Marilyn Monroe’s Mexican Origin Story

Marilyn Monroe, in a bold affirmation of identity, poses dressed as a china poblana, the costume of Mexicanidad.

Marilyn Monroe’s Mexican Origin Story

When Marilyn Monroe wanted to become a movie star, she had to reinvent herself. The first thing, she was told, was her name. It wasn’t glamorous. The name that appears on her birth certificate would never be in bright lights on a theater marquee. Norma Jeane Mortenson thus became Marilyn Monroe. The second matter was how her “brand” would be presented to the American public. She was born in California, a sensuous Gemini born in June, just as the nation anticipates the heat of a sultry summer.

But. … But the fact that her mother had been born in Mexico meant that, by heritage, Marilyn Monroe was a Latina. Hollywood would have none of it. The United States was — and remains — a white-majority nation, with most people tracing heir ancestry to Europe. Americans identified with the founding Anglo-American fathers. Many Americans, like Anglophiles the world over, default to the identity of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had founded the nation and guided its development.

Hollywood was pragmatic about changing the identities of promising stars to appeal to the all-American fantasy of mainstream America. Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff became Doris Day. Lucille Fay LeSueur became Joan Crawford. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Frances Ethel Gumm became Judy Garland. Dino Paul Crocetti became Dean Martin. Archibald Alec Leach became Cary Grant. Joseph Yule, Jr., became Mickey Rooney. The list runs into thousands of Hollywood actors whose ethnic-sounding names were changed to sound pleasing to the ear of the American public.[1]

In Marilyn Monroe’s case, Hollywood approached the marketing of her identity in the same manner that had been employed with other Hispanics. They were either exotic stars from Latin America — Dolores del Río, Ricardo Montalbán, or María Félix — or they were transformed into “all-American” matinee idols. That’s how Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth and Raquel Tejada became Raquel Welch.

Marilyn Monroe’s success would depend on hiding her Mexican family origins.

This was savvy marketing, considering the nation’s demographics. In 1940, 89.9 percent of Americans were white. Almost half a century later, at the onset of America’s grand social experiment with multiculturalism in 1980, 83.0 percent of the American people were still white.[2] The fundamental WASP character of the American nation encouraged assimilation into the mainstream of the nation’s life by identifying with the imaginary narrative that everyone is somehow connected with one of the Puritans who disembarked from the Mayflower on November 11, 1620, at the tip of Cape Cod.

Marilyn Monroe was presented as a “California girl,” a Hollywood myth that became universally accepted. Even today, biographies note that her mother’s family came from the Midwest — failing to mention that her maternal family immigrated to Mexico during the farm failures that ravaged the Midwest in the 1890s.

American immigration to Mexico was not unusual two centuries ago. That’s how Tejas became Texas. Mexico always welcomed immigrants from the world over. Over the centuries, for instance, many persecuted religious minorities — from German Mennonites to American Mormons, from Sephardic Jews to Lebanese Maronite Christians — established themselves in Mexico. It has also welcomed peoples wishing to build better lives for themselves, whether they were Chinese immigrants who arrived aboard the Manila galleons that sailed between Manila and Acapulco from 1565 to 1815, or Americans fleeing slavery or poverty.[3]

Marilyn Monroe’s maternal grandparents arrived in Mexico after a series of droughts in the 1890s created hardships for grain farmers in the Midwest. Otis Elmer Monroe and his wife, Della Mae Hogan, Marilyn Monroe’s grandparents, settled in the border town of Porfirio Díaz, today known as Piedras Negras.

The family assimilated to the northern Mexican life of ranching and farming. The Mexican vaquero tradition, which evolved in the nineteenth century, and became the origins of the American cowboy, was familiar to them. The Monroe family prospered in the rugged desert town. They built decent lives for themselves, embracing the regional border culture. Gladys Pearl was born in 1902, Marion three years later. Gladys Pearl and Marion grew up speaking English and Spanish, fully assimilated into the Mexican norteño life along the border. Gladys Pearl was Marilyn Monroe’s mother.


Despite demands from studio executives, Marilyn Monroe, discreetly, embraced her Mexican heritage, which she kept secret from the public. She became conversant in Spanish, though not fluent, a fact that made handlers at 20th Century Fox nervous; on her many trips to Mexico they wanted her to pretend she didn’t understand the language, lest there be a newsreel of her speaking Spanish, an event that would spoil the fantasy of who she was to the American people.

The star played along with the studio executives’ requests. She was more concerned with her career than running afoul of her handlers. She was a rising star and understood the importance of discipline. In 1953, in fact, she starred in three films that established her reputation: Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire. During this eventful year, her romance with baseball great Joe DiMaggio took off. They married in January 1954. It lasted less than a year. Two years later, in June 1956, she married playwright Arthur Miller. They divorced in Mexico in January 1961.

In between failed marriages, in 1955 she formed her company to take greater control over her career, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). After this act of independence she began to embrace openly her Mexican heritage. She traveled more frequently to Mexico, particularly Baja California and the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Bars in Ciudad Juárez were popular among the Hollywood elite during Prohibition; she would join Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on barhopping trips in the desert.

When she visited Mexico City a few months later, in February 1962, Marilyn reclaimed her Mexican identity. She visited Luis Buñuel on the set of “El angel exterminador,” or “The Exterminating Angel,” and met Silvia Pinal. She was serenaded by mariachis while enjoying tacos at El Taquito restaurant. Emilio “El Indio” Fernández hosted a cocktail party for her. She visited the pyramids of Teotihuacan and climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. When a reporter at the Continental Hilton Hotel asked her if she could fall in love with a Mexican actor, in flawless Spanish, she replied, “¿Y por qué actor? ¡Con un mexicano basta!” (“Why an actor? A Mexican is enough!”)

José Bolaños met Marilyn Monroe in Mexico City. They ran off to Acapulco and a month later he escorted her to the Golden Globes ceremonies in Los Angeles.

She had traveled to shop for furniture for her new home, but she ended up falling in love when she met José Bolaños, a producer and writer. They had a mad love affair, running away to Acapulco when Acapulco was the place frequented by glamorous couples, among them Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, for passionate days. Bolaños, smitten, flew to Los Angeles the following month to escort her to the 1962 Golden Globe ceremonies. Hollywood was abuzz over the gossip of her new “Latin lover,” a renowned international playboy who married Venetia Vianello, an Italian actress.[4]

Marilyn Monroe wasn’t a tourist in Mexico, of course. She was deliberate in reclaiming her Mexican heritage. It is telling that she posed wearing a china poblana dress for a photo shoot. This costume — a blouse embroidered with floral or geometric designs in bright colors; a skirt, called a castor, worked with sequins and floral motifs; a band to fasten the skirt to the torso; a silk shawl, or rebozo, used to ostentatious effect; satin shoes embroidered in silk; and elaborate necklaces, and earrings — became the traditional dress of Mexican women, representative of the various cultural influences that comprise the modern Mexican identity.

Marilyn Monroe chose to assume the multicultural identity of the Mexican nation as a bold affirmation of affinity and identity.

Hispanic culture is welcoming in that way, both of those reclaiming a heritage and of aficionados, however much authenticity they may lack. Consider a politician like Julián Castro, who served in Barack Obama’s cabinet, who identifies as “Latino” but speaks only enough Spanish to read the menu at Taco Bell. Hispanics indulge fantasists like him, even if people who want to be part of a linguistic group without speaking the language puzzle them. Few other societies are as patient with the inauthentic. Take a flight to Paris, announce that you consider yourself French but don’t speak the language. A Parisian will look at you, roll his or her eyes, and, before walking away, say, “Excusez-moi, mais vous êtes ridicule.” (Excuse me, but you are ridiculous.) Take a plane in the other direction, to Japan, and pretend to be Japanese without speaking the language. A Tokyoite will ask, “Nihongo wa hanasemasu ka?” (Do you speak Japanese?) If you can’t answer the query, the person will smile, bow his or her head slightly, and leave.


Had she not died in 1962 at the age of 36 would Marilyn Monroe have publicly “come out” as Latina? Her contemporary Rita Hayworth was afraid of doing so while she was in control of her faculties. It was only after Hayworth came down with Alzheimer’s that she, in the fog of that disease, spoke Spanish, called herself Margarita Carmen, and mentioned her time as a member of her father’s Spanish troupe, the Dancing Cansinos. Raquel Welch, for her part, waited for the 21st century to arrive to declare herself a Latina.[5]

When Welch finally declared herself Hispanic, this was as revelatory as a cat announcing that it purrs.

In the final photo shoot before her death, she wore the sweater she purchased in Mexico City.

In the last shoot before Marilyn Monroe’s death, George Barris photographed her on the beaches of Malibu. She wore a Mexican sweater. She had purchased this on her trip to Mexico City earlier that year, a garment woven by Rosario Martínez.

When her body was found, that sweater was draped over some of the mahogany furniture she had shipped from Mexico to Los Angeles. From Mexico to Los Angeles, the same journey her mother once made and that gave birth to the most famous California Girl of all time.


[1] If a talent was Jewish, it was a foregone conclusion that his or her name would be changed to a Gentile one. Nathan Birnbaum became George Burns. Emanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson. Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall. Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis.

[2] In 1940, 89.8% of citizens were white, 9.8% were African-American; in 1950, 89.5% were white, 10.0% African-American; in 1960, 86.6% were white, 10.5% African-American; in 1970, 87.5% were white, 11.1% African-American; and in 1980, 83.0% were white, 11.7% African-American.

[3] Mexico was a destination on the Underground Railroad, facilitating freedom for thousands of enslaved Americans. Mexico welcomed American refugees from the Dust Bowls of the 1930s.

[4] Marilyn Monroe died five months after the Golden Globes. One of the last phone calls recorded was from Bolaños. After her death, he stated that they were planning to marry, a claim no one in her inner circle was able to confirm and which biographers discount. Bolaños died in Mexico City in 1994.

[5] “Raquel Welch Is Reinvented as a Latina; A Familiar Actress Now Boasts Her Heritage,” Mireya Navarro — a Puerto Rican — declared to readers in the New York Times on June 11, 2002.



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