Humour as Resistance: Mexican Comics & Cinema

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A review of Humour as Political Resistance and Social Criticism. Mexican Comics and Cinema, 1969-1976, by Leticia Duran Neria.

Leticia Neria’s dissertation contributes to the existing body of scholarship which utilizes popular culture within its historical context. Her dissertation deals with comics and movies released during the presidencies of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz (1964-70) and Luis Echeverria Alvarez (1970-76). The comic books include the titles Hermelinda Linda and La Familia Burrón, and a “hybrid” comic Los Agachados. The movies analyzed in the study include Alfonso Arau’s El Águila Descalza and Calzonzin Inspector, Luis Alcoriza’s Mecánica Nacional and Alberto Isaac’s Tivoli. Neria studies both the comics and the movies using the theoretical framework of humor in commenting on the social context of the historical period tackled.

The first chapter introduces the theories and frameworks to be used in the study. While there are several perspectives towards the term “humor,” Neria opts for Umberto Eco’s suggestion of an umbrella concept to recognize everything as humor, encompassing jokes, parodies, ironies, and the like. While the dissertation moves away from the terminology of humor, she clarifies her use of the terminology by stating that humor is both an intellectual and social act, since one laughs due to socio-intellectual stimuli. So what makes someone laugh? The first aspect is incongruity or something that is out of the ordinary. Another aspect is exaggeration, whether it is with the character’s physical features, or the way they speak or act.  But why resort to humor? The author cites the relief theory by Freud stating that adults living a stressful situation seek to relieve this stress, which is what the unconscious is doing. However, instead of simply leaving it to the subconscious, humor allows these socially taboo topics to be discussed and ridiculed, thus creating relief, though temporarily, to the people consuming such humor. Related to this is the superiority theory, which speaks of how one is temporarily empowered by laughing at the object of the joke. This is true in situations where the object of the joke is a person with a higher social standing. Reiterating the theory of incongruity, humor also allows for a context of breaking rules or social norms, which once again empowers the consumer of the joke. Thus the author ends her notes on humor by quoting Freud in stating that jokes (or in this case, humor) are able to disguise one’s thoughts with valuable content without much liability.

The second chapter provides background for the periods under discussion: the presidencies of Diaz Ordaz (1964-70) and Echeveria (1970-76). The Cold War context created a tenuous situation for Mexico, which wanted to be a model nation not only among Latin American states, but also in the world. This meant “protecting” the nation from the communist threat, which led not only to the imposition of restrictive laws, but even the massacre of student protesters prior to the opening of the Olympic games. This was met with equally violent resistance. Despite the fact that the Mexican economy was improving during the presidency of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, the came at the cost of development focused mainly in urban areas without trickling into the peripheries. His successor, Luis Echeverria Alvarez attempted to veer away from his predecessor’s reputation, by leading via “soft dictatorship.” He supported media projects but also took care to censor issues contrary to his views. Among those he supported was the left-leaning newspaper Excelsior, as well as the films examined in this dissertation. He also gave importance to education and agricultural reforms. Amidst this soft dictatorship was an increase in violent clashes between guerrilla groups and pro-government supporters. Guerilla groups such as the Asociacion Civica Nacional Revolucionaria (ACNR) and Partido de los Pobres (PDLP) – which were established in the rural areas – and Grupo Popular Guerrillero (GPG) and La Liga Communista – which were urban groups – were primarily composed of youth who were critical of the discrepancies in lifestyles in both areas regardless of the reforms implemented by government. To counter these groups, the government established the Halcones, to silence the rebels, and the Direccion Federal de Seguridad (DFS), which collected information to combat the rebel groups. However, since both groups resorted to violence, the presidency of Alvarez did not seem to stray far from that of his predecessor. A final note in the chapter mentions the jipitecas, or hippies, who were disapproved of by government, but who were not actively oppressed. The jipitecas influenced cultural circles, hence were not an immediate threat to either side. This movement would simply fade away due to the intolerance of society.

The third chapter deals with analyzing the three comics using the theories outlined in the first chapter within the context of the period outlined in the second chapter. The chapter works with forty-five issues of Hermelinda Linda, seventy-eight issues of La Familia Burrón, and thirty-seven issues of Los Agachados. Hermelinda Linda was originally entitled Brujerias by artist Oscar Gonzalez Guerrero in 1965. However due to stricter measures by the government, Guerrero opted to keep the theme of witchery and included humor to the stories, renaming the series Hermelinda Linda. The series features a grotesque looking witch Hermelinda Linda Gonzalez who uses her craft for anyone who could afford to pay her fees. Despite this policy, her magic would only work well for those who deserved it, hence customers who chose to use her magic for evil means would end up with horrible side effects.

Gabriel Vargas was tasked with creating a series to compete with the popular work Los Supersabios, which he entitled Los Superlocos in 1938. In 1953, he changed the name to La Familia Burrón, which would eventually become Mexico’s longest running comic. It showcases the family Burrón, composed of father Regino (a barber), mother Borola (a housekeeper), children Reginito and Macuca, and adopted son Forfito. Stories revolve around the family’s interaction with the realities of Mexico City and the people living in it. Thus with the realities of the city, stories always conclude with no happy ending for the main characters. But rather than accept this cruel fate, the characters continuously challenge this fate, story after story.

The final work was made by Eduardo de Rio, who was also the creator of the popular Los Supermachos. Los Agachados was a continuation of Los Supermachos, after pressure from the government forced him to tone down his criticism of authorities. On 1968, he transferred to a different publisher and changed the title of his series. Unlike the previous two series, Los Agachados comprises an entirely fictional village that represented a microcosm of Mexico at the time. Furthermore, de Rio veered away from standard practices in comics of the period and included methods such as collage. After introducing the works, the author then introduces sub-themes from the theories introduced earlier in the dissertation.

The fourth chapter then shifts the perspective from comics to movies. While the study focuses on selected works from 1969 to 1976, the author provides a brief background of the Mexican movie industry as a whole. The 1930s witnessed the reputed Golden Age of cinema in Mexico, followed by a slump in the industry whose cause has sometimes been attributed to a perceived repetitiveness of cinematic themes. By the 1970s, this slump was deepened as Hollywood movies began to dominate the industry. After the massacre of 1968, President Echeveria was eager to regain the lost trust of his countrymen, and so he invested in several media projects. He assigned his brother, actor Rodolfo Lands, as the president of Banco Cinematografico, which financed movie projects; and his sister, Margarita Lopez Portillo, as director of the Direccion de Radio, Television y Cinematografia, which dictated the types of projects filmmakers had to do in order to gain state support. This reflected the “soft dictatorship” of Echeveria. After providing this background, Neria then discusses and analyzes the films chronologically, starting with Arnau’s El Águila Descalza. The movie features a factory worker, Poncho, with an alter-ego, El Águila Descalza, a masked avenger who fights for the rights and defends his fellow workers from Chicago gangsters causing trouble within the factory. The second piece is Alcoriza’s Mecánica Nacional. The film revolves around a middle-class family who drives to the countryside. Each member of the family plays exaggerated stereotypes of Mexicans, while their roles and their interactions with the extraordinary situations they encounter provide commentary on Mexican society. Arau’s Calzonzin Inspector is a political comedy about Calzonzin and his friend, Chon Prieto, who enter a town and are mistaken for an inspector and his assistant. The movie progresses with the town’s elite attempting to hide their discrepancies and corruption from the false inspector, who himself enjoys the special treatment given to him. Given the overall criticism towards authorities for their corrupt behavior, it was a surprise and marvel that this film was permitted to be shown at all. The final film to be examined is Alberto Isaac’s Tivoli. Tivoli deals with an eponymous nightclub, and the performers struggling to fight against its illegal closure. In the end, power wins over and the club is eventually shut down. It is a curious dialogue between what is perceived as a space unwelcomed by the Mexican government due to its immorality, and the corrupt powers-that-be who use illegal means to achieve their goals. The chapter then continues with an analysis of the four films employing the theories outlined in the first chapter.

The concluding chapter neatly wraps up the dissertation by revisiting the author’s goal of connecting three concepts: humor, visual culture, and the regime of Echeveria. Neria seeks to understand the appeal of humor to its readers and viewers, by examining the extraordinary opportunities it gives them: the open discussion of taboo issues, the sense of relief it can provide, and the chance to break rules, among others. Furthermore, it is through humor that authors are able to criticize government and readers are able to know the state of affairs in Mexico.

Karl Ian Uy Cheng Chua
Assistant Professor
History Department and Japanese Studies Program
Ateneo de Manila University
Asia Public Intellectuals Fellow
Department of Socio-Linguistics
Hitotsubashi University
kchengchua@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Comics, including Hermelinda Linda, La Familia Burrón, and Los Agachados
Films, including Alfonso Arau’s El Águila Descalza and Calzonzin Inspector, Luis Alcoriza’s Mecánica Nacional, and Alberto Isaac’s Tivoli

Dissertation Information

University of St. Andrews. 2012. 293 pp. Primary Advisor: Will Fowler.

Image: La Familia Burrón [Cosmovisión]

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