Her name was María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García, but to Hollywood, she was just Katy Jurado. She was the first Latina woman to win a Golden Globe award—and the first to be nominated for an Oscar. Katy was a trailblazer for Latina women in the industry, but, in spite of friendships and marriages among the Hollywood elite, she ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, chose to live out her life in her Mexico instead of pursuing the industry in Los Angeles.
Katy was born to a wealthy, established family in Mexico City in 1924. Her father was a lawyer; her mother, a singer who worked for one of the premiere radio stations in Mexico. Her uncle, too, was a composer. Yet, though the family had connections to the entertainment industry, acting was considered far too vulgar for someone of Katy’s familial stature. When Emilio “El Indio” Fernández offered her a role in his directorial debut, La isla de la pasión (1941), she refused, citing parental objections. The offers came knocking again in 1943 for Chano Ureta’s No Matarás, and Katy’s desire to accept was met by threats of sending her to a convent school in Monterey. Well, much to her parents’ chagrin, not only did she take the role—but she also escaped their control by eloping with another aspiring actor, Víctor Velázquez, who was 13 years her senior.
Katy’s early career was filled with roles that she’d echo throughout the rest of her acting life: the bad girls, the “other” women, the sultry sirens. Her heavy-lidded, wideset eyes, pouty lips, and ample figure gave her a striking appearance on screen, setting her apart from the generically pretty faces so common in movies. “I knew that my body was very provocative,” she said, “but also that I wasn’t beautiful, even if, I admit, my look was different and very sensual.”
Her look also carried a more weighty social component, as many of the Mexican stars at the time tended to have more European features (through nature, or by more artificial means)—the Silvia Pinals, Dolores Del Rios, and Margarita Cansinos… and in some cases, they actually were European, like Miroslava Stern, who was from Czechoslovakia. Katy was different though. She looked more like the sizable indigenous population in the country, who, as of yet, had not been significantly represented on screen—especially by someone as glamorous, poised, and assertive as Katy. Although she was relegated, for the most part, to supporting roles, villains, and vamps—and not the virginal, romantic female lead parts—her presence was an important step towards better representation of Mexico’s true diversity.
Two of her most enduringly popular films occurred early in her career. In 1948, Katy was featured opposite Mexican superstar Pedro Infante in Nosotros, los pobres, where she played a beautiful woman who was constantly oversleeping. She also won an Ariel (Mexico’s highest cinematic honor) for Best Supporting Actress in Luis Buñuel’s El Bruto, which she called one of her defining roles. She appeared in dozens of films in Mexico throughout the 1940s and ’50s, and was quite an established and popular actress in the country at that time.
Between films, Katy worked as a radio reporter, a movie columnist, and a bullfight critic. At one of those bullfights, she was approached by two Americans, Budd Boetticher and John Wayne, who wanted the striking beauty to appear in their picture, The Bullfighter and the Lady—having no idea that she was already quite an established actress. The film was shot in Mexico, but written in English—a language Katy did not yet speak—so she learned and recited her lines phonetically. It helped that she had a terrific memory, and the presence to speak with confidence even if she had no idea what the string of sounds coming from her mouth actually meant.
Soon, Stanley Kramer and Fred Zinnemann contacted Katy, having seen her as the concerned bullfighter’s wife in The Bullfighter and the Lady. They wanted her to audition for their new film, a western called High Noon. At first she bristled—she had never been asked to actually audition before—but the filmmakers weren’t certain she could play a strong, sensual role like Helen Ramirez. Katy must have been floored by that. She told them to dig a bit deeper in to Mexican cinema, and perhaps they’d find that she was actually quite experienced at those types of roles. They did… and followed up with a contract. She went to dinner with Budd Boetticher after signing the contract, who said he had a surprise for her: Gary Cooper. Meeting the “heartthrob,” as she called him, was “incredible.”
Katy never expected that High Noon would become one of the most beloved and well respected westerns ever made, or that it might receive award consideration from Hollywood. A few months after the film had come out, she traveled to Uruguay to attend a film festival, putting High Noon out of her mind. There, she received a phone call, but spotty long-distance wiring at the time meant she could only make out a few scrambled words: “Oscar, Oscar.” Her first thoughts were not of a little gold statuette though—because her brother was also named Oscar, and she was terrified that the phone call had been attempting to communicate some terrible news about him. She returned hastily to Mexico, and discovered that brother Oscar was fine—but High Noon had been nominated for several Oscars, and they simply wanted her to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles. Katy herself won the Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress, which marked the first time a Mexican woman had claimed that award.
In 1954, Dolores Del Rio was all set to work on Twentieth Century Fox’s production of Broken Lance, but U.S. immigration withdrew her visa before she could enter the country. (One theory is that she was too affiliated with leftists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.) But this represented an opportunity for Katy, who entered the role as Spencer Tracy’s wife—a 24-year age difference. Upon arriving, Katy reported that Spencer asked her, “Who are you supposed to be? My wife or my granddaughter?” She also said that he never called her “Katy” while they worked together—that name, in his mind, was already spoken for—so he called her “princess,” instead.
For her work in the film, Katy received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first Mexican woman, and the first Latina, to be nominated for an Oscar. She lost to Eva Marie Saint’s (debatably leading) performance in On the Waterfront, but Katy broke that door down, nonetheless.
Katy never pursued a studio contract, as she preferred to return home to Mexico after each picture was completed in the United States. Despite that limitation, her career was dotted with some of cinema’s most iconic directors—Sam Peckinpah, John Huston, Stephen Frears—and actors—Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley. Though she valued success in the States, it wasn’t more important than her life in Mexico. “Hollywood was never my goal,” she noted. She continued to act in the United States, Mexico, and Europe until the late ’90s, in films and on television. “I didn’t take all the films that were offered, just those with dignity.”
Katy died in 2002, at the age of 78, at her home in Cuernavaca. Although her name may not carry the same recognition today as Rita Hayworth or Dolores Del Rio, Katy’s contributions echoed throughout the industry, and throughout history. “She planted the Mexican flag in the U.S. film industry, and made her country proud,” said Mauricio Hernandez, leader of the National Actors Association in Mexico, at the time of her death.