Finding Their Roots: Cebu's Little Cinderella in Hollywood

Would you believe me if I told you that the first Filipino actor in Hollywood is from Sibonga, Cebu?

With lead actor Victor McLaglen in "A Girl in Every Port" (1928)

Editor's Note: I was fascinated with genealogy and family history when I was in university and it never ceased to amaze me about finding your roots. This is why I took History and started tracing my family tree. This time, after watching episodes of Finding Your Roots by Henry Louis Gates and Who You Think You Are.

In the glittering world of Hollywood, where dreams and ambitions intertwine, there emerges a remarkable tale of a Filipina actress who defied the odds, shattered stereotypes, and made her mark on the silver screen. Her name was Elena Jurado, also known as Lena Jacobs, and her journey from the rustic shores of Sibonga, Cebu, to the glamorous streets of Hollywood is a captivating story of resilience and tenacity.

Unveiling a Hidden Gem

Wilfredo Pascual, a Filipino writer, stumbled upon Elena Jurado's story in the dusty archives of the San Francisco library in 2008. What began as a chance discovery would soon become an obsession. Pascual meticulously pieced together Elena's life story, sifting through archives, periodicals, ancestral records, and manuscripts. He was on a mission to shine a light on this forgotten star.

Elena's tale begins in the picturesque town of Sibonga, Cebu, where she was born on May 19, 1901. Her parents' unconventional union symbolized the complex backdrop of the Philippine-American War, with her father, Mark Jacobs, serving as a U.S. Army Sergeant and her mother, Placida Jurado, a local from Sibonga.

U.S. Army men out for a good time outside Camp Jossman (1911)

She spent her early years at the U.S. Army base at Camp Jossman in Guimaras where she grew up mingling with children of American personnel and officials. By living an idyllic childhood with an American lifestyle around here, it makes sense for Elena to aspire to achieve her American dream.

A Bride at a Tender Age

Elena's life took an unexpected turn at the tender age of 13 when she married Ira O. Jones, a 33-year-old American post office clerk from Indiana. Her mother's written consent permitted this union, and it was a marriage marked by uncertainty. Ira had a previous family in the U.S., leaving Elena and her mother without financial support from her father, who had already moved to the United States with his American wife.

In 1919, just a day after Elena's 18th birthday, she and Ira set sail for San Francisco, California, seeking a brighter future. Their initial venture into gold mining in the Sierra Mountains yielded little success, prompting them to relocate to San Francisco. Elena, determined to make her way in a new land, pursued studies in wire transfer technology with hopes of becoming a radio operator.

The First Glimpse of Stardom

Elena's entry into the world of Hollywood was serendipitous. She came across a newspaper article about the production of the Arabian film "White Hands" in 1922. The article highlighted the challenges in finding the right cast, particularly actors with an Arabian appearance. Elena decided she had to be a part of this project and approached the studio, despite facing discouragement.

Elena Jurado in "A Girl in Every Port" (1928)

Her determination caught the attention of Hobart Bosworth, the film's lead actor, who recognized her potential. Elena was cast as a dancer in a café in the film, and her graceful performance left a lasting impression. Bosworth was not only impressed but also somewhat distracted by her presence on set.

The Rise to Fame

Elena's talent and charisma quickly propelled her into the limelight. Within six months, newspapers in San Francisco and even the Washington Post recognized her as "The First Filipino Movie Star." Her journey from obscurity to stardom became an inspiring tale of success.

Intimate scene with lead actor Victor McLaglen

In an interview with Venerando Gonzales, Elena emphasized the importance of education and opportunity for women. She believed that given the chance, women of any race could rise to prominence. Elena was not just a trailblazer but also a voice for women's empowerment.

Overcoming the Odds

Elena Jurado's journey to success in Hollywood during her time was indeed marked by significant racial barriers and challenges, including the prevalence of Asian stereotypes, the concept of the "Yellow Peril," and the persistence of Asian tropes in films. Her ability to overcome these obstacles is a testament to her talent, determination, and resilience.

Model Asian Stereotypes

Hollywood often portrays Asian characters using harmful stereotypes. Asians were frequently depicted as submissive, exotic, and one-dimensional characters, perpetuating harmful misconceptions about their culture and identity.

As a Filipina actress, she faced the challenge of breaking free from these limiting stereotypes. Her background was different from the commonly portrayed East Asian characters, but she still had to navigate the industry's preconceived notions about Asian roles.

With other actresses and lead actor Erich von Stroheim

Elena's determination and talent allowed her to challenge these stereotypes. Her role in "White Hands" as an Arabian dancer showcased her versatility and broke away from the typical Asian characterizations. Her graceful performance captivated audiences and demonstrated that Asian actors could portray a wide range of roles beyond the stereotypes. Aside from her native Cebuano, she speaks four foreign languages - English, Spanish, French, and Italian.

Yellow Peril

The "Yellow Peril" was a term used to describe the fear and xenophobia toward Asian immigrants, particularly in the United States. This fear was fueled by prejudices and misconceptions about Asian cultures and their perceived threat to Western society.

Ironically, she was also known as the "Swede." Her dad remarried one.

She faced the stereotypes associated with the concept. Hollywood's portrayal of Asian characters often played into these fears, further perpetuating discrimination and bias. By humanizing her characters on screen, she showed depth and complexity in her roles by undermining the fear-based narratives. Through her performances, she demonstrated that Asians were not a monolithic threat but individuals with unique stories and talents.

Asian Tropes in Films

Hollywood films of Elena's time frequently relied on clichéd Asian tropes, such as the "Dragon Lady," the "Fu Manchu" villain, or the submissive "Lotus Flower." These tropes reduced Asian characters to simplistic and often negative archetypes.

Overcoming the prevalence of these tropes was a significant hurdle for Elena. She had to navigate an industry that often favored these well-established and familiar characterizations, making it challenging for Asian actors to land diverse and meaningful roles. Despite her best efforts, she wasn't casted in more prominent roles later in her career as the industry shifted from the silent to the sound era. Although she may have starred in a few more films, many don't have credits under her name.

Jurado is credited for her first film appearance with "White Hands" in 1922

She was way ahead of her time. In fact, she tried to promote the idea that U.S. movie producers should feature the Philippines as it should be. At that time, most Americans didn't even know about their far-flung colony at all.

Her Hollywood success was groundbreaking not only for her personal achievements but also for the broader impact it had on challenging racial barriers and stereotypes in the film industry. Through her talent and determination, she helped pave the way for greater diversity and representation of Asian actors in Hollywood, contributing to a more inclusive and accurate portrayal of Asian cultures and identities in cinema. Her legacy serves as a reminder of the power of individual determination in dismantling stereotypes and overcoming racial barriers in the entertainment world.

A Twist in the Fairy Tale

However, Elena's Hollywood fairy tale took a different turn in 1923. She filed a lawsuit against the Motion Picture Utility Corporation, seeking $2,261 in unpaid fees and expenses incurred while filming in the Philippines. The ambitious project to turn San Francisco into a second Hollywood had failed to attract enough investors, leading to financial disputes. Elena's case against the production company was eventually dismissed. Her action alone reminds us that she is ahead of her time just as today, a century later, when writers, actors, and other industry creatives went on strike against the very same industry.

Jurado sued the Motion Picture Utility Corporation in 1923

Despite this setback, Elena continued her silent film career in Hollywood. She appeared in several films, often in minor roles, alongside Hollywood legends like Victor McLaglen, Dolores del Rio, Fay Wray, and Louise Brooks. Her filmography, though not extensive, showcased her talent and resilience.

The Later Years

As Elena's film career continued, her personal life underwent significant changes. She separated from her first husband, Ira Jones, who had been ill for some time. Elena remarried Andrew James Wingate, a draftsman from New York, and they had a son together. Elena also worked as a kindergarten teacher during this period.

Elena's journey came full circle when she passed away on her 73rd birthday, May 19, 1974, in a Los Angeles County home for the elderly. Her grave marker simply read: "Mother, Elena J. Wingate, 1901-1974." There are no records indicating that she returned to her native Philippines, the land that could have embraced her as their "Island Cinderella" and the first Filipina movie star to shine in Hollywood.

Elena Jurado's story is not just a tale of Hollywood glamour but also a testament to the indomitable spirit of a Filipina who defied the odds, overcame stereotypes, and left her mark on the world's most famous film industry. Her legacy lives on, inspiring generations to chase their dreams, regardless of their background or the barriers they face. Elena Jurado, the first Filipina actress to grace Hollywood, will forever be remembered as a pioneer and a symbol of unwavering determination.

Elena Jurado's Family Tree

Generation 1
1. Robert B. Wingate, son of Andrew James Wingate and Elena Jurado. 

Generation 2
2. Andrew James Wingate was born in 1914. He married Elena Jurado (daughter of Mark Lewis Jacobs and Placida Jurado).
3. Elena Jurado (daughter of Mark Lewis Jacobs and Placida Jurado) was born on 19 May 1901 in Sibonga, Cebu, Philippines. She died on 15 May 1974 in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, USA.

Elena Jurado and Andrew James Wingate had the following child:
1. i. Robert B. Wingate (son of Andrew James Wingate and Elena Jurado).

Generation 3
6. Mark Lewis Jacobs (son of William Edward Jacobs and Cindona Antonia Culver) was born on 12 Dec 1877 in Shiawassee, Michigan, USA. He died on 14 Jan 1967 in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, USA. He married Placida Jurado.
7. Placida Jurado.

Placida Jurado and Mark Lewis Jacobs had the following child:
3. i. Elena Jurado (daughter of Mark Lewis Jacobs and Placida Jurado) was born on 19 May 1901 in Sibonga, Cebu, Philippines. She died on 15 May 1974 in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, USA. She married Ira O. Jones in 1914 in the Philippines. He was born on 16 Apr 1881 in Indiana, USA. He died on 26 Mar 1942 in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, USA. She married Andrew James Wingate. He was born in 1914.

Generation 4
12. William Edward Jacobs (son of Francis Jacobs and Prudence Lincoln) was born on 23 Feb 1840 in Rutland, Vermont, USA. He died on 04 Sep 1925 in Shiawassee, Michigan, USA. He married Cindona Antonia Culver.
13. Cindona Antonia Culver was born on 06 May 1843 in Bath, Clinton, Michigan, USA. She died on 29 Aug 1918 in Corunna, Shiawassee, Michigan, USA.

Cindona Antonia Culver and William Edward Jacobs had the following child:
6. i. Mark Lewis Jacobs (son of William Edward Jacobs and Cindona Antonia Culver) was born on 12 Dec 1877 in Shiawassee, Michigan, USA. He died on 14 Jan 1967 in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, USA. He married Placida Jurado. He married Rose Larson. She was born on 09 Jun 1887 in Sweden. She died on 08 May 1957 in Mobile, Alabama, USA. 

Generation 5
24. Francis Jacobs was born on 20 Apr 1806 in Quebec, Canada. He died on 19 Jun 1870 in Genesee, Michigan, USA. He married Prudence Lincoln (daughter of Steven Lincoln and Polly Abbey). 
25. Prudence Lincoln (daughter of Steven Lincoln and Polly Abbey) was born on 13 Oct 1805 in Windham, Connecticut, USA. She died on 28 Aug 1871 in Shiawassee, Michigan, USA.

Prudence Lincoln and Francis Jacobs had the following child:
12. i. William Edward Jacobs (son of Francis Jacobs and Prudence Lincoln) was born on 23 Feb 1840 in Rutland, Vermont, USA. He died on 04 Sep 1925 in Shiawassee, Michigan, USA. He married Cindona Antonia Culver. She was born on 06 May 1843 in Bath, Clinton, Michigan, USA. She died on 29 Aug 1918 in Corunna, Shiawassee, Michigan, USA. 

Generation 6
50. Steven Lincoln was born on 04 Mar 1777 in Windham, Connecticut, USA. He died on 09 May 1872 in Genesee, Michigan, USA. He married Polly Abbey (daughter of Jeduthan Abbey and Lucretia Bement).
51. Polly Abbey (daughter of Jeduthan Abbey and Lucretia Bement) was born on 19 Mar 1785 in Hartford, Connecticut, USA. She died in 1860 in Genesee, Michigan, USA.

Polly Abbey and Steven Lincoln had the following child:
25. i. Prudence Lincoln (daughter of Steven Lincoln and Polly Abbey) was born on 13 Oct 1805 in Windham, Connecticut, USA. She died on 28 Aug 1871 in Shiawassee, Michigan, USA. She married Francis Jacobs. He was born on 20 Apr 1806 in Quebec, Canada. He died on 19 Jun 1870 in Genesee, Michigan, USA. 

Generation 7
102. Jeduthan Abbey. He married Lucretia Bement.
103. Lucretia Bement.

Lucretia Bement and Jeduthan Abbey had the following child:
51. i. Polly Abbey (daughter of Jeduthan Abbey and Lucretia Bement) was born on 19 Mar 1785 in Hartford, Connecticut, USA. She died in 1860 in Genesee, Michigan, USA. She married Steven Lincoln. He was born on 04 Mar 1777 in Windham, Connecticut, USA. He died on 09 May 1872 in Genesee, Michigan, USA



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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Finding Their Roots: Cebu's Little Cinderella in Hollywood
Finding Their Roots: Cebu's Little Cinderella in Hollywood
Would you believe me if I told you that the first Filipino actor in Hollywood is from Sibonga, Cebu?
Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger
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