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Star of Mexico’s golden age of film still shines

Times Staff Writer

With cowboy hat and kerchief, Pedro Infante rode his dreams and a homemade guitar to the top of Mexico’s film and music worlds in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Often referred to as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one, Infante was best known as “the king of rancheras.” He revolutionized the way mariachi tunes were sung, substituting softer, more natural vocals for the traditional strident style. His repertoire included waltzes, cha-chas, tangos and romantic ballads. In all, he recorded about 350 Spanish-language songs, including his favorite, “Amorcito Corazon” (Little Love of My Heart).

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 15, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Then and Now: The L.A. Then and Now column about singer and film star Pedro Infante in the Sunday California section said the song “Yo No Fui” translated as “I Didn’t Leave.” The translation is “It Was Not Me.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Then and Now: The L.A. Then and Now column about singer and film star Pedro Infante in the Feb. 11 California section said the song “Yo No Fui” translated as “I Didn’t Leave.” The translation is “It Was Not Me.”

The legendary crooner and heartthrob electrified audiences on both sides of the border, filling the stage and silver screen with his handsome looks and dashing personality.

“He was one famous dude,” Claremont attorney Paul Gray said in a recent interview. “I saw him in the flesh at the Million-Dollar Theater in 1955, when I was 17.... The ballad ‘Cien Anos’ [100 Years] was my all-time favorite.... ‘If I ever live 100 years, I will never forget you.’ ”

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Another fan described an Infante concert as “the first great happiness of my life.”

During Mexican cinema’s golden age, Infante acted in nearly 60 films with such legends as Jorge Negrete, Maria Felix and Dolores del Rio. His films still play on Los Angeles’ Spanish-language television stations and in select theaters.

Infante performed in person at other local venues, including the California, Roosevelt, Mason and Mayan theaters.

And this April -- the 50th anniversary of his death -- his music and films will play at yet another venue: Casa del Mexicano, a Latino aid organization and community center on Calle Pedro Infante in Boyle Heights. The festival will honor the musical and cinema icon who personified the heart and soul of Mexico.

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Infante was born in Mazatlan, Mexico, in 1917, growing up with 10 siblings in Guamuchil, Sinaloa.

His father, Delfino, led a small dance band and fostered his son’s interest in music. Infante survived a bout of polio and, at age 11, was apprenticed to a carpenter. He never attended school.

“I liked to sing and wanted to learn the guitar, but couldn’t afford one,” he told a Los Angeles audience in 1945, The Times reported. “I made one in the carpenter shop and played it in our little town orchestra, which we called La Rabia” -- the Fury.

He formed his own band at 16, performing at nightclubs and in the streets for crowds that couldn’t afford to pay.

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Two years later, in 1935, he met and married Maria Luisa de Leon, a teacher, who persuaded him to try his luck on radio in Mexico City.

“Then she wanted me to learn to read and write,” he told the L.A. audience, “but I was ashamed to go to night school. We got a teacher, and now I can read and write pretty well.”

He cut his first record, “El Soldado Razo” (The Private), in 1943, when he was 26. It quickly sold 18,000 copies.

As Infante’s career exploded, his personal life imploded. He reportedly fathered a dozen children in and out of wedlock. He divorced his first wife and married actress Irma Dorantes, his leading lady in several films.

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The first Mrs. Infante challenged the legality of the second marriage, and the Mexican Supreme Court sided with her. “It was a case closely followed by millions of fans, most of whom took Dorantes’ side,” The Times reported.

In 1956, Infante won an Ariel award, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscar, for his performance in the film “La Vida No Vale Nada” (Life Is Worthless).

On April 15, 1957, Infante was on his way to Mexico City when his four-engine plane went down soon after takeoff. It crashed into a house near Merida, Yucatan, killing him, the pilot, the mechanic and a woman and child on the ground. Infante was 39.

“How nice it would be to die like a bird,” he had often told his wife, The Times reported in his obituary. Which wife was unclear. Both were on the “verge of hysterics” when they heard of his death, and both reportedly said, “I am to blame.”

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He was honored posthumously with the Silver Bear award at the 1957 Berlin Film Festival for his role in “Tizoc,” one of his last films. In 2001, he was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.

As a performer, he kept his fans close to his heart: “Everything that I am, I owe to the public, that very generous public that has given me more than I ever hoped for,” The Times quoted him in 1983.

Today, even younger generations sing along to such Infante classics as “La Que Se Fue” (The One Who Left) and “Yo No Fui” (I Didn’t Leave).

“I grew up on him,” said Paul Razo, 35, an emergency room physician at San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland. “He was part of my initiation into manhood.”

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Razo, who has a small collection of Infante’s records, said he grew up watching movies such as “Nosotros, Los Pobres” (We, the Poor; 1948) about the street people of Mexico City and their struggle to survive. “He was just as famous as Elvis, with Infante sightings and all,” Razo said in a recent interview.

Gray, the Claremont attorney, called Infante a humble man whose voice was “haunting and beautiful.”

“He was so enormously loved by the Mexican people and so unpretentious,” Gray said. “He was someone you could identify with. You could have him over and feed him some tamales and beer and he’d love it.”

In 1983, the Pasadena-based Spanish-language radio station KWKW-AM held the Pedro Infante Hour, playing all his songs and inviting listeners to share their memories, The Times reported.

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Maria Elena Garcia of El Monte told the station about the day that Infante sang at a benefit in her small Mexican town, in 1955.

“It was the first great happiness of my life,” she wrote.

When the concert ended, it was like a “bomb exploding as the crowd began to mob him.” Her mother had forbidden her to “do what those crazy girls are doing,” but Garcia threw herself at Infante anyway.

“I touched the sleeve of his shirt, and that was enough for me,” she remembered. “I still don’t understand why I felt that way. Only someone who lived through the same thing would know.”

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Jose Bonita, a mechanic and singer from El Salvador, told the station: “Pedro Infante is a teacher. From him, I learned to sing with feeling.”

Bonita’s wife, Antara, compared Infante’s talents to Nat King Cole’s.

Ana Maria Procuna Montes of Los Angeles, the sister of Luis Procuna, a renowned former Mexican bullfighter, recalled Infante’s “unforgettable gesture” when he showed up at her house on her 15th birthday.

He brought “red roses and a white one,” saying, “That one is you. And since there is no party, we’ll dance a waltz.” As they danced, he sang “Angel Mio” (My Angel).

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“I’m sure that he is in heaven,” she wrote. “What man like him would not be?”

KWKW also organized a write-in campaign to rename Euclid Place in Boyle Heights as Calle Pedro Infante, gathering thousands of signatures. The new street sign’s unveiling in August 1983 drew thousands more.

Infante’s popularity was set in stone -- black marble terrazzo -- on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.

And this April 15, Casa del Mexicano will hold a testament to his enduring popularity. The event is being planned by community members, including Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar and Ruben and Martha Soriano of Casa del Mexicano, where a bronze bust of Infante graces the hall.

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“Pedro Infante was one of my father’s favorite musicians,” Huizar said. “My family and extended family of the Boyle Heights community will use this 50th anniversary of his tragic death as an opportunity to celebrate the contributions he made during his rich life.”

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com


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