Today’s guest post is by Isabella Cosse, an independent researcher for the National Science and Technology Research Council and the University of Buenos Aires. She is the author of numerous books, including Pareja, sexualidad y familia en los años sesenta and her new book, Mafalda: A Social and Political History of Latin America’s Global Comic. In Mafalda, Cosse examines the history, political commentary, and influence of the world-famous comic character Mafalda from her Argentine origins in 1964 to her global reach in the 1990s.
In Argentina, the government took drastic measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic early on. Despite an acute economic crisis, on March 19 the government decreed a mandatory nation-wide lock-down. The aim was to prepare the healthcare system while slowing down the spread of the virus. A month and a half later, with the national death toll at less than 300, there seems to be no doubt that this was the right strategy, especially when compared to the terrible situation faced by other countries where the government failed to take action in time.
That does not mean things have not been hard in Argentina. Nor that what lies ahead will be easy. The most vulnerable sectors of society are struggling just to cover their basic food needs, even with the aid provided by the government. Winter is only weeks away and when it finally arrives it will aggravate the situation. Wage-earners with a steady job and middle-class independent workers have also been hit by the effects of the pandemic, as they face a shrinking labor market and dwindling salaries in a context of mounting inflation. Tension and uncertainty dwell in every household. Conflicts and anxieties simmer just below the surface, ready to erupt at any moment.
As a way of dealing with the situation, people have taken to social media like never before. News on the virus and its effects naturally spread like wildfire, but so do memes and jokes. As in other crises, humor in its various forms makes it easier for us to navigate these hard times. It allows us to laugh at the tensions that we face on a daily basis, serving as a relief valve. As Freud said, humor acts on our emotional state, enabling us to look at something unpleasant and even painful through the lens of laughter, thus displacing unmanageable feelings of distress. It therefore helps process conflict, functioning as an effective coping mechanism.
A few days ago, it became mandatory for Argentines to wear face masks when leaving the house. This marked a new stage in the quarantine. Seeing people walking briskly down the street, with their faces covered up and carefully avoiding each other certainly presents a disheartening picture. In that grim context, Mafalda—Latin America’s most famous cartoon character—made the news. The people of Buenos Aires woke up one morning to find that the much-loved statue of this iconic character was sporting its own homemade face mask. An anonymous fan—one of the many among the legions of readers that the comic strip has garnered in its almost sixty years of existence—had decided that Mafalda had to make a statement in this new global crisis. And not just Mafalda, but her friends Susanita and Manolito as well, who flank her sides at a prudent distance, as if mindful of the current social distancing guidelines.
This is not the first time something like this has happened. In fact, since the very beginning, Mafalda has helped to channel the dilemmas faced by the comic strip’s readers. This wise-beyond-her-years little girl emerged as an expression of the antiestablishment generations of the sixties, reflecting on the changes that were shaking the foundations of social and family life at the time and speaking out against the many injustices in the world. And she did it with a witty and endearing humor.
Despite the character’s obvious social commitment and the fact that her readers have had no qualms about appropriating her as a symbol of what they consider a just cause, her creator, Joaquín Salvador Lavado (or Quino, as he is more widely known), has only very rarely given permission to use her in public campaigns. This, however, is one of those rare occasions. Mafalda now leads a group of popular cartoons featured in an awareness-raising effort launched by the government that also seeks to encourage Argentines and help them withstand the lockdown, just as it faces insistent calls from the opposition to lift the strict quarantine measures.
In the current crisis it is not surprising that Quino could be persuaded to lend his famous character for this effort. The historical moment we are living is one of great global uncertainty. But even if some suffer more than others, it is undeniable that the entire planet is afflicted. In the image chosen for the campaign, we see Mafalda caring for a bandaged globe as if it were a sick child. That strip, which was originally drawn as a reflection on the problems of humanity, now expresses the current state of the world almost literally. As in the past, this crisis—the ways to face it and the effects it has—entails political disputes on a transnational scale, and humor can not only help relieve our anxieties, it can also contribute to shape a common identity, one that takes on the responsibility of caring for the world and all its inhabitants.
Mafalda, and all in-stock Duke University Press titles, are available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.