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When Mexico was a star

February 25, 2007|Sergio Munoz | SERGIO MUnOZ, a former Times editorial writer, is a contributing editor to the paper; his weekly syndicated column in Spanish appears in 20 newspapers in 12 countries.

A COMBINED 16 Oscar nominations have put the spotlight on Mexican film artists. The most celebrated are Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose "Babel" received seven nominations, including for best director and best movie; Guillermo del Toro, who directed and wrote "Pan's Labyrinth," which received six nominations; and Alfonso Cuaron, whose "Children of Men" got three Oscar nods.

But it is not the first time that Mexican talent has enjoyed widespread acclaim in the United States. Between 1920 and 1935, as a small but powerful group of New York intellectuals and Hollywood producers "discovered" Mexico and celebrated its pre-Hispanic heritage, the U.S. opened its doors to a large group of Mexican painters, writers, musicians, actors and actresses.

The American left was fascinated with the Mexican Revolution, which stretched from 1910 to 1921. Such journalists as John Kenneth Turner, John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, Frank Tannenbaum and Ernest Gruening traveled south to witness the conflict and counter the unflattering reports coming from U.S. diplomats. They chronicled "the rising hum of revolutionary fervor, of a people reborn, of hopes rekindled," as Gruening put it.

Then, in 1926, journalist Gregory Mason and archeologist Herbert J. Spinden unearthed the true origin of the Mayas in the Yucatan during an expedition sponsored by the New York Times.

All this, coupled with the writings of Anita Brenner, Alma Reed and Frances Toor on Mexican muralism, produced an American infatuation with "things Mexican." By 1933, the cultural phenomenon had spread from New York to California.

Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco painted his "Prometheus," a mural that Jackson Pollock later praised as "the greatest painting in North America," in Frary Hall at Pomona College in 1930. Diego Rivera became the second living artist after Henri Matisse to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And in 1932, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted "Tropical America," a mural for Olvera Street that was so controversial that it was ordered whitewashed by city officials and by Christine Sterling, who turned Olvera Street into a tourist attraction.

On the music front, singer Jose Mojica went from the Chicago Civic Opera, where he sang operas by Richard Wagner, Sergei Prokofiev and Claude Debussy, to Hollywood, where he sang rancheras. In 1927, Leopold Stokowski played Julian Carrillo's "Concertino" with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and Carlos Chavez played his music alongside Aaron Copland and Edgar Varese.

The Mexican Revolution stirred Hollywood's interest as well. From 1913 to 1916, 15 movies were made about the revolution, five of them dealing with actual events. Two years before his infamous incursion into Columbus, N.M., Pancho Villa signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corp. to film him in battle -- "during daylight if possible" -- in exchange for $25,000.

During the silent-movie era in Hollywood, Dolores del Rio became one of the top 10 moneymakers and actress Lupe Velez romanced Gary Cooper. Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland and Tito Guizar took turns playing the Latin lover. Realizing that subtitled talkies weren't filling theaters in Latin America, Hollywood filmmakers turned to its Spanish-speaking stars to do remakes of English-language movies.

Today's Oscar-nominated Mexican talent arrives in Hollywood when "things Mexican" are associated with illegal immigration and calls for the construction of a fence principally to keep Mexicans out. The Mexican media accounts of the three directors' accomplishments have been vastly celebratory. At the same time, the triumph of Inarritu, Cuaron and Del Toro in Hollywood creates a lingering, bittersweet reaction. After national pride will come the recognition that, just like the humblest immigrants, the three artists had to leave Mexico in search of opportunities unavailable at home.

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