“Lo central es que, en vez de una visión ascendente y exitosa, Mafalda—la niña/joven—desenmascaraba las frustraciones, las dificultades—cuando no directamente las imposibilidades—que ese proceso de modernización sociocultural imponía a los varones y las mujeres de clase media: las limitaciones de los proveedores, las frustraciones de las madres y amas de casa, las impugnaciones de las nuevas generaciones al orden familiar.”
(“At the heart of the matter is the fact that instead of offering a vision of upward mobility and success, Mafalda—the girl/youth—laid bare the frustrations and difficulties—if not impossibilities—that the process of sociocultural modernization represented to middle-class men and women: the constraints on fathers’ ability to provide, the frustrations of mothers and housewives, the challenges of new generations to the established family order.”)Isabella Cosse, Mafalda: historia social y política (2014)
A little girl sits on the stoop of her family’s apartment building in Buenos Aires. As she watches, a military officer walks past, carrying a briefcase. Then, a worker, hard hat on his head. Next, a priest in his cassock. Finally, a cat strolls by. The girl gets up and goes inside to find her mother. She asks, “Which sector of a democratic society do cats represent?”
And just like that, in five frames, Quino, the man behind Mafalda, crystallizes the political, social, and spiritual history of Argentina between 1930 and 1989: the military, the Church, and organized labor duking it out on the political stage while the middle class, represented by Mafalda, sat by and watched it all go down.
I bought my first Mafalda book when I was 16 years old and read it on my way home from my weekly rehearsal with the youth orchestra of the Universidad Nacional de Misiones. I was hooked from the start, and began purchasing one each time I’d saved the money, until I had all 10 of the individual volumes. My relationship with the orchestra was fleeting, and didn’t last past graduation from high school, but my relationship with Mafalda has endured, and will endure. After all these years, I can quote the strips verbatim, and even though I’ve read them a hundred times, each one still makes me laugh until I cry.
More than just “the funnies,” though, Mafalda and her friends are a window into the life of the Argentine middle class between 1964 and 1973. Published from 1964-65 in the magazine Primera Plana, from 1965-67 in the newspaper El Mundo, and then from 1967 to 1973 in the weekly Siete Días Ilustrados, Quino’s sophisticated political and social commentary, whose humor stems from its emergence from the mouths of babes, is nevertheless incredibly perceptive, highly observant, and sharp as the proverbial tack.
There is, of course, Mafalda herself, the younger, disruptive eyes of the average nuclear family in Buenos Aires, apartment dwellers, breadwinning male and domestic female. The central theme of the comic strip is the youngster’s attempts to understand the world around her, an effort which ironically takes place in tandem with her parents’ attempts to do the same. It is an ongoing dialectic in which the child serves to awaken the parents to just how much they themselves do not understand.
Later in the life of the strip, Quino gives birth to Guille, the little brother, and in many ways Mafalda’s Mafalda. In the same way that she acts as a conceptual check upon her parents, Guille challenges her own notions of what is right and how things work. Thus does Quino create a three-dimensional generation gap, parents and older and younger siblings playing off one another in order to understand the world around them, to the latter fresh and new, to the former changing unrecognizably fast, and equally confusing to all.
Then there’s the rest of the bunch: Felipito, Argentina’s Charlie Brown, the hopeful intellectual whose schemes and dreams generally blow up in his face; Manolito, petit bourgeois of the group, whose father immigrated from Spain and now owns a supposedly successful general store (although we only ever have the boy’s childish impressions as proof); Susanita, future housewife and present airhead, happily eager to surrender her autonomy to a socially respectable male provider, singlehanded epitome of all Argentine middle class prejudices and airs; Miguelito, a new Perón in the making, demagogue to Mafalda’s democrat, quick to pontificate but never quite able to close an argument; and Libertad, the last to join the gang, a tiny rebel with big ideas, Quino’s nod to the emerging radicalized left and a definite sign of complicated things to come.
Quino stopped writing Mafalda in 1973, on the cusp of Juan Perón’s return to the country and to power, arguing that the world was changing in ways that he didn’t know how to illustrate. The situation in Argentina was too raw and too real to allow for caricature, and in many ways it had left the little girl behind. In any case, censorship of the press was ramping up to new levels, and the sharpness of Quino’s political and social commentary might not have been as humored as it had been in the past. So, in a between-the-lines sort of way, the character’s disappearance stands as her final comment on the Argentine condition: she stopped talking because there was nothing more she could say.
Mafalda exists and engages the reader on a number of levels. First and foremost, it is fun and endearing; many people come to Mafalda, as I did, at a young age and enjoy it simply for its humor and loveable characters. As one progresses to an older demographic, the deeper meanings hidden within and behind the punch lines begin to emerge, and the reader realizes the true nature of Quino’s legacy. At its heart, Mafalda is a heuristic key to a nation, and the little girl and her friends a Greek chorus, presenting a humorous (and human) take on an often humorless (and inhumane) reality. As such, no library of Argentine history and society is complete if Mafalda is missing from its shelves.
©2021 – Vance Woods