RT Archives

9 Pioneering Hispanic Women Filmmakers From the Earliest Days of the Movies

When cinema was in its earliest, whitest, and most male-dominated days, these women created their own opportunities and forged their own paths.

by | October 7, 2020 | Comments

Although women were present at the birth of cinema and helped pioneer a great many discoveries, women from marginalized backgrounds and communities had a tougher time breaking in the fledgling industry. Sadly, it’s an inequality that persists in the film world today. Despite these barriers, a number of Latina and Hispanic women in Hollywood and South America broke through biases, starting their own production companies, forging their own paths. They created opportunities where there were none, they landed their movies in festivals and challenged the male-dominated industry to take notice. Sadly, not all enjoyed the long illustrious careers their male counterparts did, but whether it was just one film or two, these nine filmmakers left their mark on film history and on screens far and wide. 


Beatriz Michelena

(Photo by Public Domain)

Beatriz Michelena (1890–1942) 

Originally an opera singer, Beatriz Michelena made the leap from the stage to the screen becoming one of the first Hispanic silent movie stars with the movie Salomy Jane. On the side, she wrote an advice column for girls interested in becoming actresses like herself. After her first studio went bankrupt, Michelena formed her own production company with her husband, George E. Middleton, and produced her next movies, effectively becoming one of the first Hispanic women to do so. Sadly, like many upstart companies in the early days of cinema, it did not last, and most of Michelena’s film work was destroyed in a fire.  


Mimí Derba (1893–1953)

When Herminia Pérez de León first entered showbiz as a teenager, the Mexican singer chose the stage name Mimí Derba. It would become one of the most recognized names in her country’s movie history. After the Mexican Revolution, Derba co-founded the Azteca Film Company, which produced five movies in its first year – two of which were written by Derba, including The Tigress, which she also directed. Her star was on the rise when financial setbacks interrupted her career and shut down her film company. She returned in the sound era opposite Lupita Tovar for Santa in 1931, which restarted her film career that ran through the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. 


Emilia Saleny (1894–1978)

Although accurate details about her are scarce, Argentine director Emilia Saleny began her career as an actress, traveling between the Italian community in Buenos Aires and her family’s home country of Italy. She began teaching early in her career, founding one of the first film and acting schools in South America in the 1910s. She also pioneered children’s films, movies made for younger audiences that followed stories told from a child’s point-of-view. Because of her collaborative approach to filmmaking and working with students, as well as early film’s less stringent standards of record-keeping, there is disagreement among scholars about her exact credits, but there’s no disputing she had an effect on Argentina’s early film scene. 


Adriana (1894–1972) and Dolores Ehlers (1896–1983)

Mexican sisters Adriana and Dolores Ehlers worked as a team making documentaries, processing film, and creating political movies. At first, they began their careers as photographers, and their work won them a grant to study in the United States. After they made military films during World War I and completed more training, they returned home to Mexico, where they sold cameras and projection equipment and eventually landed jobs in the Mexican government overseeing a lab that processed film and censorship, flagging racist stereotypes in Hollywood movies. After more political upheaval, the sisters returned to making films independently, selling projectors and training projectionists. 


María Luisa Bemberg (1922-1995)

Like Lucrecia Martel today, Argentine director María Luisa Bemberg had much to say about her country’s social issues through inventive movies. After beginning her artistic career creating feminist theater, Bemberg wrote scripts for other directors in the 1970s, but soon decided to make them herself, as she did with the scandalous period piece Camila, throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Many of her movies featured feminist themes and centered on strong women challenging men’s authority. 


Elena Sánchez Valenzuela (2)

(Photo by Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Elena Sánchez Valenzuela)

Elena Sánchez Valenzuela (1900–1950)

Mexican filmmaker Elena Sánchez Valenzuela wore many hats in her lifetime as a documentarian, journalist, archivist, and actress. Her screen career began in the silent era, but soon her focus shifted to journalism in the 1920s, and she soon began her writing for Mexico City newspapers, which led to assignments in Los Angeles and Paris. In the 1930s, Sánchez Valenzuela moved into documentary filmmaking with a feature on the Mexican state of Michoacán. She made one more career change in the 1940s when she helped found the Mexican National Film Library to preserve and promote films from Mexico and South America.


Gabriela Von Bussenius Vega (1901–1975)

Chilean writer Gabriela Von Bussenius Vega got her first taste of cinema when her new husband, Salvador Giambastiani, adapted her story The Agony of Arauco. While Giambastiani took over directing duties, Von Bussenius Vega handled the story and art direction, becoming one of the first women to have a hand in making a Chilean film. After Giambastiani’s death, Von Bussenius Vega stepped away from filmmaking and returned to writing books, essays, film criticism and plays.


Sara Gómez  (1942–1974)

When Sara Gómez began working in the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, she was the only woman and only one of two Black filmmakers in the government-sanctioned profession. Despite being the only woman in the Cuban film industry, she worked as a directors assistant to Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Agnès Varda, made a number of documentary shorts about Afro Cubans and women, and challenged sexism, classism, and racism with her one and only feature, the documentary and narrative film hybrid One Way or Another.


Margot Benacerraf (1926–)

Although Venezuelan documentarian Margot Benacerraf may only have two documentaries to her name – Reverón, a short study on Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón, and Araya, a feature on mining practices at a salt marsh – both of her works made it to international festivals. Reverón premiered at the 1953 Berlin International Film Festival, and Araya shared the Fipresci Critics’ Award with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Later, she founded the National Film Library of Venezuela and co-founded the Latin Fundavisual with Gabriel Garcia Márquez. 


On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

green book Rock indiana jones Marathons sequels boxing book adaptation Comic Book Lionsgate Netflix NYCC Nickelodeon olympics Pop 2019 supernatural indie crossover GoT spain batman heist movie medical drama Best and Worst BET Awards Syfy OneApp The Arrangement Polls and Games TV Land satire President ABC Signature spider-man TCA 2017 Chernobyl aapi Thanksgiving 2017 cars festival TIFF Reality deadpool new york streaming Creative Arts Emmys free movies Disney streaming service 93rd Oscars Amazon SDCC Spring TV spy thriller ratings Film Television Academy cartoon die hard E3 Food Network news Broadway documentaries werewolf Drama Heroines Fall TV TCA spinoff Apple TV+ Ghostbusters critic resources MTV Film Festival Oscars adventure Dark Horse Comics true crime Superheroe godzilla LGBTQ cancelled Opinion italian Comedy parents black Tokyo Olympics book video on demand The Academy BBC One technology CMT BBC TLC game show Lifetime TBS james bond TruTV Star Wars San Diego Comic-Con golden globes ESPN Biopics young adult Academy Awards international teaser Superheroes Certified Fresh X-Men venice The Purge TCA Winter 2020 Kids & Family Star Trek 2018 sag awards Writers Guild of America The Witch witnail stand-up comedy VOD Toys crime Walt Disney Pictures Stephen King PaleyFest Trailer monster movies 24 frames Showtime comic robots all-time Quiz Apple TV Plus FX Rom-Com Set visit GLAAD cults Classic Film Travel Channel archives franchise New York Comic Con classics Red Carpet women rt archives Countdown composers cancelled TV shows ViacomCBS fresh Starz cancelled TV series stoner hist Western FXX high school ID Mary Poppins Returns police drama Netflix Christmas movies elevated horror Alien kong Sundance TV kids VH1 thriller Pop TV know your critic Logo spanish Photos target nbcuniversal mcc period drama Calendar chucky rotten movies we love 90s Action posters festivals japanese DC Comics Elton John wonder woman GIFs rotten Bravo australia superhero Crunchyroll blaxploitation TNT HBO Sundance harry potter Esquire debate RT21 Shudder Holidays Lifetime Christmas movies jurassic park Amazon Prime Video foreign south america justice league Schedule critics television Pirates razzies saw live action LGBT Cosplay Disney toronto jamie lee curtis halloween tv nfl ghosts Spike Spectrum Originals superman Watching Series Black Mirror cooking Tumblr CNN 99% CBS All Access Masterpiece 1990s award winner sports APB Freeform cancelled television streaming movies popular video theme song casting dceu RT History Women's History Month fast and furious DGA First Reviews Adult Swim mission: impossible canceled TV shows Martial Arts tv talk blockbuster Rocketman TV One PlayStation obituary The CW TV renewals Interview strong female leads TV Mindy Kaling Hulu romantic comedy Marvel Television diversity The Walking Dead asian-american stop motion adaptation Avengers Crackle Teen Hallmark comiccon Comic-Con@Home 2021 Summer latino marvel cinematic universe DC streaming service BAFTA rt labs Tubi Fantasy ITV Universal Epix kaiju Exclusive Video nature Infographic marvel comics renewed TV shows BBC America anime canceled crime thriller spanish language Vudu finale FX on Hulu Acorn TV movies laika vampires DirecTV Awards Tour sequel See It Skip It YouTube Winter TV social media TCM reboot worst anthology cats politics slashers football space screen actors guild richard e. Grant dc dark Shondaland scene in color king kong Rocky new zealand royal family Musical Peacock rt labs critics edition feel good unscripted Trivia Lucasfilm Captain marvel Podcast Christmas El Rey Sony Pictures The Walt Disney Company TV movies Baby Yoda gangster WGN Wes Anderson a nightmare on elm street Comedy Central facebook Warner Bros. Election docudrama prank emmy awards Ellie Kemper Britbox psycho Pride Month versus Pet Sematary Family joker Winners directors SundanceTV Turner Classic Movies breaking bad IFC game of thrones SXSW aliens 4/20 Music HBO Max mutant Turner Nat Geo DC Universe dragons political drama reviews Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Marvel Studios mockumentary documentary what to watch based on movie ABC Family Arrowverse pirates of the caribbean comics Character Guide halloween lord of the rings Super Bowl Ovation 45 adenture series children's TV transformers YA criterion zombie 72 Emmy Awards films Year in Review dexter Paramount comic books Holiday BET comic book movies MSNBC miniseries boxoffice Pacific Islander Fox News revenge Anna Paquin Binge Guide Apple Song of Ice and Fire zero dark thirty dogs 73rd Emmy Awards Legendary concert war universal monsters Cartoon Network 2021 PBS golden globe awards slasher CW Seed child's play USA Network telelvision Awards Emmy Nominations worst movies Country docuseries VICE hispanic heritage month hidden camera action-comedy christmas movies Trophy Talk Mary poppins Emmys toy story Extras best Sci-Fi 2016 American Society of Cinematographers suspense CBS Grammys WarnerMedia cops OWN MCU YouTube Premium NBC Black History Month Tomatazos new star wars movies Marvel independent Horror cinemax Television Critics Association Amazon Prime Paramount Network Sundance Now Hear Us Out Valentine's Day Funimation A24 travel basketball romance screenings hispanic rom-coms National Geographic natural history blockbusters singing competition Paramount Plus Disney Channel 007 Hallmark Christmas movies 71st Emmy Awards History HBO Go YouTube Red Columbia Pictures Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt scary movies remakes IFC Films Amazon Studios Disney+ Disney Plus Animation 20th Century Fox comedies name the review zombies discovery crime drama Premiere Dates binge Musicals biography scorecard disaster Cannes french Tarantino Image Comics Mary Tyler Moore FOX Video Games Nominations A&E serial killer AMC hollywood Box Office USA king arthur Sneak Peek 2020 doctor who First Look Discovery Channel animated legend NBA Comics on TV comic book movie Brie Larson 2015 Reality Competition movie japan twilight 21st Century Fox Disney Plus E! TCA Awards Fox Searchlight Endgame talk show ABC historical drama trailers biopic Pixar quibi Mystery science fiction sitcom 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards dramedy Mudbound psychological thriller