Why you should care

Because this actor knew how to navigate Hollywood’s racism.

“The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!” That’s what movie posters blared across America. It was 1925, and Ben-Hur was coming to town. We know the story now through many retellings, but at the time, Ben-Hur blew people away. Audiences gasped at spectacular chariot races, and Ramón Novarro shone as Ben-Hur, the grinning, dark-haired hero in a tantalizingly tiny toga.

The film has gone down as one for the ages, but few realized that the hero every white American Christian was compelled to see was actually Mexican. Novarro was one of the first Latino actors to break into Hollywood, and he did it by subverting everyone’s ideas of race.

Novarro knew his race was ambiguous to white American audiences and used that to his advantage.

Ironically, Novarro — like many of the other Latino actors who made it big in early Hollywood — was, by fellow Mexicans’ standards, racially privileged. He could pass as white and came from a wealthy family that originally moved to California to escape the Mexican Revolution. But his dark good looks were a natural fit for what became the stereotypical Hollywood “Latin Lover.”

Part of this fetish for the “exotic” had to do with the times. Waves of immigration in the 1910s and 1920s meant that Americans’ ideas of what made a person “white” were changing fast. Some early Hollywood films about ethnicities now considered white reveal just how ambiguous that category was less than a century ago. The first Scarface movie depicts Italians as violent, primitive and cartoonishly obsessed with spaghetti — a far cry from the smooth Italian-American gangsters in The Godfather or Goodfellas.

But with these newcomers came public fascination with cultures that seemed to challenge definitions of American whiteness. As Novarro’s career soared, so did the popularity of tango and Latin American Broadway shows. And with silent films naturally geared toward passionately over-the-top acting, many casting directors relied on ethnic stereotyping to find big stars.

One such actor was Rudolph Valentino, an Italian heartthrob who changed his name from Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla to sound more ethnically ambiguous. Some Hollywood elites agreed that their friend José Ramón Gil Samaniego, whose family was prominent in Los Angeles, looked just like Valentino — if not a bit more handsome. Ramón soon changed his last name to Novarro and launched his acting career.

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Ramón Novarro and Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, 1931.

Source Goldwyn Mayer / Getty

Like many minority actors, Novarro found himself walking an uncharted line when it came to squaring his race with Hollywood’s idea of an icon. He was fiercely proud of being Mexican, often correcting news outlets that misreported him as Spanish. But he also chose films like Across to Singapore, where he played the brother of white Scottish actor Ernest Torrence, and the self-evidently titled The Arab. Novarro knew his race was ambiguous to white American audiences and used that to his advantage. “This helped [Novarro and other actors] avoid playing grossly stereotyped Latino characters, which were common in U.S. film, such as the bandidos that began to be seen in early silent Westerns,” says Mary Beltrán, an associate professor of radio, television and film at the University of Texas at Austin.

As a result, he took Hollywood by storm, becoming one of the first big Mexican movie stars in the process. Novarro starred alongside leading ladies like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, less-than-discreetly dated the cinema scene’s most handsome young men, and scandalized and delighted in Ben-Hur.

But with show business scrambling to figure itself out, America’s race problems were bound to catch up with Hollywood. Talkies presented a profound crisis for Hollywood’s Latino actors, argues Beltrán. Foreign actors could play race and ethnicity ambiguously in black-and-white, but accents and fluency in English had undeniable racial connotations. “A speaking style associated with middle-class status and lack of identifiable ethnicity came to be associated with desirable notions of American whiteness,” Beltrán explains.

Novarro’s own talkies, like his memorable Mata Hari with Garbo, speak for themselves — though fluent and expressive in English, he spoke with his own accent. As a consequence, his Hollywood career moved in a steady decline a few years after he made his first talkie in 1929. Though Novarro continued to act worldwide and even broke into TV, he never found the longevity of white American leading men like Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney.

In fact, Novarro’s legacy is nearly as much about his death. In 1968, Novarro invited two men, who turned out to be brothers, to his house for sex. They murdered the 69-year-old actor, and the resultant trial featured one of the earliest cases of “gay panic” defense — Novarro’s killers both spent less than 10 years in jail. Though Novarro was never out during his career, his violent end brought his sexuality into the limelight, making him an enduring gay icon.

Ethnic stereotypes are still alive and well in Hollywood, and Mexican actors know it better than most. Star Wars star Diego Luna drew recent criticism from some for keeping his strong Mexican accent as Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, while others lauded his choice as revolutionary.

With fewer than 6 percent of speaking characters currently on film and TV specified as Hispanic or Latino, representation is more important than ever. But Novarro set the stage, challenging Hollywood to do better nearly 100 years ago.

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