He’s dressed in an elegant black tuxedo, projecting the refined charisma expected of a Hollywood leading man. Underneath the glamour, one can still discern the picaresque smile of his other self, the one that millions in Mexico and Latin America have come to know so well; the everyday man of the pueblo; the underdog who at the end of the story prevails over the powerful; the fast-talking pelado who could talk his way out of any kerfuffle by saying a lot without saying anything: Cantinflas.
As this nostalgic video clip of the 1956 “Around the World in 80 Days” premiere attests, Cantinflas shone among Hollywood’s top stars in a luxurious soirée fit for a film that became a box-office hit and received eight Academy Awards. If you’re a Mexican Golden Age film connoisseur, you will immediately spot Fortino Mario Moreno Reyes in two or three shots. These seconds of film captured more than a historic moment. They captured a powerful statement quietly made by the movie star on behalf of the Mexican-American community, one that resonates today.
Billed as one of the top actors in the all-star “Around the World” ensemble that included David Niven and Marlene Dietrich (and a spectacular cameo by Frank Sinatra), Cantinflas stepped back into the spotlight at the 1957 Golden Globe Awards. Of note, the Mexico City native nabbed the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy. Loved by millions of fans in Mexico and Latin America who loved him for iconic films such as “Ahí está el detalle” and the political satire “Si yo fuera diputado,” Cantinflas became the first Mexican to win a Golden Globe years before the Del Toros, Iñárritus and Hayeks graced Hollywood with their talent. His victory was a significant step that carved a pathway for generations of Latino film and television artists in Hollywood.
If we broaden the scope of his accomplishment to include the historical context during which it happened, his victory is transformed from a milestone into a powerful symbol of pride for a community that suffered civil rights violations for decades. The Mexican-American community was also under direct attack in 1954 by politicians who decided to execute the infamous ‘Operation Wetback’ to deport millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. During his big night at the 1957 Golden Globe Awards, Cantinflas, the activist, the philanthropist, the satirist, and defender of the downtrodden, outwitted those who sought to oppress his people. Those who erroneously believed that Mexicans and Hispanics were second-class citizens who did not deserve to stay in this country, scapegoats for imagined fears, likely witnessed Fortino Mario Moreno Reyes, who was born and raised in Mexico City, receive a top Hollywood award for his talent and genius.
Cantinflas’ triumph in the United States is an inspiration that transcends time. We are still fighting against anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric and against policies that oust us from a nation to which we have contributed our work, our talent, and our dreams. The beauty of this historical parallel is that we are all Cantinflas. Every day with our hard work we outsmart those who seek to marginalize us. ¿Cómo la ven desde ahi?