I was seven years old when my father first took me to the home of Mexican cinema legend Emilio “El Indio” Fernández. He was working with his daughter on a “Day of the Dead” project at their home, one of the most famous projects still today. They were setting up my dad’s designs for the many ofrendas honoring the biggest personalities of film and culture in that gorgeous colonial residence when we reached the one that what was going to be one of the main ones of the whole exhibition. It had a huge painting of what was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I naively asked Adela if that was her mother, and she just laughed and told me that the gorgeous woman had been the love of her father’s life, the great Dolores del Río. Adela had the best stories ever of the most important characters in Mexico. She would talk not only about her father, but also about how much she had hated Frida Kahlo when she was a child, the long talks between her father and Diego Rivera, and of course, that impossible love her father had for who she considered the most stunning and brilliant woman she had ever met. These stories fueled my fascination for her, one of the most beloved characters in Mexico and the world.
Dolores del Río was one of those people who were born to shine and be admired, but she was also a woman who fought tirelessly to make a name for herself regardless of what people expected from her. Born in 1903, it would seem that Dolores had that perfect life we all wish we had. She came from a very wealthy family (whose ancestry could be traced back to the Spanish nobility during colonial times) considered to be la crème de la crème of Mexico’s society. Her grandfather, Agustín López-Negrete, was the wealthiest man in the region and the owner of several haciendas and plantations. It was actually on his main property where the famous Pancho Villa was born and where years later he would shoot someone for the first time, his boss López-Negrete. With the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, and with Villa threatening all the hacendados of the region, her family decided to flee before they were killed.
Mother and daughter had to flee dressed as peasants to Mexico City to join their relatives, who had already gained back their influential position as protégées of president Francisco I. Madero. They started frequenting some of the most important circles of the city, and in one of those lavish encounters, she met Jaime Martínez del Río, a socialité bachelor looking for a wife. Just a couple of months later, they married and moved to Europe, where they would meet and hang out with Europe’s elite. After two years of decadent parties and squandering their money, the couple found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy, so they decided to move back to Mexico.
In 1925, the couple met an important Hollywood filmmaker, Edward Carewe, who was immediately fascinated by Dolores’ beauty and imposing personality. Wanting a project to sell in Hollywood to make a fortune, he shared with the couple his plans to make Dolores one of the greatest divas in the fast-growing movie industry. Due to their precarious economic situation, they decided to move to the US and attempt this quest. It didn’t take much for her to start getting cast in movies, and soon, she was one of the favorites of silent cinema. Her stunning “exotic” looks and her strong personality were some of the audience’s favorites; before long, they had gained the social and economic stability they’d once enjoyed, but this time, it was all because of her hard work, something that would empower her for the rest of her life.
Though her career was skyrocketing, her marriage was crumbling. Jaime was frustrated because he had been eclipsed by Dolores’ fame and talent, so he decided to file a divorce. About six months later, he died in Germany. Newly single and enjoying her growing fame, she had to deal with Carewe’s obsessive interest in her. He wanted to marry her because it was his chance to rise even more in the social ladder of Hollywood as the hottest couple of the time. He started harassing her and even threatening with ruining her career if she didn’t accept his advances. During the premiere of her latest movie Evangeline, she told the media she had no intentions to ever marry Carewe, making him furious and thirsty for revenge. He spread rumors about her for years hoping it would ruin her.
In 1930, she was cast in her first movie with sound, which was a great success that not many silent stars enjoyed. Life was definitely changing for her, and soon she was included in the most important circles of Hollywood. There, she met Metro-Goldwyn Mayer’s artistic director Cedric Gibbons; they started dating and eventually married, becoming one of the top power couples in the industry. But once again, all glory has its downside, and soon, rumors of her being an advocate of the Communist party started emerging. Though she continued working, she was soon added to the “box office poison” list, which meant that she wasn’t really profitable for the studios. Though her career in Hollywood was plummeting, she didn’t care because she had found a new passion and that passion was called Orson Welles.
After meeting in 1940, they fell madly in love with each other. Actually, many years later Welles’ daughter declared that Dolores had been the love of her father’s his life and that he had loved her till the end of his days (sounds familiar?). She eventually divorced Gibbons, and their relationship became public. However, after four years, during which he constantly cheated on her, she finally put an end to it. With a very weak career in Hollywood and away from the man she loved, she decided to go back to Mexico where she could actually “stop being a star and become an actress.” And oh boy, she did it majestically.
She did her first movie in Spanish, Flor Silvestre, with the one and only Emilio Fernández, and it was much bigger than expected. Mexico was experiencing its Golden Age in Cinema, one of the most profitable in the world by that time, and the industry found in Dolores the best face and sophistication for their market. As for Emilio Fernández, she became his ultimate muse, and he wrote with her in mind. Perhaps their most important movie together was Maria Candelaria, which became not only the first Mexican film to be screened and to have won in Cannes, but actually the first Latin American film ever to do so.
With her incredible success in Mexico, American filmmakers started to pay attention to her once again. She was actually cast to make a movie, but she was denied permission to work under the suspicion of being a Communist threat. By that time, Dolores was very much involved with the intellectual circles of the country and it was known that she was in some sort of close relationship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, among others, which of course only added to that communist suspicion. Still, it didn’t really matter, she was doing amazingly outside the US and she was well aware of it. She started looking for other areas to expand her career and started producing and doing theater.
In 1957, she already had an important career and was invited to be part of the jury at Cannes, becoming the first woman to ever sit on the jury. She also devoted her time to the promotion and protection of the arts and culture in Mexico by founding the Society for the Protection of the Artistic Treasures of Mexico in 1966. This society was in charge of protecting historical buildings, paintings, sculptures and basically any other cultural heritage in the country. She also started the famous Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato, which is one of the most important cultural events in the country.
Though she had been constantly harassed and persecuted by anti-Communist censors most of her life, finally, in 1978, she was awarded and recognized in the White House for her work as Cultural Ambassador of Mexico in the United States, and publicly acknowledged as one of the many victims of McCarthyism. Not only had she been the first Latin American actor to achieve that much in Hollywood, as Francis Ford Coppola stated in a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival, she was also the “First Lady of American Cinema.”
One of the things Adela admired the most about her, and I have to agree with her, is that unlike what we see every day, she was glad to accept as many Mexican and Latino roles as she could not because she saw them as a stereotype (which they were), but because she wanted to show the world that Mexico was much more than dirty bandits and uneducated people, as they were often portrayed. She built an image for herself to show the world what Mexico really was: beauty, tradition, intelligence, and panache, and for this reason, she became a legend both in Mexico and the US.
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