A tale of two Ritas

Rita Hayworth and Rita Moreno are two of the most popular actresses of the classic Hollywood era but while one is celebrated for being a Hispanic trailblazer, the other had that chance taken away from her in the United States. Rita Hayworth’s Spanish roots are now discussed as a piece of trivia in her life and as a horrifying reminder of whitewashing in Hollywood. When Moreno arrived in Hollywood, she came as Rosa Moreno and has said she was heavily influenced by Hayworth. Hayworth’s paternal uncle actually coached Moreno in dance and Rosa ended up changing her name to Rita in her honor.

Rita Hayworth was born in Brooklyn, New York as Margarita Carmen Cansino. Her parents were both dancers. Her father, a renowned classical Spanish dancer, wanted Rita to follow in the family’s dancing footsteps. She eventually became a part of his act and they made their way to Hollywood. Rita was noticed by the head of Fox Film Corporation and he ended up signing her to a short contract. Because of her, what they called “exotic and dark” features, she was reduced to playing “foreigner” roles such as an Egyptian and Russian under the name Rita Cansino. Her time at FOX was underwhelming as the roles for foreigners and dancers were few and far between, she was dropped but then Harry Cohn and Columbia Pictures signed her to a seven year contract. Believing there were not many roles for “exotic foreigners” at his studio either, Cohn had Rita Cansino’s name changed to Rita Hayworth to amplify her mother’s American roots. If that wasn’t enough, the studio had her hair dyed red and she underwent a painful electrolysis procedure to raise her hairline. Rita Hayworth was born. With her Spanish features all but gone from her looks, she appeared in eight films in 1937. The general public began to notice and fan mail poured in. She continued to work steadily which led to a breakout role in the film Blood and Sand for 20th Century Fox, the same studio that dropped her. In a cruel twist of irony, she portrayed a Spanish woman in the film named Doña Sol des Muire. But this character was (surprise surprise) a sultry temptress! It was the first of many screen sirens she would portray during her career.

ritahayworth_colorHayworth had a long and prosperous career in Hollywood. She was so popular that a photo of her was one of the top two pin-ups requested by GI’s in World War II. Hayworth even served as the cultural ambassador to Brazil for President Roosevelt under the Good Neighbor Policy. Although Hollywood whitewashed Rita, there are elements of Rita Cansino you can pick up on when you watch her films knowing her background. In a film like Gilda, her dancing scenes in the nightclub showcase her roots as a dancer and commanding of the crowd. Then comes The Loves of Carmen. This film is close to the Rita that came to Hollywood more than any other character she portrayed. In this retelling of the opera Carmen, she portrays a gypsy in Spain and performs classical Spanish dances, the kind she grew up with. Watching this film, it’s hard not to be heartbroken by thinking of what may have gone on in her mind as she performs dances she used to but now as woman with an image that was completely overhauled by Hollywood. The studio may have whitewashed her looks but they couldn’t take those pieces of her Spanish identity.

I often wonder how frustrated she must have felt in films where she did play a Hispanic woman such as Blood and Sand, Carmen, and You Were Never Lovelier. Many of these parts, save for Carmen, were just beautiful women that didn’t have much to do aside from dance, seduce and smile. They also had heavy American overtones to them. She wasn’t given the opportunity to showcase the character’s dimensions and Spanish backgrounds as she should have been. It wouldn’t be until Rita Moreno’s Anita in 1961’s West Side Story that audiences would finally see a fully realized Latinx character, this time of Puerto Rican descent.

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As Anita, Moreno brings to life a character who is loyal, hard working and fierce. During her solo America, we learn more about her struggle with leaving behind her home country, making it in the United States, and her dual identity. This song does so much for progress and representation that it still packs a punch today and is still very much relevant. Moreno won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita beating out the tough competition of Hollywood icons such as Judy Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg.  Progress was made that night as Moreno became the first Latinx actress to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It was quite the achievement but was this lauded in the papers the next day? Nope. To make matters worse, Moreno continued to be offered stereotypical ethnic roles after her groundbreaking achievement. She wouldn’t work again until seven years later! Even before Anita, she was playing the roles that Rita Hayworth was being offered before her whitewashing including the slave girl Tuptim in The King and I and what she herself called “conchita” roles in westerns and other pictures.

After her self imposed exile from film, she found work on television and expanded to theatre where the roles were richer. This would lead to her winning the EGOT in the shortest amount of time of any performer. Moreno continues to be challenged in a wide range of roles to this day. Last year, she starred as the matriarch of a Cuban family in a reboot of One Day at a Time on Netflix. At 85, there is nothing stopping her.

But the stories of these Ritas are still very similar to the kind of struggles Latinx performers face today. Look at Lin-Manuel Miranda for example. He has made a name for himself on Broadway but he had to write those roles himself, those weren’t coming his way. When was the last time you saw a Latinx actress portray the starring role in a film? Bonus, when was the last time you saw a Latinx actress portray something other than a maid or a sexpot? The careers of Rita Hayworth and Rita Moreno should be celebrated but if you look deeper, they serve as a cautionary tale that Hollywood still needs to do better when it comes to Latinx representation on the big screen.

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2 thoughts on “A tale of two Ritas

  1. lavenderbluegreen says:

    I loved this article, I’ve often thought about Rita Hayworth’s americanisation but never (for whatever reason) called it whitewashing which it absolutely is. Both Rita’s were fiery and passionate on screen and deserved better roles. Thank you for writing!!

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