The Birth of the Latina Film Star: Miss del Rio by Bárbara Mujica
BY CAROLINE WILSON
Bárbara Mujica’s novel Miss del Río (Graydon House, 2022) evokes the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood while following the rise of the first major Latina movie star, Dolores del Río. Beginning with del Río’s tumultuous childhood, Mujica captures Dolores’s charm and determination to succeed despite uncertain circumstances; and while Dolores’ name has been forgotten by modern audiences, there was a time when she was a household name in both the United States and Mexico.
Miss del Río is told from the perspective of Dolores’s fictitious hairdresser and best friend, María Amparo, but the novel adheres to the established facts of Dolores’s life. Known as Lola by her intimates, Dolores became acquainted with adversity at 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 until a traumatic miscarriage dashed her hopes for the future. It is only then that Dolores contemplates a new path, one that takes her to Hollywood, back to Mexico, and beyond.
“In defiance of 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 faulty English was no problem because in those days, films were silent. However, in 1927 talkies were introduced. Many actors—even native speakers of English—were terrified that audiences 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, using her accent to an advantage by always playing foreigners—Frenchwomen, Brazilians, even Russians.”
Yet 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 appealing to moviegoers. “Del Río arrived in Hollywood just when the studios were looking for a female Latin Lover—a feminine version of the extraordinarily popular Rudolph Valentino, considered the epitome of masculine sex appeal. As the female Valentino, she was supposed to exude sexiness, 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, many of her movies would fail at the box office. In 1938, she was labeled “Box Office Poison” along with several other leading actresses of the period.
Her career began to rapidly decline as America grew more xenophobic. “Mexicans became a target of suspicion because of the Communist influence in the Mexican Revolution. In Lola’s case, having friends like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, avowed Communists, didn’t help. When, in the 1930s, the Hays Office attempted to rid films of lewdness and seditious or political content, Dolores del Rio and her cousin, Ramón Novarro, were both investigated.”
Though 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, María Candelaria, a film in which she starred, won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first Mexican film to be screened at the Festival and the first Latin American film to win.” Dolores would star in many Spanish language films during the period of 1943 to 1959, and earned accolades for her roles in Las Abandonadas (1944) and Doña Perfecta (1951). “Many of the films she made in Mexico during the forties and fifties exalted Mexico’s rich cultural heritage and explored the plight of Indigenous peoples. Over the years, she became a symbol of Mexican womanhood, an icon of female Mexican beauty.”
But Dolores was aging. By 1960, she was in her mid-fifties and though a veteran actress, film roles became scarce. “As she grew older, her star began to fade in Mexico as well, so she reinvented herself once again—this time as a stage actress,” Mujica relates. With help of her third husband, Dolores would stage successful productions of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan and Robert Sherwood’s 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 film.
Despite this eventual recognition by Hollywood, it was her years in the Mexican cinema that cemented her status as a film star and her ability to re-invent herself. It is for this reason that Bárbara Mujica wants readers to know about this pioneering Latina movie star. “She was an extraordinarily resilient woman who learned early in life to cope with adversity. Lola overcame every obstacle with style and grace. I see her as a positive example of what a woman can achieve when she sets her mind to it.”
About the contributor: Caroline Wilson is an architectural historian specializing in the social history of 19th and 20th century architecture. When she’s not reading or writing, Caroline can be found planning her next trip abroad and co-hosting a podcast entitled Scandal Sheets (@scandalsheetspod). She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, along with her husband and five very literary cats.