hollywood trade and fan magazines portrayed Dolores Del Rio as aristocratic, playing up her supposed Spanish heritage in order to downplay her real Latin American heritage. Del Río got her start in American silent film, usually playing the stereotypical role of a racial other. Directors often cast Mexican actresses as any kind of Latin American, and sometimes even as foreign exotics from non-Latin American countries. Del Río was even cast as a French barmaid and a Polynesian princess. In her early roles, Del Río’s characters often met the same fate as those of Anna May Wong: interracial love had to end in Del Río’s suicide. In some of Del Rio’s roles, however, interracial love ended in success, mostly because the white man has “saved” her and her “inferior” Mexican family and friends. In Flying Down to Rio (1933) Dolores goes to America with her American lover and the reason she is allowed to do this is because in the film, she is portrayed as a daughter from a wealthy, Euro-South American family, a device used to Anglicanize her.26

Lupe Velez
Lupe Veléz played the “Mexican Spitfire” and contrary to
Dolores Del Río, was more often seen as a sex object.
  Her darker skin led to this classification and she
found it hard to break free.
Another type of role for Mexican American woman was that of the “Mexican Spitfire,” as epitomized by Lupe Vélez. Vélez’s first starring role was opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho (1927). The fact that Vélez was able to star opposite Fairbanks demonstrates how much easier it was for Mexican American actresses to cross racial boundaries on screen than it was for Asian Americans and African Americans. With the advent of talkies, Vélez became more stereotyped into “native” roles because of her Mexican accent. Vélez popularized the feisty, Mexican character later in the thirties.27