The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Elvira Quintana

This article originally appeared in The Mexican Film Bulletin

The life and career of Elvira Quintana is perhaps no more tragic than that of many other artists who died young, but for some reason the story of this young woman who, having worked all her life to achieve fame, was struck down after a few brief years of stardom, seems sadder and more poignant than most. Unlike Pina Pellicer, she did not commit suicide, nor was she killed in a plane crash like Pedro Infante or Fanny Cano, or in an automobile accident like Viridiana Alatriste; she was not murdered, as were Ramón Gay and Agustín de Anda. Instead, one of the most beautiful actresses in the history of Mexican cinema slowly succumbed to a long and painful illness, which claimed her life at the age of 33.

Elvira Quintana was born in Bajadoz, Spain, in November 1935. At the age of five, she came to Mexico with her mother and sister, refugees from the Spanish Civil War, which claimed her father's life. As a teenager, Quintana and her sister worked in a shop in Mexico City to help support their family; later, Elvira worked in her spare time to help pay for her studies. Quintana enrolled in the Instituto Teatral y Cinematográfica de ANDA [the actors' union], a school founded by Andrés Soler to train young people in the art of acting. Quintana completed the entire three-year course, even though she had already begun to receive small parts and extra roles in films as early as 1952. She also worked in radio, and appeared in plays under the direction of Salvador Novo, including "El Presidente Hereda," "Los Girasoles," and "Albertina."

In her early screen roles, Quintana acquitted herself well, but gave little indication she would become one of the most popular performers in Mexico within a few short years. In the 1955 Biblical comedy Lo que le pasó a Sansón, she appears with her former maestro Andrés Soler, and is sixth-billed as "Miriam." Co-starring with Tin Tan in this picture was Ana Berta Lepe; like Elvira Quintana, Lepe was a young woman who had long desired a film career, and had worked very hard to achieve it. However, Lepe was now well on her way to stardom, thanks in no small part to her status as "Miss Mexico 1953," and her respectable showing in the subsequent "Miss Universe" pageant. Elvira Quintana still had another year or two to go.

One step the aspiring actress took was to visit a plastic surgeon. Although attractive, the young Elvira Quintana was not a classic beauty, due to her rather prominent nose. This was adjusted surgically and her career began to accelerate. Although she had the female lead in the four-film "Tigres del Ring" series (1957), Quintana's first real chance at stardom came in 1958, with Bolero Inmortal. This long (105-minute) Calderón production, directed by Rafael Portillo and starring Ramón Gay, gave Quintana the opportunity to sing and dance, in the role of a young woman who becomes a famous stage performer but whose personal life is filled with romantic strife. Oddly enough, Quintana very rarely returned to such "serious" dramatic fare in her subsequent film career; most of her screen time was devoted to rancheras, with some Westerns and contemporary comedies thrown in.

As the decade of the 1950s ended and the 1960s began, Elvira Quintana's popularity grew. She was a regular on the "Noches Tapatías" television show, and appeared in radio- and telenovelas such as "El dolor de amar," "Adriana" and "Felipa Sánchez, La Soldadera." Her "majestic" beauty and imposing presence were not always utilized to their utmost, but she was quickly elevated to the upper rank of "folkloric" musical stars (ironic, given that she had been born in Spain), although she did perform and record music of diverse genres.

The star maintained close ties with her family, particularly her mother, doña Alejandra Molina, and her sister Juanita. Elvira said that the day she met a man who was a "complete gentleman," "I would get married and retire to the peace of home." Apparently, the ideal man never came along, since Elvira Quintana never married.

In the fall of 1967, Quintana--who had not made a film since the previous year's Los años verdes, in a rather unflattering role surrounded by younger actresses--fell ill with acute pancreatitis, a painful inflammation of the pancreas. This in turn led to kidney problems, necessitating dialysis treatments, at a cost of 4,000 pesos per session. In February 1968, she seemed somewhat better, and was released from the hospital. Despite her illness--which forced her to remain seated during the recording sessions--Quintana returned to work, appearing in 50 chapters of the radionovela "El Hipócrita" for XEW, until she became too ill to continue, and was readmitted to the hospital. She would be hospitalized on and off until her death, later that summer.

Rumors were rife at the time--and continue to be brought up today when her death is discussed--that Elvira Quintana's fatal illness was brought on by silicone injections she had received to enlarge her bust. Silicone injections--as opposed to silicone-filled implants--were first utilized in post-WWII Japan. The technique, involving injections of silicone between the pectoral muscles of the chest wall and the back of the mammary tissues, migrated to the United States and the rest of the world within a few short years. There were many problems with silicone injections, although a direct cause-and-effect relationship with kidney disease (or cancer, or other deadly diseases) was not clearly established. However, the problems with injections led to the development of breast implants, which were first used in 1963 (and which eventually had their own set of problems). The origin of Elvira Quintana's medical problems was never clearly identified, and thus speculation still exists that her death may have been caused--directly or indirectly--by silicone injections.

In June 1968, Quintana fired her physician and sought out specialists in pancreatic and kidney problems. There was talk of a trip to the United States for treatment and a possible kidney transplant. However, at the beginning of August she was admitted to the Centro Médico del IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social). On 8 August, Elvira Quintana suffered a cerebral embolism--the result of hypertension caused by her kidney problems--and died. She was 33 years old.

Many well-known performers attended Quintana's funeral, saddened by the death of their friend and compatriot. Several years afterwards, in a final poignant gesture, doña Alejandra Molina, vda. de Quintana, paid for the printing of a book of poetry written by her daughter. "Poesías de Elvira Quintana" was published by Costa-Amic in 1971; the 239-page book contains 200 previously-unpublished poems by the actress, who had often stated that writing poetry and listening to music were her favorite pastimes. [the book was reprinted in 1998 in conjunction with the "Homenaje a Elvira Quintana"}

Elvira Quintana worked all of her life to achieve stardom, and made many personal sacrifices to reach her goal. A beautiful woman with a romantic soul, she never married. Despite a desire to have a home and family, she found neither of these. And yet even the fame and fortune that she finally gained in exchange were, in the end, all too fleeting.

But she does have a measure of immortality--the image and voice of Elvira Quintana are preserved on film forever, a bittersweet reminder of a star that burned brightly, if only for a brief moment in time.

Posted on the WWW on 24 March 1998 by the author, who may be reached at