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A Forgotten Star: The Untold Story Of Cuban Actress Estelita Rodriguez

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Cuban actress and singer Estelita Rodriguez.

Estelita Rodriguez was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated Hispanic actresses in the 1950s. She was a rising star whose talents in singing and acting brought her to the United States.

She worked as a character actor in a variety of different performances, including the musical “The Black Crook.”

Very little has been written about her life, which was cut short when she was tragically mysteriously murdered at the age of 37. No autopsy was ever conducted.

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Her story has found new life in the new historical-fiction book “Find Me in Havana.” Author Serena Burdick fills in the details of her life through the perspective of her daughter, Nina Lopez.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Burdick about her book, which is the Sundial Book Club selection for the month of March. You can join the club here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: Did you go to Nina before you started writing this book? Did you want her blessing?

BURDICK: Absolutely. About two years ago, I told her I was interested in writing the story and I went down, visited her and interviewed her with tape recordings. I wouldn't have attempted to do the book without her blessing. Her interview tapes were what informed the book. And that's why I told it from her perspective as well because the story that I was given at that point was all from her side of things.

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Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick

How would you describe Estelita Rodriguez?

Vivacious, very funny and just full of life and energy. She was the life of a party always. And in her movies, you see that sparkle, that laughter. Her daughter describes her like that in real life as well. It's interesting because on camera there's this really larger-than-life Hollywood side of her and then, there were a lot of dysfunctional things going on in her life as well. I liked putting those together, which is why I didn't really focus on the real glamorous Hollywood side of her life too much in the book, because the undercurrent was all of this stuff that she was carrying from her childhood, from her father, from her difficulty with men throughout her life that ultimately ended really very tragically.

She was never able to get out from under those circumstances that she had internalized her whole life. But I think that her side of her acting side was a break away from her much darker side in real life — you see her just take this extreme sparkly side of herself in Hollywood.

A tragic part of the story was how Estelita wants to have her career and fulfill her dreams — but she's a mother. And she accepts that she just can never be fully there for her daughter. What did Nina tell you about her relationship with her mother?

That was a heartbreaking side of the story. Nina is very open about it. She loved her mom so deeply. She was her only parent. Nina had no father figure other than lots of men that came and went in her life and she wanted a connection with her mother that she was never able to have. Being shipped off to boarding school was tragic for her. She describes it as just never wanting to be apart from her mom and these fleeting moments where she would get to go somewhere with her mother, or be on set, and then that would disappear and she'd be stuck back in boarding school again.

She was waiting and waiting for her mother to just be with her. For her, the moment before her mother died was going to be that moment. Estelita had finally left a final husband. And she had never done that before with such a clean, clear way, according to her daughter. And she said to Nina, “it's just going to be the two of us now.” And then she very tragically dies very quickly after that.

How about the part of the story where they’re in Cuba? Tell me a little bit about how that unfolded and how you wanted to handle that because you're talking about a big historical moment.

That one of my favorite parts of the whole book. I was most intrigued with that side of the story. Estelita’s father was the chief of police for [Fulgencio] Batista and they went back to try to get him out because they were very worried for his safety because he wouldn't leave. And they didn't realize that when they got back they would be surrounded and put on house arrest.

Nina has a very interesting perspective of those months in house arrest. That's an incredible moment in history. It's an incredible moment in Cuban history. And then to have these women that are educated, talented and not in any way in their life at the mercy of men at that point, because even her sisters who were in Cuba were successful. And to have them all in this completely submissive house arrest position with all their different personalities, those family dynamics felt really good to dig into, and those are really hard to make up.

Nina had very little memory of what went on with her mother and her sisters at that time. So I used the idea of what that would look like if your really famous sister, abandons her entire family and then shows up and now you all are stuck in a house together for six months and have to deal with stuff you've never had to talk about or look at.