Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Definitely Not A Fruit Loop

From the movie "The Gang's All Here"
When I hear the name Carmen Miranda, I picture a vivacious lass sashaying across the floor. She’s wearing a hat made of fruit and is singing with a Latin accent, wooing onlookers with a cheeky smile. Sure, it’s the image Carmen portrayed in Hollywood movies, but not one her fellow countrymen in Brazil were too happy about.

Born in 1909 to Portuguese parents, Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha immigrated to Brazil with her father when she was ten months old. Her father worked in the produce business, and her mother joined the family in Brazil the following year. Maria do Carmo earned the nickname of Carmen from her father, due to his love for the opera Carmen.

When Carmen was a teenager, her sister contracted tuberculosis, so Carmen worked in a hat shop to pay for her sister’s medical bills. Carmen dreamed of entering show business but her father disapproved and when she sung at festivals and parties, her father would beat her mother for allowing his daughter to perform. In 1929, Carmen made her first recording and became the first singer in Brazil to sign a contract for regular work on Brazilian radio. She acted in a few Brazilian movies then traveled to New York to perform on Broadway.

Hollywood found this spirited actress irresistible, starring her in an English speaking movie, Down Argentine Way. Not only did this movie introduce Carmen Miranda to an American audience, but it was the movie that made Betty Grable a household name. Carmen soon performed at the White House and sang for Franklin D. Roosevelt. And as a result, she became involved in the Good Neighbor Policy—a program designed to strengthen the ties between the U.S.A., Latin America, and Europe.

By 1946, Carmen Miranda was Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer. Her image in Hollywood enraged many in Latin America though. People felt she blurred the differences between the people of Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, and Mexico, and that she mish-mashed samba, tango, and habanera music. With her wacky head dresses laden with fruit, Carmen earned the name as “the lady in the tutti-frutti hat.”

Upset that the Brazilians criticized her for selling out to the Americans, Carmen sang Disseram que Voltei Americanizada (They Say I’ve Become Americanized). She also released the song, Bananas is My Business, based on a line from one of her movies. The criticism from her countrymen upset her greatly though, and it took 14 years before she returned for a visit. 

From the movie "The Gang's All Here"
Unfortunately, by then, Carmen had turned to drugs, alcohol and heavy smoking as a way of coping with an abusive marriage she had endured for many years. In 1955, Carmen filmed a segment on The Jimmy Durante Show. After her dance number had finished, she collapsed and Durante ran to her side. She laughed it off, commented about being out of breath, but continued on with the show, only to suffer a heart attack later that evening in her Beverly Hills home. Carmen passed away that night.

The young lady with a penchant for wearing fruit hats is still remembered today. She has a special place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and many documentaries and books have been devoted to Carmen Miranda’s life. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Marco de Canavese, Portugal, there are museums dedicated to this songstress.
Her fame spans decades. In 1982, a hot air balloon named “Chic-I-Boom,” flew at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and the bananas alone were 50 feet long. Velvet Underground released a song called, The Soul of Carmen Miranda and in Sydney, Australia, there’s a suburb called Miranda with a night club called Carmen’s. In 1998, Carmen Miranda Square opened in Hollywood and is only one of a dozen city squares in Los Angles dedicated to performers. The square is located on the intersection of Orange Drive and Hollywood Boulevard, near the spot where Carmen entertained a group of servicemen from the USO.

I’m still undecided about whether Carmen Miranda sold out. She certainly made people aware of Brazil and the rest of Latin America but many felt her image did a disservice to her people. She was in the entertainment business, and she performed that aspect of her job brilliantly. People loved her Latin flair and sense of humor, and even today, she is still widely remembered. So as a business woman, she achieved her goal but as an ambassador for Brazil, she upset a lot of people.

What do you think? Do you have examples of people who have portrayed their countrymen in a way that isn’t necessarily a true reflection of their culture?

And of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without some videos. I bet you can’t watch them without smiling. Close the door and sing until you’re hoarse!


  1. Great post! Once I'd heard that Carmen Miranda didn't wear underwear and then I could never get that image out of my head - lol! Loved her, tho. The thing with America is that just about anything new has to be watered down in order for it to catch on here. I'm not Latin so I don't have anything against her for doing that - but I'm glad she was willing to introduce us to all of that Latin flair.

  2. I am Latin so I feel like I can speak freely about this culture. I love to experience other cultures and learn from them. I've lived the Puerto Rican culture and lived on the island. I love PR profoundly but one must make their own way in life. You can't please everyone. You can try and do the best you can, but if it's not possible just move on.

    Great post and awesome information.

  3. Interesting observation about watering down, Kathy. And the world is a better place for being exposed to Carmen Miranda, I think.

    Orlando, that's very true about not being able to please everyone. I think we all get hung up at various points in our life when no matter what we do, someone is going to disagree. It's very right to move on and let the people who do agree with us enjoy the fruits of our labor!

  4. I have to say that Carmen inspired me in many ways. The movie Down Argentine Way is what made me travel to Argentina for real to see that magical city I had learned about in the film. I stayed in an apartment in buenos aires and everyday I would go to museums asking info about her. She is just a goddess!

  5. Nikki, thank you for dropping by! Yes, Carmen Miranda has left an impact on a lot of people.