It’s Women’s History Month and we’re lifting up Latina actresses from before the 1940s, the trailblazers and icons who opened the door for Latinxs to represent our culture on the silver screen. You may be surprised to know that there was a solid squad of (light-skinned) Latinas who made their mark on Hollywood as early as the 1910s — at a time when Hollywood was segregated and blackface was the latest entertainment “craze.” Yet, these Latinas helped found Tinseltown and deserve to be remembered.
Venezuelan-American Beatriz Michelena was an actress and singer, who made her mark in Hollywood during the silent era of the 1910s. Some of her films include Salomy Jane (1914), The Rose of the Misty Pool (1915), Mignon (1914), and The Heart of Juanita (1920), which she also produced. In addition to acting (and singing opera!), Michelena wrote a newspaper column on the movie industry and how to become an actress, entitled “Talks with Screen-Struck Girls.” She even founded Michelena Studios, which allowed her to produce and star in new projects.
Beatriz Michelena wasn’t the only star in the family. Her sisters Vera and Donna were also accomplished actresses in Hollywood. Vera starred in the films Driftwood (1916) and The Devil’s Playground (1918), alongside her second husband, actor Harry Spingler. And like her sister Beatriz, Vera also sang opera. A dancer, Vera had a successful career on stage before making the transition to silent film.
Another Latina star of Old Hollywood you should know is Californian Myrtle Gonzalez. Considered the first Latin and Hispanic actress in Hollywood, she appeared in an impressive 78 silent films starting in 1913, including The Kiss (1914), The Chalice of Courage (1915), and Her Husband’s Friend (1917). Unfortunately, Myrtle Gonzalez died at the age of 27, a victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The third Michelena sister to make it big in Hollywood was Donna Barrell, born Teresa Luisa Michelena. She was a screenwriter and actress, who starred in films Life’s Shop Window (1914), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914), and The Love Master (1924). As a screenwriter, she worked on The Love Master, as well as 1928’s A Certain Young Man and 1933’s Merrily Yours among others. Barrell was first married to actor Walter Hitchcock until his death in 1917, later marrying actor Joseph Barrell.
Mexico City-born Mona Rico (nee Enriqueta de Valenzuela) made her mark in early Hollywood. She starred opposite the legendary John Barrymore in the 1929 film Eternal Love and acted in several other films, including Shanghai Lady (1929) and Zorro Rides Again (1937). Unfortunately, her career was cut short when she sustained facial injuries in a 1932 plane crash, appearing in just three films after the accident, including 1935’s Goin’ to Town and 1941’s My Life with Caroline.
Another fabulous pair of Latina sisters to find fame in the Tinseltown of yesterday are the Torres sisters, Raquel and Renee Torres. Born in Mexico, Raquel moved to the United States with her family, found her way to Hollywood, and took on her mother’s maiden name (her father was German, and she was born Paula Marie Osterman). There she adopted a fake accent to sound more like Hollywood’s stereotypical “Latin.” And like another Mexican star, Dolores del Rio, would do later in 1932’s Bird of Paradise, Torres used her “exotic” looks to play the parts of Polynesian women in the 1928 film White Shadows in the South Seas, 1930’s The Sea Bat, and 1931’s Aloha. She also starred in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929), and Duck Soup (opposite the Marx Brothers in 1933). In addition to acting, Raquel also made a mark in the beauty world, inventing a wooden stamp to press color onto your lips.
The other famous Torres sister is Renee Torres, born Renee Osterman. Some of the 1930s films/shorts she appeared in are 1931’s Spanish-language La gran hornada, 1932’s Bon Voyage, 1935’s An Old Spanish Onion, 1936’s The Devil on Horseback, and 1939’s The Prodigal Returns. To get a sense of what she was like, listen to this: Torres was involved in a hit-and-run accident and charged with leaving the scene of the crime. But when she showed the judge that she left because she was driving in beach pajamas, she avoided jail time!
Lupita Tovar was born in Matías Romero, Oaxaca, and was discovered in Mexico City, where her family had moved to. She found her way to Hollywood, where she appeared in The Cock-Eyed World (1929), and three other 1929 films: Joy Street, The Black Watch, and The Veiled Woman, opposite Bela Lugois. She is perhaps best known for starring in the Spanish-language version of Dracula in 1931. It was the suggestion of talent agent, producer, and future husband Paul Kohner that Lupita star in the Spanish version of English-language films that were being filmed in Hollywood at the time, and it gave her a career in two languages. She also famously starred in Santa (1932), the first narrative sound film from Mexico. And the Hollywood legacy continues — actress Susan Kohner is Lupita and Pauls’ daughter, and filmmakers Paul (also an actor) and Chris Weitz are their grandchildren.
Dolores del Rio
Mexican Dolores del Rio is probably the most recognized Latina actress of Old Hollywood, which makes sense because she is credited as being its first Latina crossover star. Films del Rio is known for include Ramona (1928), Bird of Paradise (1932), and Flying Down to Rio (1933), where she received top billing and acted alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Dolores del Rio was also known for her immense beauty, elegance, and glamorous style, often gleaming in white outfits that offset her dark hair and eyes. Dolores also found fame and success in her native Mexico. Her biggest Spanish-language films include Flor Silvestre (1943) and Maria Candelaria (1943), where she played opposite Mexican star Pedro Almendariz.
Mexican actress Lupe Velez, a.k.a. The Mexican Spitfire, was known equal parts for her acting and her temper. In fact, her “fiery” personality was showcased in eight different Mexican Spitfire films, as well as movies like 1933’s Hot Fire. And her tempestuous relationships, such as those with husband Johnny Weissmuller (who played Tarzan), Gary Cooper, and Harald Raymond made the news. Lupe Velez will always be remembered as a Latinx trailblazer, appearing in 45 productions, including 1927’s The Gaucho (opposite Old Hollywood megastar Douglas Fairbanks), and in the process, giving other Latinx actors the ability to do the same. All the “fire” (and surely the stereotypes that went with it) took its toll — Lupe Velez died by suicide in 1944.
Anita Page, born Anita Evelyn Pomares, is often credited as being from El Salvador (since her grandfather was the consul there), but both her paternal grandparents appear to have been born in Cuba (it has also been said that she is Venezuelan) of Spanish origin. Either way, Anita Page was the “blond, blue-eyed Latin,” “The Girl with the Most Beautiful Face in Hollywood,” who made it big in Tinseltown during the 1920s. Some of her films include The Broadway Melody (1929; this film won an Academy Award for Best Picture), Our Dancing Daughters (1929; part of a trilogy alongside Joan Crawford), and Night Court (1932). Anita Page left movies in 1936 and returned in 1961’s The Runway, with fellow Latinx icon Cesar Romero, making movies again from the 1990s until her death in 2008 (two films, 2010’s Frankenstein Rising and 2016’s Dr. Stein were released posthumously).