“People say I am a terrible flirt. You know what made me that way? American pictures! They show a girl how to vamp!” –Lupe Vélez
In examining the various Hispanic stars who shone in Hollywood, the name Lupe Vélez continues to be worth celebrating. Dubbed “the Mexican Spitfire”, Vélez was a notable actress, comedian, singer, and dancer of Mexican origin, who sadly met a tragic end at an early age.
Born María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez on July 18, 1908, in San Luis Potosí City to Colonel Jacobo Villalobos Reyes and opera singer Josefina Vélez, she was one of five children in a prominent family. When Vélez turned 13, she was sent to school at Our Lady of the Lake in San Antonio, Texas, where she learned to speak English and dance. Dance soon became a higher priority to Vélez and she started to perform in Mexican revues during the 1920s.
Though she initially performed under her real name, her father was angry about this, leading her to take on her maternal surname: Vélez. In 1925, she starred in various reviews, with her provocative shimmy and songs attracting the attention of audiences. On a professional front, she joined the Teatro Principal but was fired for a fiery attitude. Instead, she found employment and a higher salary at the Teatro Lirico.
Upon an audience member’s recommendation to stage director Richard Bennett, father of Joan and Constance Bennet, the director contacted Vélez via telegram and invited her to Los Angeles to appear in his play as a Mexican cantina singer. By the time she got there, she found she was replaced by another actress. While there, she met comedian Fanny Brice, who recommended her to Flo Ziegfeld. Vélez hired her to perform in New York City, as a result. As fate would have it, while she was readying herself to leave Los Angeles, she was contacted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced Harry Rapf, who requested a screen test from her. Producer Hal Roach saw the test and hired her for the Laurel and Hardy short Sailors, Beware! (1927).
Vélez continued to appear in shorts until she tested for a role in the Douglas Fairbanks film The Gaucho (1927). She was cast in the film and garnered positive reviews alongside a star who was already quite popular. By the next year, she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars.
While Vélez was typecast as an exotic woman, gossip columnists came up with various nicknames for her, including, “Mexican Hurricane”, “The Mexican Wildcat”, “The Mexican Madcap”, “Whoopee Lupe” and “The Hot Tamale”.
Nonetheless, Vélez possessed a true talent that shone beyond these nicknames and withstood the difficult transition from silent to sound films. While other stars with accents did not fare as well, Vélez’s performance in her first all-talking film, Tiger Rose (1929), was a success for not only her but also her co-star, Rin Tin Tin.
Reeling from this success, she plunged into a series of Pre-Code Films and crime dramas. In addition to carrying out supporting roles and appearances in sound remakes of silent films, she also worked in Spanish-language versions of some of her films produced by Universal Studios. Though exposed to working in a wide variety of genres, she became well-known for her work in comedies.
Though she initially did not get to work with Ziegfeld, here time to collaborate with him came in 1932 with the New York City musical revue Hot-Cha!, alongside Bert Lahr, Eleanor Powell, and Buddy Rogers. Soon enough, Vélez became a reputable actress of both the stage and screen, working back and forth between the two mediums. She would make her final Broadway appearance in the 1938 musical, You Never Know, by Cole Porter.
In the same year, she traveled to Mexico City to star in her first Mexican film, La Zandunga (1938). Upon her arrival, she was greeted by 10,000 fans. Though the film was a success and she was to appear in four more Mexican films, she returned to Los Angeles and worked for RKO Pictures. There, she appeared in the Mexican Spitfire film series, leading to a total of eight films. In the series, she plays a Mexican singer named Carmelita Lindsay, who is married to an American man. As a result of the films’ successes and the other films she worked on at the same time, she was frequently in the headlines.
In 1944, Vélez would return to Mexico City to appear in Nana (1944), which would be her final film. One the filming ended, she returned to Los Angeles to prepare for a role in New York but her performance there would not come to pass. Throughout her life, Vélez coped with several tempestuous romances, including relationships with John Gilbert, Johnny Weissmuller, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, and more. On December 13, 1944, Vélez took a fatal dose of Seconal and a glass of brandy and was found dead by her secretary the next morning. A suicide note alluding to an ill-fated romance with actor Harald Ramond was found nearby. Vélez was allegedly pregnant felt that she would rather kill herself than have an abortion. Other theories surrounding her death cite bouts of mania and depression, in addition to other untreated mental illnesses. Vélez was 36 years old.
A funeral was held for Vélez at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Afterwards, her remains were sent to Mexico City for a second service and interment at the Panteón Civil de Dolores Cemetery/
Today, there are tributes to Vélez in her native country and in the United States. She is at rest among other luminaries at the Panteón Civil de Dolores Cemetery in Mexico City, not far from Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio, for whom the cemetery is named.
In her San Luis Potosí hometown visitors will find a historic marker and bust in her honor. The translation of the text on the marker reads as follows:
Tribute to the diva Lupe Vélez and her career as the first Mexican in the Mecca of Cinema.
San Luis Potosí, 1904 – Beverly Hills, 1944
San Luis Potosí, Mexico, November 2017
The bust was sculpted by Emilio Borjas in 2017 and is located in the Garden of San Sebastian, in the neighborhood where Vélez was born.
In the United States, Vélez has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6927 Hollywood Boulevard.
Whether visiting Mexico or Hollywood as well as watching her films, Vélez deserves to be discussed and remembered to this day.