Carmen Miranda, who died sixty years ago this month, was a star of the 1940s and ’50s — one of the world’s best-paid artists in both the music and movie industries, as famous for her style as for her work. Nowadays, however, she is practically unknown. If people remember her at all, it’s likely due to a Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, or Tom & Jerry cartoon — old references themselves — making fun of her style, her music, her platform heels, her colorful dresses, and her gigantic turbans with the most outrageous props. But sometimes it’s enough to say that she is “the Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” — that will evoke at least a vague image of Miranda, if not her importance as one of the most famous Brazilian celebrities of all time.
Sixty years after her death, Carmen Miranda is still a polarizing figure in my native Brazil. Some believe, not without basis, that her iconic public persona helped create a distorted view of the country. Others praise her for putting us on the world’s cultural map. Carmen herself dealt with this dichotomy throughout her lifetime — sometimes impatiently, but mostly with good humor. Yes, she did often play to the stereotype of the “exotic Latina,” hot-blooded and extravagantly dressed, singing songs with senseless lyrics (chica chica boom chica chica boom chica chica boom), but didn’t many other artists play to stereotypes as well? This did not mean she was not a multifaceted and compelling performer.
Carmen loved her country and knew how defend it through humor. If uninformed gringos asked her whether snakes roamed freely down the streets of urban Rio de Janeiro, she said:
“Why, yes. There is even a special sidewalk just for them at the Avenida Rio Branco.”
And if sometimes they asked what she did when she ran into one of those snakes, she would reply:
“If that particular snake is my acquaintance, I stop to stay hello.”
Carmen knew how to defend herself from Brazilians as well, though their criticism would hurt her much more than the world’s ignorance about her homeland. After her first wave of success in America, in 1940, she returned to Rio and was welcomed by adoring crowds. But as soon as she stepped on a stage and started singing in English, the public turned against her, booing her as if she had “sold herself” and was no longer their beloved performer.
Even worse, some said, she was embodying stereotypes that weren’t even of Brazil — the only country in Latin America to speak Portuguese — but were instead Hispanic. That criticism had a lot of truth to it. One look at her back-up musicians, with their frilly sleeves and maracas, was enough to see how un-Brazilian they looked. Even though she made sure that her Brazilian musicians traveled with her to the U.S., they were still dressed in costumes, not their actual clothes. And then there was the turban topped with fruit. The only time Brazilians wear a turban like that is when they are impersonating Carmen Miranda.
A few weeks after her failed performance in Rio, she made a comeback with a self-mocking song in her mother tongue, so that all her critics could understand her perfectly: “They say I came back Americanized, with loads of money, that I’m very rich, that I can’t stand the beat of a pandeiro and get the chills with the sound of the cuíca (…) But really, why so much venom? How can I be Americanized? I who was born with the samba, playing the old beat all through the night?”
The rejection still hurt. After a short time in Rio, she went back to the U.S. – this time to Los Angeles, to become a true Hollywood star — and would only return to Brazil fourteen years later.
In order to maintain her funny, charismatic persona in English, she sacrificed one of her greatest trumps: instead of using every tool of the language she was born into, she settled for making jokes that focused on her lack of fluency in English. In one of her few serious comments in the press, she mentioned how few Americans truly wanted to learn about other countries, expecting others to learn their language instead.
If in Portuguese she would banter with reporters (“Carmen, have you selected a breathtaking set list for the Americans?” “I did, but it’s hard to think of a samba that is not breathtaking…”), in English, she would affect an accent and play it for laughs. Upon first arriving in America, she liked to joke in English, using her lack of fluency as a weapon: “I say twenty words in English. I say money, money, money and I say hot dog!” She would also sing “bananas is my business” and turn the (intentional) error into reason for laughter. Some of her sharpness, if not her charisma, was being lost in translation.
Carmen was born in Portugal in 1909, but arrived with her family in Brazil when she was one year old. Though she would remain, at least officially, a Portuguese citizen, she was at home in Rio de Janeiro. There seems to be little doubt, considering so many of her statements, that she considered herself a Brazilian through and through. Her interviews are filled with “my heart is Brazilian,” “my people,” and “my home” when referring to the country in which she grew up.
She started her singing career in her early twenties, and while her family initially did not approve of show business, she soon won over family and fans with her talent and charisma. Carmen had a knack for bringing people together, and her house was always packed with friends and artists. This happened not only in Rio, where artists would always fill her home and be welcomed with a warm meal and a smile, but also in Los Angeles, where her mansion became known as an “unofficial embassy” of Brazil and was even visited by Brazilian soldiers on the way to war in Europe.
Before long, Carmen established herself as the “Queen of Radio,” muse of Carnaval, and a consummate singer and performer. She promoted a whole generation of songwriters and popularized styles like samba and marchinhas throughout a country of continental proportions, where radio was seen as a way to unify people who had wildly different social and geographical realities. She starred in five movies, toured the entire country plus Argentina, and had her own lavish show at a casino. She had been a star for a decade before a Broadway impresario saw her perform and offered her a contract.
It was only after arriving in New York that she was molded into the “Brazilian Bombshell.” She dressed up in high platform heels, adopted the tutti-frutti turban, the colorful and outrageous clothes and jewelry as her uniform. Her performances became a hybrid for everything that was Latin American without being anything specific. While wildly successful in America and Europe, this look was less of a hit in Latin America. Many people couldn’t identify themselves in the characters Carmen portrayed, as she seemed to embody everything — and nothing — at once. Brazilian, Mexican, Cuban, Argentinian… All cultures were hinted at, but never fully embraced or developed, which was true of many of Hollywood’s productions at the time.
Carmen’s first movie, Down Argentine Way, had very little of the true Argentine way, which angered many moviegoers in that country. It was, however, a great way to introduce Carmen to the world. Though she did not act, she performed three songs, including the classic “South American Way.” The movie was one of the first made under the “Good Neighbor Policy” of FDR’s government on the eve of the Second World War. Carmen was very aware that she was part of something bigger; that she was, in a way, responsible for building cultural bridges between North and Latin America, as well as serving as a sort of unofficial ambassador for her country. She took part in other movies that would promote this view, such as 1941’s That Night in Rio and Weekend in Havana.
Her greatest movie parts came in 1943’s The Gang’s All Here and 1947’s Copacabana (with Groucho Marx), though she would continue starring in movies until 1953’s Scarred Stiff, in which she shared the screen with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. She also had a string of hit songs and performed live constantly – sometimes with multiple engagements on the same night. Always the professional, she would stick to the image for as long as her audiences wanted it.
In her later years, Carmen Miranda finally started to break from the mold and show the range of her talent by taking control of her own career and the roles she wished to perform, though she was only moderately successful in those goals. Her “bombshell” persona was still too strong. She would continue joking that “[I] make my money with bananas!” and would still wear her famous turbans. But she started removing her turban during the show just so she could joke that she actually had hair. “See?” she would say as she released her hair, “it’s mine and it’s real, but not the natural color. I changed it for a movie. Now I walk down the street with blond hair and people go ‘oh, she looks like Carmen Miranda!’”
She worked so hard and so much — due both to her own professional work ethic as well as exploitative contracts — that she eventually fell into the trap of using pills to keep up with her workload, pills to help her rest, and alcohol to wash them all down. In the ’40s and ’50s, the dangers of barbiturates were not as widely known as they are today. Her personal life was also taking its toll, with a bad marriage and the realization that, at her age and with a prior miscarriage, she could no longer expect to have children.
Carmen’s last public appearance was on The Jimmy Durante Show, in 1955, where she almost passed out but gamely finished her performance. Later that night her heart gave out and she died, at the age of 46.
Today it is not as unusual to be a Brazilian in America, so I have not been asked many of the outrageous questions people faced years ago (Are there cars in Brazil? Do you live in a jungle?). In some ways, we are too familiar. The Oxford English Dictionary now recognizes “Brazilian” as not only a native of Brazil, but also as a style of waxing; and since Carmen’s death we have become not only the country of soccer, but also of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
My mother tongue — the beautiful Portuguese of Carmen Miranda’s jokes — is spoken by some other 220 million native Lusophones living in the world. Our Spanish-speaking cousins, who number 470 million worldwide, share with us the Latin dominance of the Americas. This goes back to the time when Spain and Portugal were empires, a bit before the Brits, and long before the Soviets and the Yankees. Though there is not much left of those Iberian empires now, we have inherited their tongues. With the exception of humongous Brazil, Lusophones are a tiny bunch in terms of area and population: Portugal; Mozambique; Angola; Cape Verde; Guinea-Bissau; São Tomé and Príncipe; Macau; Equatorial Guinea; East Timor; Goa, Daman and Diu (in India); Batticaloa (in Sri Lanka) and Malacca (in Malaysia).
Since moving from Brazil to New York City, I have had Carmen Miranda on my mind constantly, which seems like a common phenomenon for Brazilians in general and Brazilian artists in particular. I had always felt myself to be on the side of Carmen’s fans, believing that those who criticize or dismiss her don’t understand the complexity of her character or the times she lived in, but it’s only recently that I have started to think about her more seriously. After some time away from home, it becomes ever easier to identify with Carmen’s plight — to understand how hard it is to sound like yourself in a different language.
Carmen faced many risks in leaving her beloved Rio: that of being lost in translation outside of Brazil; of returning home to find that she no longer fit; of being in a constant state of exile, as if a person could somehow get lost in the crossing of geographical and cultural borders. She felt the need to live down stereotypes and clichés while constantly being asked to embody them, while still being looked up to as a cultural ambassador of a culture so rich and diverse that no one single person could possibly represent it. To add to all that, there was the fact that she was claimed as both Brazilian and Portuguese due to her birth, and that these two countries that shared a language and had a common history would battle for recognition as her true home. No Brazilian artist has ever dealt with all of these issues on the same scale as Carmen Miranda, because no Brazilian artist has achieved a level of international success comparable to hers in her prime. She remains a model to which we can aspire and from which we must learn.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I paid the obligatory visit to Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It was my own sort of pilgrimage. My goal was to find a little piece of Portuguese-Brazilian history: Carmen Miranda’s hand and foot prints. She is still the only South American to have had the honor of being immortalized in concrete there (not to be confused with the Walk of Fame outside the theatre).
In the crowds, amidst the confusion of my fellow visitors, I failed to locate her slab of cement on my own and had to ask for help. It took two attendants and a computerized map to show me to the spot I was looking for — no one working there even knew who Carmen Miranda was. I half expected her to be exiled somewhere out of the way, but no, she was neighboring Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. “To Sid, VIVA! in the South American Way. Carmen Miranda. March 24th 1941.”
VIVA! – a celebration of life. It resonated with me. I remembered that when Carmen performed her self-defense song against the claims that she had been “Americanized,” she sang wittily: “I say eu te amo and not I love you.” But the thing is, she sang both. In matters of the heart — and of art — there are infinite ways to get the point across.
Carmen Miranda at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, 1941.
Author’s Note: If you want to learn more about Carmen, check out the 1995 documentary Carmen Miranda: Bananas is My Business, by Helena Solberg, as well as the biography Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda, by Martha Gil-Montero (both in English). Other great sources (in Portuguese) include the brilliant biography Carmen: uma biografia, by Ruy Castro, and Baiana internacional: as mediações culturais de Carmen Miranda, by Simone Pereira de Sá. Carmen Miranda’s movies and show clips are easy to find online, including – and especially – on YouTube.