For a while in the 60s and the 70s, Argentina was charmed, amused and gently confronted by the musings and antics of a vivacious little girl in a comic strip named Mafalda. Her wide-ranging observations, evoked with lightness, innocence and irony, perfectly captured the everyday concerns, consternations and hidden absurdities of that era.
Mafalda wanted to discover the complexities of the world from her middle-working-class apartment in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and become a United Nations translator to fool the delegates and share only messages of peace among them. Whether demanding that her dad explain the Vietnam War ‘without the dirty bits’ when she was told it was not a problem for kids, inquiring if she should open the door to ‘happiness’ when she was instructed not to let strangers in, debating which way was ‘forward’ so that humanity could take that path, or making a call for world peace from her ‘humble chair’ as it had the same powers as the ‘Vatican and the United Nations’, Mafalda was speaking for a nation and a region that faced censorship, a dangerously fragile economy and a growing desire for democratic change.
The recent passing of the comic’s creator, Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón—better known by his pen name, Quino—at the age of eighty-eight in his hometown of Mendoza saw an outpouring of nostalgia, gratitude and grief.
Mafalda was originally envisaged to be part of an advertising campaign, but it went on to find a home in the magazine Primer Plana and then in the popular newspaper El Mundo. Here, the series put down roots and saw the addition of more characters in the form of Mafalda’s little friends, such as the idealist dreamer Felipe and the financially ambitious shopkeeper’s son Manolito. As the plots became more intricate, Mafalda’s precociousness, and her interactions with friends and her often bemused parents, became the quintessential formula for encapsulating and sensing the mood of a society plagued by the painful consequences of a weak democracy that had fallen under the control of the armed forces. The flaws, complexities and hypocrisies of both extremes of the political spectrum did not escape the little girl’s sharp yet tender satirical voice. Mafalda’s only real nemesis always remained the same: soup.
Other themes mixed these realities with the growing domination of television, and the wonder evoked by space exploration, often conveyed faithfully to Mafalda and her friends by the radio.
A few years after Mafalda finished its original run, accumulating crises soon led to the the overthrow of President Isabel Perón (under whom Quino had already received visits from the special police) in 1976. The subsequent series of military juntas wreaked havoc with the lives of thousands of citizens, and dissenters disappeared and were murdered. After the constitutional order was restored in 1983, a pioneering trial established that crimes against humanity had been systematically committed during the junta years. That trial’s closing statement ended with prosecutor Julio Strassera’s iconic remark, ‘Your Honours: Never again!’.
Quino who by then had left Argentina, travelling first to Italy and then to Spain. During this period, Mafalda gained international recognition and made a memorable appearance on behalf of the United Nations in support of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The comic strip continued to face varying forms of censorship in several nations, especially those under dictatorships, including Bolivia, Chile, Brazil and Francoist Spain; in the latter it was sold with the label ‘only for adults’.
In 1987, relative stability under the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín was abruptly interrupted by a failed coup attempt, leading Quino to support the constitutional regime through Mafalda with the slogan ‘Yes to democracy! Yes to justice! Yes to freedom! Yes to life!’.
It was a message that symbolised Mafalda, which continued to seep into the public consciousness in more nations, growing into a national and cultural treasure and transcending the confines of its homeland. Mafalda became one of the best-known figures of the Spanish-speaking world. Awards and accolades followed. Quino received Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award and France’s Legion of Honour, and Mafalda statues were erected in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Oviedo, Spain. Murals of Mafalda also continued to appear, often with timely social commentary, across Latin America and Europe. They will serve as a poignant reminder of a little girl who stood up against the various travails of her time, and who continues to remain as relevant today as she was all those years ago.
The opinions reflected are the authors’ own.
UB, 27 Aug 2020
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