University of Glasgow
If you have spent much time on social media in the past few weeks, you have probably encountered many different memes that try to find the lighter side of our battle with COVID19. Perhaps as language students you might have also noticed that the idea of what is funny and even the source material for humour can vary from place to place. Of course, there is universal comedy: Charlie Chaplin and Mr Bean have proven that certain comedy can successfully travel the world and delight the lives of many, crossing cultures and continents with great ease. However, as we think about the culture of Spanish-speaking world, it is worth considering what type of comedy has thrived over the years and has even been recycled in new ways during our current times.
Sometimes something very local has wide acceptance. As someone who has lived in Mexico, I never cease to be amazed at just how many other Spanish-speakers from different countries have come to know and love the famous children’s TV programme El chavo del ocho. Full of Mexican terminology (many a person has asked me what a torta de jamón is – it’s a ham sandwich – or what tacos taste like), it makes direct reference to what Mexican children know and love. However, its now iconic characters have been made into COVID19 memes and short videos that poke fun at our times – for example, one of the main characters, Don Ramón, going a bit crazy at home to send up how we tend to pass our time during quarantine. My favourite, however, is simply one of Don Ramón looking at himself in the mirror and seeing himself as a goner (his reflection is a skull). The captions give us the current context “Tú llegando a casa después de que un señor estornudó a tu lado/Arriving home after a man sneezes next to you”, underlines just exactly how a different text can give a new lease of life to a image or series of images.
If you briefly study the Latin American memes from our recent times, you might notice certain patterns emerge. They poke fun at the origins of the virus. They underscore the inability of governments to control the pandemic. They criticise themselves and their neighbours with a self-deprecating humour that mirrors British humour. We can also observe how Latin America is affected and influenced by the rest of the world. Like the Argentine comic Mafalda, whose young characters would discuss and dance to the music of The Beatles with their friends (and could never understand how one of the other characters didn’t like it) as it became part of our shared global history, the new memes also show how the global finds reference in the local situations. Sometimes the humour is local, at other times more universal.
While many Mafalda topics became leitmotifs within the world that its author Quino created, two Mafaldian topics spring forth and are relevant to Latin American memes on our recent times. One is the reoccurrence of soup, the meal Mafalda hated the most and which, according to the cartoonist, represented the undesirable things in life that are forced upon us (just like a virus, quarantine, social distancing, and so forth). The other is Mafalda’s continued concern with a globe that acts as a kind of metaphor for the real world in which we live. She would listen to it with a stethoscope, take its temperature, bandage it up when she thought it was unwell, or simply tell us to be quiet because it needed a rest. It was an excellent and effective way of using wit and child-like innocence to offer important social commentary, as often occurs with humour. Though firmly rooted in Argentina, and now more than half a century old, this humour makes levity and causes us to take pause – features also present in the memes of our times. These comics and memes show that the Spanish-speaking world reflects about its role in the world, cares for it, and laughs at it as well.