Carmen MIranda in THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943), directed by Busby Berkeley.

Forced to Carry on The Tutti Fruiti Hat

by Melissa Henriquez

“Some people resented her for leaving us with all her fruit on our heads.”[1] This quote is in regards to Brazilian icon Carmen Miranda from the film Carmen Miranda: Bananas is my Business, a film that we watched in class. In this documentary film, released in 1995 and directed by Helena Solberg, we learn about the contradicting and constricted life that Carmen Miranda lived. While watching this film and through further discussion of the film, it is apparent how the outcome of Miranda’s “South/Latin American” talent in the United States and specifically on Broadway and in Hollywood has created a never-ending and recurring image of the Latina in television, film and all sorts of media. Miranda’s personality and celebrity formed one of the very few portrayals of Latinas: the “lady in the Tutti Fruiti hat.”

Born as Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in Portugal, Miranda was ambitious and always knew she wanted to change her life. Living in Brazil from a young age, her love for music was apparent through her constant singing and dancing. Miranda began by singing samba in Brazil and changed her image by firstly changing her name to Carmen Miranda. Along with singing Samba, which was considered “Negro music” of the poor/slums, she dressed as a Baiana, who are Afro-Brazilian women who sold goods, usually fruits, and would often carry them on their heads. Not only was this not fully accepted in Brazil while she was there, it became extremely problematic when she began her career in New York in 1939. With the help of the president of Brazil at the time, because he believed it would be great for Brazil’s image, she was able to make it to the United States. But, neither Miranda nor her band knew what they had gotten themselves into. Naïve is a better word for what they were; in her first interviews no one understood a word she said, but with the few words she did know how to say, she sounded like a “bimbo.” Although, while performing, no one understood what she said, since she sang in Portuguese, she was “sensational” and “a hit,” according to the news outlets at the time and even influenced fashion.

One of the most important things to take away from Miranda’s image is how Americans interpreted her as not only a “Brazilian Bombshell,” but as a representation of all South and Latin Americans, going on to be a part of songs and films that talked about different countries, such as Down Argentine Way. Through these opportunities and her vibrant personality, she became one of the highest paid actresses in America. Back home though, Miranda had become someone who had almost dishonored Brazil’s name because she was making a “mockery” of the “Brazilian culture.” After years of portraying the same role of the lady in the tutti fruiti hat, Carmen Miranda unfortunately died of a heart attack at the age of 46.

I took great interest in this film because, simply by telling the story of one Latina woman, we can quickly grasp and see where today’s stereotyped Latina roles come from. But, to be clear, I in no way believe Carmen Miranda was a disappointment to Latinas or Latina actresses because she created a space for Latinas to exist in Hollywood, even if only in these overly exaggerated roles; she wasn’t entirely at fault for how long her inaccurate image was portrayed. For this essay, I will dissect the different aspects of her life and how they shape today’s Latina roles.

Throughout the film, the interviews with Miranda’s family, loved ones and peers described her as a “genuine, positive and outspoken” woman. In an interview with actor Cesar Romero, he recalls a scene where he and Miranda kissed, and he explains how he was surprised because she was being rather shy since they were kissing in front of many people on set. In the way that Romero describes this in the film, it seems like he believes since she is so outgoing on stage that she would act the same during an intimate scene. Today, Latinas are still expected to be the fiery and sexual characters in television and film. In Tanya Gonzalez’s “IS UGLY THE NEW SEXY,” she explains the two distinct ideas of Latina sexuality: “Ideas about Latina sexuality perpetuated in film and television, as well as those circulating within Chicano, Latino, and Latin American cultures, are founded on virgin-whore dichotomies. These offer limited perceptions of sexual Latinas as ’bad‘ women, or traitors. Moreover ’good‘ Latinas must remain asexual or constrained by maternal roles.”[2] The “spicy Latina” is what we would call the specific role that Latinas as a whole are usually portrayed, in which she is irresistible, seductive and hot-tempered. The actresses we have usually seen play this role are Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek and Sofia Vergara, whose career we will explore later in the analysis. The “spicy Latina” is similar to another female stereotype, but in regards to African American women: the “Jezebel,” whose  “image of the ’bad Black girl‘ represented the undeniable sexual side of African-American women” (Jewell, 1993). The traditional Jezebel was a light-skinned, slender Mulatta girl with long straight hair and small features. She more closely resembled the European ideal for beauty than any pre-existing images.[3]

Another aspect of Carmen Miranda’s image that contributed to society’s hyper sexualized perception of her was that she made fun of herself. This was mostly because, according to Solberg’s film, she arrived to New York from Brazil only speaking a few English words, being “man” and “money,” which she uttered repeatedly in one of her first interviews on American soil, making her sound like a “bimbo.” Eventually when she did speak English, her thick accent still provided enough amusement for her audience, particularly during her films. Lucia Guerra notes, “As a true object of entertainment and a colorful sex symbol, she had no brains and she uttered not a single thought in the naïve jargon that made audiences laugh so much.” [4] Throughout her career, Miranda acted in numerous films that referred to different cultures, while working with her heavy accent, which contributed to “what audiences loved most about Carmen Miranda … her extreme otherness, especially the difference enunciated by her other language, what they loved was that they couldn’t understand her.”[5] They saw Miranda and her language as exotic; although they may have known she was from Brazil, they still associated her image as the “South American way,” when in reality it merely represented Brazil’s African culture. In regards to business and public relations, Carmen Miranda was truly a businesswoman. In 1945 she was the highest paid woman in the United States, trailing behind the CEO of General Motors.

Miranda is similar to today’s spicy Latina, Sophia Vergara, who we see playing the majority of Latina token roles in contemporary Hollywood shows and films. Vergara is one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, and is most popularly known as “Gloria Delgada-Pritchett” from Modern Family, although in the show she plays a Colombian woman (which she is as well). In this role, she feeds into the same mispronunciation of common English words and phrases frequently. As Gloria, there is also an extreme age difference between herself and her American wealthy husband, automatically boxing her in the Latina-as-gold-digger box. She is also usually dressed in tight clothing, while mainly being at home because she doesn’t have an occupation on the show. Soraya Nadia McDonald observes, “Vergara has played up the very element that makes people see her differently, and in doing so, has become incredibly rich. But she also runs the risk of becoming a parody of herself…much like Charo.”[6] Charo and Vergara, like Miranda, have been confined to stereotypical roles. Vergara has also been regularly nominated for her role as Gloria. Because of this, Vergara’s success within these roles will only lead to a continuation of stereotypes since these awards encourage such roles.

One of the main issues in Hollywood that has controlled Latina and other actors of color is that within those few roles they receive, they are typecast to continue within these same roles that are far and few in between. In her study of actors of color in Hollywood, Nancy Wang Yuen notes, “Compared with other groups of color, Latina/o actors have the biggest disparity between their on-screen presence and US population percentage. Despite being the largest non-White group in the United States (17 percent of the population), Latina/os were severely underrepresented in film and television in 2013.”[7]  Women of color specifically are among the lowest income earners in the industry because they barely receive leading roles to begin with. According to Yuen’s study, in Hollywood this occurs because white men, who are the producers writers, and directors, dominate it. These gatekeepers usually blame the talent, saying actors of colors aren’t cast because they aren’t “talented enough,” when in reality they just aren’t given the opportunity.  Therefore they are unable to better their resume or even improve in their craft. Another issue that white writers in the industry are at fault for, is not rewriting enough roles, if any, for people of color; their excuse is that they can’t write about something they can’t relate to or have experienced.

Many of these issues presented in Hollywood today have been experienced and lived by many actors of color in the past, where they have been subjected to the same roles for their entire career. Unfortunately, Carmen Miranda’s infectious personality and career was victim to Hollywood’s racism and sexism, especially in the way they put her in a box. Although we can’t link her death to her constantly having to uphold her image, the Latina stereotype most likely took a toll on her mental and physical well-being.

Hollywood has been able to use actors like Miranda and Vergara alike, playing on their sexuality and ethnicity to generate wealth. It is important that actors of color continue to fight back against the controllers of the industry and to avoid becoming racial and sexual spectacles in the media. This can be done through questioning and changing certain dialogues in scripts for films and television shows, while also questioning the way we portray ourselves, such as what we choose to wear and if it is an accurate representation of who we truly are, so that down the line we aren’t in a situation where we are misrepresenting a culture or identity. Also, it is important to look back and study different celebrities or icons like Carmen Miranda and the complexities of their lives. Carmen Miranda was able to take Hollywood by storm and create an entrance for Latinas in the Hollywood, but we still are feeling the weight of her Tutti Fruiti hat.

[1] Carmen Miranda: Bananas is My Business. Dir. Helena Solberg-Ladd. Brazil/USA: Radiante Films/ PBS and Fox Lorber Home Video, 1995.

[2] González, Tanya. “IS UGLY THE NEW SEXY? The Complexities of Latina Sexuality on “Ugly Betty”.” Chicana/Latina Studies 9, no. 2 (2010): 29.

[3] Green, Laura. “Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans.” Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans – Scholarly Essays – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University.

[4] Guerra, Lucía. “Between History and Fiction: The Nights of Carmen Miranda.” Pacific Coast Philology 39 (2004): 12.

[5] Roberts, Shari. “”The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat”: Carmen Miranda, a Spectacle of Ethnicity.” Cinema Journal 32, no. 3 (1993): 10.

[6] Soraya Nadia McDonald | The Washington Post. “Sofia Vergara, Carmen Miranda and Latina legacy and stereotypes in Hollywood.” The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate. May 11, 2015.

[7] Yuen, Nancy Wang. Reel inequality: Hollywood actors and racism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017.

Melissa Henriquez is a senior at the University at Albany, majoring in Journalism with a minor in Communications. She was born and raised in Queens, New York and is of Dominican descent. She hopes to work for the Educational Opportunities program, of which she is currently a part.

Top Image: Carmen Miranda in The Gang’s All Here (1943), 20th Century Fox