Update Sunday, March 2 at 10:09am: Emilio Fernández fled Mexico in 1925 and landed in Los Angeles. We do not know for sure that he was undocumented. We’ve changed the headline to reflect what we know for sure.
The Oscar statuette is one of the most recognizable figures in American pop culture. And, as it turns out, it’s inspired by a Mexican model and actor named Emilio Fernández who went on to write indigenous characters in Hollywood.
Fernández fled Mexico in 1925 and lived in exile in Los Angeles for a decade. Studio 360 has the rest of the story:
It wasn’t long before Fernandez fell into extra work in Hollywood, where he was first called “El Indio” by the silent film star Dolores Del Rio. The nickname wasn’t exactly a compliment, but Del Rio would eventually help Fernandez become the most famous man in Hollywood.
Del Rio was the wife of MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons. Shortly after the Academy was founded in 1927, Gibbons was tasked with designing an award statuette. He’d sketched a figure of a knight holding a sword and standing on a reel of film and was looking for a suitable life model. Del Rio suggested Fernandez. She asked, he agreed.
Fernández went on to become one of the most celebrated directors of Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema. He died in Mexico City in 1986 at the age of 82. As Jorge Rivas pointed out back in 2012, the irony in all of this is that only 11 out of 2,809 Oscar trophies have been awarded to Mexicans— and they’re mostly behind the scene awards. Only 2 percent of the academy’s voters are Latino.
(h/t Studio 360)