By Efrain Nieves and Victoria Cepeda
Every now and then we bump into facts about Latinos that are unknown to the majority of us, mostly because the events have long taken place and no one cares to “dig stuff up” or because it is inconvenient to divulge. As a result, we are sort of “cheated” out being credited with significant contributions to, in this case, the U.S. Film and Entertainment industry. Such is the case with Juano Hernández who was born on July 19, 1896 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hernández was the first Afro-Latino to become a major star in the United States and one of the first Black screen actors. His success is attributed to Sidney Poitier’s “high visibility and success” in the film industry. After Juano Hernández moved to New York City, his recognized work is as noted:
- Co-starred in radio’s first all-black soap opera We Love and Learn and took part in several other soap operas such as Mandrake the Magician, The Shadow, Tennessee, Jed and Against the Storm.
- His Broadway debut was in 1927 in the musical production Showboat as part of the chorus and also appeared in the Broadway shows Strange Fruit and Set My People Free.
- In 1932 he made his first film appearance on The Girl from Chicago produced by Oscar Micheaux
- In 1949, he made his first mainstream film debut in Intruder in the Dust based on William Faulkner’s novel. The film earned him a Golden Globe nomination for “New Star of the Year”. Film historian Donald Bogle said that Intruder in the Dust broke new ground in the cinematic portrayal of blacks, and Hernandez’s “performance and extraordinary presence still rank above that of almost any other black actor to appear in an American movie.”
- Other films where Hernández received recognition were Stars In My Crown and The Breaking Point (1950), Trial (1955) and The Pawnbroker (1965).
Hernández died in San Juan on July 17, 1970 and is buried at Cementerio Buxeda Memorial Park, Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico.
Consequently, we celebrate Hernández’s contribution and work as one that merits to be brought to light. Although Puerto Ricans like Rita Moreno, Jose Ferrer and Benicio del Toro have won academy awards, it is men like Hernández that truly paved the way for Afro-Latinos and Blacks to earn recognition in an era where color did matter.