Mafalda: An Appreciation

Beatles, Democracy, Children’s Rights

Quino, Mafalda’s creator

Mafalda is the name of a comic strip created by Argentinian cartoonist Quino (pseudonym of Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón).

This beloved comic strip was groundbreaking for its time and remains so to this date.

Precocious and outspoken kids are nothing new in comic strips. From Dennis, the Menace to Big Nate, Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbs), and Charlie Brown come to mind.

“As usual, the fun ends when your feet touches the ground.” –Mafalda

Mafalda is usually compared to Charles Schultz‘s Peanuts.

The sign says: Forbidden to step on the grass. She asks, “what about human dignity?”

Except the Argentinian children is what Peanuts would look like if it was bluntly political and discussed the Cold War, hunger, poverty, gender inequality, and capitalism.

Quino made a point to showcase the children’s parents because he believed family values were as important as socio-political issues, whether it was local or international politics.

“Dad, can you explain why humanity does not function?” –Mafalda

At its height, the comic strip was published in 30 countries and translated into 26 languages, including Guaraní.

Mafalda books, Pinterest

The comic strip was exported all over Latin America, Europe, and Canada (Quebec). The Italian edition’s first print had an introduction penned by Umberto Eco himself.

Mafalda ran from 1964 to 1973 in several newspapers. However, thanks to reprints, a movie, and a cartoon, the comic strip, and its characters are still relevant and beloved.

“What is urgent does not leave time for what is important.” –Mafalda

This six-year-old Argentinian girl, with a passing resemblance to the USA’s comic strip character Nancy, and who loved the Beatles‘ music, democracy, hated eating soup, and asked uncomfortable questions about the state of the world is an international pop culture icon.

Why? What is the appeal?

Mafalda and Me

Mafalda wallpaper from Biblioteca de Mafalda

When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, you could buy US comic books and Mexican comic books in newsstands, at the pharmacy, at the corner store, even the supermarket. There were also comic book specialty stores in the metropolitan area.

“I love people who say what they think but even more so those who think what they say.” –Mafalda.

Mafalda was not published in Puerto Rican newspapers, neither you could buy it in newsstands or specialty comic books shops. So, how did I encounter her?

I first found Mafalda in the same place kids encounter left-wing and radical ideas: University. Where else?

Translation: “We send a father daily to the darn office so it can return us this?”

At first, I resented her, mostly because people said I looked like her friend Felipe (I did not). Still, she and her friends grew on me.

Mafalda was popular among college students. In effect, she was a hero. This child would rant against nuclear war, poverty, sexism, labor exploitation, capitalism, overpopulation, and war.

Furthermore, she was for labor rights, gender equality, peace, education (especially for women), and the rights of children.

Mafalda sculpture in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. Pinterest

After reading several of her reprints, I can see why the comic strip was popular and so beloved.

Sometimes, it takes a child’s perspective to point out truths the adults ignore or justify. To point out that the Emperor has no clothes, or that war and authoritarianism are bad.

“Let’s make noise kids. If we don’t rush to change the world, then it is the world who ends changing you.” –Mafalda

Finally, don’t think she hated capitalism only. She was strongly opposed to communism, the USSR, and, for some reason, she hated communist China more.

Nonetheless, there was more to Mafalda than inquisitive children with adult-like worries.

The Voice of the Middle Class

Quino, the cartoonist, and his creation, Mafalda

Quino, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 88, publicly remarked he has saddened the comic strip was as relevant now as it was in the 1960s and 1970s–because the world has not changed much.

The (world’s) problem is that there are more greedy people than interesting people.” –Mafalda

Whereas the other two Latin American comics icons, Kalimán (an Indian adventurer), and Condorito (a humanoid Condor) were poor, especially Condorito who lived in a slum, Mafalda and her friends are members of the middle class.

And the middle class identifies with her, especially since in Latin America, the middle class is as exploited as the peasantry.

Nevertheless, Quino’s genius was not in giving us a rebellious, radical child as the protagonist. Nope.

Miguelito, Manolito, Mafalda, Felipe, Susanita, and Guille

He took a lesson from writing 101 and understood conflict drives the plot. And he understood your characters are defined by how they interact with other characters.

“How does it work? Do you carry your life ahead of you, or does Life drags you along?” –Mafalda

Thus, Manolito, the son of a Gallician immigrant (gallegos are Latin America’s version of the Polish), represents capitalistic ideals.

Susanita, Mafalda‘s best friend, only wants to play with baby dolls, dreams of being a housewife, and having lots of dresses. Felipe was the idealistic dreamer but with adult dreams of a job and romance.

Meanwhile, Libertad is even more radical than Mafalda (and almost rudely so), while Miguelito is dumb but possesses a child’s innocence and worries (such as candy).

Translation: Mafalda says, “I don’t have to obey no one, mom. I am a President.” Her mother replies: “I am the World Bank, the Paris Agreement, and the International Monetary Fund.”

Thus, our feminist, pro-labor, anti-capitalist, anti-war heroine was surrounded by friends who did not share her ideas and philosophies.

Moreover, she had to debate and constantly her ideas from her friends.

There is the brilliancy of Quino as a comic strip writer. Social critique and critical thinking, but from a child’s perspective.

“Mom, what would you like to be if you were living?” –Mafalda

Moreover, the fact that every character had a different perspective forces the reader to realize how everyone sees the world differently. A message perhaps more relevant today than sixty years ago.

Felipe and Mafalda in their cartoon

Today we are quick to cancel those who disagree with us and demonize the other party rather than listen and debate. Today we are quick to assume we are right and everyone else who disagrees with us is wrong and their values perverse.

“I am not crying. I am washing away memories.” –Mafalda

And while the rich get richer, and the Right and the Left fight each other while failing to lead, the middle class suffers.

And yet, Mafalda reminds us, we should aspire more, the world needs to change and do better. For the children and everyone.

Mafalda exhibition at the CDMX Museum

No wonder she became a spokesperson for UNICEF and the Human Rights Association, among other organizations.

“If instead of troops, the world was full of orchestras, it would be wonderful.” –Mafalda

Mafalda might be a fictional character but, for those who grew up with her, she is a true hero. After all, the Emperor of Capitalism and Authoritarianism has no clothes. Let these children say it aloud.

Reader, are you a fan of Mafalda? Did you read it? What about her speaks more to you?

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March 2023