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13 Barrier-Breaking Hispanic Stars and Their Most Celebrated Roles

See what critics said about the essential performances of Hispanic actors Rita Moreno, Ramon Novarro, Lupe Vélez, Cesar Romero, and others who opened doors for generations to come.

by | September 15, 2020 | Comments

Rita Moreno - West Side Story (1)

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Hispanic Heritage Month is a chance to celebrate the histories and cultures of the trailblazers who came before us. Many of the famous names on this list found their road to stardom blocked by prejudice and lack of opportunities. Still, they pushed on, becoming the first Hispanic stars to earn Oscars, break records, and forge their own paths.

This is far from a complete list, but consider it a starting point to introduce yourself to the performances of actors like Dolores del Río and Ramon Novarro, and the contributions of TV stars like Desi Arnaz and Cesar Romero. Their work in the entertainment history helped open doors for other talents and inspired the generations that followed. Although some actors may have been forced to take on roles that would not make it on-screen today, they gave unforgettable performances in films both big and obscure, each worth watching to see the trajectory of their careers and the changes in cultural attitudes towards Hispanic actors and their stories. 

Note: We’re using Hispanic as a guide for this list, which is an identity tied to Spain and its former colonies that speak Spanish, but this is just a starting point to check out the many talented artists who graced screens around the world despite the many odds against them.  


José Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac

Jose Ferrer - Cyrano de Bergerac

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

With dozens of theatrical and screen credits to his name, José Ferrer broke barriers many times over throughout his career, becoming the first Hispanic Oscar winner and the first actor to receive the National Medal of Arts. Originally born in Puerto Rico, Ferrer and his family moved to New York City when he was just a young boy. After college, Ferrer took to the New York theater world in the 1930s, winning a Tony in 1947 for his sensitive lead performance as the long-nosed sword-wielding poet in Cyrano de Bergerac. A 1950 movie adaptation of the show gave Ferrer his Hollywood break – and that Best Actor Oscar – which led to subsequent turns in movies like The Caine Mutiny, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dune.

“It is José Ferrer who is the pervading spirit of Cyrano, Ferrer, the man without whom the film could never have reached its extraordinary status.” – Jane Corby, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 17, 1950


Dolores del Río, María Candelaria

Dolores del Rio - Maria Candelaria

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Not far from those storied Hollywood sites of the Oscars, the Dolby Theater and the TLC Chinese Theatre, sits a sculpture known as “The Four Ladies of Hollywood” modeled after the likeness of early icons Dorothy Dandridge, Anna May Wong, Mae West, and Dolores del Río, one of the first Mexican movie stars to make it in Tinseltown. After a tumultuous childhood during the Mexican Revolution, del Río began her career as a dancer and eventually made her way to Hollywood after she was scouted by a visiting director in the 1920s. Not long after her debut, sound arrived in the movies, but del Río proved herself adaptable to the switch-up and her career continued with hits like Flying Down to Rio, Bird of Paradise, and Madame Du Barry. In the 1940s, del Río returned to Mexico just as the country’s film industry experienced a resurgence known as the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. One of her first contributions, Emilio Fernández’s 1943 tragic romance Maria Candelaria, would become the first Mexican movie to screen at and win the top prize at the Cannes International Film Festival. She would go on to enjoy many more decades of work in both Mexico and the U.S.

“Another gem of Mexican cinema… Dolores del Río makes such an amazing creation of the sweet Maria Candelaria.” [Full review in Spanish] – Elena de la Torre, Cine-Mundial, July 1944


Cantinflas, Passepartout

Cantinflas - Around the World in 80 Days

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Although he’s perhaps best known as Mexico’s answer to Charlie Chaplin, Mario Moreno created a buoyant on-screen persona that’s memorable in its own right. The actor’s most popular character, Cantinflas, often talked circles around those he wanted to charm, escape or confuse; while the situations and stories changed from movie-to-movie, Moreno’s sharp sense of verbal humor kept audiences laughing. Once his stardom hit a fever pitch in Mexico, he made his Hollywood crossover in 1956’s Around the World in 80 Days. The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and Cantinflas won a Golden Globe for his performance. Although he only made a few more English language movies, Cantinflas returned to Mexico for a busy second half of his career.

“Outstanding in the long part of Mr. Fogg’s faithful valet, Passepartout, is Cantinflas, a sad-faced comedian with a delightful economy of gesture and expression, who adds just the right note of implausibility to the whole highly improbable affair.” – Times (UK), July 3, 1957


Cesar Romero, The Joker

Cesar Romero - Batman

(Photo by TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.)

Decades before Jack Nicholson smothered his face in white paint and donned a purple suit for the 1989 movie adaption of Batman, the 1960s TV series featured Cesar Romero as the hero’s archvillain, the Joker. Born to Cuban parents in the U.S., Romero began his acting career in the 1930s playing a variety of roles in movies like The Thin Man, Week-End in Havana (opposite Carmen Miranda), and Ocean’s 11. In 1965, about 30 years into his career, the actor landed what would become one of his most memorable on-screen characters as the Joker on Batman. Romero brought an energetic campiness to the part to match Adam West’s groovy interpretation of the Dark Knight, making them both unforgettable entries into Batman’s on-screen history.

“[Batman’s] coterie of colorful villains standing in sharp contrast to West’s milquetoast Batman. Cesar Romero, who played the Joker (he refused to shave his trademark mustache, so they just painted it white), once said that the show’s writers told him the villains were the real stars. And the talent recruited to play these villains was staggering.” – Zaki Hasan, Huffington Post


Desi Arnaz, Ricky Ricardo

Desi Arnaz - I Love Lucy

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

“Lucy, I’m home!” The man behind one of TV’s most popular shows was Cuban-born musician-turned-entertainer, Desi Arnaz. Along with his co-creator, co-star, and then-wife, Lucille Ball, the pair became America’s first TV couple, breaking boundaries as the first show to pioneer the concept of syndication and to use a multi-camera set-up that would then become an industry standard. Before I Love Lucy, Arnaz worked as a bandleader and actor, not a far leap from his TV character, Ricky Ricardo, an up-and-coming bandleader whose wife Lucy (Ball) was a less-talented-but-still-aspirational version of her real-life counterpart. The couple originally had to fight the network to keep Arnaz in the show because executives thought audiences wouldn’t be interested in a Cuban leading man. Thankfully, Ricky and Lucy were a match made in TV heaven, frustrating each other but always reuniting in the end. Arnaz and Ball’s joint company, Desilu Productions, later brought series like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek to small screens across the country and beyond.

“Half a step behind [Lucille Ball] comes her husband, Desi Arnaz, the perfect foil for her screwball antics and possessing comic abilities of his own more than sufficient to make this a genuine comedy team rather than the one-woman tour de force it almost becomes.” – Dan Jenkins, Hollywood Reporter, Oct. 16, 1951


Gilbert Roland, ‘Gaucho’

Gilbert Roland - The Bad and the Beautiful

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Born in Mexico as Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso, Gilbert Roland picked his screen name from two of his favorite stars and headed to Hollywood to make it in showbusiness. And make it he did, with around six decades worth of work including his turn opposite Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. In that searing look at Hollywood, Roland plays the part of a Latin lover, a role he’d played many times before, but one that’s off-screen in the making-of-a-movie-within-the-movie narrative. The Bad and the Beautiful eventually won five Oscars, including one for Roland’s scene partner Gloria Grahame for Best Supporting Actress, making it one of Roland’s most lauded films in a career that included She Done Him Wrong, The Sea Hawk, Around the World in 80 Days, and Cheyenne Autumn.

“Roland is a flamboyant joy in the part.” – William Brogdon, Variety, Nov. 19, 1952


Lupe Vélez, Carmelita Fuentes

Lupe Velez - The Girl From Mexico

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Always charismatic no matter the role, Lupe Vélez lit up the screen like few others in her time. The Mexican-born actress made her way to Hollywood from the vaudeville stage, playing supporting characters of various ethnic origins. When Vélez made the move to sound, she found a new opportunity to capitalize on the medium’s comic potential through verbal humor. Starting with 1939’s The Girl from Mexico, Vélez starred in her own series of films – eight in total – playing a fast-talking, quick-tempered Mexican singer who falls in love with the ad man (Donald Woods) who recruits her. As if that weren’t enough trouble, most of his family and former sweetheart disapprove of the match. While many of the jokes come at the expense of Vélez’s character, a number of them also land on those too prejudiced to see her talents. Unfortunately, Hollywood typecast Vélez as her “Mexican Spitfire” caricature, which limited her chances for other roles.

“In the title role, the vivacious and fiery Lupe Vélez proves herself a delightful comedienne.” – Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 7, 1939


Lupita Tovar, Eva

Lupita Tovar – Dracula

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

In the early days of the Sound Era, some studios would make extra versions of a film in different languages since the art of dubbing was still in its infancy. Perhaps one of the best-known examples of this brief and costly practice is the Spanish language version of 1931’s Dracula. Filmed on the same set as Bela Lugosi’s star vehicle at night, the Spanish version had a completely new cast and crew remake the movie in their own vision, including Lupita Tovar’s performance as Eva, one of the vampire’s potential victims. Some fans of the Spanish-language Dracula even say it’s better than the chaste original. Tovar married her husband, Dracula producer Paul Kohner, not long after Dracula’s release and Tovar’s star turn in one of Mexico’s first sound films, Santa. Many of their children and grandchildren, including directors Chris and Paul Weitz, followed in the family business.

“Tovar’s suggestive take on Eva Seward in Drácula earned the 21-year-old actress her first taste of international recognition, and to this day it is viewed as a defining role in her substantial career.” – Andrew S. Vargas, Remezcla


Pedro Infante, Tizoc

Pedro Infante – Tizoc

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Singer and actor Pedro Infante is one of the most famous names in the Golden Era of Mexican Cinema. Beginning in 1939, Infante launched his busy movie career playing heroic roles, comedic love interests, and song-filled cowboys for his frequent collaborator and director, Ismael Rodríguez. In 1957, their romantic drama Tizoc played at the Berlin International Film Festival and Infante won the Silver Bear award for his acting. Opposite María Félix, another legend in Mexico’s Golden Era, Infante played the love-struck lead of Tizoc to much critical acclaim around the world. Sadly, much of the praise and awards Infante earned for his performance arrived posthumously, as the actor died before the film’s release that year. Next time you’re watching Pixar’s Coco, keep an eye out for a comeo tribute to Infante next to fellow star Jorge Negrete, not long after famous luchador El Santo shows up to Ernesto de la Cruz’s party.

“When Pedro Infante acted, he seemed like a fish in water, he truly enjoyed his work and enjoyed moving in front of the camera.” [Full article in Spanish] – Reyna Avendaño, El Universal (Mexico)


Ramon Novarro, Ben-Hur

Ramon Novarro - Ben-Hur

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

One of the first Mexican stars of the Silent Era, Ramon Novarro changed his name from José Ramón Gil Samaniego just as his career was taking off in the 1910s. By the 1920s, he was playing adventurous lead roles in Scaramouche and the silent film adaptation of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in which Novarro plays the titular Jewish prince whose life is upended by a jealous friend and Roman. Throughout the film, Ben-Hur survives watching his family being torn apart, pirate attacks, and one unforgettable chariot scene, and crosses paths with Jesus more than once. Novarro would go on to star opposite Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Lupe Vélez throughout his career, continuing through to the Sound Era and even moving into television in its early days.

“Ramon Novarro, who plays the part of Ben-Hur, is a sturdy, handsome young chap, with an excellent figure. His performance is all that one could wish, for he is fervent and earnest throughout.” – Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, Dec. 31, 1925


Rita Hayworth, Gilda

Rita Hayworth - Gilda

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Following in the skilled footsteps of her Spanish father, professional dancer Margarita Carmen Cansino made a name for herself in the dance world before turning to Hollywood. There, a producer told her to change her name and her appearance to appeal to the studios, and thus, “Rita Hayworth” was born. In a storied career that featured co-stars like Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra, Hayworth led a number of unforgettable movies like The Lady from Shanghai, You’ll Never Get Rich, and Pal Joey. But it was her role in 1946’s Gilda that cemented her image in pop culture. Poor Glenn Ford never stood a chance against the flirtatious femme fatale Hayworth brought to life. Hayworth’s Gilda and Ford’s character Johnny share a combative yet passionate connection, one tortured by changing power dynamics and manipulative charms. Johnny may enjoy some victories, but nothing compares to Gilda’s show-stopping rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame,” in which she peels off her long, black gloves and flirtatiously throws them to her captive audience.

Gilda is a sultry melodrama, heavily laced with intrigue, in which Rita Hayworth dissipates as much sex-appeal as the screen will bear.” – Josephine O’Neill, Daily Telegraph (Australia), Aug. 25, 1946


Rita Moreno, Anita

Rita Moreno - West Side Story

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Still entertaining audiences decades later, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno began her career in the 1940s dubbing Hollywood movies into Spanish as a young girl living in New York City. After breaking into Broadway as a teenager, Moreno then made her way West to Hollywood, playing many of the pan-ethnic roles other Hispanic actors were pigeonholed into. Frustrated by the stereotypical bit parts she was often offered, she leapt at the chance to join the 1961 movie adaptation of West Side Story, where she was one of the only (if not the only) Puerto Rican actors with a speaking part. As Anita, Moreno sings of her love of America in the song of the same name and serves as an older big sister-like figure to Natalie Wood’s Maria. It’s a role so unforgettable, she became the first Hispanic woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, a feat not repeated until Lupita Nyong’o won in 2014. Moreno would go on to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony – an EGOT, for short – a feat only 15 other entertainers in the world have accomplished.

“Rita sparks several of the dance choruses and enters into the dramatic action of the story with spirit.” – Kate Cameron, New York Daily News, Oct. 19, 1961


Ricardo Montalbán, Khan

Ricardo Montalban – Star Trek II_ The Wrath of Khan

(Photo by TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.)

Known for his suave line deliveries and deep voice, Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán began his acting career in the 1940s in New York City. After he returned home for family reasons, his career took off in Mexico, where he acted in dozens of movies throughout the decade. In the 1950s, MGM came calling and Montalbán became a romantic foil for Esther Williams in a series of water-themed musicals that introduced the actor to U.S. audiences. While his on-screen prospects waned in the following decade, Montalbán was back in the spotlight with a hit show, Fantasy Island, and became one of the most famous villains in a sci-fi franchise when he played the titled baddie in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As Khan, the debonair actor shed his charming persona for a deeply wounded and angry performance as the aggrieved nemesis for James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and the rest of the U.S.S. Enterprise crew.

“Khan is played as a cauldron of resentment by Ricardo Montalbán, and his performance is so strong that he helps illustrate a general principle involving not only Star Trek but Star Wars (1977) and all the epic serials, especially the James Bond movies: Each film is only as good as its villain.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, June 4, 1982


With additional reporting from Daisy Gonzalez, Haña Lucero-Colin, Tim Ryan, Sara Ataiiyan, and Jeff Giles. 

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