On Cinema, Stars, Boleros y Comedia: Contesting Cold War Repression through Mexican American Popular Culture in the pages of La Opinion – Soledad Vidal

Abstract: This article explores the role that La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest, played in addressing migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. It is argued that through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination.

Figure 1: José Pedro Infante Cruz, better known as Pedro Infante, the famous actor and singer of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema

“Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you
let them say that I’m just sleeping and
may they bring me back home to you.”
                  ~ Jorge Negrete

Suburbanization, coupled with the decline of public transportation, affected 1950s entertainment patterns across the United States as suburban families traded their love affair with the big screen for the privacy of television viewership in single family homes. As suburbia spread, those who did not have access to transportation found it increasingly difficult to reach downtown centers and go to the movies.  Despite the postwar growth of the U.S. suburbs, Mexican immigrants continued to move into and revitalize urban ethnic neighborhoods transforming Los Angeles entertainment sites into their own. La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest addressed migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. The paper emerged as a form of immigrant support system and a coping institution that addressed themes centered on the economic, social and racial assimilation problems that resulted from World War II. Since 1900s, Mexican immigrants, more than any other group, had served as the backbone of the American Southwestern economy responding to America’s vacancies in labor.[1] As Mexican Americans joined the ranks of the National Guard, the Army reserve, enlisted in the United States Military, and signed agricultural agreements to tend U.S. fields, they relocated north providing a service to the United States and laying the roots of community in the process.

La Opinion celebrated Mexican political and civic contributions to claim a stake in Americanism during the Cold War period. However, the paper also revealed its vision to help establish a Mexican community that reflected in many ways the Mexican homeland that migrants left behind.  Through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Mexican American entertainment and more specifically, the “Cine” (movie) section of the paper emerged as the most resistant to assimilative rhetoric and as the paper’s most visible stronghold of Mexican cultural heritage. La Opinion reserved its popular cultural pages to appeal to the Mexican community’s desire to assimilate into American society within a space of Mexican cultural affirmation. Movie-goers who lived and labored in Los Angeles turned to Mexican entertainment to fill a void in Mexican representation in U.S. cinema and to cope with the nostalgia of missing home.

La Opinion’s entertainment section revealed a deep affection for Mexican performers showcasing Mexican actors, mariachi singers and comedians in glamorous downtown movie houses in Los Angeles. Through “painful self-recognitions” as captured in satires, critiques, political commentary and melodramas, Mexican entertainers connected Mexican American audiences to their homeland.[2] During this period, Hollywood catered to middle-class and American-born patrons. Through location, thematic content and cost of attendance the United States film industry demonstrated “a general indifference toward the treatment of Hispanic themes.”[3]  Yet La Opinion reveals that Los Angeles’ Mexican-descent readers responded to the absence of representation in mainstream Hollywood productions through the creation and support of their own cultural niche. Lining the Los Angeles historic center, movie palaces like the Million Dollar and the Mayan emerged as centers of Latin American showcase.[4] Located at Broadway and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, the Million Dollar’s lobby was decorated with large posters from beloved 1950s stars such as Pedro Infante, El Trio Los Panchos, Cantinflas and Tin Tan.  Mexicans living in Los Angeles flocked to local Los Angeles movie houses to watch stage shows featuring Mexico’s biggest stars. The experience of dressing up in style, waiting in line for over an hour, and cheering on their favorite actors revealed the role of Mexican entertainment to a truly integrated community. Bruce Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theaters company that leased the Million Dollar on and off in the 1940s remembered the excitement of parents, grandparents and children as they awaited the shows. “To them,” stated Corwin, “the Million Dollar was a magical name” eliciting memories of larger-than-life stars.[5]

The Cine (cinema) section of La Opinion promoted and affirmed cultural productions from Mexico by encouraging local Mexican communities to seek Mexican entertainment at local glamorous houses. Frank Fouce, who leased the Million Dollar Theater in 1949, is credited from saving it from downtown’s decline by refocusing entertainment to suit the Hispanic community’s tastes.[6] By the 1950s, the postwar push to the suburbs turned the Million Dollar theater from a Hollywood movie house where Charlie Chaplin had once performed into a showcase of Mexican talent.

Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion published big advertisements on upcoming stars and musical and comedic tours. The paper also delved into popular gossip about las estrellas (movie stars) hooking readers by leaking stories about undercover romances and ego-fueled confrontations between divas and idols. Whether viewers stepped out to watch Un Divorcio (Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953), Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954), or Los Hijos de Maria Morales (Fernando de Fuentes, 1952) among many other Mexican productions, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination. Mexican comedies in particular played more than an entertainment role. They were promoted by La Opinion as healing mechanisms and uplifting popular culture venues that helped the Mexican American community cope with layoffs in transportation and the food industries.[7] In June 11, 1950, for example, the Cine section praised the movie “Enredate y Veras” (Get Entangled and See, Carlos Orellana, 1948), claiming that while the community was affected by the tram and bread maker strikes, “Mexican humor [was] the best antidote to temporary unemployment.” In the process of prescribing film as a treatment for economic uncertainty, La Opinion advanced two important goals: promoting the financial prosperity of local business by helping raise film attendance to local Mexican theaters, and serving as a defender of the Mexican migrants facing discrimination during the Cold-War period.

Figure 2: A poster advertising Mexican Cinema features at Los Angeles’ Million Dollar Theater

During and shortly after World War II, Mexican cinema inside Mexico received a boost, as the war lessened foreign competition in filmmaking, and the U.S. focused its films on war-related themes that, according to film critics writing for La Opinion in 1954, “were disliked and deemed distasteful by Mexican audiences.”[8] During its Golden Era, Mexican cinema had achieved a level of economic, artistic, and popular success unprecedented in any other Latin American country.[9] Spanning roughly from 1935 to 1955, Mexico’s Golden Era witnessed a vast expansion of the Mexican film industry across Latin America in a manner comparable to the influence of Hollywood on the English-speaking world. By 1948, Mexico had out-produced filmmakers throughout Latin America with approximately 2.5 million tickets sold with foreign sales amounting to 75 percent of admissions.[10] Mexican film during this period focused on narratives of belonging that emphasized moral teachings, social problems, and the melodrama, a genre of film that delved deep into personal relationships and, more pointedly, on problems rooted in the family.

Mexico’s focus on the family resulted from influences stemming from the aftermath of World War II, as Hollywood filmmakers working in a variety of genres from westerns to thrillers turned to the family. The genre to most effectively address the institution of the family was the melodrama. The box-office success of Mexican films continued after the end of World War II when Mexican cinema became focused on commercial films. Mexican melodrama idealized Mexican life and emphasized the importance of family and national unity at a time of economic and social crisis.[11] As Jackie Byars explains, Hollywood melodramas also assumed various shapes, such as patriarchal melodrama; maternal melodrama, typically set in a community of women and children where the patriarch is absent; and lover-centered melodrama which most directly “laid bare the family’s internal contradictions.”[12] Big stars such as Marga Lopez, whom La Opinion described as “la artista argentina del cine mexicano” (the argentine artist of Mexico’s cinema), played numerous leading roles in melodramas helping to usher in the golden age of Mexican female depictions. Revered by La Opinion as one of Mexico’s most talented stars, Marga Lopez left an imprint in melodrama through her masterful performances as a loving, suffering wife. Born in Argentina, she arrived in Mexico when she was a young girl and made her film debut with German Valdes “Tin Tan” in El Hijo Desobediente (The Disobedient Child) directed by Humberto Gomez Landero in 1945. Her performances led to four Ariels (Mexican awards in film). After establishing herself as a great dame of Mexican cinema, Lopez became a Mexican citizen in 1955, eventually transitioning her career from film into TV telenovelas (soap operas).[13] In the period that preceded Lopez, female roles had pushed beyond the traditional fiery, frivolous, and sensual senoritas, for stronger parts that cast Mexican women in bolder roles.[14] However, by the 1950s the quality of female roles entered into a period of decline, as the narrative of the family returned women to the home.[15]

Family melodramas, also known as maternal melodramas, women’s films, or “weepies” centered on the problems of love, sexuality, and parenting.[16] Typically promoting a female centered plot, “weepies” addressed a female audience and focused on women, their lives, and their relationships with other women, a trend that feminist film theorist Nancy Chodorow argues was significant considering that women had been marginalized in other film genres.[17] Un Divorcio, (A Divorce, directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953) a Mexican film starring Marga Lopez and Carlos Moctezuma, was revered in La Opinion as an example of a superb melodrama that delved into maternal problems, women’s conflicts, and the dangerous threat of divorce.

Un Divorcio’s lead actor, Carlos Lopez de Moctezuma, who played the stoic patriarch in the film, was regularly featured in the Cine section of the press. “Our villain,” as La Opinion warmly referred to him, had built a prosperous film career by being cast as a “malo” (antihero); a personality trait that contrasted “his radiant personality.”[18] In an interview with La Opinion, Moctezuma revealed that his career in acting had started with his love for theater. Yet due to the flexibility of the Mexican entertainment industry, where theater and film actors frequently crossed over, Moctezuma eventually chose film, appearing in more than 96 motion pictures throughout his career.

I went to the movies to earn money and then lost it taking theater roles. In the end, I gave up my love for theater, choosing film. I cannot complain. I have built a long career in film, even though I have always been cast in villain roles. The industry classified me in that role and I have adapted to it and very happily obliged.[19]

Villain or hero, La Opinion adored Moctezuma and frequently published candid interviews with Mexico’s favorite stars. However, the early 1950’s film critic’s corner of La Opinion addressed problems inherent in the protection of a star-studded system that featured the same actors who, while dear to the Mexican viewership, appeared to monopolize roles leaving no room for new talent.[20]   On October 11, 1952, La Opinion film critics pleaded with the Mexican film industry to make room for fresh talent:

We need young actresses and actors. There is a crisis in young acting talent. The lack of new young actors is affecting theaters and movies that now operate at a minimal capacity. In our movies one rarely sees young actors. Instead, we are exposed to the same actors in many repeated roles. These beloved stars, who started their film careers in their youth are now aging yet they are still playing the same protagonist roles. This is not going to be attractive for much longer, as leading stars become grandparents, yet keep playing seductive roles. Even though the beautiful stars are photogenic, their souls are aged and this affects film.[21]

The article added that young talent was rarely cast in protagonist roles. Relegated mostly to secondary parts, young actors, stated La Opinion, “fear taking leading roles.” For their part, movie producers, too, worried that promoting new talent would affect ticket sales as the public, unfamiliar with new talent, would be hesitant to watch films with unknown actors. La Opinion disagreed with the old model that protected a few acting elite and instead advocated change.  “So then,” stated the paper, “we continue with our antiquated movie cast of 10 or even 15 years ago as if time has stood still.” Movie viewers, stated the columnist, “are tired of the same old faces. They can even anticipate the actor’s facial gestures, the dropping of the eyes, their punch lines, their melodramatic acting style and at times even predict the next line. The only thing that changes is wardrobe.” Pressing for a change, the paper argued that “we need new young talent now. We have a serious problem facing the future of our film. If things keep going as they are, we will find ourselves without talent 30 years from now.”[22]

La Opinion boldly critiqued aspects of Mexican film that could potentially affect Mexico’s reputation as a respectable cinematographic industry. When it came to favorite genres, the paper praised melodramas as “Mexico’s movie genre that captured Mexico’s history and its people.”[23] However, during the 1950s La Opinion also advertised a new film genre: the social protest picture, which emerged as a reaction to the Cold War practice of blacklisting actors and technicians who worked on anti-capitalistic films. While La Opinion promoted itself as a progressive, pro-liberal press, the Cine section revealed some internal ideological contradictions, as the paper supported both capitalistic practices as well as films that critiqued U.S. discrimination against Mexican Americans. One of the most advertised social problem films was Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth. The film focused on the 1951 strike by a branch of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers operating in Baynard, New Mexico. At the core of its message, the film highlighted the sacrifices of the miners who challenged the Empire Zinc Corporation over wages and working conditions. Salt of the Earth triggered the suppression of both the film and the Mexican labor union at the height of Cold War America.[24] In order to produce the film, Biberman recruited the services of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson and also enlisted actual members of the local union who had participated in the strike. Miners and their families agreed to participate in the film as long as Biberman allowed them a measure of control over the script to ensure its accuracy in the representation of the mining community.[25] The members of Local 890 insisted on a portrayal that would reveal how they came together as a community to counter oppression from Anglo interests. As a condition of performing, the miners refused to play into any gendered stereotypes that referenced machismo, subordination of women, illiteracy, ignorance, or weakness. Biberman accepted the miners’ requests and thus began production of the story. Salt of the Earth would be told through the eyes and experiences of Esperanza Quintero, played by Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. The film emphasized the exploitation of Mexican employees through low wages, poor safety conditions and inadequate housing. Led by Esperanza Quintero, miner women, too, organized, fought and picketed for improved conditions.

Figure 3: Rosaura Revueltas in Salt of the Earth.

Reporting on the film, La Opinion published an interview with Revueltas on October 12, 1952. In this interview, Revueltas told journalist Pedro Martinez that she was headed to Hollywood to “take part in a film that due to its social content will be tremendously transcendental.” Martinez reported that the U.S. was interested in keeping a close eye on Revuelta’s film since “this movie will raise the question of discrimination of humble Mexican miners who work in the mines of New Mexico.” Martinez warned that “this movie will not show in the U.S. due to its drastic censorship.” Praising Revueltas and Salt of the Earth, La Opinion lauded the film’s “realistic style similar to Italian films,” and added that Salt of the Earth was filmed on site and without fake sets.  At the conclusion of the interview, La Opinion thanked Revuelta for bravely taking the role and for helping to bring justice to hard-working Mexican Americans.

               Salt of the Earth’s story explored many firsts, addressing the struggles of Mexican American miners, while also highlighting gender inequality within the same community. Anglo abuse and Mexican gender inequality emerged as themes that revealed dual systems of abuse.  While initially welcoming women’s participation in all aspects of the strike, the film showed that Mexican male miners initially resisted women’s public roles. However, when workers won the strike in the end, the men realized that they, too, had contributed to their community’s abuse. The film, which premiered in 1954, was immediately censored in the U.S. The film was produced independently from the Hollywood studio system during the hysteria of the Cold War and was virtually banned from ever being shown in the U.S. In 1954, however, the film played briefly in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.  It was released in Canada and in Europe to widespread acclaim, and was shown again in the U.S. in 1965. Salt of the Earth’s repression revealed the pervasive impact of Cold War ideology in Hollywood productions. The film’s depiction of Mexican American mine workers’ struggles in the copper mines of New Mexico exposed the U.S. government’s harassment of labor unionism, particularly targeting the Mexican American workers in the early 1950s. [26]

In addition to workplace violations, the film exposed gender inequality in the Mexican American community through the central character of Esperanza. Salt of the Earth highlighted women’s participation in the strikes through various roles including public activities, letter writing, and picketing. According to Deborah Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth addressed domesticity and child rearing as important political issues. The film condemned macho attitudes as women battled to subvert their inferior places within the family and the community.[27] The picture was shot in 1953 and underwent many battles in its effort to reach completion and distribution. Salt of the Earth fought a string of uphill battles including boycotts, congressional red baiting, local vigilantism and lockouts from Hollywood’s technical facilities.[28] While the film was well received abroad, it was denied regular commercial distribution in the United States but was advertised as showing in local Mexican theaters in La Opinion. Pirated copies of the film found their way to colleges and communities where audiences gathered to view the forbidden film’s stories of worker rights and gender equality. [29]

During her interview with La Opinion Rosaura Revueltas confessed that she had waited all her life to play Esperanza.[30]  In her recollections, she mentioned that production of the film had been postponed several times; however, the producer, director and crew refused to give up on the important story. This film came close to Revuelta’s heart. Growing up in a miner family, Revueltas learned firsthand of the miners’ struggles and sorrows. Her upbringing, she told the press, developed her social conscience and passion to understand the nature of inequality and injustice. “From the moment I became an actress I longed to play a role to honor “my people,” recalled Revueltas.[31] When Salt of the Earth came into production she accepted without hesitation and began dreaming of her role as Esperanza, the miner’s wife she would portray in the film. When asked about the censorship of the film, Revueltas remembered being interrogated on several occasions by U.S. immigration officials who visited the lodge in Silver City where the cast and crew were staying. “They wanted to see my passport,” said Revueltas, and, she added, “they came to arrest me on the grounds that my passport lacked an admission seal. They told me that it was not serious that I could return to work the next day if a $500 bond was posted in El Paso” On March, 22, 1954, La Opinion reported on the censorship of the film under the title “Censura en Sal de La Tierra.”[32] (Censorship in Salt of the Earth). The article stated that the movie had been filmed in U.S. territory and, echoing Revuelta’s recollections, it had been interrupted under Washington’s order because “the U.S. government felt that the dialogue had communistic undertones and tendencies.”  Actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported after being detained for hours, stated La Opinion. The unfinished scenes were completed at a later time.[33]

Revueltas recalled interrogations into her political allegiance; specifically, if she was a member of the communist party and if she was doing a communist film. In her memoir, Revueltas revealed that producer Paul Jarrico followed her to El Paso to post the bond. As a result of her leading role in Salt of the Earth, Revueltas states that she was described as a “dangerous woman” who belonged in Mexico. Due to the political pressure demanding that she leave, Rosaura returned to Mexico while filmmakers continued on with the film. “I carried home with me the spirit that had made this picture possible, the determination that would see it completed, and the inner assurance that a handful of ignorant and frightened men could never prevent its being shown to the peoples of the world.” [34] According to La Opinion, after much review, Mexico had authorized Mexican audiences to see the film once Spanish subtitles were added.[35]

La Opinion celebrated Mexican leading actresses and actors, such as Rosaura Revueltas, even when controversial stories surrounded their favorite stars. In addition to promoting Mexican estrellas, La Opinion advertised Mexican musicians touring the U.S. Southwest with equal zeal and support. In the year 1950, for fifty cents a ticket, La Opinion encouraged audience members to attend affordable Mexican performances. The Trio Los Panchos was reviewed by the press as a popular traveling act from Mexico playing at the Los Angeles Teatro Mason where they were received with “open arms.”[36] La Opinion praised the group’s big personalities, saying that they knew “how to capture an audience right from the start. Their voices are sweet and expressive, the tone is emotional and their lyrics profound.”[37]  Discussing the group’s performance, La Opinion argued that the musicians’ appeal stemmed from their “masterful interpretation of a variety of Latin American music.” However, La Opinion liked the Trio Los Panchos best when “playing their own melodies and songs.” The incredible fan based generated by the Trio’s stemmed from the group’s struggles. Their songs reminded Mexican-descent fans of Mexican culture and traditions. “When they go home,” stated La Opinion, “Mexico inspires them to write and play new lyrics, and we benefit here when they play them in the United States.[38]

Part of their appeal resulted from their ability to play a variety of Spanish music that included the Argentinean tango, the Colombian cumbia, the pasodoble from Spain and samba from Brazil. The group earned labels such as “the ambassadors of romantic music,” masking the  group’s battle with depression, the isolation that came from leaving home and “the hell of drugs and alcohol,” that afflicted the musicians as a result of feeling rootless and at times dejected. [39] Throughout their sixty-year history the trio developed a unique style known as “the pachista style,” three voices, two guitars and a requinto, an instrument invented by one of the group’s members, Alfredo Gil. The Trio Los Panchos performed at local Los Angeles’ theaters, receiving accolades by La Opinion music reviewers. The group initially came together in New York in 1944, singing popular Mexican corridos and rancheras, yet later, the group gained international fame throughout Latin America and Spain with romantic boleros. At a time of Cold War discrimination against immigrants, The Trio came to the U.S. with dreams of conquering the country through their song. Their popularity with the Mexican community in the U.S. did not go unnoticed.  The U.S. military invited the group to help raise the spirits of soldiers serving in the war.  As a result, the group received contracts and invitations to perform in many venues, including combat zones where U.S. soldiers were stationed.

As Mexican Americans enlisted into the ranks of the U.S. military to demonstrate support of US defense goals, Mexican entertainers realized, too, that music could also be used to respond to the patriotic call of service. The U.S. had created a program to entertain and support injured soldiers in combat. In order to participate; however, La Opinion reported that Mexican performers had to become U.S. citizens and renounce their Mexican citizenship. In the case of El Trio, musician Hernando was already a citizen through his Puerto Rican heritage; however the remaining members temporarily embraced American citizenship in order to perform in military camps earning high praise from the press.[40]  Following the war, the musicians returned to Mexico to find that they could not work there due to their US status. In a show of allegiance to Mexico, they renounced their U.S citizenship and renationalized themselves as Mexicans.

Figure 4: El Trio Los Panchos

La Opinion celebrated the group as a truly Mexican band and announced shows, locations and the accessibility of entry fees.  Through advertisements that praised Mexican style, culture and community La Opinion helped the careers of Mexican entertainers on the other side of the border. The film industry in Mexico capitalized on El Trio’s popularity and signed them to appear in over thirty three movies.[41] Alternating between recordings, live shows and tours, El Trio performed in California during the 1950s decade for 14 weeks, making a reported twenty thousand dollars per week.[42] The group participated in an extensive tour that started in 1944 and lasted through 1951. Commenting on the tour, La Opinion referred to the group as “the most perfect musical trio in America.”[43] Their ability to play multiple Spanish style songs led their appeal to reach the east coast, capturing audiences in New York, especially Puertoricans and Dominicans. In 1948 the group relocated to Mexico, where they were received with open arms by Jorge Negrete, a beloved member of the Mexican acting dynasty.

Jorge Negrete received frequent praise on the pages of La Opinion. Like the case of El Trio, Mexican audiences in Los Angeles embraced Negrete’s love of Mexico, which he poured into his songs. Negrete’s music echoed the familiar sentiments of homesickness felt by working-class immigrants living in the U.S. Fiercely nationalistic, Negrete poured his love of Mexico into his songs: “Mexico will always be first and foremost….Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you let them say that I’m just sleeping and may they bring me back home to you.”[44] Adored in Mexico as in the U.S. southwest, Negrete embodied Mexican regionalism, traditional customs, inspiration and hope. “A profoundly loved man,” as his daughter described him, he helped to raise the reputation of Mexico’s cinematographic industry and “prevented the chaos within it.” Negrete would prove instrumental in the development of Mexico’s international film recognition. He contributed to the spreading of Mexico’s artistic industry within the international market, especially while leading as the president of the acting association in Mexico. Negrete would help El Trio singers expand their careers into film. In turn, the group remained thankful for Negrete’s support, especially when Negrete battled cirrhosis, which ultimately cost him his life.[45] When Negrete became gravely ill, the group visited him in the hospital, a touching meeting captured by La Opinion which quoted Negrete scolding El Trio for their bad habits: “You, gentlemen, who have abused alcohol, drugs and been bandits in this life look so healthy, and me I have been a sober man and this fatal illness falls upon me. Why?” He was described as a “corajudo” (quick tempered man) who took everything to heart.  When Negrete died in Houston in 1953, his remains were sent to Mexico, as Negrete had always wished. The popular actor died as he was preparing for a week long engagement at the Million Dollar. Reports of his death prompted an outpour of grief, as fans rushed to the theater and the Cedar-Sinai medical center hoping that news of his death had been nothing but malicious rumors. La Opinion reported on his illness, keeping an anxious community apprised of the decaying health of their beloved star.

On August 28, 1953, Mexican comedic superstar Mario Moreno Cantiflas, sent Jorge Negrete,  his “best regards and wishes for a speedy recovery.” “Strange,” stated La Opinion, “since Mario Moreno Cantinflas and Negrete were not speaking.”[46] While La Opinion’s entertainment section hailed the virtues of its beloved artistic Mexican talents, the paper also enjoyed reporting on animosities between the stars, highlighting disagreements between performers and uncovering secret romances and explosive outbursts on set.  The paper’s frequent commentary on Mexican entertainers’ moral character helped to propel popular actors into rising stardom. When entertainer Mario Moreno Cantinflas visited the dying Negrete at the hospital, La Opinion stated that Cantinflas’ visit had been “thoughtful, well received and kind.”

At the height of his popularity, La Opinion praised Jorge Negrete’s films and also published gossip on his whereabouts and his presumed romances. On August 28, 1953, La Opinion broke the undercover romance with Mexican diva, Maria Felix who was said to be promised to another. “Even though Maria Felix is engaged to Carlos Thompson, she and Negrete are living a happy romance which, our sources tell us, will lead them to the altar.”[47] In the gossip column, La Opinion asked, “Can you believe that Maria Felix, a woman with beauty, money and fame would settle for Jorge Negrete? She’s been picking him up every night after his film Tal Para Cual ( To Each Their Own, Rogelio A Gonzalez, 1953). She’s been driving a luxurious car and trying to hide so no one will know she’s in love with him.” While La Opinion had declared Maria Felix “out of Negrete’s league,” Felix married him, becoming his third wife and staying with him until his death. Heartbroken, Maria Felix oversaw an honorable burial for her husband in Mexico as had been his wish. She would reject a Mexican DC-3 airplane sent by the Mexican government to bring Negrete’s remain back to Mexico, deeming the aircraft  “unsuitable” to carry Negrete and to his legacy. [48]

La Opinion’s mixed reviews of Negrete, his life and his work echoed the star’s contentious reputation in Mexico where he was both loved and abhorred. In Mexico, Negrete had boldly taken on the film industry’s biggest battles regarding salary disputes emerging as the most vocal advocate of the film industry’s labor union. Negrete’s unwavering support of labor unions earned him both fans and enemies. As his daughter, Diana Negrete, recalls in the biography of her father, Negrete worked tirelessly for the creation of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Produccion Cinematografica de la Republica Mexicana, a labor union that protected the rights of cinema employees in the republic of Mexico. Negrete longed to create a true brotherhood of Mexican and foreign actors across the world.[49] In 1951 La Opinion published a story retelling Negrete’s efforts to bring financial prosperity to all Mexican actors:

I am very committed to helping my fellow actors work within an environment of fairness, equity and justice. I am fighting their fight. The artistic field does not offer any support nor guarantee to actors and I do not think this is fair. I do not think that actors should be used as helpless lambs that labor themselves to the ground while others enrich their pockets at the actors’ expense.[50]

Negrete and Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas stood out among La Opinion’s most talked about stars. Like the case of Negrete who through song and acts helped Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles recall nostalgic memories of home, Cantinflas would rise to stardom through his use of humor to elicit sympathy for the Mexican underdog. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. connected to Cantinflas’ portrayals of a Mexican working man struggling to survive. The comedian typically portrayed an outcast who accepted his socio-economic place in a harsh world while poking fun of the system that oppressed him. Through his use of double talk, jumbling together multiple conversations that typically undermined authority Cantinflas portrayed the shiftless migrant who triumphed through trickery over authorities in the United States.  In his book, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, Jeffrey M. Pilcher compared Cantinflas to Charlie Chaplin. As Pilcher put it, “Cantinflas represented the human debris of industrialization, rootless migrants to the big city who survived by their wits in a bewildering environment.”[51]  Mario Moreno Cantinflas, says Pilcher, became a symbol of Mexican national identity during Mexico’s transition from a traditional agrarian society to an industrial urban one.[52]

Through his popular performances advertised in La Opinion Cantinflas’ allowed Mexican working classes “a momentary release through laughter from the psychic demands and anxieties of masculine behavior.”[53] While his critics saw him as a symbol of the lowbrow Mexican working class, La Opinion celebrated him and promoted him enthusiastically throughout the 1950s. On March 23, 1954, he was listed as the actor earning the highest salary in Mexico. According to the Asociacion Nacional de Actores, Mario Moreno Cantinflas had earned an impressive one and a half million Mexican pesos between movies, theaters and tours in 1953 alone.[54] La Opinion helped to turn Cantinflas’ films into tremendous commercial successes in the U.S. Southwest. While intellectuals in Mexico critiqued his manner of speech, Cantinflas had a strong appeal with the masses and especially Mexican migrants and blue-collar workers. Prior to making it big, Cantinflas had experienced poverty in his childhood and occasionally gone hungry. His early struggles led the masses to embrace him.[55] Like Negrete who fought the fight of the lesser known actor, Cantinflas was concerned with the plight of the poor and used humor to critique and ridicule abusive leaders.

La Opinion helped Mexican comedians touring the U.S. to reach stardom.  Advertising performances with slogans such as “popular con precios populares,” (popular at affordable prices), Cantinflas’ artistic earnings were second by another popular entertainer German Valdes “Tin Tan,” who earned 200,000 Mexican pesos in 1952. However, despite advertising performances by Cantinflas and Tin Tan La Opinion frequently critiqued the stars on the same page. La Opinion movie experts referred to mass-appealing entertainers as low-brow comedians who tainted Mexico’s reputation as a reputable film house. The entertainment section of La Opinion captured the paper’s contradictions between profit advertisement for mass audience shows and La Opinion’s own stance on high brow and low brow Mexican film productions. During a critique of Tin Tan’s performance in Matenme Porque Me Muero (Kill Me Because I’m Dying) directed by Ismael Rodriguez, in 1951, an anonymous film reviewer stated that the film failed to entertain and would likely appeal to a very narrow margin.[56] The critic expressed his dislike for poor quality comedies and blamed the low brow comedic genre for giving Mexico a bad reputation in film-making.

Figure 5: Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”

“For those who do not care about refined themes and classical acting, then this film is a win. However, it is a true shame that Mexican comedies are limited to exploitative, grotesque sensualities or vulgarities that devalue the audience’s intellectual abilities and our morality. Film producers and participants who contribute to the making of Mexican films ought to know that the audience needs and wants more.”[57] The critic went on to argue that in the desire to make movies for popular appeal and the alluring quick profit motive, Mexican filmmakers “produce the worst form of propaganda against Mexico outside its republic.[58] However, not all film critics writing for La Opinion agreed with this judgment of Tin Tan or his comedic style. On January 9, 1952, Tin Tan’s El Ceniciento (Cinderell-o, directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares in 1952) was reviewed as “another triumph for Tin Tan who accomplished his primary goal as a performer: to make people laugh and laugh hard.” The critic praised Tin Tan stating that whether the characters he represented washed clothes or shined shoes, his performances focused on turning everyday situations into a comedy.[59]   Like the case of Cantinflas, Tin Tan had risen above cultural distinctions and “helped to unite audiences above languages because he mixed them in his speech. He rose above prejudice because he ignored it.”[60] His daughter described Tin Tan as a man who brought cultures together; who was able to “a matrimoniar a los Americans con los mexicanos” (to marry Americans with Mexicans).”[61]

Tin Tan developed a particular form of conduct, opting to ridicule himself to ease the antagonistic relationship between his mother, who was of humble Mexican background, and his grandmother, a woman of Italian descent who thought of herself of superior racial background. To cope with the racial and generational tensions at home, Tin Tan used humor as a defense mechanism, a reaction through which he was able to negate his reality and instead create another. His dedication to uplift discriminated workers through humor helped him to build a tremendous career as a Mexican comedic hero in the US southwest.  La Opinion routinely advertised Tin Tan’s performances through cartoonish images of the actor, portraying him with exaggerated big lips, a huge grin and baggy clothes.  He was considered one of the architects of Spanglish who popularized the image of the Pachuco, a Mexican American youth who belonged to neighborhood gangs. Tin Tan appeared in over one-hundred films and dubbed three of them for Walt Disney Studios.  La Opinion frequently referred to him as one of the most important Mexican entertainers of all time, and advertised his traveling act throughout Los Angeles’ venues.[62]

The Cine section of La Opinion helped readers connect and reflect upon a shared public culture. The actors and entertainers were widely known to the Mexican public who adored them. Mexican movies and actors were depicted as ambassadors of Mexican culture and represented in La Opinion as both popular and elite. Entertainers played a key role integrating the community through performances that recalled familiar Mexican problems. Promoted by La Opinion, Mexican stars journeyed to America were lucrative tours awaited them. And while La Opinion boosted attendance to films and shows, the paper’s film critics emerged as arbiters of taste attempting to sacrilize culture by establishing guidelines for the appropriate ways to read and analyze Mexican cinema. [63] Through advertisements and reviews La Opinion played a role in disciplining and training audiences. Thus, columnists contributed to the paper’s larger project of cultural uplift, “educating and refining a laborious people.”[64]

The community appreciated the accessibility of Mexican popular entertainment away from home. In a diverse nation, the criteria for Mexican culture’s aesthetic promoted Mexican cultural pride on the basis of separation and unwillingness to assimilate into Hollywood ways.  Movie critics and advice columnists were champions of Mexican culture promising both relief from disorder and an avenue to cultural legitimacy.  As audiences “escaped into culture” entertainment served as a mechanism that made it possible for Mexican audiences living and working in Los Angeles to retreat into their own private spaces and transform them through their own rules.[65] Attending the Teatros Mayan, Million Dollar and California allowed audiences to turn local spaces into enclaves of culture where audiences could indulge in their own cultural predilections and feel connected through performances that echoed familiar modes of behavior that were shared and commonly understood.  By promoting news, interviews, and gossip La Opinion helped Mexican performers traveling to the U.S. southwest to receive a cultural and sales boost. In the process, the paper hailed Mexicanness and encouraged the community to continue living and working in the U.S. without forgetting home.

Bibliography

Newspapers:

La Opinion, (Los Angeles, California).

Los Angeles Times, (Los Angeles, California).

Film:

Alejandro, Julio. Un Divorcio. VHS. Directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel. Mexico, DF, Mexico: Argel Films, 1953.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Los Hijos de Maria Morales. VHS. Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Diana, S.A., 1952.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Tal Para Cual. VHS. Directed by Rogelio A Gonzalez. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones,  1953.

De Urdimalas, Pedro. Matenme Porque Me Muero. VHS. Directed by Ismael Rodriguez, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Estudios Churubusco Azteca, SA., 1951.

Garcia, Juan. El Ceniciento. VHS. Directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones, 1952.

Gomez Landero, Humberto. El Hijo Desobediente. VHS. Directed by Humberto Gomez Landero. Mexico DF, Mexico: AS Films Producciones Grovas,  1945.

Wilson, Michael. Salt of the Earth. VHS. Directed by Herbert J. Biberman. Bayard New Mexico, USA: Independent Productions, 1954.

 

Published Primary Sources, Books, Articles

Byars, Jackie. All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Chacon, Ramon D.  “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Correa, Armando. Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Fernandez, Celina. Los Panchos. Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005.

Groves, Martha. “Restoration Planned for `Million Dollar Building Developer Buys Downtown Landmark.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Feb 10, 1989. http://search.proquest.com/docview/280596322?accountid=25347.

Gurza, Agustin. “Culture Mix: Million Dollar Dream; Robert Voskanian has Spent the Legendary Theaters Title Sum to Restore it as a Multicultural Venue.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 12, 2008. http://search.proquest.com/docview/422214580?accountid=25347.

Hershfield, Joanne .Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Johnson, Reed. “Culture Monster; The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347

Keller, Gary D. Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 1994.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Lipsitz, George. Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Lorence, James J. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Negrete, Diana. Jorge Negrete. Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987.

Noriega, Chon. The Ethnic Eye. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity. Wilmington, DL: Scholarly Resources Inc. Wilmington, 2001.

Quintanilla, Michael. “Fashion Landmark / A World-Famous Store is Losing its Struggle to Survive.; Once Bustling, Now Bust; Victors, a Once-Popular Haberdashery, has Few Customers and is for Sale. the Downtown Buildings Widely Known Murals Tell of the Citys Rich Mexican Heritage. what Will Happen to them?” Los Angeles Times, Dec 25, 1998. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421355201?accountid=25347.

Rodriguez, Clara E. Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media. Boulder,CO: Westview Press, 1998

Rosenfelt, Deborah. Salt of the Earth. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, 1978.

Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas. D.F. México: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004.

Trevino, Joseph. “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

Valdes Julian, Rosalia. La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan. D.F. México: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003.

Woo, Elaine. “A New Chance for Pershing Square to Get a Fresh Start.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Dec 02, 1990. http://search.proquest.com/docview/281262180?accountid=25347.

 

Notes


[1] Ramon D. Chacon. “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

[2] Reed Johnson, “Culture Monster: The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347 (accessed September 21, 2011).

[3] Gary D. Keller, Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1994), 9.

[4] La Opinion movie and entertainment section referred to the Mayan theater as El Maya. The historical landmark opened in 1927 in downtown Los Angeles. El Maya initially showcased musical comedies. By 1929, audiences attended the theater to watch Hollywood films. The popular theater transitioned into Spanish language films in the 1940s while continuing to host occasional stage shows. It was designed by Stiles O. Clements and Mexican artist and archeologist Francisco Cornejo was hired to sculpt the building’s Mexican, Mayan and Aztec motifs. The theater underwent renovations during the 1990s and now thrives as a nightclub.

[5] Joseph Trevino, “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

[6] Joseph Trevino, Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999.

[7] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[8] La Opinion, March 21, 1954.

[9] Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006), 4.

[10] Hershfield, 4.

[11] Hollywood melodramas also critiqued women’s roles in the 1950s casting leading actresses as glamorous beauties caught in the conflict between careering and domesticity. See Dolores Tierney, “Silver Sling-Backs and Mexican Melodrama: Salon Mexico and Danzon,” Screen 38:4 Winter (1997): 361.

[12] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 93.

[13] Armando Correa, Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 114.

[14] Clara E. Rodriguez, Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 131.

[15] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 131.

[16] Byars, 54.

[17]  Nancy Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (Polity Press: United Kingdom, 1989), 103.

[18] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[19] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[20] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[21] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[22] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[23] La Opinion, September 22, 1951.

[24] James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 6.

[25] George Lipsitz, Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 293.

[26] Lorence, 9.

[27] Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth (New York: The Feminist Press, 1978), 24.

[28] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth , 94.

[29] Rosenfelt, 94.

[30] La Opinion, October 18, 1952.

[31] Rosenfelt, 176.

[32] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[33] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[34] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth, 176.

[35] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[36] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[37] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[38] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[39] Celina Fernandez, Los Panchos (Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005), 35.

[40] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 34.

[41] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 43.

[42] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[43] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[44] Correa, Armando, Legends en Espanol: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time  (Penguin Group: New York, 2008), 146.

[45] La Opinion, August 22, 1953.

[46] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[47] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[48] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[49] Diana Negrete, Jorge Negrete (Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987), 12.

[50] La Opinion, October 22, 1951.

[51] Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity (Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc: Wilmington, 2001), xv.

[52] Pilcher,Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, xvii.

[53] Pilcher, xviii.

[54] La Opinion, March 28, 1954.

[55] Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas (Mexico, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004), 2.

[56] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[57] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[58] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[59] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[60] Rosalia Valdes Julian, La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003),12.

[61] Ibid, 12.

[62] Correa, Legends en Español, 88.

[63] For theories on the sacralization of culture, see Lawrence Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[64] Levine, 201.

[65] Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow, 177.

 

Bio:

Soledad Vidal is the author of “Politics, Community And Pleasure: The Making Of Mexican-American Cold War Narratives In The Pages Of La Opinion.” The dissertation is organized around the discourse of the American dream; specifically, how the desire for consumption, liberal citizenship and labor in post World War II America produced specific accounts of migration in the pages of La Opinion. Her research interests lie in print culture and immigrant histories. She currently works at Soka University of America as a Writing Center Manager and Visiting Assistant Professor in Rhetoric and Composition.