A Latin American “Asterix”

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 that little Gaul who constantly outwits Julius Caesar’s legions with the help of his superhumanly strong friend Obelix, who in turn constantly 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. Then one fine day, as I was 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 horse Palmiche and accompanied by his equally courageous companions Marcial and María Silvia, Elpidio constantly battles and routs the Spanish troops led by General Resóplez and his colonels Andaluz and Cetáceo. Sometimes, he faces off and invariably defeats the Cuban peasants fighting on Spain’s side
known as rayadillos, especially the cigar-chomping Media Cara and his perpetually drunk stooge Cortico. Between 1970 and 2003, Elpidio appeared in 25 short features and four animated movies, and had his own comic strip for a time. Four decades after its creation, Elpidio Valdés is so popular in Cuba that it 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. The Spanish army had some of the latest weaponry, logistics, and numbers to muster; but the mambí army fought a guerilla war that wore them out. It is a David-versus-Goliath theme that can be found in 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). But neither do they fall far from the tree of the official zeitgeist: by tapping into a key conjuncture in Cuban history, Elpidio Valdés connects to the 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 much sense. And given that conclusion, it also makes sense to place these cartoons within the basic guideline of Cuba’s cultural policy: “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 real cool. The shorts produced since 1978 have better looking drawings than those produced in the four previous years (production began in 1974, according to ICAIC) and, therefore, are my personal favorites. Throughout, though, there are sprinkles of humor and quite a few 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 of the series). And every now and then, the bad guys get literally kicked in the family jewels. Also, in the short feature “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 dwelling all primped up, but with no trousers on (he is shown wearing skivvies, though). But these cartoons also have an educational element; for instance, in shorts about some of the firearms used by the mambí army and the weapon of choice of its cavalry, 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 an Asterix comic book.

Bonus feature (in Spanish): Elpidio Valdés faces off against the NYPD.

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