A 1984 Cuban postage stamp commemorating the 25th anniversary of Cuban cinema with cartoon character Elpidio Valdés on the forefront. Source: Radio Rebelde (Cuba)
This post contains links to video clips in Spanish.
I love Asterix. I have always been fond of the little Gaul who constantly outwits Julius Caesar’s legions while his superhumanly strong friend Obelix gives them a thrashing. More than the historical setting, what attracts me from that comic is the quality of the drawings and, especially, the humor. I have a handful of volumes at home; my favorite is one in which Asterix and Obelix join the legions, but obviously not out of treason. And one fine day, wandering around YouTube, I found out about a Cuban cartoon that may be Asterix’s kindred soul from this side of the Atlantic.
Created in 1970 by Cuban cartoonist and filmmaker Juan Padrón, himself a towering figure of Cuban animation, Elpidio Valdés tells the adventures of a brave cavalry officer in the National Army of Liberation (the mambises) during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence. Riding his loyal steed Palmiche and accompanied by his courageous companions Marcial and María Silvia, Elpidio constantly fights battles against and routs the Spanish troops led by General Resóplez and his colonels Andaluz and Cetáceo. Sometimes, Elpidio faces off against and invariably defeats the Cuban peasants fighting on Spain’s side (the rayadillos), especially the cigar-chomping Media Cara and his perpetually drunk stooge Cortico. Between 1970 and 2003, Elpidio appeared in 25 shorts and four feature films, and had his own comic strip for a time. Four decades after its creation, Elpidio Valdés is so beloved in Cuba that its main character is considered a pop culture icon.
It is important to point out that Asterix upends history because what happened in reality was that Caesar’s legions conquered the Gauls in 52 BC. In turn, Elpidio Valdés does not upend history; it depicts something that happened very repeatedly in the 1895 war: the mambí army trouncing the Spanish army in battle. But there is a reason why Asterix and Elpidio Valdés are kindred spirits even if their adventures have different degrees of adherence to historical facts: both characters represent people who appear at first to be no match to a superior opposing force but nevertheless find a way to defeat it. Spain had the weaponry and the numbers, but it was worn out by the mambises. It is, basically a David-versus-Goliath theme that can be found in other real life conflicts like the Vietnam War or the Soviet-Afghan War. And who does not like an underdog story?
Although the Elpidio Valdés cartoons are produced by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, ICAIC), itself a branch of the Ministry of Culture, they do not carry the openly propagandistic message of other animated works (this one in particular is considered by ICAIC itself to be the film that officially inaugurated its animation department), although Elpidio himself has made a few animated cameos in the (openly propagandistic) Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano. But the cartoon series does not fall far from the tree of the official zeitgeist: by tapping into a key conjuncture in Cuban history, Elpidio Valdés connects to an undercurrent of national liberation that lies at the foundation of the Cuban Revolution. To use history instrumentally is not new (in Mexico, PRI hegemony relied significantly on exploiting the imagery and pantheon of the Mexican Revolution), but to describe Elpidio Valdés in that fashion – as an instrumental use of history – makes sense. Given that conclusion, it also makes sense to place these cartoons within the basic guideline of Cuba’s cultural policy, as spelled out by Fidel Castro himself in the 1960s: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” (In all fairness, however, ICAIC produces animation that is not propagandistic or politically instrumental in nature, like the famous Filminutos shorts.)
And yet Elpidio Valdés cartoons are really cool. The shorts produced since 1978 have better looking drawings than those produced previously (production began in 1974, according to ICAIC) and, therefore, are my personal favorites. Throughout the whole series, though, there are generous sprinkles of humor and many adaptations of classic cartoon gags, like palm trees that double as daggers and sentry posts that become rockets (both seen in the second produced short). Every now and then, the bad guys even get kicked in the family jewels. Also, in “Elpidio Valdés se casa“ (“Elpidio Valdés Gets Married”), Elpidio is so nervous on the day he weds María Silvia that at one point he leaves his hut all primped up, but with no trousers on (he is shown wearing skivvies, though). But these cartoons also have an educational element; one short is based on some of the firearms used by the mambí army and another one is centered on the weapon for which it became well-known, the machete (the latter has original music from Cuba’s leading nueva trova singer-songwriters, Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés).
In all, for all my criticisms of the Cuban government, its ideology, and its unjustifiable short leash on artistic expression, Elpidio Valdés is something I really enjoy watching. Like reading an Asterix comic book.
Bonus feature (in Spanish): Elpidio Valdés outsmarts the NYPD.