Archival Spaces 276
Remembering Cuban Film Star Xonia Benguría
Uploaded 20 August 2021
In October 2017, UCLA Film & Television Archive screened a new 35mm restored print of Casta de Roble (1954) in the massive retrospective, Recuerdos de un cine en español: Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960. Its star, Xonia Benguría, died in Astoria, N.Y. on 31 July 2021 after sixty years in exile. Earlier, in July 2016, Luciano Castillo, Director of the Cinemateca de Cuba, had hand-carried a dupe negative of the film, along with several other pre-revolutionary Cuban films to Los Angeles from Havana for preservation. In Casta de Roble, a young peasant girl, played by Xonia Benguría, who also wrote the script, has a baby by the master of the plantation, which is taken away from her. She marries and has another son, but the loss of the child has scarred her for life. Shot mostly on location in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, the film visualizes the harsh life of peasants and workers in a sugar economy, where only a privileged few at the top benefit, while the workers are enslaved as tenant farmers. Directed by Xonia’s then-husband, Manolo Alonso, the film had a keen sense of style, its social realist narrative enlivened by many compositions quoting Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovchenko. Given that for five decades the Communist government suppressed the knowledge of any filmmaking activity in Cuba before 1959, the film was a revelation.
Born in Cuba on 4 October 1924, Xonia Benguría grew up in privilege. Her family’s extensive sugar plantations allowed her father to become a well-respected calligrapher, her mother a dedicated housewife who encouraged the artistic ambitions of her three children; Carmina, an older sister, became internationally known for reciting poetry. At twelve, young Xonia was sent to Averett College’s prep school in Danville, Virginia, to learn English. Returning to Cuba a year later, she had ambitions to act and sing and made her debut in May 1944, singing her own songs at Havana’s Teatro Auditorium. She followed that up by acting in the play “Petit Farándula” at the Teatro America, and a radio play, “Rendezvous at Five.” Shortly after the end of World War II, Benguría went to New York to study with Frances Robinson Duff, the “foremost dramatic coach” in America who had trained the likes of Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, and Miriam Hopkins.
Returning to Cuba in the late 1940s, she married the actor Alberto Garrido from the Afro-Cuban comedy team of Chicharito (Garrido) and Sopeira (Federico Piñero), and gave birth to a son. She co-starred with the duo in two Cuban musical comedies: Escuela de modelos/School for Models (1949) and Cuando las mujeres Mandan/When Women Rule (1951), both directed by José Fernández. In the first film, she played a scantily clad nightclub dancer-singer. The latter featured the comic duo as Cuban nationals who desert from the Korean War and land in a country run by Amazonian women. Treated as sex toys by their two female captors (Benguría & Olga Uz), they lead a successful revolt for machismo. The films seem typical for Cuban film productions of the period.
After Xonia divorced Garrido, she married Manolo Alonso with whom she had a daughter. A prominent film director and close confidant of Cuban President, Ramón Grau San Martin, Alonso was born in Havana in 1912. In 1938, he started the 1st Cuban newsreel, Noticiero Nacional, and was involved in founding Cuban television in 1950. Alonso directed his first feature, I am Hitler (1944), a series of satirical sketches, and, Siete muertes a plazo fijo/Seven Timely Deaths, a thriller-comedy in 1950. Alonso probably met Benguría while he directed Garrido and Piñero short films, and hoped to star her in Leonela, which remained unproduced; based on the 1893 novel by Nicolás Heredia about the colonial sugar industry on the verge of bankruptcy, exploited by ruthless big-city merchants. But nothing in the couple’s biography could predict the ideological turn away from Hollywood-style comedy to Casta de Roble, which in exploring the plight of the poor in a rural society followed the lead of Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez’s Mexican films, like Río Escondido (1948).
The project came to fruition when Xonia showed her script for Casta de Roble to David Silva, a well-known Mexican actor who agreed to star. Alonso hoped to hire Gabriel Figueroa as cameraman, who was unavailable but managed to secure the Spanish cinematographer, Alfredo Fraile, who would shoot J. A. Bardem’s The Death of a Cyclist (1955). Hailed as a new beginning in Cuban cinema, Casta de Roble (1954) met with unanimous praise in Cuba and abroad, where Columbia picked up distribution.
Unfortunately, it was the last Cuban film for the couple, who would divorce, remarry, and divorce, again in exile. After the revolution in 1959, Castro asked Alonso to build up the Cuban film industry, but he declined for ideological reasons. After the intervention of the Japanese Ambassador, Jotaro Koda, the family was allowed to leave Cuba, arriving in Miami in December 1960.
In exile, Manolo Alonso directed La Cuba de ayer (1960s), a compilation of pre-revolution newsreels. Meanwhile, Xonia Benguría worked in New York Latinx theatres, including the Teatro LATEA, IATI Theater, Nuestro Teatro, and INTAR Theatre. In 1989, she starred in the premiere of Luis Santiero’s “Lady From Havana,” and received raves from the Miami New Times: “Creating very different characters in the course of one evening, and giving both roles depth and honesty, is an acting challenge, but these women make it look easy. Xonia Benguria commands center stage as the Queen Mama Beba, and portrays Gloria in Act Two with a fragile dignity.” Xonia had hoped to come to L.A. for the premiere of Casta de Roble’s restored print, but age and illness prevented it.
For more information on Manolo Alonso, see Alejandra Espasande Bouza’s excellent article, “Manolo Alonso: A Cuban cinematic pioneer, http://alejandra-espasande-bouza.blogspot.com/2008/10/manolo-alonso-cuban-cinematic-pioneer.html. Many thanks also to Fabricio Espasande Bouza, who pulled together a ton of information on Benguría and translated it for me. See also Hollywood Goes Latin. Spanish-Language Filmmaking in Los Angeles, ed. by María Elena de las Carreras and J.C. Horak (Brussels: FIAF, 2019).