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How Margarita Cansino Became Rita Hayworth

Hayworth navigated identity, ethnicity and transformation throughout her career

Rita Hayworth in 'Gilda.' (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

By the time Margarita Cansino made it big, she’d transformed.

Cansino, AKA Rita Hayworth, AKA an all-American “love goddess,” was born on this day in 1918. After being discovered in a Mexican nightclub, she went on to become one of the 1940s’ most famous stars and a pinup icon for World War II soldiers. To reach this status, she changed her name and her appearance in many ways that seemed to obscure her Latina roots–but the story is more complicated than that.

Although modern readers might be surprised to hear that Rita Hayworth was Hispanic, her heritage was common knowledge during the years of her stardom, writes Erin Blakemore for JStor Daily. “Transformation was always a part of Hayworth’s appeal,” Blakemore writes.

In the process of becoming Rita Hayworth, Margarita Carmen Cansino went through a number of transformations–from her name to a makeover that “eliminated most traces of her ethnicity,” Blakemore writes. But studios highlighted the diets, the painful treatments to change her hairline and the name change–Hayworth was her Irish-American mother’s maiden name–as evidence of her value.

At the same time, Blakemore writes that Hayworth’s ethnicity was a big part of the reason behind her stardom, even though it appears that she turned away from it. Her identity “gave her a path to stardom because it allowed her to mix wholesomeness and sex appeal,” Blakemore writes. This mix allowed her to earn the title of “American Love Goddess,” writes scholar Adrienne L. McLean.

An important area where Cansino/Hayworth’s Latina identity shone through was dance, writes author Priscilla Peña Ovalle. Even though she’d undergone a full “glamour makeover” by the studio, transforming in on-screen appearance from a visibly Latina person to a white one, she continued to dance in a manner that was seen as sexualized, "ethnic" and, to Fred Astaire at least, more appealing than the dance of other stars. Astaire, with whom she starred in two films, said she was his favorite dance partner.

“As a Cansino, Rita found that dance was an expected and compulsory part of her racialization as an ethnic dancer or cantina girl in Hollywood; as Hayworth, dance primarily functioned as a measure and limit of her characterization,” writes Ovalle. “When Rita was paired with Fred Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), her sensual dance style was reborn as a talent unexpected from an all-American girl.”

A complicated a mix of ethnicity and transformation helped make Hayworth a high-value star in the Hollywood studio system. Although her personal life was laced with tragedy, she successfully walked a line in her career, one that historians continue to study to see the roots of Hollywood’s complicated relationship with race.

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