Entertainment, Commercialized Sex, and Scandal on the Mexican Silver Screen

Pamela J. Fuentes, Pace University, NYC

On the silver screen, a newspaper page announces the debut in Panama of cabaret singer Raquel Serrano, “the famous model.” The next short scene shows a passenger ship sailing on the sea and, immediately after, a neon sign: “Welcome to Panama’s Paradise.” The camera moves to show a cabaret scenario where Raquel sings and dances for a mixed gender audience, but composed mostly of men and, specifically, of sailors. During one of the numbers, a male singer and a dozen of young female dancers join Raquel in a song with marriage-mocking lyrics. After three songs, the last one a solo number, a sailor comes up to the stage and kisses Raquel on the cheek while she looks with disdain to her former lover, who looks at her drunkenly and despairingly.

These scenes are from the Mexican movie La Diosa Arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess), which premiered in Mexico City in 1947. When I started writing “’White Slavery’ and Cabarets: Mexican Artists in Panama in the 1940s” for the Winter 2021 issue of the Journal of Women’s History, I often thought about using this film as part of my analysis, but in the end, I did not include it. The guest editors’ call for applications for this Special Issue on the topic of Migration, Sex, and Intimate Labor had an interesting premise: to create a dialogue between the gendered and sexual history of migration and the history of globalization and mobility. Analyzing ideas surrounding “free” and “forced” migration, which have shaped the concept of trafficking in women since the 19th century—when it was known as white slavery—provided a great opportunity to work on some sources that I did not include in my PhD dissertation, “The Oldest Professions in Revolutionary Times: Madames, Pimps, and Prostitution in Mexico City, 1920-1952” (York University, 2015). 

This article started after I read a short file housed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, while researching the consequences of the abolition of legislation regulating commercial sex on the Mexican capital, particularly the gender dynamics associated with those laws and how they affected pimps and madams. The source I found, although related to the discourses about trafficking and how they were applied in Mexico, was different from others produced in the years I was researching. It involved the migration of Mexican women to another country, while most sources about Mexico City focused on local stories.

The few pages in that file described a case that included some of the elements and social actors represented in La Diosa Arrodillada: Mexican dancers, sailors, music, and Panama. Eventually, I found that newspapers also discussed the case. By the time the movie was released, some of the audience members were probably familiar with the scandal, which concluded, at least in the media, in 1943. Toward the end of the press coverage, Mexican officials and media suggested that there was no sexual exploitation if women did not file any formal complaints and if they decided to continue working in cabarets. For its part, La Diosa Arrodillada was also part of a successful genre that flourished during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (1936 to 1956), in which one of the most important characters was the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ who often found herself surrounded by the violence and loneliness of the growing modern city. Unlike this trope, Raquel is portrayed as a greedy and self-centered woman who travels and works in Panama without showing any hint of being exploited or trafficked. Instead, the Panamanian cabaret serves to hint at her unscrupulous behavior. 

Throughout the movie, it is not clear if Raquel sells sex, but her morals are always under scrutiny, particularly because she does not show any sign of remorse. Probably, like the contemporary policy makers at the League of Nations or in Mexico and Panama, the audience assumed that women who worked in cabarets and migrated by themselves should at least be suspected of practicing prostitution. Similarly, the audiences’ and officials’ show of empathy, as well as the protection the women could receive, depended on those women showing a legitimate desire to leave their career behind. As depicted in the movies, women’s only valid reason for staying in the cabaret was for noble sacrifice. On other occasions, cabaret workers in cinema met a tragic end only after regretting their actions.  On the screen and in real life, there were always eyes prying into the lives of cabaret workers and what they embodied: dancers straddling a fine line between art and vice, who had to be controlled or punished for the sake of society.