It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, which makes it an excellent time to check in on the Library’s collection of Free to Use and Reuse images, this time from a set devoted to Hispanic life and culture. Visitors to this space will recall that the Library has tons of images that are copyright free, and you may use them in any way you wish.
This time, let’s look at two very different images of Mexican women who came to the U.S. for work.
First is the dazzling image of the legendary actress Dolores del Río (the stage name of María de los Dolores Asúnsolo y López Negrete), who rose to incandescent stardom in the silent film era, became an international symbol of Hollywood’s golden age and then went home to become a star in Mexican cinema for three decades. She was the first Latina to be a major star in Hollywood.
Her first film was in 1925; her last was in 1978. She was so sophisticated, so gorgeous, so magnetic on screen that, in the 1920s, she was billed as the female Rudolph Valentino. She later had an affair with Orson Welles, who called her “the most exciting woman I’ve ever met.” Playwright George Bernard Shaw once gushed “the two most beautiful things in the world are the Taj Mahal and Dolores del Río.” She was besties with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She hung out with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. You want to know how big a star she was? In 1933’s musical farce, “Flying Down to Rio,” one of her best-known movies, she got solo top billing, her name far larger and more prominent than two young co-stars just starting out … Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
She was born in 1904 to an aristocratic family in Durango. The family finances were wiped out in the Mexican Revolution, and they were often in physical danger. They fled to Mexico City, and, still a teenager, she got into acting as a way back to high society. Suffice it to say, it worked. She married young and was in Hollywood, with her new stage name and her first screen credit, by the time she was 21.
But by the mid-1940s, she tired of Hollywood’s controlling studio system and returned to Mexico to work as a collaborative actress, not just a movie star. She was a fabulous success there, too. She died in 1983, at her home in Newport Beach, California, at the age of 78.
The mural was painted in 1990 by Mexican American artist Alfredo de Batuc at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and North Hudson Avenue. Touched up and refreshed over the years, it was photographed in 2010 by Carol M. Highsmith. It’s no surprise that de Batuc used such swirling colors and romantic imagery to portray the woman who both lived a dream and inspired dreams in so many more. It is, like the lady herself, a show-stopper. Also like her, it has staying power. It’s still there.
Here’s another image with staying power, but from a different part of the Mexican experience in the U.S.: This intense, Depression-era photograph of the child of a Mexican field laborer in 1937 Arizona.
It’s the work of legendary photographer Dorothea Lange, who had been working as a photographer for the federal Resettlement Administration, a government agency formed to raise public awareness of the plight of farmers. This agency evolved into the better known Farm Security Administration. The FSA photographs, now at the Library, produced many images that have become part of the national narrative, none more famous than the “Migrant Mother” photograph that Lange took in 1936 of field laborer Florence Owens Thompson.
We don’t know much about this child at all, other than she was somewhere near Chandler, Arizona, in May 1937. Chandler, these days an outlying suburb of Phoenix, was a tiny town then, around 3,000 people, with farm fields all around. Lange was there to document the poverty of the Depression. Her film rolls show she worked her way around town, taking photographs at several different locations and moving fairly quickly.
She viewed her photography as social activism, not as art. She did not record the names of many of her FSA subjects, including “Migrant Mother,” and often only took a few exposures – just seven for “Mother,” for example. It’s almost certain this encounter with the child was quick and straightforward: A stranger approaches, an introduction, the camera raised, a few snaps. The stranger leaves.
Did Lange ask the girl to frame her face with her hands? Did she say, “Look at me, please?” In any event, caught in the frame are those burning black eyes that match her hair, the furrowed brow on one so young, the simple clothes and, most of all, the uncertainty, the worry.
Two photographs, one of a glamorous woman painted on a brick wall, the other of a tentative girl posed in front of a blank one. Two Mexican women who came north and found such different countries.