María Herminia Pérez de León. (Mimí Derba)

9 de julio de 1893-14 de julio de 1953

Photography Mimí Derba (SIGLO XX) by Archivo ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Herminia Pérez de León, better known as Mimí Derba, was born in Mexico City in 1893. Daughter of Francisco Pérez de León and Jacoba Avendaño, she had a different education than the rest of the women of her time, trained for housework. Her mother, writer and zarzuela lover, encouraged her in the arts.

Cover of the newspaper La Prensa (SIGLO XX) by La PrensaFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

She lived through a time of dizzying changes. It was the Mexico of the cinematograph, of the arrival of the most disruptive artistic currents in Europe, of literature in other languages, of frivolous theater and the beginnings of feminism. That effervescent atmosphere definitely affected their interests.

Photography Mimí Derba (SIGLO XX) by Archivo ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Mimí Derba began her artistic career in Havana, Cuba where little by little she developed her voice and stage presence. At the age of 18, she made her debut at the Payret Theater with the zarzuela “El congreso feminista” [The Feminist Congress] from the beginning, she was striking for its unique beauty and artistic qualities.

Illustration Mimí Derba (SIGLO XX) by Archivo fotográfico El Sol de MéxicoFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

 “Mimí Derba con tres partes de Afrodita y otra de Minerva” [Mimí Derba with three parts of Aphrodite and one of Minerva] is the poem by Alfonso Camín inspired by one of the first controversies that the artist unleashed, when she wore a skin-colored jumpsuit on stage that drew suggestively her silhouette, an action very scandalous for the time.

Photography Mimí Derba y María Conesa "La Gatita Blanca" (SIGLO XX) by Archivo EstoFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

The controversies around her ranged from her feminism to her political activism, being a founding member of the first actors union in 1916, which is why she lost her job. However, Pablo González, a prominent revolutionary military man, gave his support to a new phase in the Mexican cinema.

Mimí Derba in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

In 1917, Mimí Derba founded with Enrique Rojas the first production house called Azteca Films. It was rumored that he had the investment support of Pablo González. In the first year they made 5 films: "In self-defense” [En defensa propia], "Soul and sacrifice” [Alma y sacrificio], "The tigress” [La tigresa], "The shadow” [La sombra] and "The gray car” [El automóvil gris] in them Mimí Derba ventured as the first female producer, director and scriptwriter of Mexico.

Photography "El automóvil gris" (SIGLO XX) by Archivo ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

The most recognized production of Azteca Films was "The Gray Automobile” [El automóvil gris], a film that narrated the adventures of the famous band of assailants dressed as soldiers, who terrorized the inhabitants of the city during the 1920s. The film was very controversial, since there were rumors that Pablo González was associated with the band, shortly after this was denied.

Influenza Española in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by La PrensaFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

In 1918 the Spanish influenza arrived, the impact of this pandemic was felt in all the spheres of life in Mexico. Azteca Films, unsuccessfully searched for a business partner in the United States and then closed forever. Derba in her anger maintained that the great problem of the nation was its inconsistency. She never took up the project again.

Incendio Cineteca Nacional in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by El Sol de MéxicoFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Unfortunately, most of the Azteca Films films were lost in the fire at the Cineteca Nacional [National Cinema Archives] in 1982. The fire consumed the first national productions and the possibilities of knowing more about this cinema full of national landscapes and sentimental conflicts.

Photography Mimí Derba (SIGLO XX) by Archivo ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Mimí became a cultural manager after the failure of Azteca Films, and through Alfonso Cravioto she proposed to the Calles government a project to create the Cultural Center for Cinematographic Studies. The project was never heard by the president, this ended up exhausting Derba's momentum to consolidate the industry. Her career continued only on stage.

Película "Santa" in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by El Heraldo de ChihuahuaFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

“Santa” (1931) was the first sound film in Mexico, based on the work of Federico Gamboa. It tells the story of the loss of innocence in a world full of evil and lies. Mimí Derba, debuted in this new sound film playing the role of the matron of a brothel, it was then that her voice came to stay and took the title of "The voice of Mexican cinema."

Mimí Derba in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by La PrensaFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Something in the history of Derba, suggests a gradual exhaustion, this is verified when in 1938 she retired from the theater. Her colossal goodbye in Bellas Artes produced a thunderous and extensive ovation. In the “Teatricidios” column of the newspaper La Prensa, very few artists received continuous praise and recognition such as hers. They referred to her as “the gentle Derba” [la gentil Derba].

Mimí Derba in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by La PrensaFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Little is known of Mimí Derba's work on the radio and it seems fascinating. The XEQK broadcast for the first time in 1939. They announced that their proposal would mean a change in the direction of radio in Mexico. Its bet was to give the microphones to women for the first time, the main voice was Mimí Derba.

Fernando Soler in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Her brief foray into television occurred shortly before her death. Fernando Soler invited her in 1953, for a comedy program. Derba adapted her talent to the visual formats renewed so rapidly in the first half of the 20th century. With her participation, Derba was the only woman artist who transferred her performance from theater to film, first silent and then sound and finally to television.

Photography Mimí Derba (SIGLO XX) by Archivo ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Mimí Derba is perhaps best remembered today for her interpretations of a loving mother and aristocrat, whether in the film, “Ustedes los ricos”, “Salón México”, “Dos tipos de cuidado”, among others. She represented the moral voices of a privileged class that knew little or nothing of the reality of the nation.

Photography boda de Jorge Negrete con María Félix (SIGLO XX) by Archivo ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Mimí Derba is also recognized as the eternal on screen mother of Jorge Negrete. It’s said that maybe it was because of Derba's enormous resemblance, both physically and in character, to Doña Emilia the actor's mother. It was also because the duo shared a job without setbacks, a situation that did not always happen with Negrete.

Photography funeral Mimí Derba (SIGLO XX) by Archivo ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Derba and Negrete died eight months apart. Derba passed away on July 14, 1954 of complications after a fall at the end of filming “Dollhouse” [Casa de Muñecas]. La Prensa did not fail to highlight the fateful coincidence and the double great loss. In contrast, Mimí Derba's wake was poorly attended.

Mimí Derba in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by La PrensaFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

On the day of her wake there were few attendees, but among them were people with whom Mimí Derba built a good part of the film industry in Mexico. Her very dear friend and accomplice María Conesa defended her being veiled at the ANDA and paid for her tribute ceremony.

Mimí Derba in a journalistic note (SIGLO XX) by ESTOFototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña

Undoubtedly, Mimí Derba is a fascinating character in the history of Mexico, either because of her work in the talkies and silent films - where she participated in 62 films, television, radio, lyrical theater, literature and in her contributions to the film industry, the history of cinema would not be the same without her voice and momentum.

Credits: Story

Curaduría, Investigación y Textos:
Dra. Minerva Anguiano González.

Coordinación general:
Dra. Marina Vázquez Ramos.
Investigación:
Arq. Irina Escartín Arciniega.
Yolanda Ramos Ortíz.
 
Traducción al inglés:
Dra. Marina Vázquez Ramos.

Diseño Multimedia:
Jonathan Sánchez Reyes.
 
 
Organización Editorial Mexicana.
Fototeca, Hemeroteca y Biblioteca Mario Vázquez Raña.
Archivo Fotográfico El Sol de México.
Archivo Fotográfico ESTO.
Archivo Fotográfico La Prensa
Periódico La Prensa.
Periódico ESTO.
Periódico El Sol de México.
Periódico El Heraldo de Chihuahua.
 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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