RT Archives

9 Pioneering Hispanic Women Filmmakers From the Earliest Days of the Movies

When cinema was in its earliest, whitest, and most male-dominated days, these women created their own opportunities and forged their own paths.

by | October 7, 2020 | Comments

Although women were present at the birth of cinema and helped pioneer a great many discoveries, women from marginalized backgrounds and communities had a tougher time breaking in the fledgling industry. Sadly, it’s an inequality that persists in the film world today. Despite these barriers, a number of Latina and Hispanic women in Hollywood and South America broke through biases, starting their own production companies, forging their own paths. They created opportunities where there were none, they landed their movies in festivals and challenged the male-dominated industry to take notice. Sadly, not all enjoyed the long illustrious careers their male counterparts did, but whether it was just one film or two, these nine filmmakers left their mark on film history and on screens far and wide. 


Beatriz Michelena

(Photo by Public Domain)

Beatriz Michelena (1890–1942) 

Originally an opera singer, Beatriz Michelena made the leap from the stage to the screen becoming one of the first Hispanic silent movie stars with the movie Salomy Jane. On the side, she wrote an advice column for girls interested in becoming actresses like herself. After her first studio went bankrupt, Michelena formed her own production company with her husband, George E. Middleton, and produced her next movies, effectively becoming one of the first Hispanic women to do so. Sadly, like many upstart companies in the early days of cinema, it did not last, and most of Michelena’s film work was destroyed in a fire.  


Mimí Derba (1893–1953)

When Herminia Pérez de León first entered showbiz as a teenager, the Mexican singer chose the stage name Mimí Derba. It would become one of the most recognized names in her country’s movie history. After the Mexican Revolution, Derba co-founded the Azteca Film Company, which produced five movies in its first year – two of which were written by Derba, including The Tigress, which she also directed. Her star was on the rise when financial setbacks interrupted her career and shut down her film company. She returned in the sound era opposite Lupita Tovar for Santa in 1931, which restarted her film career that ran through the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. 


Emilia Saleny (1894–1978)

Although accurate details about her are scarce, Argentine director Emilia Saleny began her career as an actress, traveling between the Italian community in Buenos Aires and her family’s home country of Italy. She began teaching early in her career, founding one of the first film and acting schools in South America in the 1910s. She also pioneered children’s films, movies made for younger audiences that followed stories told from a child’s point-of-view. Because of her collaborative approach to filmmaking and working with students, as well as early film’s less stringent standards of record-keeping, there is disagreement among scholars about her exact credits, but there’s no disputing she had an effect on Argentina’s early film scene. 


Adriana (1894–1972) and Dolores Ehlers (1896–1983)

Mexican sisters Adriana and Dolores Ehlers worked as a team making documentaries, processing film, and creating political movies. At first, they began their careers as photographers, and their work won them a grant to study in the United States. After they made military films during World War I and completed more training, they returned home to Mexico, where they sold cameras and projection equipment and eventually landed jobs in the Mexican government overseeing a lab that processed film and censorship, flagging racist stereotypes in Hollywood movies. After more political upheaval, the sisters returned to making films independently, selling projectors and training projectionists. 


María Luisa Bemberg (1922-1995)

Like Lucrecia Martel today, Argentine director María Luisa Bemberg had much to say about her country’s social issues through inventive movies. After beginning her artistic career creating feminist theater, Bemberg wrote scripts for other directors in the 1970s, but soon decided to make them herself, as she did with the scandalous period piece Camila, throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Many of her movies featured feminist themes and centered on strong women challenging men’s authority. 


Elena Sánchez Valenzuela (2)

(Photo by Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Elena Sánchez Valenzuela)

Elena Sánchez Valenzuela (1900–1950)

Mexican filmmaker Elena Sánchez Valenzuela wore many hats in her lifetime as a documentarian, journalist, archivist, and actress. Her screen career began in the silent era, but soon her focus shifted to journalism in the 1920s, and she soon began her writing for Mexico City newspapers, which led to assignments in Los Angeles and Paris. In the 1930s, Sánchez Valenzuela moved into documentary filmmaking with a feature on the Mexican state of Michoacán. She made one more career change in the 1940s when she helped found the Mexican National Film Library to preserve and promote films from Mexico and South America.


Gabriela Von Bussenius Vega (1901–1975)

Chilean writer Gabriela Von Bussenius Vega got her first taste of cinema when her new husband, Salvador Giambastiani, adapted her story The Agony of Arauco. While Giambastiani took over directing duties, Von Bussenius Vega handled the story and art direction, becoming one of the first women to have a hand in making a Chilean film. After Giambastiani’s death, Von Bussenius Vega stepped away from filmmaking and returned to writing books, essays, film criticism and plays.


Sara Gómez  (1942–1974)

When Sara Gómez began working in the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, she was the only woman and only one of two Black filmmakers in the government-sanctioned profession. Despite being the only woman in the Cuban film industry, she worked as a directors assistant to Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Agnès Varda, made a number of documentary shorts about Afro Cubans and women, and challenged sexism, classism, and racism with her one and only feature, the documentary and narrative film hybrid One Way or Another.


Margot Benacerraf (1926–)

Although Venezuelan documentarian Margot Benacerraf may only have two documentaries to her name – Reverón, a short study on Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón, and Araya, a feature on mining practices at a salt marsh – both of her works made it to international festivals. Reverón premiered at the 1953 Berlin International Film Festival, and Araya shared the Fipresci Critics’ Award with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Later, she founded the National Film Library of Venezuela and co-founded the Latin Fundavisual with Gabriel Garcia Márquez. 


On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

medical drama fresh HBO Go Spike Fox Searchlight SDCC Endgame witnail films werewolf National Geographic rt archives Sundance spain OneApp 24 frames boxoffice talk show 2020 adaptation Britbox Interview Polls and Games renewed TV shows American Society of Cinematographers unscripted children's TV Comics on TV Nickelodeon Awards Fox News BBC America supernatural Marvel Television Schedule cooking Baby Yoda comic books binge Funimation First Look dragons E! slashers Lionsgate Masterpiece 99% Sundance TV hispanic finale Hulu FXX what to watch Lifetime 2019 elevated horror Grammys BBC USA Set visit football Photos indie Pirates BET Awards zero dark thirty Holidays Syfy Hear Us Out YA Sony Pictures E3 Superheroes Musical cartoon WarnerMedia Comedy stoner Crunchyroll political drama Sci-Fi name the review Reality Competition Kids & Family spider-man Mindy Kaling Turner zombies sag awards Disney Channel police drama VICE Song of Ice and Fire movies TCA canceled TV shows First Reviews BET Apple TV+ worst movies Arrowverse scorecard VH1 composers Academy Awards technology stop motion space 4/20 Tubi asian-american versus black FX on Hulu Biopics TCM Stephen King CBS Paramount Network GIFs news facebook Emmy Nominations screenings rotten movies we love golden globes Box Office all-time hollywood 2016 RT History DirecTV TBS cats Premiere Dates nature 2015 TV renewals aliens Writers Guild of America true crime Character Guide Walt Disney Pictures Pop TNT Acorn TV screen actors guild criterion video on demand die hard transformers Rom-Com See It Skip It ESPN social media Elton John festivals casting Certified Fresh japanese Disney streaming service Pop TV adventure New York Comic Con halloween tv Amazon Prime Super Bowl Calendar romance spanish language universal monsters Election parents Nat Geo franchise 72 Emmy Awards toy story critics Tarantino The Arrangement Sundance Now Holiday latino laika Ellie Kemper Sneak Peek Amazon Studios SundanceTV jamie lee curtis NYCC Thanksgiving Esquire YouTube A&E series The Purge Binge Guide Family The Walking Dead CBS All Access ABC TV nfl award winner Comedy Central Universal scary movies 007 Warner Bros. docudrama Travel Channel DGA chucky Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sequels Discovery Channel emmy awards Reality game show dark Epix Film Festival GLAAD teaser Chernobyl PaleyFest Oscars a nightmare on elm street Disney+ Disney Plus History LGBT blaxploitation festival justice league cancelled psycho 21st Century Fox politics book The Witch deadpool FX CMT mutant spanish 71st Emmy Awards best Bravo Anna Paquin vampires Star Wars BAFTA Opinion Television Critics Association cults Star Trek batman Rocky Paramount X-Men spy thriller PlayStation crime drama Classic Film Mary Tyler Moore Spectrum Originals DC Comics Women's History Month robots A24 Rock Trailer miniseries Action singing competition free movies independent Ghostbusters Ovation Superheroe archives Lifetime Christmas movies obituary WGN james bond Hallmark Christmas movies video PBS APB french Country Amazon Year in Review Awards Tour Spring TV christmas movies discovery comic BBC One YouTube Premium Showtime TV Land Apple TV Plus Pixar natural history hist cars diversity Television Academy USA Network LGBTQ Teen twilight Marvel Studios based on movie ghosts Shudder SXSW The CW sequel canceled Trivia harry potter Logo blockbuster superhero classics nbcuniversal concert Creative Arts Emmys HBO Max fast and furious australia IFC CNN El Rey Extras Crackle Mystery VOD AMC Horror Starz Christmas reboot Pet Sematary Quiz San Diego Comic-Con Musicals Winners anime Brie Larson Cartoon Network animated Freeform MSNBC comiccon kids Mary poppins Podcast Captain marvel Mary Poppins Returns HBO Black Mirror mockumentary halloween Western toronto Music crime streaming TCA 2017 Peacock cancelled TV shows GoT Turner Classic Movies documentaries reviews RT21 Pride Month Vudu Countdown 45 comics venice Alien Drama revenge Marathons theme song MTV Apple Amazon Prime Video 20th Century Fox zombie Martial Arts Disney Plus romantic comedy strong female leads Cosplay thriller Emmys sports Animation boxing worst crossover Dark Horse Comics satire Cannes period drama Mudbound Tumblr Film Toys TCA Awards CW Seed Red Carpet stand-up comedy 2017 ID 2018 foreign Avengers Hallmark indiana jones television Netflix Christmas movies dc President Adult Swim Fall TV cinemax south america Black History Month Watching Series game of thrones green book joker comedies italian remakes Trophy Talk TruTV crime thriller historical drama science fiction cops sitcom Rocketman serial killer FOX Comic Book anthology ITV richard e. Grant travel IFC Films quibi DC Universe Nominations war movie Netflix dceu Winter TV Shondaland Marvel YouTube Red Infographic spinoff cancelled television ABC Family Tomatazos DC streaming service dramedy child's play rotten Disney TIFF Video Games dogs TCA Winter 2020 NBC Fantasy mission: impossible breaking bad Lucasfilm Food Network TLC ratings Best and Worst Summer tv talk documentary OWN doctor who Heroines directors The Academy MCU disaster Valentine's Day Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Columbia Pictures biography cancelled TV series psychological thriller