Understanding and Navigating Latina Identity through the Tale of Two Ritas

Understanding Latina Identity through the tale of two Ritas

When I was a wee one around 11 years old, I entered a storytelling contest and won. My prize, or what I can still remember, was this beautiful, shiny hardback copy of Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities”. Apparently, according to modern psychological profiles and English literature doctorates, Charles Dickens was a champion of the maltreated poor, but identified with the aristocracy. He was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde. Have you ever read a Tale of Two Cities? To me, it would serve as a preview for my life in that I have been constantly caught between the world of the marginalized and the mainstream (those with access to better education and life options).  As I navigated those differing worlds, I served as a cultural ambassador, at times bringing understanding of the “other” side to those who cared to ask.  In that vein, I developed a chameleon-like identity blending in with the groups I was around and absorbing each group’s norms.  While growing up, I never used the phrase Latina to describe myself. That was something I just started doing about 4 years ago.

In my journey to becoming a “Latina” I came across many interesting individuals that wore their Hispanic label out loud and proud. But I also came across many that just were; like I was.  At times however these ethnic labels were imposed upon me by others.   I have been stopped countless times by curious individuals who dared to ask my “what are you?”  When I finally figured out they meant “where was I from,” I would answer New York. But that just wasn’t enough for many. One time in Spain a lady even claimed that I was lying and that in reality I was Tunisian.  My ethnicity is not readily identifiable to many and that just irks some people. But because I am not readily identifiable and I left home at an early age I have moved in and out of different groups.

In college I loved film, and in particular film noir.  The film noir Gilda is one of my all-time favorites. It stars Rita Hayworth who seemed to live her own unforgettable tragic drama for the public to see and recount again and again. She was born in New York! Brooklyn, actually and not Mexico as some mistakenly will state. Her birth name was Margarita Carmen Cansino—an ostensibly Hispanic name. When she first approached the Hollywood life she became Rita Consuelo.  However, she eventually had her name changed in order to become more mainstream and became both de-latinized and hyper-latinized.  Her most famous moment was her performance in Gilda where she sang “Put the Blame on Mame” and knocked it out of the park for eternity. You can catch a clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rWpND28Jos.  When she performed this piece, she was at the height of her fame, with thousands upon thousands of photos of her in circulation (the most popular being the one in her negligee). She was also married to the great Orson Welles.  Upon changing her name she went on to be known as a sexy dancer and pin up doll of sorts. She married grand men, including Prince Aly Khan, son of Aga Khan, the ruler of “the world’s Ishamili Muslims.”  She had a total of five marriages and none worked out for her. Kind of reminded me of my grandmother, who herself was a legendary local Brooklyn dancer and had a total of six marriages. Always in search of love and finding it fleetingly to only lose it to alcohol, domestic violence and mental health issues.  Rita Hayworth, starring in a classic film noir movie, was the “ultimate femme fatale”. The song “Mame” by the way, in case you have never heard it does rhyme with blame and chronicles the several horrible national disasters that are laid at the feet of Mame: The Chicago Fire of 1871, the New York Great Blizzard in 1888 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  Besides her similarities to my grandmother, I was also so proud of the fact that Rita Hayworth – a Hispanic woman – could be seen as so seductive. But when I mentioned that to my friends and classmates they were like “Rita Hayworth is Hispanic?  She looks white.”  Yes, Rita Hayworth was Hispanic and yes she could and did pass as a non-Hispanic. Although, many people also knew she was of Hispanic heritage. She had a fragile relationship with her ethnic identity where she simultaneously hid it and flaunted it.

First off, her Hispanic heritage was worked on as if it were an etch-a-sketch.  They got rid of her widow’s peak (you know Frida Kahlo had a very pronounced one). I am amazed that back then they made her go through major hairline electrolysis.  They dyed her hair a gorgeous hot red, which my grandmother did as well. She changed her name. However, interestingly and oddly and very “meta” she got cast in some movies as a Spanish dancer working her butt off to get beyond her history of being typecast as a Spanish dancer.  She was publicly paraded as Rita Hayworth playing a Hispanic (well, Spanish heritage individual). It is as if her Hispanic features were blurred to only then highlight in caricature. It is enough to make a girl dizzy.  Rita Hayworth made it big publicly through the process of becoming Rita Hayworth.   It is kind of liek that movie Being John Malcovich But in her private life she gambled big with love and lost big. She is probably who Jennifer Lopez aspires to be. Speaking of which, Jennifer Lopez is a Hispanic actress (Puerto Rican as a matter of fact) who enhanced her so-called ethnic assets and hyped up her Latina identity. Did you know that at one point her butt was insured for over a million dollars? My grandmother’s derriere would give her a run for the money but unfortunately we could never get it insured for anything near that.  Nonetheless, Jennifer Lopez now has launched a mobile phone service with a Latino twist. She is opening a chain of 15 cellphone stores and a website under the Viva Movil brand so that Latinos can have a culturally relevant shopping experience. What?  I have a feeling that if I went into said store I would be a bit out of place and said culturally relevant shopping may feel just a bit alien to me.  I am a Hispanic. However, I have been called “gringa” by other Hispanics because I have been Americanized. Yet, I often get type-casted, invited to guest speaker roles, because I am a Hispanic woman. Oh Vey! The grand icon actress Rita Moreno who has accomplished much in life including winning an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony, also developed and performed a one-woman show called “Life Without Makeup.”  In said play, there is a scene where Rita Moreno talks about receiving dancing lessons from Rita Hayworth’s uncle and notes “Oh! Rita Hayworth used to be Latina too?”  Oh, what a tangled web ethnicity can be.

Back to Hayworth. Unfortunately for Hayworth, she developed Alzheimer’s early in life fading quickly into the celebrity sunset.  But we still have Mame and what a true delight that is. Way back when, Rita was supposedly asked how it felt to have everything, Rita Hayworth replied, “I haven’t had everything from life. I’ve had too much.”   I felt that statement, whether truly Hayworth’s captures the experience of many Latinas from that era.

So the spirit of Rita Hayworth has stayed with me since college. Who was that Latina? What did it even mean anymore?   I have been called out by many for not having a strong Latina self-identity yet at the same time I am a source of community pride for how far I have made it (especially as a Latina).   It has most definitely been a psychological identity journey. Two years ago, I met in Cuba, a Cuban woman named Rita who was in her sixties. She had heard of Rita Hayworth. She had heard of Rita Moreno.  And her life story was just as fascinating.  According to Article 44 of the Cuban Constitution, the state guarantees women the same opportunities as men, presumably in order to encourage women’s full participation in the development of the country. Women hold 48.9% of the parliamentary seats in the Cuban National Assembly and women are 61% of the attorneys in the country. Cuban Rita is a lawyer and she would like to someday be a judge. Did you know that 49% of the Cuban judges are women?

With that said, Rita had a good likelihood of reaching her dreams in Cuba. And to think, she was actually born in the United States to Cuban parents. When the Cuban revolution occurred they got on a boat chartered by the Canadian Humanitarian Mission and suffered immense boat sickness for more than a week to get back to Cuba. They wanted to be part of the revolution. They wanted to bring about change. They could have easily stayed in New York but they hungered to be in the motherland. She notes she has never regretted that decision. She had lived in the US until the age of 14. So, in a way she was a reverse 1.5 generation individual. Two years later she was pregnant at the age of 16. That is a complete rarity in Cuba and she was somewhat stigmatized as a result. School curriculum in Cuba emphasizes that the best time to have a child is between the ages of 25 and 35. At 16, she was an extreme outlier. But she still received top services staying a month at one of the maternal care hospitals that take care of high-risk pregnancies. After she gave birth, she went on to continue her education as the educational system is free there and people tend to get multiple degrees (It’s kind of like being a perpetual student there). She is now a lawyer teaching criminology. However, let us be real. She doesn’t earn much for a salary (maybe at most $40 a month). Thus, she also serves as a tour guide who then gets paid by tourists such as me in CUCs (the tourist currency) which is much more highly valued than the peso.

On one morning’s ride to the national school of public health, Rita told us of how she was offered whitening cream. This statement stands in stark contrast to the denial by the public health professors we had just met with, that race is a factor in Cuban society or in health. If healthcare is free for all, they argue, how could race be an issue? Thus they didn’t even collect race data on the medical forms. Yet, Rita talked about how black Cubans were denied entrance to many social clubs back in the day and in order to ease her transition back to Cuba she was offered a chance to de-emphasize some of her features. Sounds a bit like Rita Hayworth, does it not? Yet a tad bit different from Jennifer Lopez who insures and markets her Hispanic derriere.  As Rita mentioned her legal aspirations, she also noted that she was currently single having been married three times already. Divorce seems to be easily attained in Cuba and she felt it was undeniably her right to not be in an unhappy situation, but to instead pursue her private happiness.  There I was again reminded of my grandmother. Cuban Rita noted that there was a bit of an issue with domestic violence and machismo (a term I kind of hate, as it is overused as an explanation for all sort of behaviors), but it was fascinating for me to hear her use the term machismo –a term that I have equated with American Academia. Why again are we pathologizing Hispanic gender roles when said roles occur worldwide?  That is a whole other rant.

The Ritas. Two fascinating women living on the margins of ethnicity trying the best they could to find their way to success and happiness. One can NOT be Latina while also be hyper-Latinized.  That has been my road thus far as well. I hope to return to Cuba one day and meet up with Rita. I would like to ask her for her thoughts on Hispanic derriere marketing.

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