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Ricardo Montalbán (25-Nov-1920 — 14-Ene-2009 D.E.P.)

14 January 2009

Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán Merino played many roles in his long acting career… from a Yugoslavian peasant to the deracinated “Mr. Roarke” on Fantasy Island” to a cartoon ant to a Japanese detective to the “genetically engineered tyrant, Khan Noonien Singh,” in a Star Trek film… but what made him memorable was his elegant, unforgettable Chilango-inflected speech.

ricardomontalban1Montalbán was more than an actor with an unforgettable voice.  Born and bred in Mexico City, the actor arrived in Hollywood (though he continued to act in Mexican films as well) during the 1940s, and managed to establish himself as the first Mexican actor since sound first came to the movies to neither anglicize his name (like Gilbert Roland or Anthony Quinn), nor to allow his accented English to limit him to “Latin” roles (as was the fate of his much older brother, the character actor, Carlos Montalbán, and Ramon Novarro).

Although he took an interest in Latin artists and performers (founding the Nosotros Foundation to support Latino artists in the United States), Montalbán never applied for, nor considered applying for, United States citizenship. Nor did he ever really “go Hollywood”: a practicing Catholic,  Montalbán married Georgiana Young in 1944 and remained married to her until her death in November 2007.

ricardomontalban2Despite being confined to a wheelchair for the last several years, Montalbán’s unforgettable voice made him a popular choice for cartoon and commerical voice-overs.  My personal favorite of his later years was an infomercial for “Inglés sin Barraras®”, a self-taught English language course widely advertised in Mexico. The infomercial takes the form of a telenovela:  the deserving, but monolingual   heroine is being cheated by the evil, blonde (of course!) gringa boss who takes advantage of the heroine’s inability to speak English. Using the course material, the plucky Mexicana gets her a better job, revenge on the evil gringa… and the hunky boyfriend. At the “commercial breaks” within the infomercial, there is Ricardo Montalbán reminding the viewer that, yes, he is a Mexican, but he owes his success to his ability to speak English.

Hard to argue with that. Ricardo  Montalbán’s success was indeed due to his ability with English — English with that song-like Mexico City accent.  And more importantly, that accent made it impossible for him to deny his Mexicanismo.

What he did with his voice was should be remembered.  Ricardo Montalbán presented a a very different stereotype of Mexicans to American film-goers and television viewers. Where Mexican accented actors are usually down-trodden or comical, here was a very different image:   suave, sophisticated, and capable of endowing the most ordinary of events with a poetic grandeur … even when the part he played was ripe for parody.

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