Concepción Matilde Zorrilla de San Martín, known artistically as China Zorrilla, was born on March 14, 1922 in Montevideo, into a traditional Uruguayan family, with an artistic and political caste. She was the daughter of the Argentine Guma Muñoz del Campo and the famous Uruguayan sculptor José Luis Zorrilla de San Martín, author of works such as the Obelisk to the Constituents of 1830, The Fountain of the Athletes and the Gaucho Monument in Montevideo, as well as the monuments to Julio Argentino Roca and José Gervasio Artigas, which are in Buenos Aires. Her paternal grandfather was the poet Juan Zorrilla de San Martín, author of “The Epic of Artigas”, “Tabaré” and “The Homeland Legend”. He was also diplomatic minister of Uruguay at the court of the Spanish king Alfonso.
On her mother's side, Concepción “China” Zorrilla was related to José Gervasio Artigas, the main hero of Uruguay, and to the Argentine poet Estanislao del Campo, author of the famous “Fausto criollo”.
She was the second of five sisters (the eldest, Guma Zorrilla, also dedicated herself to artistic activity, as a theatrical costume designer) and most of her childhood was spent in Paris, where her father, a disciple of Antoine Bourdelle, chose to work after winning the competition for the Gaucho Monument. Later, already in Uruguay, she attended the Sacred Heart School in Montevideo. On the journey between both cities she decreed the nickname by which she wanted to be known, and thus she gave for the first time signs of her determined character. In Uruguay, when she was a newborn, they began to call her Cochona (mutation of Concha, very popular in Spain, but of ambiguous use in these lands), which is what the women in Montevideo whose first name was Concepción were called. That nickname disgusted her and in France it got worse, because the distortion of her nickname ended up being “Cochón”, which means sow. She then asked to be called “Cochina”, because it was not an insult there, but then she abbreviated her nickname, calling herself China. From then on, for everyone, she was China Zorrilla.
After finishing high school, she started in independent theater in 1943 in the group Ars Pulcra (of the Catholic Students Association), debuting in The Annunciation of Mary, by Paul Claudel. In 1946 she traveled to London with a scholarship from the British Council to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Upon her return, two years later, she made her big debut on the Uruguayan official scene, participating in the play “Una familia”, by Antonio Larreta, in the National Comedy. Later, she acted in more than 80 works as the lead actress at the Teatro Solís in Montevideo, and on several occasions under the direction of the legendary Margarita Xirgu, such as the works: “La celestina”, “Bodas de sangre”, “Sueño de A Midsummer Night” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Thanks to her enormous talent, she established herself as both a dramatic and comedic actress.
In 1961 she founded the Teatro de la Ciudad de Montevideo (TCM), together with Antonio Larreta and Enrique Guarnero, and with her cast she performed for the first time in Buenos Aires, Paris and Madrid. In the Spanish capital they dared to offer “La zapatera prodigiosa”, by Federico García Lorca, during the Franco regime. She later produced, translated and directed “An Inspector Has Arrived” and “Dangerous Corner”, by J. B. Priestley. And with the SODRE company, she staged the operas “La Boheme” and “Un ballo in maschera”.
In the mid-1960s, she took a break from her intense theatrical activity and settled for four years in New York, where she worked as a French teacher and secretary of a theater agency. It was thanks to this second job that she met comedian Danny Kaye, with whom she fell madly in love, and numerous potential stars, such as Dustin Hoffman, whom she insisted to audition for “The Graduate.” Like all the anecdotes that the actress used to tell (always superlative and surprising), this one also lent itself to doubt for years, but in the end it was confirmed when she met it again at the Valladolid Festival, and already with witnesses, He recognized her, called her by name and remembered that “push” that changed his career. Shortly before returning to Uruguay she fulfilled a dream: she starred in the off-Broadway musical show “Songs to look at,” with texts and songs by María Elena Walsh, along with comedian and lifelong friend Carlos Perciavalle.
Shortly after, a new stage in his career would begin, the most popular and successful on this side of the Río de la Plata. In 1971 he traveled to Buenos Aires to shoot his first film, “Un guapo del 900”, directed by Lautaro Murúa, and then “La mafia”, with Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. She was immediately tempted to replace Ana María Campoy in the play “The Butterflies Are Free”, that theatrical success with Rodolfo Bebán and Susana Giménez, and there she decided to stay and live in Argentina, somewhat because the job possibilities were increasingly more auspicious and also because the incipient Uruguayan dictatorship had classified her as persona non grata.
The same year that she was prevented from entering her country, 1973, here she achieved popular recognition. She was hand in hand with Alberto Migré and his telenovela “Pobre diabla”, which starred Soledad Silveyra (who came from the success of “Rolando Rivas, taxista”, also by maestro Migré) and Arnaldo André. During the shipment she was the mother of “la Quela” and her catchphrase was forever recorded in the history of Argentine television: “Mamita knows…” she said every now and then with that unique and delicious tone. In 1975 she would once again embody a unique mother (no longer hilarious but manipulative), that of Marilina Ross, in “Orange Skin.”
References and Photographs:
Gustavo Lladós, “A cien años del nacimiento de China Zorrilla, la gran artista del Río de la Plata”, La Nación: https://www.lanacion.com.ar/espectaculos/teatro/a-cien-anos-del-nacimiento-de-china-zorrilla-la-gran-artista-del-rio-de-la-plata-nid14032022/
With the fervor of the public on his side, he resumed his theatrical career in the country, a career that never had pauses or setbacks. Since then there has not been a season that did not have his presence on the Buenos Aires billboard and/or in the rest of the country, achieving hits such as “Fin de Semana”, by Noel Coward, “Querido liar”, “La Voz Humana”, by Jean Cocteau, “Nice to meet you”, by Oscar Viale, “A daisy called Mercedes”, by Jacobo Langsner, who later starred in films with Leonardo Sbaraglia, under the title “Kisses on the forehead”, “Delirante Leticia”, by Peter Shaffer, “The Private Diary of Adam and Eve”, by Mark Twain, together with his compatriot Carlos Perciavalle, and the phenomenon of “The Road to Mecca”, by Athol Fugard, with whom he toured the country for years and It earned him countless awards.
She also starred in “Emily”, the one-woman show about the poet Emily Dickinson, by William Luce, which Silvina Ocampo translated into Spanish, with which she toured the country and Latin America and ended with a presentation at the John Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington. . As if this were not enough, the monologue led to his triumphant return to Montevideo in the mid-80s, when democracy had returned to Uruguay. In honor of him, from then on the Teatro Alianza room was named China Zorrilla Room. Before abandoning the work, he also had the pleasure of presenting it in Tel Aviv, Barcelona, San Juan de Puerto Rico, Caracas, Quito, Lima, among various cities in the world. Another show that occupied her for years, first as a director and then as an actress, was “Eva y Victoria”, by Mónica Ottino, about an imaginary meeting between Eva Perón and Victoria Ocampo. China was obviously the aristocratic writer and founder of the magazine Sur and her interpretation could not be matched, after her, by any of the actresses who replaced her throughout various productions. She played Victoria again in “Four Faces for Victoria”, the film directed by Oscar Barney Finn about the different stages of the writer's life.
Although she had ventured a little into film in the 1970s, with a brief role written especially for her by Mario Benedetti for “La tregua,” which Sergio Renán shot and became the first Argentine film nominated for an Oscar in 1975, his career in this art developed well as he grew up and was also inexhaustible, filming more than 50 films. At first her participations were in supporting roles, then, towards the end of her career, as a protagonist, something unusual anywhere in the world for an actress who is over 80 years old. He acted, among others, in “Lady of Nobody”, by María Luisa Bemberg, “Pubis angelical” and “Pobre Mariposa”, by Raúl de la Torre, “Last days of the victim”, by Adolfo Aristarain, “The invitation”, by Manuel Antín, “The Ship of Fools”, by Ricardo Wullicher, “God Raises Them”, by Fernando Ayala and “Counting to Ten”, by Oscar Barney Finn, “Realize”, by Alejandro Doria, and “The Plague” ”, by Luis Puenzo. As the protagonist, she starred in “Kisses on the Forehead,” by Carlos Galettini, “Conversations with Mom,” by Santiago Carlos Oves, and the wonderful “Elsa and Fred,” by Marco Carnevale, which took her to film in the Trevi Fountain itself, in Rome, and which later brought him so many awards and recognitions around the world. Her last film was “Sangre del Pacífico”, directed by actor Boy Olmi. However, she will always be remembered, within that genre, as Musicardi's Elvira Romero from “Waiting for the Carriage,” the hilarious film by Alejandro Doria that has crossed generations and continues to inspire laughter and popular identification every time it is broadcast. By television. Her performance has fans who endlessly repeat entire fragments of her speeches, such as “I pout, she pouts; I make ravioli, she makes ravioli. “She, look what a coincidence!”
On the day she turned 90, in 2012, China Zorrilla retired from the stage and from public life. Her last contact with the public was at the Cervantes Theater, at 815 Libertad Street in Barrio Norte, with a read version of “Las de Frente.” At the end of the performance, leaning on a cane and arm in arm with an actor, she received a resounding ovation from a room full of audience and colleagues, who also offered her the well-known “Happy birthday” out loud. Although she always stood out for her talkativeness, only emotion and tears from her, many tears. Then she left her usual apartment, the one she lived in on the street, coincidentally, Uruguay 1231, in Barrio Norte (there is currently a memorial plaque), to live her last years surrounded by the affection of her blood family, in the house on the street September 21, from the Punta Carretas neighborhood, in Montevideo. On September 17, 2014, after being hospitalized for three days for pneumonia, she died at the age of 92. The Uruguayan government declared national mourning and her remains were laid to rest in the Hall of the Lost Steps of the Legislative Palace of Montevideo, a privilege only granted to the most important personalities in the country. Then, the funeral procession passed in front of the historic Solís Theater, and headed to the Central Cemetery of Montevideo, where the burial took place in the pantheon of the Zorrilla family of San Martín. At each of these stops, the eastern public was present and said a final goodbye to their favorite actress, the most international, the most beloved.
China Zorrilla was undoubtedly one of the most important artistic personalities of the Río de la Plata, who with her talent crossed borders and was also understood by the cultural environment of other latitudes. That is why in 2008 she received the decoration of the Legion of Honor in the rank of knight from the French government, and in 2000 the Chilean government awarded her the Gabriela Mistral Order of Teaching and Cultural Merit. For her part, in her country of origin, Uruguay, in 2011 the government honored her with a postage stamp, which she appreciated like no one else for being a lover of epistolary correspondence. In her adopted country, Argentina, throughout her stay she received the Order of May from the government, the National Arts Fund Award, recognition as an Illustrious Citizen of the City of Buenos Aires and also of Mar del Plata. and the Domingo Faustino Sarmiento Honorable Mention by the Senate of the Nation. But all these official recognitions do not compare with the affection and admiration that her peers and the public showed her throughout her 70-year career and that, from time to time, made her exclaim: “I think I have done "Things are good."