Konch Magazine - The Other Hollywood by Alejandro Murguia

The Other Hollywood

                   —Alejandro Murguía


            I’m born in Hollywood but not the Hollywood you’re thinking of. My Hollywood is just north of the one you imagine when someone mentions the town. Instead of stars on the sidewalks, this one has trash, instead of movie studios, this other Hollywood is factories and small businesses, and replacing the mansions you find small stucco houses with an occasional palm tree or citrus tree in the front yard. This is where I was born in an old barrio named Horacasitas, in the shadow of that other Hollywood and it appears on maps as North Hollywood.

            But the other Hollywood, the one of movie stars and mythical theatres, the Chinese, the Egyptian, the Mayan has always intersected with my Hollywood—scenes from “Mildred Pierce” with Joan Crawford were filmed a few blocks away from where I was born. A neighbor bred and trained dogs for movies including Rin-Tin-Tin. Even my grandmother Ramona Lugo—a stern no-nonsense devout Catholic rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby during Sunday Mass at the San Fernando Mission. It was there that Ramona talked the notoriously tight-fisted Crosby into donating $10,000 so that she could get her strong sons to build the chapel of Our Lady of Zapopán, which still stands today on Lankershiem Boulevard.

            Like everyone growing up in Southern California—you couldn’t help but see the influence, good or bad, of Hollywood. It was common in most neighborhoods, including mine, to know someone whose parents worked in the film industry. The father of one friend ran the catering trucks for movie crews, and I remember a truck parked outside their house one summer evening advertising “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” So there was that contact however tenuous with the film industry. Yet it was clear to me even then that Hollywood, the business of making movies, had many different levels to it. I used to wonder where did I fit in this world—so I was always looking for  Mexicans or Chicanos or Latinos in the movies I watched—and even to this day, I read all the credits, looking for where Latino names might appear.

            In those days, growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, one of the big televised events was the Oscars. There was all the glamour, the red carpet, the klieg lights. The anticipation building till finally the opening of that fateful envelope that seemed to hold all the ambition and glory of Hollywood sealed within it. I was naïve. Too bad the Oscars have now turned into a popularity contest amongst a small circle of friends—there’s really no other way to put. The list of such “winners” is so long and embarrassing that it is best not to take up space with it—but everyone knows who they are.

            It was in 1963 while I was still in awe of the Oscars that I had my first view of the destructive aspects of Hollywood. How something as common as making a movie could in fact be deadly. I can clearly recall as I write this the shock of the news—a memory fifty years old—when the great Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz committed suicide at UCLA Medical Center after being diagnosed with cancer. He had contracted the cancer while working on a Hollywood film named “The Conqueror” that had been filmed in large part in a Utah location, unknown to the crew the set toxic with radioactive sand. When he was told that the cancer was terminal he somehow had a Smith & Wesson .38 Special smuggled in and shot himself in the heart.

            It would be years before I would learn of the radioactive sand that had caused Armendáriz to take the short good-bye and turn in his ticket to The Other Hollywood—the one that ends at Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery.

            Later I would also rediscover the history of Lupe Vélez—the first Mexican actress to make it big in Hollywood, and I mean really big. In her first Hollywood movie “The Gaucho” (1926) she steals scene after scene from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the only reason to view the movie now—otherwise forgettable—is for her performance. Her beautiful face would eventually grace the cover of every major movieland magazine, and she would have her share of marriages and whirlwind romances with some of the top stars of that era, but who are not worth mentioning here, just like the many lovers and husbands of Marilyn Monroe rightly deserve obscurity when recalling her name. Both Lupe Vélez and Marylyn Monroe, though great actresses, would be denied any Oscar consideration. And like an unfortunate heroine in a soap-opera telenovela, Lupe Vélez would also take her own life once Hollywood had used and abused her, squeezed the juice out of her like an orange.

            When I think of Hollywood I don’t think of the Oscars or what they might represent, I think of Pedro Armendáriz, Lupe Vélez, Rita Hayworth (Margarita Cansino) and how the industry took everything from them, heart, soul, and body, and returned only their images in celluloid and the memory of their talent and greatness. So when I turned on the Oscars this year—as a sort of exercise in nostalgia for a Hollywood that no longer exists and the host whose name I forget made a joke about there being only one Latino in this year’s ceremonies—the stunningly beautiful Salma Hayek—I can’t help but thinking of Hollywood as this exclusive mostly white country club, but I also wondered about Salma’s own back story, coming to Hollywood and rising to the top, though she also admits having spent time here after her visa had run out—in other words undocumented, which I hate to say, is the story of Latinos in Hollywood, basically undocumented, their stories and contributions I mean.

            Even now—as a group of independent producers and actors attempt to turn one of my short stories into a movie “The Other Barrio” about arson, gentrification, violence, murder, in the Mission District, the shadow of that other Hollywood looms quite large over the production. Hollywood is not interested in this story—and why should they be? The single most important issue affecting Latinos across the country, the gentrification of our neighborhoods, from Silver Lake to Echo Park to Austin to the Mission is totally absent from the silver screen. Yet Los Angeles and Hollywood are cities mostly filled with Latinos and now a days California itself is over fifty percent Latino—so it is better for Hollywood to fantasize a world where Latinos are relegated as usual to the back rooms, editing rooms, the secondary roles, gangsters and other lowlifes, with an occasional positive figure, once in a blue moon.

            But we are a tenacious community, and one way or another, sooner or later our stories will be told, and we will get our recognition as artists even if we have to create our own Oscars, or maybe we will call them Lupes, in honor of Lupe Vélez. And Hollywood, its Janus face, the smiling one that is presented to the bankers and the angry face that is directed at the rest of us will be forced to reveal what hides behind the mask, something we already know—Hollywood is a movie set, with just the facades and nothing behind it, a cardboard city, for cardboard people that make cardboard movies. And the Oscars of that other Hollywood, the one south of where I was born? Well it goes without saying.