Playin’ Native and Other Iterations of Sonic Brownface in Hollywood Representations of Dolores Del Río
Mexican actress Dolores Del Río is admired for her ability to break ground; her dance skills allowed her to portray roles not offered to many women of color early in the 20th Century. One of her most popular roles was in the movie Ramona (1928), directed by Edwin Carewe. Her presence in the movie made me think about sonic representations of mestizaje and indigeneity through the characters portrayed by Del Río. According to Priscilla Ovalle, in Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex and Stardom (2010), Dolores del Río was representative of Mexican nationhood while she was a rising star in Hollywood. Did her portrayals reinforce ways of hearing and viewing mestizos and First Nation people in the American imaginary? Is it sacrilegious to examine the Mexican starlet through sonic brownface? I explore these questions through two films, Ramona and Bird of Paradise (1932, directed by King Vidor), where Dolores del Río plays a mestiza and a Polynesian princess, respectively, to understand the deeper impact she had in Hollywood through expressions of sonic brownface.
Before I delve into analysis of these films and the importance of Ramona the novel and film adaptions, I wish to revisit the concept of sonic brownface I introduced here in SO! in 2013. Back then, I argued that the movie Nacho Libre and Jack Black’s characterization of “Nacho” is sonic brownface: an aural performativity of Mexicanness as imagined by non-Mexicans. Jennifer Stoever, in The Sonic Color Line (2017), postulates that how we listen to particular body(ies) are influenced by how we see them. The notion of sonic brownface facilitates a deeper examination of how ethnic and racialized bodies are not just seen but heard.
Through my class lectures this past year, I realized there is more happening in the case of Dolores del Río, in that sonic brownface can also be heard in the impersonation of ethnic roles she portrayed. In the case of Dolores del Río, though Mexicana, her whiteness helps Hollywood directors to continue portraying mestizos and native people in ways that they already hear them while asserting that her portrayal helps lend authenticity due to her nationality. In the two films I discuss here, Dolores del Río helps facilitate these sonic imaginings by non-Mexicans, in this case the directors and agent who encouraged her to take on such roles. Although a case can be made that she had no choice, I imagine that she was quite astute and savvy to promote her Spanish heritage, which she credits for her alabaster skin. This also opens up other discussions about colorism prevalent within Latin America.
First, let us focus on the appeal of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884), as it is here that the cohabitation of Scots, Spanish, Mestizos, and Native people are first introduced to the American public in the late 19th century. According to Evelyn I. Banning, in 1973’s Helen Hunt Jackson, the author wanted to write a novel that brought attention to the plight of Native Americans. The novel highlights the new frontier of California shortly after the Mexican American War. Though the novel was critically acclaimed, many folks were more intrigued with “… the charm of the southern California setting and the romance between a half-breed girl raised by an aristocratic Spanish family and an Indian forced off his tribal lands by white encroachers.” A year after Ramona was published, Jackson died and a variety of Ramona inspired projects that further romanticized Southern California history and its “Spanish” past surged. For example, currently in Hemet, California there is the longest running outdoor “Ramona” play performed since 1923. Hollywood was not far behind as it produced two silent-era films, starring Mary Pickford and Dolores del Río.
The charm of the novel Ramona is that it reinforces a familiar narrative of conquest with the possibility of all people co-existing together. As Philip Deloria reminds us in Playing Indian (1999), “The nineteenth-century quest for a self-identifying national literature … [spoke] the simultaneous languages of cultural fusion and violent appropriation” (5). The nation’s westward expansion and Jackson’s own life reflected the mobility and encounters settlers experienced in these territories. Though Helen Hunt Jackson had intended to bring more attention to the mistreatment of native people in the West, particularly the abuse of indigenous people by the California Missions, the fascination of the Spanish speaking people also predominated the American imaginary. To this day we still see in Southern California the preference of celebrating the regions Spanish past and subduing the native presence of the Chumash and Tongva. Underlying Jackson’s novel and other works like Maria Amparo Ruiz De Burton The Squatter and the Don (1885) is their critique of the U.S. and their involvement with the Mexican American War. An outcome of that war is that people of Mexican descent were classified as white due to the signing of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and were treated as a class apart. (See Michael Olivas’ anthology, Colored Men and Hombres Aqui from 2006 and Ignacio M. García, White but not Equal from 2008). These novels and films reflect the larger dominant narrative of whiteness and its relationship to nation building. Through Pickford’s and del Río’s portrayals of Ramona they reinforce the whiteness of mestizaje.
In 1910, Mary Pickford starred in D.W. Griffith’s short film adaptation of Ramona as the titular orphan of Spanish heritage. Henry B. Walthall played Alessandro, the Native American, in brownface to mimic physical attributes of the native Chumash of Southern California. Griffith also wanted to add authenticity by filming in Camulas, Ventura County, the land of the Chumash and where Jackson based her novel. The short is a sixteen-minute film that takes viewers through the encounter between Alessandro and Ramona and their forbidden love, as she was to be wedded to Felipe, a Californio. There is a moment in the movie when Ramona is told she has “Indian blood”. Exalted, Mary Pickford says “I’m so happy” (6:44-6:58). Their short union celebrates love of self and indigeneity that reiterates Jackson’s compassionate plea of the plight of native people. In the end, Alessandro dies fighting for his homeland, and Ramona ends up with Felipe. Alessandro, Ramona, and Felipe represent the archetypes in the Westward expansion. None had truly the power but if mestizaje is to survive best it serve whiteness.
Edwin Carewe’s rendition of Ramona in 1928 was United Artists’ first film release with synchronized sound and score. Similar to the Jazz Singer in 1927, are pivotal in our understanding of sonic brownface. Through the use of synchronized scored music, Hollywood’s foray into sound allowed itself creative license to people of color and sonically match it to their imaginary of whiteness. As I mentioned in my 2013 post, the era of silent cinema allowed Mexicans in particular, to be “desirable and allowed audiences to fantasize about the man or woman on the screen because they could not hear them speak.” Ramona was also the first feature film for a 23-year-old Dolores del Río, whose beauty captivated audiences. There was much as stake for her and Carewe. Curiously, both are mestizos, and yet the Press Releases do not make mention of this, inadvertently reinforcing the whiteness of mestizaje: Del Río was lauded for her Spanish heritage (not for being Mexican), and Carewe’s Chickasaw ancestry was not highlighted. Nevertheless, the film was critically acclaimed with favorable reviews such as Mordaunt Hall’s piece in the New York Times published May 15, 1928. He writes, “This current offering is an extraordinarily beautiful production, intelligently directed and, with the exception of a few instances, splendidly acted.” The film had been lost and was found in Prague in 2005. The Library of Congress has restored it and is now celebrated as a historic film, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary on May 20th.
In Ramona, Dolores del Río shows her versatility as an actor, which garners her critical acclaim as the first Mexicana to play a starring role in Hollywood. Though Ramona is not considered a talkie, the synchronized sound comes through in the music. Carewe commissioned a song written by L. Wolfe Gillbert with music by Mabel Wayne, that was also produced as an album. The song itself was recorded as an instrumental ballad by two other musicians, topping the charts in 1928.
In the movie, Ramona sings to Allessandro. As you will read in the lyrics, it is odd that it is not her co-star Warner Baxter who sings, as the song calls out to Ramona. Del Río sounds angelic as the music creates high falsettos. The lyrics emphasize English vernacular with the use of “o’er” and “yonder” in the opening verse. There are moments in the song where it is audible that Del Río is not yet fluent speaking, let alone singing in English. This is due to the high notes, particularly in the third verse, which is repeated again after the instrumental interlude.
I dread the dawn
When I awake to find you gone
Ramona, I need you, my own
Each time she sings “Ramona” and other areas of the song where there is an “r”, she adds emphasis with a rolling “r,” as would be the case when speaking Spanish. Through the song it reinforces aspects of sonic brownface with the inaudible English words, and emphasis on the rolling “rrrr.” In some ways, the song attempts to highlight the mestiza aspects of the character. The new language of English spoken now in the region that was once a Spanish territory lends authenticity through Dolores del Río’s portrayal. Though Ramona is to be Scottish and Native, she was raised by a Spanish family named Moreno, which translates to brown or darker skin. Yes, you see the irony too.
Following Del Río’s career, she plays characters from different parts of the world, usually native or Latin American. As Dolores del Río gained more popularity in Hollywood she co-starred in several movies such as Bird of Paradise (1932), directed by King Vidor, in which she plays a Polynesian Princess. Bird of Paradise focuses on the love affair between the sailor, played by Joel McCrea, and herself. The movie was controversial as it was the first time we see a kiss between a white male protagonist with a non-Anglo female, and some more skin, which caught the eye of The Motion Picture Code commission. Though I believe the writers attempted to write in Samoan, or some other language of the Polynesian islands, I find that her speech may be another articulation of sonic brownface. Beginning with the “talkies,” Hollywood continued to reiterate stereotypical representations though inaccurate music or spoken languages.
In the first encounter between the protagonists, Johnny and Luana, she greets him as if inviting him to dance. He understands her. He is so taken by her beauty that he “rescues” her to live a life together on a remote island. Though they do not speak the same language at first it does not matter because their love is enough. This begins with the first kiss. When she points to her lips emphasizing kisses, which he gives her more of. The movie follows their journey to create a life together but cannot be fully realized as she knows the sacrifice she must pay to Pele.
I do not negate the ground breaking work that Dolores del Río accomplished while in Hollywood. It led her to be an even greater star when she returned to Mexico. However, even her star role as Maria Candelaria bares some examination through sonic brownface. It is vital to examine how the media reinforces the imaginary of native people as not well spoken or inarticulate, and call out the whiteness of mestizaje as it inadvertently eliminates the presence of indigeneity and leaves us listening to sonic brownface.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and adjunct lecturer in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and Liberal Studies Department at CSULA and in the Critical Studies Program at CALArts. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
Featured image: Screenshot from “Ramona (1928) – Brunswick Hour Orchestra”
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In the current anti-immigrant climate, the visual, sonic, and textual modes of representation are becoming battlegrounds we must consider. Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama’s takes on immigration policy and eliminations of ethnic study course offerings from college and high school curricula, are signs of a climate fraught with discontent. However, these fights are not limited solely to the political sphere; in fact, the arena of cultural production—music, literature, theater, and film—facilitates a generalized outlook on Latinidad in the United States by representing Dreamers (the generations of children who were raised in the U.S. from a young age but are not citizens), and/or the thousands of undocumented immigrants who sustain an infrastructure of cheap labor. Within these often stereotypical representations, it is frequently sound that produces the strongest sense of social, cultural, and political difference for Latino subjects.
In this post, I analyze the 2006 film Nacho Libre, a comedy starring Jack Black as a friar who becomes a Lucha Libre fighter, as symptomatic of what I term “sonic brownface,” an aural performativity of Mexicanness. My interest on Nacho Libre is to elucidate how sonic brownface manifests on the big screen, and what is at stake through these seemingly innocent (re)presentations of Mexicanness. I characterize “sonic brownface” as a “speedification” of a Mexican accent, named after Speedy Gonzalez’ infamous call “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Epa! ¡Epa! ¡Epa!” Although comedian Jack Black intends to present a respectful portrayal of a Mexican, his speech enables my analysis of “sonic brownface” within popular culture, a sound that reproduces ideologies about an invisible majority that is also perceived as non-American: Latinos, undocumented immigrants, and dreamers.
Voicing the Other…
The last scene of the Academy Award winning film The Artist (2011), presents why the silent film Artist was against the industry’s move toward the “talkie.” His voice collided with the visual representation of the suave debonair cosmopolitan man—and audience expectations of what such privilege sounds like. Though French actor Jean Dujardin plays the lead character in the film The Artist, it must be noted that several Mexican and Latin American actors did quite well in those early years of Hollywood cinema. Their exotic looks made them desirable and allowed audiences to fantasize about the man or woman on the screen because they could not hear them speak. Moreover, their physicality allowed some actors to “pass” as white. When talkies became the norm, Latino actors began performing now familiar stereotypical characters because in the U.S., their voices were indelibly associated with their “foreignness.”
In the realm of popular culture, both Disney and Warner Brothers created their own “Mexican” characters. In 1944, Disney introduced a Mexican and a Brazilian in the animated film Three Caballeros. Joaquin Garay was a Mexican voice actor featured in the voice of Panchito Pistoles in the Three Caballeros.
His accent and his singing sounded like someone who is Mexican speaking English, as oppose to an exaggerated Mexican accent heard later in the cartoon character of Speedy Gonzalez. Panchito Pistolas showcases a pride in being Mexican as heard in the singing of a ranchera and wearing his gun like the Mexican Revolutionaries of the 1910s. In the 1950s, Warner Brothers introduced Speedy Gonzales to their pantheon of animated characters, coinciding with the next wave of anti-Mexican sentiment during the campaign of Operation Wetback.
In his essay “Autopsy of a Rat,” William Nericcio posits that viewers come to recognize a series of stereotypes about Mexicans through the animated character of Speedy Gonzales. Nericcio incorporates historical references that influenced the design and creation of Gonzalez. He stipulates that this animation creates visual cues which American audiences connect as qualities of Mexicanness, “how this popular animated star comes to function in a way that reinforces politically charged, visions/versions of the ‘Mexican’ on ‘American’ soil” (212). Nericcio emphasizes the “visuo-ethnic clues” to deconstruct the Speedy Gonzales cartoon, and his definition of the stereotype helps corroborates my interest in how “sonic brownface” manifests as a “Speedification” of a Mexican accent. “Strapped for existential input as to the dynamic of Mexican subjects, we turn to stereotypes to provide us with visuo-ethnic ‘clues’ that fill in for empirical data and satisfy the lazy desire of our collective curiosity (219). Whereas Nericcio emphasizes the visual, however, I argue that sound has also held a strong purchase on the American racial imaginary in the case of Latinos. When audiences see and hear Jack Black as Nacho Libre, for example, they already recognize the accent.
Nacho Libre, sonic brownface personified
I propose the concept of “sonic brownface,” which pairs auditory with visual signs of Mexicanness as mediated in popular culture, to characterize the Mexican as a perpetual foreigner within the national imaginary. My interest in a film like Nacho Libre is to elucidate how audiences already recognize “Speedification,” a voicing of Mexicanness that manifests as a performance of “sonic brownface.” This conceptualization of “sonic brownface” is informed by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on the “sonic color-line.” In “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York,” she posits that “sound is not merely a scientific phenomenon—vibrations passing through matter at particular frequencies—it is also a set of social relations … the “sonic color-line” begins to theorize the mutually constitutive relationship between sound, listening, and race.” She elaborates how “aural signifiers of race are thoroughly enmeshed with the visuality of race [because] they never really lose their ultimate referent to different types of bodies” (65). In the case of “sonic brownface,” Jack Black does not need to be a Mexican actor, he just needs to sound “Mexican” to conjure a physical referent.
In utilizing the term “brownface,” I also reference minstrel entertainment in which blackness fetishized and simultaneously disavowed African American entertainers consequently framing racial codes onto a spectrum of racialized bodies. In his analysis of the first talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) “Blackface, White Noise,” Michael Rogin proposes that the “protagonist adopts a black mask and ventriloquiz[es]the black, sings through his mouth” (419). Through this masking, the Jazz Singer becomes Americanized through “appropriat[ing] an imaginary blackness” (421). Even as our contemporary sensibility would call out any form of contemporary blackface performance, we have yet to identify a similar masking when it occurs with Mexican or Latino characters. I contend that the models seen in blackface entertainment have already placed familiar scenarios of seeing White or Jewish actors performing an ethnic Other. When American audiences see Jack Black as “Nacho Libre,” they do not need to see him brown his skin; it is enough to hear a “speedification” of Spanish to have us entertain his believability. When “sonic brownface” occurs, it does not Americanize the performer, rather it perpetuates the Mexican and by extension Chicanos and Latinos as always already foreigners.
In order to recognize how “sonic brownface” is performed in the comedy Nacho Libre, it is also necessary to understand how its sound echoes a political climate that conflates “Mexican” with “Immigrant,” thereby representing Mexicans as undocumented people who have no right to be on this side of the U.S./Mexico border, and lumps all Latinos together as “Mexican.” The film was released a month after the nation’s largest immigrant rallies on May 1, 2006, occurring throughout many cities. The timing of the film also coincided with the first series of policy measures on immigration reform proposed by Congress. Whereas before the May Day marches, some members of congress discussed immigrants as criminals, after the big turnout Congress changed their tune, beginning to consider amnesty or easier paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including generation Dreamers, already raised and finishing their schooling in the States. Cue Jack Black.
Speedification del Celluloid: “sonic brownface” in Nacho Libre
Nacho Libre, directed by Jared Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) presents a comedic fictionalization of the story of Fray Tormenta, a career Lucha Libre fighter who was actually Reverend Sergio Gutiérrez Benitez. The film highlights Black’s strengths as a singer and presents him in a character that is the classic underdog trying to achieve his wrestling dream. As Nacho, the cook for the orphanage, he also wishes to provide the children a better meal, at least once in a while. I will highlight a few scenes in which Black’s sonic brownface performance stands in contrast to the other Mexican cinema actors who speak English. I will conclude with a proposition as to why sonic brownface is already so familiar to us.
From the opening sequence, we see the quaint orphanage located in a small Mexican pueblo. “Sonic brownface” is introduced in the film from Black’s first words “Be grateful Juan Pablo today is especially delicious.” In the next sequence, Hess films the Father saying mass in Spanish with no translation, or subtitles. I point this out because it sets up a type of authenticity with the Mexican orphanage, and that the film brings together both American actors speaking “Es-Pan-ish” and Mexican actors speaking in English. Ana de la Reguera, “Sister Encarnación,”–a nun who arrives to teach the children–also does not perform sonic brownface. She sounds like a Mexican actress speaking English, very much like other Mexican actors preceding her in Hollywood, adding a third later of sonic representation that actually works to heighten sonic brownface’s effects.
However, the sequence that most prominently presents the visual and auditory cues of sonic brownface appear in a twenty-minute segment when Nacho recruits his partner, Esquelito, and they transform into luchadores. In the midst of Nacho’s transformation, he must also contend with his carnal feelings for Sister Encarnación and to instruct the boys that wrestling is not good. Black goes from Italian in “taste of glory” (19:114-16); to Cuban “take it easy” (24:03); to urban Mexican American “my life is good, really good. It’s fantastic” (35:50). The sequence ends as Nacho cannot defend Sister Encarnación and blames Esqueleto for the mishap. Here sonic blackface culminates this performativity of Other with “get that corn outta my face. I looked like a fool last night. What took you so long?!” (39:54-40:29).
One could read this performativity of Otherness in the remix of accents as Black’s self-awareness that he is voicing something not of his experience. However, that he is Jewish and a comedian implies a privileged position already granted to him through blackface performances: the permission to co-opt ethnic and racial identities. When he inflects a Cubanesque accent, audiences can recall Al Pacino in Scarface, an earlier articulation of “sonic brownface.” Or the urban Chicano accent as seen in Born in East L.A. when Cheech Marin teaches the Mexicans waiting to cross the border how to blend in with Chicanos. By the time Black performs sonic blackface, as audiences we have been cued to these auditory references, thus we do not need him to alter his physicality to match the accent. It is enough to hear it to understand the referent. The sequence reaffirms Nacho as the luchador, since we also see his persona of the fighter come to life.
Rogin’s analysis can help us understand these slippages, as well as the role of “sonic brownface” in representations of Latinos by white actors. Rogin posits how Jolson’s performance in the first talkie simultaneously killed Vaudeville entertainment and reintroduced blackface into popular media (429). It is Rogin’s conclusion that it is with the appearance of “Jack Robin” in blackface, that the Jewish individual “Jakie Robinowitz” becomes white and thereby successful, mediating this success through visual codes of blackness. Similarly, in Nacho Libre, sonic brownface operates as both the visual and sonic cues of Mexicanness that enable Jack Black to become the luchador who doesn’t need to live behind a mask. As the film ends, Nacho is content, becoming a hero to the orphans who no longer bemoans his lot in life. This ending is contrary to the plight of immigrants from Latin America who must leave their home in search of better economic opportunities.
By identifying sonic brownface, we can see how American audiences fetishize the sounds of the Mexican/Latin Other yet simultaneously disavow their presence by placing non-Latino actors in these roles. Through the performativity of sonic brownface, popular media and film reify codes of Mexicanness as always foreign, silencing their accents because español is still an unwelcomed sound. Sonic brownface can also be a useful tool by which to investigate similar auditory articulations of Latino sounds. I’m thinking here of Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961)—see Priscilla Peña Ovalle‘s Sounding Out! post “Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of ‘Latina-ness’” (January 2011)–George Lopez in Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008), Wilmer Valderrama “Fez” in the television series That 70s Show, and the panoply of Latino actors in Machete (2010) by Richard Rodriguez. Given that media tends to recycle tropes and stereotypes, as audience members we have developed a keen awareness of these sonic markings of Otherness.
Most importantly, my intent in identifying sonic brownface concerns its re-appearance during another surge of anti-immigrant rhetoric. The rallies that occurred on May Day 2006 became synomous with immigrant rights. The release of Nacho Libre shortly after these rallies unknowingly silenced immigrant Spanish speaking voices in the popular imaginary until the film A Better Life (2011) staring Demián Bichir, connected undocumented immigrants with an empathetic experience. The strongest counteractions, however, have not been channeled through Hollywood. With the 2012 election, another surge of immigrant rallies happened at the Democratic National Convention with UndocuBus riders arriving in time to call attention to immigrant rights (start at 8:10-11:24).
As seen in this video clip, undocumented immigrants, Dreamers, Latina/s, and Chicana/os committed acts of civil disobedience because their voices will not be silenced.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and an adjunct lecturer in the Social Science Division of Glendale Community College in Glendale, California.As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
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