Author(s): Kristy Rawson
My dissertation, A Trans-American Dream: Lupe Vélez and the Performance of Transculturation, documents the career, persona, and cultural memory of the Mexican
actress, Lupe Vélez (1910-1944). My research draws on archives of news, fan, and
film industry discourses produced in the North Americas between 1925 and 1999:
discourses from Mexico, Mexican American Los Angeles, and the Anglo-hegemonic
United States. Thus my analyses extend beyond textual readings of Lupe Vélez films
and screen representations, offering a comprehensive, synthetic understanding of
Vélez’s quintessentially transnational “star text” (Richard Dyer, 1979). A Trans-American Dream shows how Vélez came to signify, within cinematic and public discourse, the Mexican/U.S. “contact zone” (Mary Louis Pratt, 1992). I explore Vélez’s work chronologically, documenting each phase of her career(s) in North America: her celebrity within Mexican popular theater, her stardom in Hollywood silent cinema, her transition to talking pictures, her work on the Broadway stage, her transition to Hollywood B-class comedies, her two Mexican films, her death, and the posthumous appropriation of her story represented in popular discourse and in queer underground film.
My study centers on the notion of performance as both a central quality of Vélez’s professional craft and a concept through which to understand the industrial strategies underlying her representations. Vélez’s varied personae amount to, I argue, a set of industry performances of transculturation. I employ the term transculturation (Fernando Ortiz, 1940), with an emphasis on its double valence, recognizing the distinct operations of her national (Mexican mestiza) and her transnational (Mexican American) instantiations of transculturation. Vélez was deployed––and she deployed herself––on the front lines of multiple discursive battlefields. She came to signify contestations of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and marriage. She fought for her cultural inclusion within industries that mobilized her precisely to publicly “include her out.” Thus in her wake lies
the opportunity to reconsider Hollywood’s historical function as mass-cultural mediator.
My project moves beyond the reductive “Spitfire” characterization––a trope invented for Lupe Vélez in order to define and contain the U.S. Latina image––to reveal Vélez as emblematic of a more profound phenomenon: the creative adaptability that defines her as a truly transcultural agent. This study of Lupe Vélez, a “minor” (and “minority”) star, joins those that seek to broaden the practice of star scholarship by trans-valuing the terms by which we assess individual public prominence.
Name of Periodical: University of Michigan
Year of Publication: 2012
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