The day after the 1966 military coup in Argentina, a single picture of a forlorn girl with bushy black hair appeared in the newspaper El Mundo. The sparse comic strip was accompanied by the words: “So, what they taught me at school . . . ”
Fortunately, that famously unfinished sentence — attentive readers understood its veiled criticism — went unnoticed by the generals. So did other irreverent observations by that enfant terrible Mafalda, a cartoon character who is an icon of Hispanic culture, as adored today as half a century ago.
Her creator, Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón, better known as Quino, who has died at the age of 88, captured the spirit of a generation roiled by regional political and economic turmoil. Today, the deliciously naughty six-year-old, who hated soup but loved The Beatles, remains as famous as Argentina’s other beloved heroine, Evita Peron.
Promoted by intellectual giants such as Umberto Eco, Julio Cortázar and Eric Hobsbawm, Latin America’s best-selling and most widely-translated comic strip is “a phenomenon that exceeds anything to do with graphic humour,” Quino’s editor, Daniel Divinsky, said.
Influenced by Charles Schulz’s North American comic strip Peanuts, Mafalda’s precocious character combined childish innocence with adult themes in a way that transcended class, politics and age. She was ahead of her time as a feminist and an ecologist, and was an acerbic critic of consumerism, organised religion — and, especially, politics.
One of her friends, Libertad, or Freedom, was drawn especially short “because freedom always seems small”, as Quino once said. As for her famous dislike of soup: “It was really an allegory about . . . the governments one had to swallow daily, especially in the dictatorship era in Latin America.” Mafalda’s pet tortoise was meanwhile called Bureaucracy. When asked why, she replied that she needed more time to answer, but could not say how much.
“What makes him so great is his enormous critical capacity and his sharp observation on one hand, and his tenderness on the other. In Quino you have a wise old man and a 10-year-old child all in one,” said Argentine cartoonist Juan Matías “Tute” Loiseau, describing him as “the father of modern graphic humour in Latin America”.
Enigmatic and in later years a recluse, Quino was born in 1932 to Andalucían Republican immigrants in Guaymallén, a small town in the Andean winemaking province of Mendoza. His working-class parents died while he was a teenager, and he moved to Buenos Aires in 1950, dreaming of becoming a cartoonist — his uncle was an illustrator.
In 1960 he married Alicia Colombo, a chemist who became his agent, and Mafalda was conceived three years later for a domestic appliance advert that was never published. Her rebellious character was born as a comic strip in 1964. When the next military junta seized power in 1976, Quino fled to Milan, only returning when the dictatorship ended in 1983. “Had I kept drawing her, they would have shot me,” Quino once recalled.
Mafalda allowed Quino to make uniquely Argentine jokes about economics that remain alarmingly relevant today. In one strip, Argentina’s historical penchant for printing money is lampooned by a friend of Mafalda who expresses surprise at how “nicely ironed” the banknotes are. In another strip, when Mafalda hears about price controls, she quips: “And how much does good sense cost?”
“[Quino] said with humour what nobody dared to at the time, and in such a way that it could not be censored,” said Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2014 — although Quino once said Mafalda “would not have liked” the former leftist Argentine president, who also printed money and imposed price controls while in power, because of her arrogance and pride.
Sadly, Mafalda’s great hope for world peace — she dreamt of becoming a UN translator — was never realised. Indeed, when Mr Divinsky last saw Quino in January, the illustrator told him he “was really worried because he thought that his worst fears were becoming reality”.
Quino, whose wife died in 2017, divided his time between Buenos Aires, Madrid, Milan, Paris and Mendoza, and is survived by five nephews, one niece and, of course, his cartoons.
Translated into 26 languages, including different dialects of Chinese, English was the last major language to hold out against Mafalda’s charms. According to Mr Divinsky, that was because a US book agent complained she was “too sophisticated for North American children”.
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