Why Claiming Marilyn Monroe is Latina is Problematic

“My mother, Gladys, was born in Mexico (of American parents) in 1900

Marilyn Monroe Latina problematic

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/YankArmyWeekly/Studio publicity still

“My mother, Gladys, was born in Mexico (of American parents) in 1900.” 

This is the opening line of chapter two in the book Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words by George Barris. Although Marilyn Monroe got the year of her mother’s birth incorrect (records indicate 1902), Gladys Pearl Monroe was born in Mexico in Piedras Negras (formerly called Porfirio Diaz), a city in the state of Coahuila. Because of this fact, much talk has surfaced about the actress’s alleged Mexican roots, with the upcoming release of the new docudrama, Blonde. The film is slated for release on Netflix this September and stars Cuban actress Ana de Armas and with a Latina playing the role of the Old Hollywood icon, Marilyn’s ties to Mexico once again resurfaced.

First, let’s get a few details straight. Marilyn Monroe’s maternal grandparents, Otis and Della Monroe, were American. Her grandfather originally hailed from Indiana and her grandmother from Missouri. The couple traveled across the border to Piedras Negras in 1901, possibly in search of employment opportunities, and Otis got a job working for the Mexican National Railway painting railroad cars. In Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, biographer Lois Banner mentions that it was rumored Della served as a midwife to the impoverished women of the village. 

After being in Mexico for a year, Della gave birth to her daughter, Gladys, in 1902. Although she would be considered a Mexican citizen by birth, this detail has led some to assume she grew up bilingual. The truth is, the family migrated from the Mexican town to Los Angeles in 1903, when Gladys was only a year old. It’s difficult to say if the child was talking, let alone speaking Spanish at that age, and if her parents were even fluent enough in the language.  

Her grandparents’ stay for those few years and the birth of Gladys in Mexico have sparked interest in Monroe’s connection to Mexican culture. Yes, there’s a link because of her mother, but Marilyn, whose birth name was Norma Jeane Mortenson, was born in Los Angeles and was American.

There’s also misinformation floating around with claims being made that are difficult to prove. One is that she learned and could speak Spanish. Various sources state Hollywood film studios discouraged the actress from speaking the language and that’s why no one found out. However, it’s unknown where this notion originated, and it’s never been confirmed.

It’s no secret that racism was more overtly prevalent in the film industry during Monroe’s time, as Banner explains in her book. Marilyn has also been interpreted as a symbol of whiteness, especially in the work of Richard Dyer. In this interpretation she represents the White Goddess of the Western imagination. Little hard evidence supports the racist interpretation of Marilyn, although it might have originated in a racist dynamic in the movie business — an industry motivated by profit, which catered to the nation’s prejudices, according to Banner. 

Considering this and how movie studios liked to exert control over their actors, executives may have told her not to mention her mother was born across the border, but then again, we can only speculate. It is known that Gladys was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and couldn’t care for her daughter, so from an early age, Norma Jeane had to be raised in foster homes. The star never developed a close relationship with her mother and, when she got older, hardly spoke of her. Her silence regarding her mom could have had more to do with the stigma surrounding mental health issues at the time than with her mom’s Mexican citizenship. 

Mexico comes up again in correlation with the blonde bombshell when she visited in 1962, just months before her death. She had recently moved to the Brentwood borough of Los Angeles into a rustic Spanish style home that reminded her of her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson’s house. She traveled to Mexico to buy furniture that would complement the decor of her new hacienda, and while there, had a dalliance with Mexican actor and director José Bolaños. She also spent time with friends Frederick Vanderbilt Field and his wife who were expatriates and had fled from the U.S. to Mexico City because they were convicted of being communists. The actress’s stay piqued the interest of the FBI for that reason, but besides her enjoying her getaway, little else can be made of the trip.

Given the facts, it seems a stretch to claim Marilyn Monroe is Latina, but that hasn’t stopped many from imparting her with the heritage. Unfortunately, bits of information are being played up and exaggerated to give her a Mexican identity. She has popped up in some Chicano tattoo designs, and one theme that’s characteristic of this style is femme fatales. It’s possible because she’s an LA native, her image fascinates the Latinx community in the city and makes her a popular subject. Variety reported that another biopic is being produced by BTF Media and Loz Doz Studios to explore her connection to Mexico, so it’ll be interesting to see how that part of her life is portrayed.      

Instead of trying to pinpoint a particular cultural heritage on Marilyn Monroe, we should highlight how she was a woman ahead of her time. She supported the Civil Rights movement and often identified with ostracized groups because she grew up as an orphan who never felt she truly belonged anywhere and had her own struggles with her mental health. If she were alive, it’s likely she would be championing the progressive movements happening today. Sixty years after her passing, it’s not about finally labeling Marilyn Monroe as Latina; it’s about recognizing that she was not the dumb blonde film studios wanted her to be. She was intelligent, dedicated to her craft, empathetic, and had a passion for life. 

“I want to work. Acting is my life….I am not a victim of emotional conflicts. I am human.” Marilyn Monroe was quoted as saying in Barris’s book.

Blonde, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is out Sept. 23 on Netflix.

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