As I sat knitting and listening to Glenn Miller, I mentioned how I felt that I should’ve been born in the 1920’s or before. I love the period in history from the Victorian era through the 1950’s.
“But you know, you would have been a third class citizen back then.”
This comment comes from someone whom I’ve always considered to be a kind, fair, democratic sort of person. I’m not just shocked by this remark, it hurts. Literally. I feel like I was punched in the stomach. I don’t hold it against her; I know her well enough to understand that she meant it simply as a factual observation, not as an insult. Nevertheless, the remark stays with me.
Being of Hispanic and Italian descent, I have a definitely “ethnic” appearance. My hair is a dark mahogany color, deep brown with natural dark auburn hues throughout. My eyes are the color of a Hershey’s bar, rimmed with jet-black lashes and framed by carefully tweezed, black brows. My skin is light, with olive undertones. My face is oval shaped with defined cheekbones, a straight nose, lips of medium fullness, a small chin and angled jawline. I am petite. I have been asked if I am Spanish, Italian, Indian, Persian, Lebanese and so on. I could pass for any of these. By still others I have been told that they thought I was “just a regular white person.” Interesting.
In this part of the United States, in the Twenty-First century, it doesn’t much matter what ethnicity I could pass for. In the area where I reside, there are whites, blacks, Hispanics, Middle-easterners, Asians – the proverbial melting-pot of races and ethnicities. I was born in this country and so was my mother. My grandparents speak Spanish. I do not. I have never watched Spanish television, nor do I listen to Spanish music. I do not identify myself with any particular race. I am an American, which means I could be of almost any and every ethnic background. But my racially ambiguous appearance makes me wonder, would I really be a third class citizen if I lived in, say, the 1930’s or 40’s in this country?
Take a look at Dolores del Rìo. Born in Mexico in 1904, Dolores became a successful Hollywood star during the silent era and on into the talkies. The above photo is from the 1933 film “Flying Down to Rio,” which also starred film giants Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Dolores actually received top billing for this film.
Granted, most of Dolores’ roles in Hollywood were those of the exotic, provocative siren. While her racially ambiguous appearance, with light skin and dark hair, may have limited her roles, she nevertheless made an impact in Hollywood and was esteemed as one of the most beautiful stars in the world at the time. She actually became the prototype for the appearance of the classic woman of the 1930’s – graceful, elegant, and with exquisite bone structure. Her look influenced Joan Crawford, who went on to become not only a stellar actress, but also a beauty icon.
Dolores also became a trailblazer for future Latina actresses. Jennifer Lopez (of Puerto Rican descent), Eva Mendes (of Cuban descent), Eva Longoria (of Mexican descent), Salma Hayek (Mexican born), and other Latina actresses can thank Dolores, the first Latina movie star with international appeal, for her impact on the potential of their careers.
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Now take a look at the lovely Rita Hayworth. Forever immortalized as the sultry red-headed femme fatale Gilda, in the 1946 film of the same name, Rita eventually became known as “The Love Goddess.” Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1918 to dancers Eduardo Cansino from Spain and Volga Hayworth, an American of Irish and English descent, Margarita Carmen Cansino was destined to become a star. Her father was a renowned Spanish dancer, her mother a former showgirl in Ziegfeld’s Follies.
Margarita began learning to dance at 3 years of age. By age 6, she was performing publicly. Her family relocated to Hollywood in 1927 and by 1934, she had a bit part in a Hollywood film. Soon she had a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures.
This is what Rita Cansino looked like when she signed with Columbia Pictures. Very lovely, in an exotic way. And those were the roles she was cast in – exotic, but small roles. So to open up her career possibilities, Rita began a transformation. Undergoing electrolysis to lift her hairline and gradually lightening her naturally black hair to an auburn shade, she went from Spanish señorita to all-American. Using her mother’s maiden name, Hayworth, sealed the deal. In the color photo collage below, you can see the stages of her hair color transformation.
The short blonde coiffure did not last long, and was only worn during production of second husband Orson Welles’ 1947 film, “The Lady From Shanghai.” Fans accustomed to the longer, wavy red hair that had made Rita famous were outraged at Welles for changing her look. After the film was finished, the studio demanded that she grow out her hair again and return to the signature red color of “Gilda” fame.
The image of femme fatale that Rita created with her role as the title character in “Gilda” followed her even into her personal life for many years. She was quoted as saying, “Men fall in love with Gilda and wake up with me.” Ironically, in the iconic “striptease” scene, where she sings and dances seductively in a nightclub, the only item of clothing she removes is a single long glove.
Rita’s film career spanned decades, and she starred in over 60 films. She danced onscreen with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. She is listed as #19 on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest American Screen Legends. Needless to say, Rita Hayworth is still vividly remembered as a beautiful American actress, talented dancer, and sex symbol.
What fascinates me about Rita is that she was a woman of Hispanic descent who was easily assimilated into mainstream American culture and actually became an icon of American culture. Her natural appearance was very ethnic, and no doubt had she refused to change that, her film career would have remained limited to small, “ethnic” roles. But with some changes to her name and hair, she was suddenly acceptable as “just a regular white person.” Except that with her talents and her appearance, she was anything but ordinary. Hence her impressive career and status as an icon.
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Meet Katy Jurado. Born in Mexico in 1924, Katy was perhaps the most ethnic-looking of the actresses I’m here discussing. Katy already had an established film career in her native Mexico when she came to Hollywood in the 1950’s.
Katy starred in many Hollywood westerns and is probably best remembered for her role in the 1952 film, “High Noon,” where she plays a former love interest of Gary Cooper’s character, and in the 1954 film, “Broken Lance.” She won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “High Noon,” and earned a nomination for an Academy Award for her role in “Broken Lance,” making her the first Latina actress to be nominated by the Academy. Like Dolores del Rìo, Katy Jurado blazed a trail for the Latina actresses that followed.
Katy brought a different dynamic to the table, though, proving with her distinctively Mexican appearance that Hispanic women could have a serious film career in Hollywood and also proving that Latina actresses could offer more than just a sensual and seductive screen presence.
I think I can safely state that these three talented, dynamic women were anything but “third class citizens” in an era when the homogenous, blonde girl-next-door image was most highly prized. Despite their unique and exotic appearance, they were recognized for their talents. Even if, as Rita Hayworth did, they had to make some changes to their appearance to attract a wider range of roles, that did not change the facts of their ancestry.
So, would I, a person born in America, speaking English as her first and only language, be a “third class citizen” if I lived in that era? Without talents in acting, with my natural appearance, and in certain parts of the country, perhaps. But by simply changing the color of my hair, I likely would have been accepted and homogenized along with the rest of the “regular white people.” Could it really be that simple? For myself in particular, yes.
The sad fact remains that some humans will continue to treat one group of people or another as third class citizens. Even in this day and age. Despite having more information and education available than ever before, we still can’t seem to grasp that true beauty is found in a place beyond exterior appearance, ethnic background, or social status, and is something we cannot see with the eyes but must feel with the heart.