Monday, February 6, 2023

Q&A with Bárbara Mujica




Bárbara Mujica is the author of the new historical novel Miss Del Río. It focuses on the life of actress Dolores del Río (1904-1983). Mujica's other books include the novel Frida. She is a professor emerita of Spanish at Georgetown University, and she lives in Bethesda, Maryland. 


Q: In Miss Del Río’s Author’s Note, you write that you first became interested in Dolores del Río while researching a novel about Frida Kahlo. What initially intrigued you about del Río?


A: Frida Kahlo and Dolores del Río were friends, members of the same circle of writers, artists, and filmmakers. Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, painted a portrait of Dolores del Río, and Frida once sent Dolores (known as Lola) a painting, which Lola thought was a gift, but for which Frida later charged her. (This was typical of Frida, who was often in need of money: She would gift her friends paintings and then send them a bill!)


Lola is a minor character in my novel Frida, but I thought she merited a novel of her own. She was a perfect foil for Frida. Frida was brash, rude, and vulgar. She loved to shock people. In the U.S., she would sometimes go to a party and greet the hostess with an obscenity. When the woman winced, Frida would say something like: “Oh, excuse me, I thought that meant ‘Good evening’ in English.”


In contrast, Dolores del Río cultivated an image of elegance. She respected social decorum. She tried to avoid scandal—although her affair with Orson Welles did become food for the gossip columnists.


Both Frida and Lola came from comfortable Mexican homes, but they were very different. Frida had a terrible relationship with her mother, but was close to her father, Wilhelm. When she came down with polio, it was Wilhelm who gave her boys’ toys—balls, a bicycle—to play with in order to build up her strength.


A photographer, he took her on long walks and pointed out the beauties of nature. He taught her the elements of composition. As a foreigner, Wilhelm was socially marginalized in ultra-nationalistic post-Revolutionary Mexico, and it was perhaps natural that Frida cultivated being different. She wore long Tehuana skirts to cover her orthopedic shoe, but also to attract attention to herself and defy social norms.


I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that her rebelliousness may have been one way of rejecting her mother’s traditional Catholic values. Lola, on the other hand, was extremely close to her mother, Antonia. Although she was divorced twice, Lola dreaded disappointing her mother, who, in the end, was very understanding about Lola’s liaisons.


Both Frida and Lola were resilient women, but Frida made a great show of her suffering; it was the theme of nearly all of her paintings. Lola did not suffer from debilitating physical ailments as Frida did, but she faced numerous obstacles and setbacks in her life.


She was married to Jaime del Río when she was only 16. Later, she suffered a miscarriage that left her unable to bear children. In those days, Mexican women of her social class were expected to produce children, and Lola had dreamed of raising a family. However, instead of being devastated, she launched a career in Hollywood.


At first, her faulty English was not a problem because films were silent, but when talkies were introduced in 1927, many actors—including native English-speakers—left Hollywood. However, Lola made the transition easily by always playing foreigners.


With the Great Depression at home and the rise of Nazism and Stalinism in Europe, xenophobia exploded in the United States. Foreign actors could no longer get good roles. Mexicans were especially vulnerable because of the Communist leanings of the Mexican Revolution, and Lola was accused of “un-American activities.” Finally, she returned to Mexico, where she became a key figure in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.


They called Lola La Gatita (the little cat) because she always managed to land on all four paws and keep going. I think this resilience is what drew me to her most.  


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: There are several good books about Dolores del Río: A trilogy in Spanish by David Ramón; Linda B. Hall’s Dolores del Río: Beauty in Light and Shade; and Joanne Hershfield’s The Invention of Dolores del Río.


I also read several books about early Hollywood and filmmaking, biographies of Lola’s cousin Ramón Novarro and her friend Marlene Dietrich, as well as newspaper articles and movie reviews. I included a bibliography at the end of the novel in a section called “Resources.” As an academic, I couldn’t resist mentioning my sources.


What surprised me was Lola’s decision at the end of her life to start a chain of daycare centers for the children of women in the film and theater industries. At the time, nothing like this existed in Mexico or elsewhere, for that matter.


Women who worked in the studios in menial positions such as carpenter, cook, janitor, or seamstress were usually from remote areas. In the villages, they had a support system—mothers, sisters, cousins, or friends who could take care of their children while they worked. In the city, they had to leave their children in guarderías, where one adult without training might be in charge of 40 toddlers and babies.

Lola took the establishment of daycare centers very seriously. She read the books of Maria Montessori, raised money, and hired trained teachers. Her goal was to create a nurturing environment for these children and to give them a good start in life. She’d always said that beauty was not just your outer appearance, but your inward goodness. By starting these centers, she showed that she was more than just a pretty face.


Q: How did you create your character Mara, and how would you describe the relationship between her and Lola?


A: I grew up in Los Angeles, and many of my friends had parents in the entertainment industry or went into it themselves. Although a star’s life seems exciting, I don’t believe it actually is. Judging from what I observed, actors go from one audition to another, one role to another, one party to another, and sometimes, one lover to another. Just telling Lola’s story would have been repetitive and boring. In fact, I deleted several of her love affairs from the original manuscript.


Furthermore, few people can identify with that kind of life. I needed to create a character who was close to Lola but also different from her, someone who led a more average life, someone with whom readers could identify.


Mara is a hair stylist—they called them “beauticians” or “beauty operators” back then—who is married with four children. Unlike Lola, who is wealthy and childless, Mara has to juggle a job and childrearing. She is affected by world events: the Depression that obliterates her income; the polio epidemic that menaces her children; the war that robs her of her husband.


Lola and Mara are close—they’ve known each other since childhood—but Lola is wrapped up in her own career, while Mara is constantly with others. Lola does help Mara whenever she can. For example, she gives Mara a job when she’s out of work, she pays for the medicines Mara’s daughter needs, and when Mara’s husband dies, Lola brings Mara to Mexico. Finally, when Mara begins to search for her mother, Lola and Antonia do everything they can to help.


However, Lola often makes unreasonable demands on Mara. Sometimes Mara complies, but sometimes she stands up to her friend and refuses to be bossed around. Their relationship is one of mutual love and respect, but it has its ups and downs. When Lola becomes too demanding, Mara has to put her foot down.


While Mara doesn’t envy Lola, Lola does envy Mara. It was clear to me from reading biographies of Dolores del Río that she wanted to make a real contribution to society. She wasn’t satisfied making silly Hollywood comedies. She wanted to be a serious actress and make socially relevant films.


When she returned to Mexico, she finally had the chance to do that, but before then, she felt that her work was entertaining, but irrelevant. In the book, Lola mentions repeatedly that Mara, by raising a family and contributing to the future, is actually doing something more worthwhile than she.    


Mara is based on my own mother, who was a beautician and worked in shops like the ones Mara works in. Miss Kathy and Mr. Edmund, the owners of one of them, are based on real people, as is the customer, Mrs. Carver.


Q: You write, “Merely to describe the life of Dolores del Río would have produced a biography (not a novel) devoid of the personal perspective...necessary to make the character come alive.” Can you say more about the balance between history and fiction in your work?


A: My first version of Miss del Río was written in the third person, but I felt that the protagonist was too distant, too hard to relate to. I am always careful to recount the historical facts as accurately as possible, but a novel requires more than facts.


I asked myself: What would it be like to know someone like Dolores del Río? Someone who leads a glamorous life, who has elegant clothes and attends fancy parties, whose name is up in lights and whose face is featured in magazines? Mara allowed me to explore those issues.


But Mara serves another purpose as well. Whenever we write fiction, especially fiction that takes place in the past, we have to be aware that we are not describing our own reality. We are always filtering events through our particular lived experience. Biofiction is especially tricky because we cannot know what someone else was thinking or feeling.


Mara allowed me to add the element of subjectivity that, in my opinion, is essential to biofiction. By making Mara the narrator, I’m not saying “Lola said this,” but “Mara says that Lola said this.” This technique removes the author from the role of omniscient chronicler.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m a little superstitious, so please forgive me if I don’t answer this question right now.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: It might be interesting for your readers to know that I’m a professor emerita at Georgetown University and continue to do scholarly writing. My latest academic book, Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform (a long way from Miss del Río!) just won the GEMELA Award for best book of the year on early modern Hispanic women.


People often ask me how I can continue doing historical research while writing fiction, but the truth is, each genre enriches the other. I often use the information I find in obscure archives in my fiction, and writing novels makes me more mindful of the details of everyday life I find in archives.


I would also like to share my own website and that of Miss del Río:


Many thanks to you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Miss del Río and related topics.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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