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Originally published in the Latin American Student Affairs Magazine of SIU Carbondale (October, 2022)

By Daniel Rodríguez

For over several decades now, the name of Mexican actress and producer Silvia Pinal has been synonymous with audacity and celebration across multiple media outlets, although, for many moments of her career, her choices weren’t received exactly that way.


On August 29, 2022, Silvia received a state homage at the Mexican Palace of Fine Arts. Mostly known simply as Bellas Artes, the palace is a one-century-old Neo-classic venue that sinks as much as a quarter of an inch per year (due to the once-lake ground in which it stands). The venue is known for hosting high-profile dance, music, and theater performances as well as for its long-standing conservative approach to arts (and its resistance to loosening it). The long-lived grandeur of the venue, though, doesn’t come off easily as a sheer compensation: Pinal, now a 92-year-old woman waving to the audience from the main stage, will go down in the books as one of the most recognizable faces from the golden age of cinema and a pioneer that brought musical comedy to Mexican theaters. She is also, to this day, one of a handful of Mexicans who can credit themselves with having won the prestigious Palme D’Or in Cannes.


Born in 1931, in Guaymas, Sonora, from the affair of then-married radio host Moisés Pasquel and 15-year-old María Luisa Hidalgo, Silvia discovered her passion for performing arts at a young age, debuting in theater at 17. By 21, she was already a mother and had secured a marginal role in “Bamba”, the first of 86 films, 40 theater plays, and 30 television shows.  Silvia’s acting career would reach its peak by 1960 when she went on to star in Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana. In the film, she portrayed an innocent young woman who finds multiple threats to her efforts to help others. In one scene, Silvia recites prayers wearing a crown of thorns. The political content of the film infuriated Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who prohibited its exhibition and ultimately ordered the destruction of every copy. Viridiana only survived through Silvia, who escaped to Mexico with the last copy hidden in her luggage. The movie went on to win the Palme D’Or ex aequo that same year.

It comes as no casualty that she named her first child from her second marriage Viridiana. Viridiana Alatriste passed out at age 19 in a car accident. The episode marked a dark period in Silvia’s personal life, which had its starting point with her marriage to performer Enrique Guzmán. For over five years, they developed a tumultuous relationship that quickly spiraled into frequent episodes of domestic violence. “One time, he showed up at the house with a gun”, she recalls. “He pointed it at me and swears it fired accidentally (…) The bullet passed right next to my head”, she looks back on her memoir. “I spent months hiding and running away from him”. 


It was perhaps the outcome of these experiences that motivated her to develop a tv show on her own in the mid-1980s. Mujer, casos de la vida real (“Woman: real-life cases”), was an anthology telenovela that drew its major plot lines from letters Silvia received from viewers. A precursor of the portrayal of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual harassment, and LGBTQ+ discrimination in televised drama, the show, which ran for 23 years, has proven to age better than equally long-lived counterparts, such as TV Azteca’s Lo que callamos las mujeres (“What we women keep silent”) and Televisa’s La Rosa de Guadalupe (“The rose of Guadalupe”).  


Whether as a diva from the golden age era, as the country’s biggest theater producer and investor, or as a meme in the 2010s (late-tv hostess Silvia holding a letter with the anchor line “join me to watch this sad story”), Silvia rapidly emerges as one of the rare figures in Mexico and Latin America who’s decades-long career testifies of a whimsical capacity to merge the political with the hegemonic, the popular with the  institutional, and controversy with devotion. When asked about the motivations behind the longevity of her career, she responds: “I’ve always loved the feeling of doing something for the first time. First times are always the hardest. They take the longest, require a double effort, and scare us. That’s what makes them unforgettable”.

The Bellas Artes homage makes Silvia eligible for a state funeral inside the venue, an honor she would share with only other 58 equally-ubiquitous figures, such as painter Frida Kahlo and writer Gabriel García Márquez. Out of the 58, Silvia would become the 11th woman on the list, against 47 men.



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