Today marks a milestone of some significance for both Hollywood and Chicana/o histories.
Sixty years ago today, on March 19, 1953, the 25th annual Academy Awards was held. It was the first Oscars even to be televised to a national audience. To best communicate the impact of the technology of television, that year’s Oscars was also the first to be held in New York City and Los Angeles (Hollywood) at the same time. The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by film-making legend Cecil B. DeMille, won best picture, beating out Hollywood classics like High Noon.
The winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was also noteworthy. Anthony Quinn won for his role in the movie ¡Viva Zapata!, also starring Marlon Brando (in the title role). When Quinn won he became the first Chicano in history to win an Oscar.
Born in Chihuahua, México in 1915, Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca immigrated to the US as a young child. They crossed the border like most mexicanos of that period–into El Paso. And like millions who would make the journey then and after, his family migrated to Los Angeles from Texas. And, again like so many, his family moved to Arizona in his teen years, migrating within the US to find work and continue their search for stability.
Quinn broke into acting in the late 30s, usually cast in “ethnic” roles of some sort. His big break came in his Oscar-winning role alongside Brando. After 1953, he would become a Hollywood legend in his own right. He went on to win another Oscar–for Best Supporting Actor in 1956, for the film Lust for Life–and he would go on to be nominated for Best Actor twice, in 1957 for Wild is the Wind and again in 1964 his role in Zorba the Greek.
Quinn was the first Mexican American to win an Oscar in an acting category. He was also the last, if you don’t count his later win in 1957.
He was not, however, the first (or last) Latino to win for acting. Puerto Ricans have won a major acting Oscar on several occasions. José Ferrer has the distinction of being “the first.” He won Best Actor for his 1950 performance as Cyrano de Bergerac. After Quinn, Rita Moreno became the first (and only) Latina to win Best Actress for her multifaceted effort in West Side Story. After her, it would be another four decades before another Latino graced the Oscar stage for acting. In 2001, Benicio del Toro won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Traffic (2000).