El Idolo y El Hombre: Understanding the Life and Legacy of Pedro Infante
Unfamiliar to a large portion of US culture, it is crucial to understand the impact that the actor Pedro Infante has on Mexican cinema. Viewed by many as one of the quintessential stars of La época del cine de oro de Mexicano (The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema), Infante is considered one of the most prominent actors in the genre of Cancion Ranchera (rustic comedy) films. In these genre films, Infante used his beautiful singing and rugged machismo to help establish the ideal image of Mexican masculinity. Using Corrido (a depiction of rural life) imagery that depicted traditional life in the Mexican countryside, Infante's filmography would leave a social impact on what society expected of Mexican men in the mid-20th Century. Yet this image is fascinating about Infante, as for all the ways he came to represent this corrido image in his everyday life; indeed, Infante also was at times contradictory to the traditional notion that he came to embody. Infante was not a man that genuinely stuck to conventional family life; as a child out of wedlock and numerous infidelities marked how Infante did not fall in line with social acceptability in Mexico. Conversely, Infante’s non-habit of drinking is also notable, as his ability to impersonate drunkenness also influenced audiences toward drinking habits that worried citizens of Mexico.
The purpose of this article is to present a history for the US audience of a figure that holds a special place in the heart of many Mexicans; it is not meant to sway one to think of Infante one way or the other. However, in noting the twists in turns of Infante’s life, it would not give due justice to his story to not mention the unique characteristics of Infante’s biography that contradict the image presented to audiences. The focus of this article is to note how the appearance of Infante interacts with the actual person of Infante, how the two parts overlap, and where they differ from each other. It is an opportunity to present a substantial figure to audiences that may not be aware of his magnitude while writing about the unique life as a celebrity that Infante lived, one in which he achieved a rags-to-riches story all while attaining astronomical levels of stardom before his untimely death. This paper raises historical awareness of a celebrity still recognized as one of the biggest stars of Mexican cinema.
Infante was born Pedro Infante Cruz on November 18, 1917, in Guamuchil, Mazatlán, Sinaloa to Delfino Infante Garcma and Refugio Cruz. (1) It would be Infante’s early life that would significantly influence his future persona and musical career. Music was meaningful to Infante’s family, including his dancer-instructor father, Delfino, who would teach Pedro how to sing. Infante desired to pursue a career in music, leading a group known as La Rabia before eventually participating in Orquesta la Estrella de Culiacán. Just as crucial to the start of his music career was how his upbringing built up his humble, rustico, persona; while a music career seemed to be a ways away, Infante would take up a job in carpentry to provide for his family. The skills that he learned from this practice would ironically help him continue a career in music, as he would build the guitar that he would use to perform. (2) Infante’s early focus was taking care of his family, a defining feature of Infante’s life that would reinforce his image as a noble, rural man extolling pure values. (3)
Family would be a defining theme within Infante’s life as a young adult; however, while it would help mold the persona he would embody for years to come, Infante would continue to provide for his family as he excelled in his music career excelled, securing opportunities for his family, both as a young musician in Sinaloa (4) as well as his life as a celebrity. Family relationships would also be the thing that muddies the waters of Infante’s wholesomeness. As a young man, Infante had numerous relationships with multiple women, including a relationship with Guadalupe Lopez, “...en un avasallador amor a primera vista,” (5) (...in an overwhelming love at first sight.) Infante would instead find his first marriage with María Luisa León, who would spur Infante to search for broader successes, encouraging her husband to move to Mexico City for new opportunities, a decision that would eventually pay off for the young couple. (6)
Mexico City: The Beginning of Starhood and Ranchera Comedia
1939 would see the couple make their way to the capital city, as well as the first film roles for Infante, with his first film being en un burro tres baturros (Three Peasants and a Donkey) along with some roles in short films as well. Here, we see Infante’s involvement in the Ranchera Comedia (rustic or ranch comedy) genre of Mexican cinema that would allow this star to refine his craft. The purpose of these films served a commercial purpose as well as a social according to scholars. “The comedia ranchera was, first and foremost, an efficient vehicle for the propagation of música ranchera; it was the music video system of its time and place. As the media barons soon grasped, people were primarily addicted to the nostalgia encoded or encapsulated in the songs, so they structured the movies around them.” (7) This nostalgia, while used commercially to attract consumers, would also serve a political motive for the state, for it was this yearning for older generations that were used to construct the ideal social image of Mexican citizens. Ranchera Comedias used a Mexican style of song known as the corrido (from correr - to run), a style of song that is associated with rural Mexican populations for “Its oral quality and simplicity of language,” that “facilitate its dissemination among the community.” (8) While the style of music appealed to Mexicans desiring simpler times, it was also the imagery of ranchera comedias that influenced the citizens' personalities but also reflected their racial politics. Much of the Mexican population of the mid-20th century held prejudices against indigenistas (indigenous citizens), and the nostalgic imagery helped reinforce that by instead focus the history of Mexico’s legacy to the rural charros, who were the central figures of comedia ranchera films. “Rapidly modernizing men and women wanted to keep one foot in their idealized provincial origin worlds, but also wished to avoid stigmatizing identity-attributions of rusticity and backwardness.” (9) Ranchera Comedias offered a romantic hero that embodied an idealized image of “traditional” Mexican values without having to acknowledge certain aspects of the country’s past. (10)
Infante himself embraced a nationalistic image in his early career as a performer, taking on roles of Mexican revolutionaries in films such as el ametralladora (the machine gun) and singing songs commemorating the Mexican revolt against the French on May 5. (11) However, it was not only this nationalistic image that influenced others. Many scholars acknowledge Infante’s ability to act drunk, despite Infante himself not having a habit of drinking, which is attributed to “Su experiencia provnia de haber vivido, desde su adolescencia, dentro de la bohemia de los musicos.” (12) (His experience came from having lived, since his adolescence, within the bohemia of the musicians) Infante’s influence as a faux-drunkard is so prevalent in Mexican culture that the generation in which cultural alcoholism became so prevalent is the Generación Pedroinfantesca. (13) (Pedro Infante Generation) For better or for worse, whether or not Infante intended to play a national hero for others to replicate, he would fit the role that many wanted him to be, which would help catapult his life into a new form of Mexican hero. (14)
Trágico: Career and Sudden End
Infante found immediate success with the release of el ametralladora, and soon after, Pedro was the desired figure for everything. While releasing film after film, such as el tres Garcia (The Three Garcias) and Soy charro de Rancho Grande (I am a Charro of Rancho Grande), Infante continued to record and perform music non-stop, performing in locations such as Tropicana Hall. Infante would achieve a new level of success in 1948 through the film Nosotros los Pobres (We the Poor), using the rural values he embodied for so long to play a noble boxer Pepe el Toro, to not only exhibit traditional values but “revelar los sufrimientos de los pobres.” (15) (reveal the sufferings of the poor) The success of Nosotros los Pobre will give Infante some of his most significant examples of success, spawning multiple sequels, all touching on the issue of rural poverty in Mexico. Meanwhile, Infante begins to flourish at an international level performing in Southwestern States such as California, Arizona, and Texas, expanding his fame beyond national borders. (16)
While some, in their celebrity, develop dangerous habits like drugs or alcohol, Infante found his vice in a new hobby, flying. Infante is quoted as saying “Mira, en la vida me gusta actuar y cantar, pero hay algo que prefiero sobre todo: volar. Si quieres rómpeme el contrato, rómpelo, porque no voy a dejar de hacerlo, y me mando a volar,” (17) (Look, in life I like to act and sing, but there is something that I prefer above all, flying: If you want to break the contract, I will break it because I am not going to stop doing it.) While Infante held a passion for this activity, the risks of this habit showed themselves throughout Infante’s life. In 1947, after a performance with the Cuarteto Metropolitano (Metropolitan Quartet), Infante was left with a permanent scar after crashing his plane leaving a concert. While flying would give Infante his early brush with death, a decade later, in 1957, it would be his eventual demise. Flying from Mérida, Yucatan, Infante’s plane would fall from the sky, killing the star. By 1957, Infante wasn’t the same wholesome celebrity, and the romantic relations of his past had seemed to catch up to him; nevertheless, his death was a national tragedy. Thousands of mourners made their way to Mexico City, forming rioting crowds, all caused by the unrest of wanting to see the body of the legendary actor. Fame eventually changed Infante, yet in his death, many memorialized the same singer they had come to love. (18)
Infante’s life is a story of personal agency, the difference between Infante, the man and Infante, the legend, and how those are defined. There are the political implications of this, what Infante meant as a political image, as the consistent character that Infante embodied served to establish a standard for the everyman to live up to, one that upheld the traditional and rural identity of Mexico. It became apparent that Infante went along with it, using his life story to build not only this political message, but the image of himself that many would continue to embrace throughout his career. Infante, as we know, was imperfect, not to say that he didn’t uphold the ideas he portrayed, but there was another part of Infante’s humanity that couldn’t be a part of his wholesome image. Infante as an image and as a human are two distinct beings with overlapping characteristics and differences that complicate what we know of the man, which we can see by the end of his career. Many people were aware of his personal life and how it contradicted the charro many had come to know. Infante’s life shows a complicated relationship with personal agency, where neither Infante nor outside forces had total control of defining who Pedro Infante truly is. In Infante’s case, this meant the inevitable tarnishing of his wholesome rustico identity by personal issues. Despite being known by Mexican society, it was also these personal issues that were not a hindrance when eulogizing and memorializing a celebrity's career that left a lasting footprint on the lives of many. Infante was by no means perfect, but Infante’s life and career present a celebrity that, for his faults, was beloved by many for his work.
The Author would like to extend his appreciation to Research and Instruction Librarian Kristina Claunch at SHSU for her assistance in obtaining resources for this project.