The Brownsville Herald : Local residents recall filming of "Viva Zapata!" starring Marlon Brando

The Brownsville Herald

By Victoria Hirschberg
The Monitor

ROMA, July 3, 2004 — Antonia Saenz’s movie debut came when she carried a torch to light the dynamite in 1952’s Viva Zapata!

She was 17, a recent graduate of Rio Grande City High School and made $10 a day for her role as an extra in the film depicting rebel Indian leader Emiliano Zapata, played by Marlon Brando.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Saenz, who is now 71. “It makes me think I’m young again.”

Brando, known for his roles in films like On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, died Friday of lung failure at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Regardless of his numerous roles, Brando always well be known in the small city of Roma for Viva Zapata!

In 1951, director Elia Kazan selected Roma as one of the filming locations for Viva Zapata! Saenz remembers being dressed in the sweltering Rio Grande Valley heat like an Indian peasant and watching Brando, Anthony Quinn and Jean Peters.

She said Quinn, who died in 2001, was very compassionate.

As for Brando, Saenz said he was stuck up but still has fond memories of making the movie. Of course she owns a copy of Viva Zapata!

“It’s good memories…of what I used to be able to do,” Saenz said of her only film.

R.C. Salinas was 11 when his mother would wake him for the trip to Roma from Rio Grande to watch the filming of Viva Zapata!

“I wasn’t the only young man taken out there by parents watching that movie,” Salinas, now 65, said.

He remembers the crowds of curious locals standing by and growing silent when the director yelled “Action!” Despite the heat, the female actresses wore traditional dresses as Quinn sat in front of the M. Guerra general store flirting with them during a scene, Salinas said.

The historic main plaza in Roma was a backdrop for many scenes in the movie. The Guerra store has closed but retains its historic look.

Salinas recalls Brando riding through the plaza on horseback.

Sometimes though, it wasn’t Brando.

Virgil Guerra of Roma used to step in for Brando on horseback, said Guerra’s sister-in-law, Ninfa Guerra. His parents were the owners of the M. Guerra store used in the film. Virgil has since died.

“I considered it an honor that Roma was chosen,” Salinas said. “I was very proud…it really put us on the map for a little while. (There was) The Korean War, the country was barely five years out of World War I1, Falcon Dam was under construction and then comes in Zapata.”

His favorite Brando movie is A Streetcar named Desire with The Godfather running a close second.

For then-9-year-old Noel Benavides, Brando looked huge as he rode into the plaza on his horse.

“It was exciting,” Benavides said. “Every morning…it was during the summer and it gets hot during the summer…the actors, they had fans all over the place to keep those actors cool. Summertime is a wonderful time for a 9-year-old, we didn’t have to get up for school (but) while the filming was going on, we woke up at the crack of dawn.”

He said unfortunately many locals who appeared in the film as extras have died because the movie was filmed more than 50 years ago. Several entities, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the city of Roma and the tourism department, coordinate an annual Viva Zapata! Festival to commemorate the film. The actors receive invitations, but none have attended, Benavides said.

Benavides said Brando was a great actor for many reasons besides filming a movie in Roma.

“He’s very dramatic,” he said. “He gets involved with his films. He was quite an individual.”

Posted by: Gilbert Zarate on Jul 03, 04


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