Rita Hayworth – White-Washed Star?!

“…for rather than leaving her past behind, Hayworth always remained, or retained, Margarita Cansino, from the beginning of her ascent to stardom and especially throughout the glory days of her career in the 1940s.”

Adrienne McLean

Scrolling through Twitter, this beauty came to my attention:

Of course, tweets like this always gain traction as people jump on the chance to complain about Old Hollywood whenever they can. Of course, there were Rita defenders, most notably @lauraroslin:

I’m not going to repeat what Sarah said because I don’t think there’s a whole lot to add; however, the discourse on the original thread (unsurprisingly) languishes in negativity, with many continuously insisting Hayworth’s white-washing spelled stardom.

So, there’s a lot to unpack with Rita, with one of the main arguments surrounding her stardom always being something along the lines of the eradication of her heritage in an effort to make her look white. Here’s the thing though–Rita was white and always embraced her Spanish heritage.

Rita’s father, Eduardo Cansino, was born in Catilleja de la Cuesta, Andalusia, Spain. In 1913, he emigrated to the U.S. with his sister, Elisa, with both working as dancers and making their way to the Ziegfeld Follies (the Cansinos were world famous). Eventually, Eduardo met and married a 20-year-old Irish-American Follies dancer, Volga Hayworth. The couple welcomed their first child, Margarita Cansino, in 1918 (I have seen people debate if Volga and Eduardo were actually married in 1917 or 1918). Contrary to what people claim, Volga and Eduardo were not dancing with one another, with Eduardo appearing in advertisements with Elisa:

April 24, 1917, The Sacramento Star, pg. 8

Fast forward to 1931, and Rita was dancing as Eduardo’s dance partner on gambling ships in Tijuana. She would’ve looked like this, with her hair dyed dark (as Sarah pointed out) and her Spanish heritage played up (likely to help her replace Elisa):

See the source image
Los Angeles Daily News, August 26, 1932, pg. 23

By 1935, the studios were showing serious interest, and marketed Rita’s heritage, making her more than capable of playing racially ambiguous roles. Her skin was frequently darkened in publicity photos to play up this exoticism:

See the source image
Darkened Photo
See the source image
Original Photo (CC: The Rita Hayworth Archive)
Rita Hayworth (Rita Cansino) in 1935 at age 16, a few years before she became a major star -
August 25, 1935, Chicago Tribune, pg. 82
August 9, 1937, The Caledonian-Record, pg. 55

By 1940, Rita was well on her way to stardom. This seems to be the point where people think her Spanish heritage was left out in the cold. On the contrary, Rita’s Spanish heritage went on full display (I want to point out that while Rita was half-Spanish, it wasn’t uncommon for the press to refer to her as Latin):

See the source image

“To conform to the dominant Latin stereotype seemingly required by her name and background, Rita Cansino’s normally brown hair had to be dyed black; makeup was needed to darken her fair skin; and whether as Cansino or as Hayworth, she could speak Spanish only, ‘a little.'”

April 14, 1940, The News Tribune, pg. 37

As most people know, Rita underwent painful electrolysis, paid for by her first husband, Ed Judson. Many argue this was an attempt to make her appear more Caucasian (which author Barbara Leaming argues in This Was Happiness). First, Rita was white. Second, Rita had a low hairline by studio era standards and was not the first or last actress to receive electrolysis for a more camera-friendly look (side eyes Jayne Mansfield, who had almost an inch removed in 1956). Finally, if Rita’s Spanish lineage was planned to go into the garbage, there would’ve been absolutely no reason to broadcast her heritage throughout the entirety of her career.

Mentions of Rita’s Spanish heritage continued through the years, but here are a few from the 40s:

February 6, 1941, Neligh News, pg. 3
February 25, 1942, The McCook Daily Gazette, pg. 2
Hedda Hopper discussed Rita’s Spanish heritage in this July 23, 1944 article from the Hartford Courant, pg. 48
Hedda Hopper discusses Rita’s heritage in this Baltimore Sun article from June 3, 1945, pg. 28

Hayworth and her films, I have concluded that ethnicity, far from being denied or even substantially repressed in Hayworth’s star image, served as a guarantor of her authenticity–as a dancing talent, as an erotic symbol, and, equally important, as an American woman. Her ethnicity represented tradition, stability, and domesticity as well as eroticism. Combined with her transformed all-American looks, this ever-present discourse allowed Hayworth’s image and films to incorporate what were usually seen by Hollywood as disparate and even ‘paradoxical’ elements, most strikingly eroticism and decency.


One cannot help but agree with McLean’s analysis of Hayworth. Rita was both the All-American girl and the half-Spaniard with a fiery personality. While I’m not denying the whitewashing of her name and hair color to more closely conform to the Anglo-Saxon ideal, it’s not like Hayworth shut the door on her lineage–nor did Columbia bosses whitewash her biography to make her fit their ideal of the quintessential Anglo-Saxon, female star. Instead, Hayworth worked different facets of her life, allowing her All-American girl side to shine while relishing in her Hispanic heritage throughout her career.

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