The Latin American Idol

How a Mexican show helped to construct a patchy and ill-defined “Latin American” identity.

Wiki Commons.

Mexican actor Roberto Gómez Bolaños died last week, aged 85. Chespirito (which means “little Shakespeare” in Mexican Spanish), as he was known, created, scripted and starred on many successful TV sitcoms, such as “El Chavo del Ocho,” “Chespirito” and “El Chapulín Colorado.” These shows were broadcast throughout Latin America. Actually they were broadcast in every Spanish-speaking Latin American country (though only for a few days in Cuba), as well as in Brazil (dubbed into Portuguese).

Even though the bulk of the shows were taped in the 1970’s, and most of them had stopped production by the early 1990’s, most Latin American countries still have networks carrying reruns of the shows and they still return decent ratings. So, even though their characters are unmistakably Mexican–they speak with Mexican accents, use Mexican words, and joke about Mexican geography and popular culture–Chespirito’s shows are ingrained into the patchy and ill-defined “Latin American” identity.

Chances are that, if you grew up in Latin America in the past four decades, you watched Chespirito’s shows and you know–whether you like them or not–most of their jokes. Even if you didn’t pay particular attention to the show, you were bound to become familiar with its tropes somehow. Because the genius of Gómez Bolaños was that he was both simple and repetitive: his characters were practically cartoons, always wearing the same outfits, each with a distinct way of crying and a limited set of catchphrases. They were archetypical, which allowed Chespirito to turn his routine and his characters’ jokes into slang and common sayings throughout the region.

His characters were easily digested because they were  symbolic, representatives not of a person in particular, but of a social type found anywhere. There was Quico (played by Carlos Villagrán), the spoiled kid in the neighborhood; there was La Chilindrina (played by María Antonieta de las Nieves), the smart ass brat; and there was Don Barriga (played by Édgar Vivar), the perpetual landlord who is fixated on collecting rent, but not on fixing broken things.

Granted, Gómez Bolaños’s most famous, and probably most beloved character, Chavo del Ocho (played by himself), had very peculiar circumstances: he was a young orphan who lived in apartment 8 of a building in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City, but prefered to sleep inside a barrel in the communal patio, where he could meet other kids to play and find adults to ask them for food in exchange of menial jobs. “El Chavo” happened precisely at a time when many Latin American economies were moving from rural to urban, and when many newly arrived people from the country filled cities’ suburbs. It was the perfect scenario for him to become the proverbial poor kid trying to survive day by day, a hero from the slums for millions of children in similar situations.

Diego Armando Maradona, the Argentinian footballing legend, grew up in Villa Fiorito, Buenos Aires, which was, like Chavo’s neighborhood, a shantytown. In 2005, Maradona had Gómez Bolaños on his interview show (yes, Maradona had an interview show). There, Maradona declared Chespirito to be his idol, and he said he thought Gómez Bolaños’s humor was “clean, constructive and harmless.” Later, he confessed that “El Chavo” had helped him get through his addictions. He mentioned that even during bad moments in his life, when he watched ‘El Chavo’, he “felt relaxed and tranquil.”

This is a sentiment that is echoed throughout Latin American households. Networks air Chespirito’s shows because they are cheap (they have already preproduced), but also because people continue to watch, despite the fact that the jokes will always be the same. And people watch because they feel there is something of them in Chespirito’s characters (Don Ramón, played by Ramón Valdés, for example, perpetually owes 14 months of rent, but he can’t pay because first he has to make sure he and his daughter survive).

Chespirito, more than any sport or any cultural institution, can truly unite Latin American countries. But his death has reignited criticisms to his shows’ legacy, as well as to his own standing as the only truly Latin American celebrity. Yes, we all grew up with his shows. And yes, they have given us a rare common cultural reference. But was that a good thing?

First, most of his humor was based on physical violence, and in particular on physical violence towards children (characters who were children, played by adults, but still children in the eyes of many viewers). This can be problematic from a contemporary viewpoint, especially when many, if not all, Latin American countries have struggled with the issue of domestic violence.

Also, to some commentators, Chespirito’s shows are detrimental for social struggles. Poverty is accepted as an unfortunate, but ultimately immutable fate and any semblance of social mobility is depicted as a mere fantasy. As Mexican researcher Raúl Rojas Soriano puts it, “El Chavo” is “a dire reflection of societal problems, but the show made no effort to address these issues.” Nonetheless, it still remains debatable if the function of TV, or fiction in general, is to educate people on social, or ethical issues.

Others have chosen to focus on Chespirito’s brilliant repetitive narrative structures. This is the case of Colombian Carolina Sanín, who thinks that “watching ‘El Chavo del Ocho,’ which seems like a domestication process and a mnemonic technique, was always to remember it. And when I remember El Chavo, I feel I remember a memory.”

Of course, both things can be true: Chespirito’s shows, and “El Chavo” in particular, have fascinating narratives, with problematic contents. But perhaps more troublesome is Gómez Bolaños’s political stance. A convinced conservative, he appeared in ad campaigns against abortion and in favor of PAN (Mexico’s right-wing party) candidates and eventual presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón.

Also, during the height of his shows’ fame in the late 1970’s, he and his cast toured every Latin American country where his characters were broadcast, including Chile and Argentina, which had been very recently become dictatorships. In his autobiography, from 2005, Chespirito argued that he and his cast were unaware that Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, where they performed in 1978, had been used by Chilean dictator as a political prison just five years earlier. He also said that if they had known, they would still have performed, because the people wanted them there. Finally, he thought that, under that logic, nobody should be able to perform on El Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square), where hundreds died during the Mexican Revolution.

So, though disconnected from its social and political struggles, Chespirito and his characters remain Latin American icons, which is why many cities in different countries honored his life after his passing. Yet, while his life and political work will from now on be mentioned only briefly, his shows will still be running on Latin American TVs, with the same jokes repeating ever again, creating new common denominators between different countries and generations.

Further Reading

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