Lupe Finds Me
As I write this our nation’s health crumbles, our Black community hurts, and the rest of us are finally starting to wake up and stand up against the violence inflicted upon Black people across the United States. Much of this piece at first reflected on how the pandemic and its trauma was stopping me from writing until I discovered Lupe Vélez, a famous Mexican Actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’ve slightly revised the piece and this intro in order to consider the context of today, May 31, 2020 because in the few days since I’ve written this piece, more Black people have been killed, more protesters have been jailed, maced, tear gassed, and shot…all during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since quarantine, during moments I couldn’t write, I pondered the usual writer-crisis questions: why do I write? Who do I write for? What purpose does my work serve? And so on. These questions are sometimes funny to me, as they can easily be coded as “productive distractions” from doing the work itself. However, I now think they are more urgent than ever, and no longer funny at all. I’m curious about what theater will look like once we return from this pandemic, but I hope that it looks different. We are experiencing a revolution, one which is asking us how we can dismantle the current White supremacist world we live in so that we live in a truly liberated, peaceful world, one in which Black and Trans people are no longer murdered by police, one in which White and non-Black POC are on the frontlines fighting along with Black folk, one in which Whiteness no longer holds power and capital.
I hope the theatrical landscape that comes after this works towards that. If it doesn’t, then I don’t want to participate in it.
I’ve wrestled with this piece for the last few days, thinking about where Lupe’s story and mine fits in with all of this. The play I’m currently writing inspired by her life story is no longer simply about her story, but what her story means during this period of revolution. Though Lupe was consistently cast in stereotypical roles, her art saved her life time and time again, just like me. Perhaps the challenge of this piece is not only about honoring Lupe’s voice and story, but also honoring the countless other Mexican, Latinx, Asian, Black, Queer, and Disabled artists whose art continues to be limited by the White world in which they have to live in.
As you read, you’ll see the pieces are still coming together in this. I’m thrilled by this work, both the play and the following meditation on process, because I’m still not entirely sure of what I’m looking at. Perhaps it means that this story is not for this world, but maybe for a liberated one. I fight so that it comes soon.
Love and Peace,
As of late, the white page has looked like a wall to me, not a canvas, and one that towers over me. Only since finding Lupe’s story has it begun to look like a canvas again. It is only with her help that I find the strength in picking up the brush once more.
I was rounding out my first year of grad school as we went into quarantine. I was finishing a draft of a semi-autobiographical play about being sexually abused during my teens. My exhaustion – physical, mental, emotional – was beginning to overwhelm me, and I felt my other projects and deadlines begin to loom over me. The I got sick. Took more than a month to recover. A family friend passed, another went to the hospital. Personal relationships ground, frustrated, then froze. I saw my people and Black people continue to be killed at disproportionate rates across this country, from both hatred and the virus. Time continued to escape me. I stopped writing.
It takes me a long time, but as soon as I begin to feel better, the voice tells me that it is time to go back to the page, it is time to being to paint again.
You need it, it’ll make you feel better. Try it. It’ll heal you, it’ll help you understand. I’m reluctant to listen but I do. Small strokes at first, but they all lead to nothing.
Morning after morning. I find nothing. And then nothing in the evening. Nothing after meditation. Nothing after reading. Nothing after running. After praying. After bathing. After cooking. After cleaning. After crying. Nothing nothing nothing!
The voice speaks to me again one morning as I’m trying to write a play about my mermaids, still stuck on the first image, dozens of sketches scattered elsewhere in my journals or desktop. At first I only hear her giggling. Then, as I attempt to rewrite the opening scene between my two mermaid characters, she bursts into this ridiculous, infectious laugh, right in my ear. I felt insulted.
What the fuck is so funny, I ask her.
You don’t really want to write about mermaids, now, do you?
Okay I really don’t, I confess. I don’t know what I want to write about, though.
You should write about me.
Me? And who’s me?
I don’t know then, and won’t know until days later.
One morning I’m on YouTube doing research for my supposed mermaid play and I stumble across a video of hers. I’ve gone down a weird rabbit hole of clips of “great” performances, a guilty pleasure and learning tool of mine.
In a comments section, I see someone mention Lupe Velez. I look her up, find a video, click the link and find a Mexican actress from the 40s impersonating other White actresses of her time, imitating their feigned Mid-Atlantic accent. I dig in more. I find that she was one of the few Mexican actor who transitioned from the silent pictures to the talkies and maintained her authentic accent. I look up another video. It’s a clip from The Girl from Mexico. Lupe’s character, Carmelita, is cheering at a rodeo, ignoring the man standing next to her who pleads and pleads for her love. I start to laugh – that’s how you ignore a man. Take notes, Edwin.
Suddenly, I’m not alone again. She’s laughing.
That’s me. She says. That’s me.
Talk to me, I say.
I don’t think it would be fair to try to summarize Lupe’s life into a single essay, let alone a single paragraph. Many people remember her as one of the first great Mexican actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Others remember her as the Mexican Spitfire, or the Hot Pepper, all derogative names poking fun at her ethnicity and temper. Some in the Latinx community, including Rita Moreno, criticize her as being the originator of the “Hot Headed Latina” trope.
(They don’t know the whole story, she says)
Some remember her as the woman who tried to shoot her partner, Gary Cooper.
(I missed. And I wasn’t happy about it.)
Some remember her from the old Hollywood legend of the movie star who died with her head in the toilet.
(This, she wants me to say, is a damn lie.)
She died in bed, in her sleep, of her own volition, pregnant with her first child.
(We went to God, she says).
Lupe appears to me when I write her. She’s not a figure, not a ghost. Yet she’s physically present to me all the time. She sings, she talks, she whispers, she laughs, she dances. Always close, and yet too far to reach her.
You and me are not so different, she told me once.
I was wiping tears away, pacing my room, going through a rather intense writing meditation on Lupe’s relationship with her mother. From research, I found that the rift between them started when Lupe was sent to a convent at twelve years old. An older man loved her. Lupe thought she was in love. Her mother thought she was rebelling. No one paid attention to the fact that Lupe had been abused by that man. Misunderstandings grew into fights with harsh words and harsh objects. Grew into a border separating her and her family. Grew into a language neither one knew to speak. Then became silence between the two.
At 17 years old, after finding a job in Hollywood, Lupe never went back home. She claims in one of her final interviews she was never enough for her mother.
By the end of the meditation, my head was in my lap and I was sobbing furiously.
You and me are not so different. That’s why you found me, she says.
I felt her put a hand on my back. She somehow knew my own relationship with my mother wasn’t distant from hers. She was somehow teaching me a lesson I’m still learning – about how silence in a relationship does not come from an absence of talking, but rather comes from an absence of love. I’m not saying that is the current state of my relationship with my mother. But silence has existed in the past. Lupe’s story struck a chord with mine. I felt it, a tightening in my chest.
I’m glad I found you too, I tell her.
Now I never said I was glad I found you.
Laughing and crying in one sitting. Feels good, doesn’t it? She says.
What do I say though? I ask her after a long, long time.
About what, she responds.
About your life?
I’ve been unsure about reflecting on my process with Lupe because there is still so much I do not know about her life. I’m not a believer of stories, documentaries or biographies capturing a single life. I think it’s impossible – the unrecorded is as true and valid as the recorded, and yet it’s unknown. These works might capture the essence of a life, but they can’t capture the actual life.
As I am writing this, I can hear Lupe telling me that I am wrong.
How, I ask her.
You don’t have to capture my entire life. You just have to honor it.
But how? How?
That needs to come from you, no? She laughs. Is this my play or yours?
Mine, I laugh. This shit is hard though.
Don’t I know it, she says.
Another morning comes. The sun is just starting to crack through my window. I’ve bathed, lotioned my body, tried on three different dresses, beat my face, wiped it off, beat it again, taken a small hit, sipped my coffee, breathed and breathed and breathed then danced and danced across my room, trying to find her again before I write.
Why is it that you do all of that? she says.
This whole process – why are you doing that to find me? I’m right here.
It makes it easier to talk to you.
I feel more like myself. I think you appreciate that about me.
See, I wink at her. You inspire me.
To write a play is to build a world with the many pieces of it that we find along the way. I find pieces of Lupe everywhere, even in my own story, even in the places that hurt to look. The trick is that not all of the pieces fit even when I think they do, and that some pieces fit even when I don’t know why.
There’s no formula, no recipe, no guide. It’s just finding and building and then observing and then tweaking, taking down, building again. One day after another. Research sketching cursing reading drinking research sketching walking talking cursing crying research sketching building writing writing yes writing. Finally – I feel like I’m writing again.
One morning, before I open up the page, I go to watch a clip of Lupe performing. I do this when I feel like I’m losing her, when she’s not there.
I stumble upon a video breaking down a race for the 1940 Academy Award for Best Actress, only a couple years before Lupe’s death. It happens to be first ceremony in which the ballot was secret, the birthing ceremony for the phrase: “May I have the envelope, please?” This is also the ceremony that precedes the one in which Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her work in Gone with the Wind.
We watch her speech, and then we also watch President FDR give a speech about the importance of movies in a pre-world War II society, one full of panic, privilege, violence and racism, not unlike mine.
I continue researching and find that this is the same year in which Lupe was contracted to do her Mexican Spitfire films for RKO studio – a series of eight films in which she is contracted to portray a hotheaded, sexual, silly Mexican woman newly married to a Wall Street banker from a racist, vengeful, aristocratic family.
What if I had won one of those things, she jokes after a while.
But for that role? Never.
No one respected me.
The short version has always been that Lupe perpetuated the stereotype by playing these characters. The longer version becomes one that contextualizes her life and her work – that performing was the thing that saved her life since she was born – pulled her out of her depression – relocated her away from her hurtful family – gave her a sense of purpose in a new country where these were the only roles being offered to her.
No one respected me. I felt so alone, she repeats.
The dots connect in my mind quickly. Suddenly a bird is singing a sad tune out of my window. Suddenly Lupe is matching it. They sing together. A tree grows from nowhere. A swing hangs down from a long branch. A garden builds around it. Her many pets run in. She stands in the middle. She holds a gold statue.
There you are!
I reach her in her garden. She sits somewhere and begins to cry.
She doesn’t answer me.
What happened? Why did you leave us?
She doesn’t answer me.
Lupe, I don’t want you to go through more pain. But I need to know.
She turns to me. I don’t want to go through any more pain.
I promise you won’t.
I want a happy ending, she says.
You get one.
I’d like a funny one, too.
I’ll try my best.
What do I say though? I finally ask her.
About your life?
Suddenly, the world shifts a little. A light focuses on us. An orchestra begins to play. I feel like we’re being watched. We hold still for a moment, then I look around, recognizing where we are.
And so we begin.
Edwin Rosales was born in Guatemala and raised in Connecticut. At the center of their work are questions surrounding familial love and citizenship, inherited trauma, history and its revision, all asked through their Queer Latinx perspective. They are currently pursuing their MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and hold a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Princeton University.
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