Myrtle Gonzalez was a pioneering Latina actress in the silent film era, admired for her talents and her exotic beauty. Though her career was sadly cut short, Gonzalez’s brief time in the spotlight made her one of the most popular stars of her day. As the film industry’s first major Latina talent, her story is an important part of both Hollywood and Hispanic history.

Early Life and family background

Myrtle Gonzalez was born in Los Angeles, California on September 24, 1891. Her parents, Valentin and Amanda Gonzalez had come to the United States from their native Mexico in the 1880s. Gonzalez grew up alongside her nine siblings in a working-class Mexican-American family. 

Even as a young girl, Gonzalez loved singing and dancing. She joined her church’s choir and appeared in local amateur theater productions. Her stunning looks, talent, and bubbly personality made her stand out from a young age. While attending school, Gonzalez worked a number of part-time jobs, including as a clothing factory worker and department store sales clerk.

The Road to Hollywood

Gonzalez got her first big break in 1911 when she was “discovered” by pioneering film director D.W. Griffith. He cast the 20-year-old aspiring performer in a small role in one of his short films shot in California. This marked the start of Gonzalez’s on-screen career. 

Over the next few years, Gonzalez landed roles in many silent short films and Westerns produced in California. With her long dark hair, bright eyes, and natural beauty, she was in high demand for “exotic” and “ethnic” roles. Gonzalez brought a lively, comedic presence to her parts that made her films popular. 

Rise to Stardom

In 1913, Gonzalez was cast opposite actor J. Warren Kerrigan in a Western feature called Three of a Kind. Though only in a supporting role, Gonzalez made a big impression on audiences with her charming screen presence. Over the next year, she appeared in no less than 27 feature films alongside Kerrigan. Fans clamored for more of the lovely Latina starlet after every release. 

The high quality and popularity of their joint films for the American Film Company led to Gonzalez landing starring roles of her own. She played a range of lead parts, from cowgirls and dance hall girls to Native American and Spanish nobility. Gonzalez’s pretty, somewhat innocent on-screen persona was very appealing to viewers in the 1910s. From 1914-1916, Gonzalez reigned as American cinema’s highest-paid and most-beloved Latina performer.

Fighting Against Typecasting

While audiences adored Gonzalez, she struggled against the ethnic typecasting of Hollywood. Directors refused to consider her for mainstream roles intended for white actresses. Gonzalez was upset over only being cast as stereotypical Latina stock characters. She longed to expand her range with more nuanced, complex women.  

In 1916, Gonzalez signed with diagonal film company Jesse L. Lasky to make six features. One of these, Hell to Pay Austin, stretched the actress a bit in a rare villainous role. But Gonzalez still faced the same kind of typecasting elsewhere. She tried founding her own production company in 1917 with director Edward Sloman. However, they only made two films together before shuttering.  

Personal Life: Out of the Spotlight

Relatively little is known today about Gonzalez’s off-screen life, as she kept a low-profile existence outside of work. In 1916, she married movie director Jesse DeVorska, but they split up within a year. 

Gonzalez was close with her family, providing her parents financial support once she became a star. She was also a lifelong practicing Catholic and regular churchgoer. Accounts describe Gonzalez as well-liked by coworkers, thanks to her professionalism, sense of humor, and lack of Hollywood pretentiousness.   

Sudden Death & Legacy

Sadly, Gonzalez’s stellar rise only makes her early passing at age 25 that much more tragic. While filming The Secret of the Swamp in September 1916, she accidentally stepped on a broken light bulb which severely cut her foot. The injury developed gangrene poisoning that spread, ultimately taking Gonzalez’s life that October.  

Over her brief five-year-long career, Gonzalez acted in 159 shorts and features, wrote 27 original story plots, and directed three films. In the racist mainstream movie world of the 1910s, Gonzalez achieved rare prominence as both Hollywood’s first Latina star and one of the era’s most prolific actresses overall. 

In the 1920s part Latina actress Lupe Velez, Gonzalez served as a groundbreaking inspiration. More recently, she has been rediscovered as an icon for Hispanic women in the arts. Though largely forgotten by the general public today, Gonzalez built crucial early diversity into an industry quite lacking in representation at the time.

Myrtle Gonzalez’s Enduring Legacy

Even over a century after her death, Myrtle Gonzalez’s symbolic legacy lives on in important ways. As Mexican-American and Latino communities continue working towards greater inclusion in politics, culture, and media, Gonzalez serves as an early model of achievement circa Hollywood’s institutional bias days.  

Coming from simple beginnings, Gonzalez broke stereotypes through drive and talent alone. Though typecasting tragically cut short her aspirations of running a movie studio to promote diverse voices, Gonzalez opened doors for positive change over time. Young Hispanic girls today can look to her story as inspiration to keep pushing for their dreams despite prejudice.  

Conclusion

In her short but accomplished career, Myrtle Gonzalez had to cope with many challenges to turn into an attention-grabbing face of the silver screen. Shaking Hollywood early on with her charismatic personality, she became a star of the Silent Era. Although the racist barriers Gonzales got boxed in the corner of her ambitions, she opened the door for greater inclusion to come.

This trailblazing Latina singer-actress remains an important role model for the aspiring Latina creatives to come. Gonzalez followed her dreams and forged her own path despite prejudice. Though forgotten for decades, her achievements merit commemoration as a bold Latina pioneer of early cinema. More than a hundred years later, Myrtle Gonzalez’s legacy continues to empower Hispanic women breaking into Hollywood today.