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Body of Work 

Jorge Rivero, king of the real Mexican cinema

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002

JORGE RIVERO WAS THE MAN. IN THE LATE 1970s and early 1980s, he was what every young Latino wanted to be. In film after film he'd flex his peaked biceps and perfectly chiseled abs as he played everything from a gunslinger to a playboy to a priest. He resembled a young Robert Redford, except that his hair was black and he was tanned to a gleaming brown hue. Highbrow Mexican critics shunned him as a body with no acting skills. But to most people of Mexican origin, like me, Rivero was an idol.

The son of rural Mexican parents, I spoke Spanish at home and learned English at school. Facing the problems of growing up in two worlds, I found movies almost therapeutic. Every weekend after Sunday Mass. Friends and I would take the bus from our Lincoln Heights homes to "El Centro."

There, along six blocks of Broadway, were the most beautiful and lavish movie palaces in the world -- the Million Dollar, the Orpheum, the Los Angeles, built from the turn of last century through the 1930s. Their seats were worn, the murals had chipped, and small children in the audience often cried during the best parts of the movies, but the theaters held on to their original magnificence.

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It was on one of those awe-inspiring screens that I saw Rivero face off with fellow hunk Jaime Moreno for the love of dark-haired vixen Rebeca Silva. Directed by the legendary Emilio "Indio" Fernández and photographed by the internationally famous Gabriel Figueroa, Erótica was a work of art. But most of the movies shown downtown -- including the ones Rivero starred in -- were at best churros, low-budget snacks.

To the masses in Mexico and their immigrant cousins in the United States, it mattered little that tony critics in Mexico City despised their homegrown commercial cinema, to such an extent that they rarely bothered to review such films, let alone condescend to trash them. As cheesy as they could get, these corny romantic dramas, "taco Westerns" and ficheras (featuring Mexico City's wisecracking taxi dancers) managed to speak to the people.

And the king of this cinema was Jorge Rivero, who embodied Latino male beauty as no one had before. Six feet tall and broad-shouldered, he was never shy about showing off his tan -- an anomaly for Mexico, which has been at war with its native Indian identity since the Spanish conquest. His swagger, arms-akimbo stance and sardonic smile were copied by millions of Latino men looking for an edge in the dating game. Eager to resemble Rivero, many took up diets or dumbbells. (I know I did.)

In almost 40 years Rivero would star in more than 150 movies, most of them produced in Mexico, and others in Europe, South America and the United States. Rivero -- still a striking figure, his once-black mane now white but full as ever -- lives almost like a recluse in the Hollywood Hills, in an earthy and aristocratic estate decorated with a rancher's taste for bull horns, saddles and serapes. Though still producing movies and occasionally appearing in selected projects, he is far removed from the days when he was on top of the Latino world.

"You have to learn that there comes a time when you do not have to star in your own productions or always be the leading man," Rivero would tell me in a series of interviews over three years. "Others also have to have a chance."

THE MAN WHO WOULD BECOME FAMOUS AS A sex symbol grew up in a strict middle-class Mexico City family. Though far from a straight-A student, he was enrolled in a military academy at 13 and went on to the Jesuit-run Colegio Universitario Mexicano. A natural athlete, he took up swimming in his teens, and competed in the water polo and "butterfly" swimming competitions in the 1959 Pan-American games. By the ä time he graduated from the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, he was married to Irene Hammer, a German student he met while on a school trip.

He earned a degree in chemical engineering, but "I forgot everything as soon as I left school," he says.

Bored and curious, in 1964 Rivero asked a schoolmate who was working in the movies about getting into the business. He led Rivero to a casting agent, who got him a minor role in a luchador (wrestling) movie called El Asesino Invisible (The Invisible Assassin), in which only the shadow of his muscular physique was visible.

For Rivero, things couldn't have worked out better. He landed a role in Los Leones del Ring (Lions of the Ring) when luchador films were the most popular genre in Latin America. Masked wrestling superstars like the legendary El Santo and Blue Demon were fighting the forces of evil and winning big at the box office. Finally showing his face, he starred in the black-and-white Los Jinetes de la Llanura (Riders of the Plains) when Westerns were doing well, then got his big break in 1965 as a bare-knuckled boxer in El Mexicano (The Mexican).

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