Whether emplotted as epic or as tragedy, the tales told about a nation’s revolutionary past do not tend to elicit laughter as much as awe and solemnity. This is the case with Cuba’s national epic, the story of its nineteenth-century wars for independence (1868–98)—the story of Cuba Libre. This essay analyzes how the animated cartoon shorts and film series Elpidio Valdés (1974–2003) comically inflects the story of Cuba Libre with ridiculing laughter and choteo (folk humor). The series puts forth both a hero more akin to a populist trickster than a Spartan and a revolutionary war more akin to carnivalesque drama than to the Homeric epic. In so doing, it subtly critiques the didactic and panegyric rhetoric that has shrouded the national (as well as the socialist) epic and, in its stead, offers a jocular and fallible revolutionary subject in a more participatory and less austere epic.
The comical and the epic are not exactly literary or philosophical comrades. With subjects as sober and as lofty as war and nation, epics arouse solemnity and dwell in grandeur. Hardly, that is, do they accommodate humor. Classics such as Gilgamesh, Ramayana, Iliad, Aeneid, Beowulf, and Sundiata are not known to elicit laughter, let alone revel in irony or the vulgar. And this holds just as true for those national—or indeed, revolutionary—epics about a people’s fight for their liberation. Whether José Martí’s 1869 Abdala or C. L. R. James’s 1938 The Black Jacobins, such narratives rarely elicit jovial pleasure as much as awe and vindication.
But epics are not altogether immune to the comical—and felicitously so. The ancient Greek Batrachomyomachia (Battle of Frogs and Mice) mimicked the poetic metrics and heroic motifs of Homer’s Iliad to comical effect, mocking the haughty epic with a laughably trivial war. Parodies, satire, and the burlesque are all renowned for their capacity to scandalize the serious and the sublime. With their levity and folly—if not outright vulgarity—they can render the lofty lowly and the venerable vile. And this is what makes the comical not only enjoyable but also politically salient.
This essay explores the relations of the comical and the epic vis-à-vis the story of Cuba Libre. That story, the story of Cuba’s nineteenth-century wars for independence, is all but synonymous with epic emplotment: perilous foes, momentous battles, heroic deaths, exemplary martyrdoms, and a redemptive quest. Three generations of Cubans fought in three wars across a thirty-year period, from 1868 to 1898, in hopes of instituting a republic “with all and for the good of all.”1 And this they did at extraordinary costs to life (as many as four hundred thousand dead), let alone the island’s economy. One would not think to narrate such events humorously. And rarely has it been done so.
It is no small irony, then, that the most popular account of the wars is the animated series Elpidio Valdés (1974–2003), a decidedly humorous collection of cartoon shorts and feature films that chronicle the jovial antics of the fictional mambí colonel Elpidio Valdés and his fellow mambises (independence soldiers) as they fight for Cuba Libre against foolish and ghoulish foes. The series is a far cry from the didactic and panegyric rhetoric that has customarily shrouded the national epic—and by extension, the socialist epic. With vernacular humor and festive flair, Elpidio Valdés renders history and revolution a jocular and bountiful affair more so than a sober and austere one. And Cubans have found it irresistible. “Elpidio” is a household name and iconic referent—indeed, an anti-imperialist hero. As the former minister of culture Abel Prieto put it, Elpidio is Cuba’s “decolonial alternative” to the “ambit of Disney.”2
Yet not all are as easily wooed. Critics of the revolution have dismissed Elpidio Valdés as “state propaganda,” and more than a few Miami-based talk shows and comedians have parodied the series’s iconic protagonist.3 But another read is possible. The series can be understood as a text that constructively critiques epic emplotment and its ethos. Its deployment of the comical infuses the sober and the sublime with the carnal and the carnivalesque. And this is no benign act. As Mikhail Bakhtin famously argued, the epic past is not merely chronologically but also morally first. With it comes the “founders” and “fathers” that descendants compulsively, if not compulsorily, revere and against which their own conduct is judged. In that heroic past there is no space for “openendedness, indecision, indeterminacy.”4 There is only ever an already finished narrative and ancestors to memorialize. Such grandeur and romance can be countered, of course, by a tragic sensibility. As David Scott has so poignantly argued, tragedy better attunes us to human fallenness and historical contingency.5 But so, too, could one turn to the comical. As Bakhtin insisted, the carnivalesque and folk humor have the capacity to travesty “dogmatic seriousness” and to articulate a “new, free, and sober seriousness.”6 Rather than be read as merely propagandistic, Elpidio Valdés can be read as simultaneously critical. As Justo Planas has argued, the series ambivalently infuses the mythical past with a “rebellious and thorny” humor, one that invites viewers to “mock” the official and the didactic.7 Indeed, it invites Cuban youth (and adults) to revel in an epic hero more akin to a trickster than to a “Titan” (Antonio Maceo), an “Apostle” (José Martí), or a “Heroic Guerrilla” (Che Guevara). In fact, it could be argued that the hero of the series is a collective subject—el pueblo cubano (the Cuban people)—whose choteo (vernacular humor) and less refined aesthetic invites viewers to laugh not only at their foes but also at their fallible selves. Elpidio Valdés embodies, in short, the critical wisdom of folk humor: we can only expect so much of our fallible and “vulgar” selves. Even so, the comical does not disavow, to paraphrase Hayden White, a hope that we can occasionally triumph over the forces at play in the world.8
That said, the literature on Cuba is not known for extensive or intensive analyses of Elpidio Valdés or humor, as is the case more generally in post- and decolonial studies when it comes to laughter and the comical.9 No doubt the humiliations and violence that plagued colonialism and the vicissitudes of revolutionary politics recommend gravitas and dignity, which is to say, tragedy or the epic. But these are not the only aesthetic or philosophical ways to reckon with the past—let alone the future—and one should not foreclose from the comical its own species of seriousness and empowerment.
Cuba Libre and Choteo
From Martí’s Abdala and Manuel de la Cruz’s 1890 Episodios de la revolución cubana to the Maceo monuments in Havana and in Santiago de Cuba constructed in 1916 and 1991, respectively, Cuba’s wars for independence have been narrated or aesthetically rendered as an epopeya (epic) in which heroic deeds and transcendent events reigned.10 The scale, duration, and intensity of the wars all recommended it, as did the redemptive tale of Cubans fighting for racial equality and reconciliation, however fitfully and falteringly.11 And this they did at extraordinary costs. According to Louis Pérez Jr., “No Latin American country in the nineteenth century experienced wars of independence of longer duration or greater destruction than Cuba.”12 With so many lives lost and so much at stake, the wars and their dead deserved the dignity and grandeur of either epic or tragic emplotment.
Yet humor and the comical were not altogether jettisoned. At war’s outset in 1868, teatro bufo (buffoonery theater) emerged as a theatrical art with independentista sentiment. Bufos were renowned for their vulgar jokes and improvisational frolics. They parodied the romances, operas, and melodramas of Havana’s elite playhouses and popularized a “social aesthetic” that came to symbolize the Cuban people: el gallego (the gregarious Spaniard), el negrito (the foolish “Blackie”), and la mulata (the tragi-erotic mulatta). With White actors in Blackface and Blackness equated with buffoonery, bufos were comedic sketches that theatrically staged the racial prejudices and anxieties of the era.13 Yet as Rine Leal pointed out, bufos also mocked bourgeois prejudices and taunted imperial power. What mattered in bufo was its improvisational and vernacular humor, one that reveled in local dialect, festive rhythms, the scatological, and the audience’s populist sensibilities—the carnivalesque, so to speak. Little wonder, then, that bufo was deemed not only “anti-literary” and “immoral” but also “subversive.” In fact, it was violently repressed. In January 1869, Spanish volunteers raided Havana’s Villanueva Theater and opened fired on the public—a repression so decisive that bufos were not staged again until the late 1880s.14
Cuba’s wars for independence came to a decidedly anticlimactic end in 1898. The US military intervened and governed the island until 1902, ushering in a republican era (1902–33) renowned for its lack of epic sentiment. A republic rife with electoral fraud, underemployment, monopolies, organized crime, racial animosity, and US dominance fostered a collective melancholia. Granted, humor lived on in the everyday lives of Cubans, but, according to Cuban intellectual Jorge Mañach, it took on “toxic” proportions. In his now classic 1928 Indagación del choteo, Mañach characterized choteo as the “levity” and “irreverence” with which Cubans humorously treat not only each other but also sacred or serious subjects, not least authorities.15 While bufo could be understood as dramatized choteo, by the 1920s choteo bespoke not a festive or subversive humor but the “intimate sadness” of an “intensely melancholic people.”16 At a crematorium in Paris, one of Mañach’s Cuban colleagues had joked, “I’d like it raw,” as a cadaver was introduced in the incinerator.17 For Mañach, this irreverent remark was symptomatic of a people no longer seduced by epic invocations of the sublime and Patria (homeland). Choteo evidenced, he inferred, that what was once held sacred and believed possible (i.e., Cuba Libre) was now crassly ridiculed as “romantic.” Choteo could, however, perform a “salutary critical function.”18 In its levity and jocular familiarity—the way, for instance, the most venerable man is endearingly and impolitely addressed as viejo (literally, “old man”) or chico (literally, “little boy”)—choteo can lower in stature whomever or whatever presumes deference. Choteo can be, in other words, what comically humiliates or profanes the supposedly superior and sacred. And in this respect, choteo bespeaks not only a skepticism of authority but also a commitment to egalitarianism. That it is the humor of the Cuban “masses” is, after all, no coincidence.
The most popular articulation of choteo in these years was in the weekly satire La Política Cómica (1905–34) and in the graphic character Liborio. Created by cartoonist and editor Ricardo de la Torriente, Liborio was the era’s unofficially acknowledged icon of the Cuban people. In his earliest renditions he was known simply as “Pueblo cubano” or “El pueblo.”19 It was hardly a coincidence that Liborio was a guajiro (rural peasant). His slender build, sombrero, sideburns, and mustache and the rural milieu all evoked Cuba’s small farmers and artisanal classes, which is to say, honorable and productive labor and ties to the land. So, too, did Liborio’s name uncannily resemble the word libre (free), as in Cuba Libre.
What made Liborio such an enjoyable and memorable icon, however, were the ways that his iconography conjured humor and a nationalist sentiment. He was renowned for the sarcasm and irony that his slender body and expressive face projected and his playful verses voiced. Each cartoon was accompanied by poetic quartets or décimas that voiced Liborio’s comedic appraisal of timely issues—none as timely or as tenacious as US interventions in Cuban affairs. Not infrequently the cartoons would feature Liborio in dialogue with the United States, the latter portrayed as either Uncle Sam or a caricatured US president. A 1909 edition features a caricatured president-elect William Taft with a scroll that reads “Platt Amendment,” as Liborio stands over the island near Guantánamo, where a US flag waves. Mr. Taft asks, “Liborio, do you know who I am?” to which Liborio replies, “Yes, master: the new overseer.”20
The slavery trope of master and overseer belies, however, the extent to which Liborio did not (or could not) faithfully represent the pueblo cubano. Liborio, after all, had a decidedly Iberian profile amid a phenotypically and culturally “mulatto nation.” That his popularity coincided with the early republic’s policy to “Whiten” the island was not as such accidental.21 Nor should it come as any wonder that Torriente (White, male, and wealthy) had no sympathy for Black, feminist, or labor advocates. His cartoons routinely lampooned Afro-Cuban civil rights leaders and dismissed the feminist movement as a menace to the patriarchal “happy home.”22 Indeed, despite his populist appeal, Liborio domesticated populist grievances and rancor. He may have been a guajiro and may have sarcastically voiced an anti-interventionist sentiment, but he was a far cry from a socialist proletariat or internationalist communist. Torriente’s cartoons dismissed labor radicals as “anarchists” and “Bolsheviks” and cast aside their radical platforms as the whims of lazy or socially degenerate Cubans.23 Nor was Liborio on a par with a mambí. He was only ever an unarmed Cuban whose melancholic demeanor and sarcastic remarks disavowed the epic of Cuba Libre (as history and sentiment). Liborio and La Política Cómica were venues in which Cuba’s popular classes could vicariously air their frustrations. But never did he embody an organized resistance, much less a revolution.
Revolutionary Youth and the Quixotic
With the general strike and sergeant’s revolt of 1933 and the Constitution of 1940, Cubans’ expectations were buoyed. The notorious Platt Amendment had been annulled, women won the right to vote, labor rights were fortified, and social reforms were constitutionally pledged. But corruption and vice continued to plague Cuba, and Fulgencio Batista’s coup was far from auspicious. Under Batista’s reign (1952–58), congress was dissolved, the constitution suspended, elections cancelled, the press censored, and dissidents tortured. The epic memory of the “liberators” of 1868 and 1895 was, nevertheless, alive and well. In these rebellious years, the comical ceded to a milieu in which martyrdom and messianic justice abounded and in which the sarcastic guajiro was displaced for the “olive green” guerrilla.24 The barbudo (bearded one) symbolized a renewed mambí epic and his victory a euphoric hope that the quest for Cuba Libre had, at last, been consummated.
It was clear, nevertheless, that odds were stacked against the Revolution. Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s 1965 “Socialism and Man in Cuba” argued that for the Revolution to thrive it would have to draw on sound policy and its “quota of sacrifice.”25 This meant a more diversified, productive, and efficiently managed economy and an altogether new consciousness and values—or, as it was said, a New Socialist Man and Woman. In so doing, the Revolution had to reckon with a populace indebted to consumerism and meritocracy—let alone machismo, homophobia, and anti-Black racism. It would therefore have to depend, Guevara reasoned, on a “vanguard” to emulate virtuous conduct for the “masses” and, in the longer term, to invest in the youth—a new generation, that is, not tainted by “original sin,” as Guevara sarcastically put it.26
A new national education system set out to do precisely that, with its curricular emphases on “work-study,” the applied sciences, and Marxist historiography.27 This was supplemented by the Union of Cuban Pioneers (UPC), endowed with the mission to inculcate in Cuba’s children and adolescents a socialist and internationalist ethos. To this end their role models were, not surprisingly, Che Guevara and José Martí. In 1968 the UPC adopted the slogan “We will be like Che!” (“¡Seremos como el Che!”) and in 1977 was renamed the José Martí Organization of Pioneers. Martí, after all, edited and authored the monthly youth magazine Edad de oro (The Golden Age), whose four 1899 editions were republished as a book in 1905 that has remained in print ever since.28
Cubans were thus held accountable to a sober and “decorous” iconography and credo, whether it was the Heroic Guerrilla or the nation’s Apostle. Yet the Revolution was not without its (tragi)comical sensibility. It is no idle detail that the first book the Revolution made available for Cuban readers was Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, with four hundred thousand copies sold at a mere $0.25 each in 1961, and that Quixote would constitute a salient allegory for Cubans in revolutionary times. Don Quixote is credited, after all, as a mock epic in novel form. In it the heroic and romantic chivalry of feudal Christendom are rendered laughably anachronistic to a disenchanted “modern” world. Such a ridiculously out of joint ethos resonated for Cubans with their “quixotic” quest to build a world of equality and social camaraderie against formidable odds. Indeed, laughter and (rebel) humor remained quite salient to the revolutionary project. They were showcased in periodicals such as Palante and Dedeté and in the “Humor and Revolution” supplement to Bohemia—all with a fondness for depicting the United States as corrupt, greedy, effete, and childish.29 And they were acclaimed in filmmaker Tomás Gutiér-rez Alea’s social (and dark) comedies The Twelve Chairs (1962), Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), and The Last Supper (1976). But such comics and films were for adults, whereas the Revolution’s most strategically vital stratum was the youth. It would fall on the shoulders of another graphic artist and filmmaker to create a series that could enliven the tedium and gravitas that characterized so much of the Revolution’s newsreels, manuals, press, and party rhetoric. It would fall on the shoulders, that is, of Juan Padrón and his series Elpidio Valdés.
The Mambí Trickster and Populist Laughter
Elpidio Valdés first appeared in 1970 as a comic strip in the children’s magazine Pionero. Between 1974 and 1980 Padrón created twelve Elpidio Valdés cartoon shorts, and in 1979 his feature film Elpidio Valdés became the first animated film in Cuban history—adorned with awards at the Havana and Moscow film festivals.30 Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Elpidio’s jovial antics and mambí adventures were featured in the monthly illustrated children’s magazine Zunzún; in a second animated film, Elpidio Valdés contra dólar y cañón (Elpidio Valdés versus the Dollar and the Cannon; 1983), which was awarded the Latin American New Cinema Festival’s Coral Award;31 and in nine additional cartoon shorts created between 1988 and 1992.32 Within relatively short order, Elpidio became the best-known and most-beloved mambí in the Cuban popular imaginary.
When asked about the popularity of Elpidio Valdés, creator Padrón affirmed: “We do not make films for profit, but for Cuba. That is why they speak in Cuban and touch on Cuban themes.”33 His reply does not, however, compellingly answer how and why it is that the Elpidio Valdés series came to so efficaciously interpellate Cubans. Nearly all comics, animated series, and dramatic films created under the auspices of the Revolution have abided by the criteria he stipulates (i.e., not for profit, in Cuban vernacular, etc.), but rarely, if ever, has any rivaled the popularity of Elpidio Valdés. Closer scrutiny reveals that the series has proved so popular because it touches not merely on “Cuban themes” but on the Cuban theme—namely, the national epic—yet has done so in unorthodox ways. As Joel del Río notes, rather than offering its viewers a Spartanesque or apostolic hero in the form of a didactic and somber epic, the series cleverly depicts the mambí as an “everyday Cuban” and the wars for independence as a lively and comical drama.34 Its truest efficacy as such is that the popular and the comical enrich the epic, for never does the series disavow the emancipatory project of Cuba Libre (and, by extension, the Revolution).
In the first film we learn that Elpidio is the quintessential Cuban. Like Liborio, he is a guajiro, embodying la pura cepa (the purest stock) of the nation. But unlike Liborio, Elpidio more strongly resembles the mestizo peasant. His racial ambiguity echoes Padrón’s choice to name the character after Cecilia Valdés, the tragi-erotic mulata of Cirilio Villaverde’s nineteenth-century novel Cecilia Valdés, the most critically acclaimed of Cuban novels.35 But what distinguishes Elpidio from both Liborio and Cecilia is that he is a rebel soldier—born and raised in mambí camps, son to a cavalry officer and a mambisa mother.
That said, the series’s truest protagonist is the collectivity known as the Cuban People. One noteworthy fact is that the series does not include any of the liberation wars’ most celebrated martyrs and heroes. National heroes such as José Martí, Mayor General Antonio Maceo, and Commander Máximo Gómez are never visually depicted or narratively consequential in any of the cartoon shorts or films. Instead, the series features a cast of fictitious mambises who symbolize the “ordinary heroes” with which contemporary viewers can identify. To this end the mambises of Elpidio Valdés are a multiracial People’s Army, with an array of hues and phenotypes represented and always in camaraderie. Elpidio’s closest confidant, Major Marcial, and his commander, General Pérez, are Afro-Cubans. This was as consistent with the historic Liberation Army as it was the Revolution’s (ambivalent) antiracist credentials.36 Nor are the mambises urban or urbane. They are a relatively humble lot who speak a decidedly Cuban dialect and are closely associated with the campo and the rural peasantry; it is not beyond the series to portray them as dressed in tattered slacks and, at times, barefoot. Women too are (relatively) empowered subjects. Elpidio’s love, María Silvia, is a mambisa and a captain in the army. She regularly takes initiative, is clever and defiant, and can wield a machete as skillfully as any other (male) mambí. The same can be said of her young “sidekick,” the sassy Eutelia. Cuba Libre is an intergenerational affair, after all, and the series’s youth are no mere bystanders. Eutelia and the young mambí bugler Pepito are as cunning, eager, and patriotic as any other (adult) mambí.
Yet what has rendered the series so enjoyable and memorable is its humor. Elpidio and his comrades make off safe and sound through clever and humorous ruses that leave their adversaries irate or sullied. As showcased in episodes such as Elpidio Valdés fuerza la trocha (Elpidio Valdés Breaks Through the Line; 1978) and Elpidio Valdés en campaña de verano (Elpidio Valdés in the Summer Campaign; 1988), they use disguises, spies, and decoys; slyly infiltrate forts and garrisoned towns; cut telegraph wires and derail trains; sabotage artillery; lead Spanish troops into mosquito-infested woodlands; and comically harass soldiers at night so they cannot sleep.37 In so doing, the cleverness and ingenuity of the Cuban people stand out against the idiocy or arrogance of their enemies. Cuba Libre’s enemies are, after all, wealthier, as well as numerically and technologically superior. A mambí ethic of resourcefulness must accommodate for these asymmetries. And this too can be rendered humorous. Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than with the mambí inventor Oliverio. As featured in the second film, Elpidio Valdés contra dólar y cañón, Oliverio’s devices—a bullet-loaded cigar, a boomerang machete, a pneumatic cannon with nitroglycerin balls, and so on—are fashioned from whatever is readily at hand, and, however preposterous, they work. They are also often decisive in a dramatic escape or a seemingly ill-fated battle. And Oliverio’s aesthetic only accentuates their comical efficacy: his scientific jargon, shrill voice, diminutive stature, and thick spectacles all invite levity and laughter amid war and momentous stakes. Elpidio is no less touched by the comical—his physique is marked by softer, corpulent lines that render him more huggable than fearsome, and his jovial temperament and folk sayings befit a trickster more than a chivalric knight or classic epic warrior. Moreover, as showcased in the 1989 cartoon short Elpidio Valdés y Palmiche contra los lanceros (Elpidio Valdés versus the Lancers), Elpidio’s horse, Palmiche, with his goofy faces and Don Juanesque antics, hardly resembles the “noble stallion” or “trusty steed” of a Cid or an Abdala (see fig. 1).38
Dupery and cunning are, of course, no strangers to the epic. One need only think of the Trojan Horse recalled in Virgil’s Aeneid, or of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. What makes the Elpidio Valdés series so comically gratifying, by contrast, is that the foiled enemies are always sinister or dishonorable. The viewer wants to see each episode’s imperialist Spaniards and Americans foiled, for they possess neither gallant deeds nor virtuous intentions. Were it otherwise, the viewer might mourn for the enemies or sympathize with their losses: the tale would be tragic, not comic. The series relies, instead, on ridiculing laughter. As Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp explained, ridiculing laughter renders the one laughed at intellectually and morally inferior to the one who laughs. Insofar as the viewer identifies with the trickster or comedic hero (the mambí) and, especially, insofar as the enemy is villainous, the viewer enjoys a quota of pleasure in seeing vice succumb to ridicule—as well as to virtue. Indeed, the comical as such offers the viewer not only amusement but also a vicarious hope that justice shall prevail.39
The enemies in the series are not only idiotic and cowardly but also greedy and malicious. Their inwardly moral flaws are outwardly matched by a caricatured ugliness—for example, Spanish soldiers are almost always depicted as drunkards who talk like imbeciles. But the brunt of each joke always falls heaviest on the Spanish commanders—General Resóplez and his aides, Colonel Andaluz and Colonel Cetáceo—who are mocked as pompous bourgeois officers by their fine military regalia and a hyperbolic Castilian accent that makes each of them sound as if he has a lisp. They are also mocked as cowardly and doctrinaire. In every battle they shield themselves behind their superior numbers and technology—their infantrymen, machine guns, artillery, gunboats, and forts—and whenever this falters, they grovel on their knees for mercy or flee hysterically (see fig. 2).
Nor are Americans flattered. I Elpidio Valdés contra dólar y cañón, Americans are represented by a corrupt sheriff and his deputies who conspire to rob the mambises of their revolutionary funds and rifles. The sheriff is a portly, pig-faced man, while his two deputies are all but faceless, their eyes covered by their oversized cowboy hats. The sheriff’s voice is a groggily deep bellow that sounds like a monster; the deputies sound like minions. The most notorious of Americans is, however, the wealthy sugar and tobacco baron tellingly named Mr. Chains. He has a vampire-like physiognomy—slender face, buzzard nose, angular eyes and eyebrows, sharp teeth that glimmer when he grins—and sports a cloak-like coat and Monopoly-style top hat (see fig. 3). If all that were not unsightly enough, he speaks an absurdly “gringo” Spanish that would make any native speaker’s skin crawl—or make them laugh out loud. And his morality matches the aesthetic: Mr. Chains cares only about his exploitive wealth.
In comparison to their enemies, Elpidio and his fellow mambises could not differ more starkly. Against the Spaniards’ pomposity and cowardliness, the Cubans are jocular and poised, whether being held in captivity or leading a machete charge. And against the Americans’ bigotry and greed, the Cubans are an economically humble alliance that includes Afro-Cuban and women officers and never falls prey to material or individualistic incentives. This is not to say that all Cubans are virtuous. Arguably the most hideous foes in the series are the contra-guerrillas, the Cuban mercenaries that the Spanish army enlists in their worst war crimes. In the first film, Elpidio’s fiercest nemesis is none other than Mediacara (literally, “Half-face”), leader of the contraguerrillas. An ogre-like Mestizo with an unkempt beard and disheveled hair that cover most of his face—that is to say, scarcely recognizable as human—Mediacara is slovenly, vice-ridden, and every bit the wicked criminal he is visually made out to be. And while he and his motley crew speak in Cuban vernacular and hail from the campo, they are rogue anti-Cubans. They have no scruples whatsoever about placing unarmed women and children in harm’s way or about betraying the Patria for some proverbial silver, as the ugly contraguerrilla Cortico does in the first film.
Granted, the series could be read as nationalistic propaganda. And no doubt it is meant to speak to contemporary audiences and their lived reality. For all its historical fidelity, the series cues its viewers into the structurally analogous exigencies of the socialist present. Contemporary Cubans can identify with the austerity and imperial hostilities heroically endured by Elpidio and his comrades, who “emulate” for youth the resourcefulness, loyalty, solidarity, and rebel spirit that is their mambí patrimony. In a sense, Elpidio and his mambí comrades constitute the “vanguard,” except that in Padrón’s series the vanguard and the masses are indistinguishable: the pueblo cubano is the revolutionary vanguard. And however “nationalist” the series is, it must not be lost that nation in this case is synonymous with egalitarianism and anti-imperialism. The Elpidio Valdés series revels as such in the biblical-cum-revolutionary tale of David versus Goliath as repeatedly invoked in Fidel Castro’s speeches. The trope emulates for Cubans that the virtuous shall prevail over the villainous, however more wealthy and militarily endowed the latter. And in this regard, by rendering Cuba Libre’s capitalist and imperialist foes intellectually and morally inferior, the series exploits the compensatory logic of ridiculing laughter.
Yet the series likewise solicits Cubans to laugh at themselves. Its heroes are quotidian and fallible. They are not GI Joe soldiers or Marvel comics superheroes—much less the demigods of classic epics (Gilgamesh, Achilles) or divinely ordained kings and knights (Beowulf). Nor are they particularly handsome and endowed with stellar physiques. Their bodies, vernacular, and ethos are all comically inflected, communicating that to be a revolutionary one need not be unbearably serious. There can—if not must—be joy, laughter, and festivity in revolutionary struggle. While it would be a stretch to say that the series is exemplary of what Bakhtin called “grotesque realism,” the series does exploit folk humor and embodies a “carnivalesque” flair that “lowers” the lofty.40 The choteo of Elpidio Valdés is particularly seductive because it lowers not only the enemies of Cuba Libre but also the revolutionary epic itself. With its populist profile and laughter, it abjures the impossibly heroic and somber Martí and Maceo—as well as Che and Fidel—and renders the epic simultaneously more participatory and festive. And in this regard, it is as if the series says that the true enemy of Cuba Libre—or rather, of the Revolution—is the dogmatically serious. Elpidio Valdés can therefore be read as a series in which, in Bakhtin’s words, a “new, free, and sober seriousness” comes alive.41
That said, the series never disavows “the epic” altogether. Whatever its levity and comical ruses, nearly every episode ends with a climactic battle in which the iconic machete charge is heavily featured. Elpidio Valdés is, after all, about historic wars. But as a series for youth, depictions of violence and death are also comically leavened. When Spanish soldiers are shot or cut down by machetes, they merely stiffen, make a silly face, and fall to the wayside—a death more laughably “theatrical” than anything else. There are no wounds, severed limbs, or corpses; there is no blood, agony, or mourning to damper the overall excitement and epic festivity of a machete charge and the sight of Spanish officers fleeing hysterically or throwing childlike tantrums. There is, however, loss and the occasional somber note. For example, Elpidio’s father dies in the first film and his mother in the second. Yet both die heroically and, tellingly, off-screen. Never does tragedy meaningfully displace the comical, at least not in the first two films or the first two cartoon series (see fig. 4). Elpidio’s jovial temper, María Silvia’s lovely smile, Eutelia’s mischievous pranks, Palmiche’s silly snicker, Marcial’s hearty laughter, the bugler Pepito’s anxious eagerness, and the battle scenes that end to euphoric cheers all cumulatively bespeak an army and a war that were cohesive, just, and (evidently) enjoyable.
Elpidio in the Special Period
The first two Elpidio Valdés cartoon series and the first two films were created when the Revolution could count on Soviet subsidies and at a time when socialist revolution was deemed feasible and desirable throughout the world, not least the third world.42 By the early to mid- 1990s, however, this was no longer the case. Cubans now lived in a period characterized by hunger, scarcity, and disenchantment.43 The dramatic losses in revenues and strategic allies affected the Revolution’s literary and cultural institutions too. Many publishing houses and periodicals were discontinued or consolidated, and the Film Institute (the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, ICAIC) produced fewer films than ever. ICAIC now had to finesse foreign investors and international audiences to underwrite its solvency.44 And with this came a loss of autonomy.
One sees the effects of these processes most plainly in the third (and as yet last) film in the series. Coproduced with Telemadrid, it aired on Spanish television in 1995 under the uncharacteristic title Más se perdió en Cuba (More Was Lost in Cuba), and a shortened version aired the next year in Cuba under the title Elpidio Valdés contra el águila y el león (Elpidio Valdés against the Eagle and the Lion).45 Whatever its name, the third film was not like its predecessors. Whereas the first and second films relied almost exclusively on caricatured Spaniards and Americans, the third offers favorable portrayals. There are still Spanish and American villains, of course, but among the heroes, Elpidio is joined by Manolo, a Spaniard, and Sergeant Washington, an African American—both handsome, stoutly built, and valorous. Against this virtuous trio stands a vicious one: Colonel Porrones, a murderous Spaniard; Miranda, a traitorous Cuban; and Mr. Chains Jr., a media tycoon and heir to his father’s latifundista wealth. The film’s plot is driven by a quest on all sides to seize an American watch with encryptions of the order to sink the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor—the pretext, that is, for American military intervention in the war.46 Chains Jr. and his cronies kill dear friends of Elpidio’s and Manolo’s in order to destroy incriminating evidence. But their deaths are avenged in 1933.
That the film ends in 1933—with a middle-aged, salt-and-pepper-haired Elpidio, wrinkles around his eyes, and a silver-haired María Silvia—is no idle detail, for Elpidio and María Silvia were not the only graying revolutionaries at the time (see fig. 5). When Elpidio Valdés contra el águila y el león aired in 1996, any barbudos still alive were shadows of their youthful bravado selves, not least El Comandante Fidel, at seventy years of age. It had been clear to the state (and to ICAIC), in other words, that the third film needed to reach out to Cuba’s disenchanted youth, hence the presence of a son, Elpidio III. That Elpidio and María Silvia’s mambí heir could have been a daughter was not, evidently, thinkable. The Revolution is somewhat notorious, after all, for its lack of iconic revolutionary women and women in the highest echelons of the state and party, notwithstanding the overall strides made in women’s rights and equality.47 Either way, the third film left much to be desired and was poorly received. Its portrayals of Spain and Spaniards are overly generous, its humor is decidedly muted, and its Elpidio is more stoic and classically heroic than ever. Yet ridiculing laughter is not altogether absent. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, for example, are hilariously mocked: Roosevelt is a dandy and inept military leader, whereas his Rough Riders are a skinny, ugly lot of racists with hooked noses and gnarly teeth. However, it did not bode well that Mr. Chains Jr. was not-too-subtly coded as gay—and as such, laughable, if not despicable. This was not conducive to a polity and revolution that had only just begun to address the culture and history of institutionalized homophobia in Cuba.48
Yet even if the film had embodied a more progressive identity politics, its “generic” qualities would have sufficed to undermine its appeal. Overall, the film’s deaths are more tragic, the betrayals more sinister, and the drama more serious than either of its predecessors or any of the shorts. The campo has been traded for the city, Elpidio’s trusty Palmiche for a motorcycle, and his beloved machete for a gangster-like tommy gun. Indeed, the film scarcely offers any of the jocular humor and vanguard aesthetic that had come to so decisively mark the beloved Elpidio Valdés series.49 Little wonder, then, that it left audiences “tremor[ing] … with indignation.”50 This could of course be read as symptomatic of its time, since, presumably, the more classically dramatic and stoically epic the film, the better suited to Cuba’s besieged present. But Elpidio Valdés contra el águila y el león may have fallen on fatigued revolutionary ears, or perhaps its producers underestimated the allure of the comical. For humor had not withered in Cuba in the 1990s. Cubans continued to look to laughter to make light of—and, obliquely at least, decry—their daily tribulations. The período especial (Special Period) was renowned for its jokes; consider, for example, “All of Cuba’s problems are, in reality, only three: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Such a joke rendered talk of sacrifice and revolution utterly superfluous, if not obscene, and “lowered” the transcendent to the realm of the immanent—namely, the carnal and hungry body. And even Elpidio was enlisted in such critical commentary. In one popular joke, Elpidio tries to enter the Habana Libre Hotel but is kept out because he looks too Cuban (i.e., does not resemble a paying tourist). Elpidio is irate and insists on speaking to the manager, who turns out to be none other than General Resóplez, the Spanish commander from the series whose sole mission is to kill Elpidio. It is an ironic commentary on the period’s tourist economy and its ambivalent effects, bringing in much-needed revenue but also drawing a flock of Spanish investors and bachelors who “reconquer” the island.51
One is reminded of Freud’s theoretical excursus on jokes: they “bribe” us, he argued, with a “yield of pleasure” in order to voice that which cannot openly or consciously be voiced.52 So, too, is one reminded of Bakhtin’s claim that laughter has the remarkable power to “uncrown” and “dismember” the epic as heroic narrative and pious past. It is that which lays bare the revered object and opens space to “fearlessly” scrutinize it.53 Cuban choteo has been credited with a similar power. Mañach spoke of it as “formidable” and “salutary,” insofar as it exacted its levity and irreverence against unwarranted authority.54 Critic and poet Gustavo Pérez Firmat has argued, however, that choteo is more akin to carnival than it is to the scatological humor and social marginality that typifies the “toxic” choteo that so troubled Mañach. Carnival, claims Pérez Firmat, is less unruly than the choteo of the streets.55 This applies to Elpidio Valdés. Granted, the series is not altogether devoid of scatological humor: the first film ends with the Spanish officers Resóplez, Cetáceo, and Andaluz fleeing to safety through a town’s sewer pipes, leaving them covered in dung and metamorphosed into human-sized turds. But the scatological here is best understood as a subset of ridiculing humor and is aligned with the series’s jocular and festive mood. And, no doubt, it is precisely that jocularity and its “yields of pleasure” that the Revolution’s critics dismiss as sly state propaganda. Indeed, Elpidio was enlisted by the state to intervene in the Elián González affair in 2000: the balsero (rafter) child, whose mother died at sea, was kept in custody with family in Miami, but his Cuban father wanted him returned. An ideologically charged custody battle ensued, with images of Elián in Micky Mouse ears circulating in the international press. A letter from Elpidio was sent to Elián and published in the nation’s daily, Granma. In it, Elpidio tells Elián to resist the charms of capitalism and worry not: should the United States not release Elián, Elpidio and his trusted mambises would head to Miami, machetes in hand, and rescue him themselves!56
Nevertheless, I propose a more ambivalent and, dare I say, productive read of the series. The carnivalesque yield of pleasure that the series offers viewers, not least of all Cubans, opens space simultaneously for the heroic and the critically humorous. Elpidio and his crew are populist “antiheroes.” They embody an anti-imperialist politics and an ethos of multiracial camaraderie, yes, but also an ethos of not taking oneself too seriously. The series constitutes, accordingly, a critical alternative to the sober asceticism and dogmatic self-righteousness that plague(d) the Revolution. We might conclude, then, that Elpidio Valdés is “ruled unruliness,” to borrow Pérez Firmat’s phrase.57 Its comical and festive qualities work within the paradigm of the epic—let alone under the auspices of the state—but the object of its laughter is not restricted to enemies. Cubans are solicited to laugh at their fallible selves and their historic condition. In its festivity and humor, Elpidio Valdés amiably tempers the epic romance of liberation and holds out hope for provisional victories and occasional reconciliations.58 This makes the animated Elpidio Valdés not just pleasurable but also, ironically, a more “realistic” text, beloved even by adults.
Indeed, Elpidio Valdés remains a popular referent. Cubans continue to enjoy the earlier cartoon shorts and films and to honor the late Juan “Padroncito” Padrón, who received the National Film Award in 2008. The shorts and films have found a home in independent posts on YouTube, collecting hundreds of thousands of views and even enjoying the dubious honor of parodies. In the Miami-based Los Pichy Boys’ Elpidio se fue (Elpidio Left), the clownish duo dubs clips from an authentic Elpidio Valdés episode and renders their video collage with a Hollywood-like trailer for an action thriller: “This is a story of a man who everyone thought was a patriot … Don’t miss it this summer … Elpidio Left [Cuba]!”59 In the trailer Elpidio flees the island on a small boat, with hopes of being employed at Disney with Mickey Mouse. The video unwittingly reminds us that humor is universally accessible and intrinsically nonpolitical. But whatever politics it may take on, humor is its own species of seriousness and, at times, empowerment.
This essay is an abridged version of chpt. 3 (page range tbd, book in production) in Éric Morales-Franceschini, The Epic of Cuba Libre: The Mambí, Mythopoetics, and Liberation. © 2022 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Reprinted by permission of the University of Virginia Press.
“Con todos y para el bien de todos”; José Martí, “Discurso en el Liceo Cubano,” speech, 26 November 1891, Tampa. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine.
Abel Prieto, quoted in Jorge Catalá Carrasco, “From Suspicion to Recognition? Fifty Years of Comics in Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 20, no. 2 (2011): 154–55 (Catalá Carrasco’s translation).
See Enrique García, Cuban Cinema after the Cold War: A Critical Analysis of Selected Films (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 133–40.
Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” (1941), in Michael Holquist, ed., Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 15, 13, 16.
See David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), and Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (1965; repr., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 121, 274.
“Rebelde y espinoso”; “para burlarla”; Justo Planas, “El reverso mítico de Elpidio Valdés,” Rialta, 8 July 2020, rialta.org/el-reverso-mitico-de-elpidio-valdes/#_ftnref12.
See Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973; repr., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 8.
Noteworthy exceptions include Planas, “El reverso mítico”; Dean Luis Reyes, “El etnocentrismo blando: Mambises y vampiros como guerrilla anticolonial,” Rialta, 25 March 2020, rialta.org/el-etnocentrismo-blando-en-el-cine-de-juan-padron-mambises-y-vampiros-como-guerrilla-anticolonial; Narciso Hidalgo, Irreverencia y humor en la cultura cubana (Bogota: Siglo de Hombre Editores, 2012); and Albert Sergio Laguna, “Diversión”: Play and Popular Culture in Cuban America (New York: New York University Press, 2017). On postcolonialism and humor, see Susanne Reichl and Mark Stein, eds., Cheeky Fictions: Laughter and the Postcolonial (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005); and Achille Mbembe, “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity,” in On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 102–41.
See Ambrosio Fornet, Narrar la nación: Ensayos en blanco y negro (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 2009).
See Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
As many as four hundred thousand perished between the Ten Years’ War (1868–78), the Little War (1879–80), and the War of Independence (1895–98). See Louis A. Pérez Jr., The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 3.
See Jill Lane, Blackface in Cuba, 1840–1895 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
“Antiliterario”; “antimoral”; “subversiva”; Rine Leal, La selva oscura, vol. 2, De los bufos a la neocolonia: Historia del teatro cubana de 1868 a 1902 (Havana: Arte y Literatura, 1982), 35, 60–63.
“Tóxico”; “ligereza”; “irrespetuosidad”; Jorge Mañach, Indagación del choteo, 3rd ed. (1928; repr., Havana: Libro Cubano, 1955), 72, 67, 51. It is doubtful that such a species of humor is as exclusive to Cuba as Mañach makes it out to be. Israel Reyes makes the case, for instance, that the Puerto Rican guachafita bears an uncanny resemblance. See Israel Reyes, Humor and the Eccentric Text in Puerto Rican Literature (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 54.
“Tristeza íntima”; “pueblo de intensa melancolía”; Mañach, Indagación del choteo, 77.
“Démelo de vuelta y vuelta”; ibid., 60.
“Romántico”; “función crítica saludable”; ibid., 78, 73.
See Adelaida de Juan, Caricatura de la República (Havana: UNION, 1999), 18.
“Ley Platt”; “Liborio, ¿tú sabes quién soy yo?”; “Sí, l’amo: el nuevo mayoral”; ibid., 42.
For thorough discussion of racial politics in twentieth-century Cuba, see Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
“Feliz hogar”; De Juan, Caricatura de la República, 73.
“Anarquistas”; “bolcheviques”; ibid., 30.
See Lillian Guerra, Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946–1958 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).
Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” in David Deutschmann, ed., Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Politics and Revolution, 2nd ed. (Victoria, Australia: Ocean, 2003), 227.
Ibid., 213, 213, 224.
See Denise Blum, Cuban Youth and Revolutionary Values: Educating the New Socialist Citizen (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
José Martí, Edad de oro, ed. Eduardo Lolo (Miami: Universal, 2001).
See Catalá Carrasco, “From Suspicion to Recognition?,” 139–60; and Sara Cooper, “Cuba and the US in a Sandbox: Cuban Funny Papers,” in Mauricio A. Font, ed., Changing Cuba / Changing World (New York: Bildner, 2008), 235–65.
Juan Padrón, dir., Elpidio Valdés, ICAIC, 1979, 70 min.
Juan Padrón, dir., Elpidio Valdés contra dólar y cañón, ICAIC, 1983, 80 min.
For general information, see EcuRed’s Elpidio Valdés portal at www.ecured.cu/Portal:Elpidio_Valdés.
“Nosotros no hacemos películas para comerciar, sino para Cuba. Por eso hablan en cubano y tocan temas Cubanos”; Juan Padrón, quoted in Libertad González, “Los primeros cuarenta años de Elpidio,” La Jiribilla, www.lajiribilla.co.cu/2010 /n474_06/474_11.html.
See Joel del Río, “Elpidio Valdés o la Cubanía paradigmática,” Cuba Cine, 14 August 2020, www.cubacine.cult.cu/es/articulo/elpidio-valdes-o-la-cubania-paradigmatica.
See Hasta la próxima aventura, dir. Miguel Torres, documentary, ICAIC, 2013, 28 min.
As many as 40 percent of the Liberation Army’s commissioned officers were men of color (Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba, 3). The Revolution’s antisegregationist crusade of the early 1960s and its internationalist aid and solidarity with decolonizing Africa, not least Angola, were legendary. Substantive improvements in health care, education, and occupational status for Afro-Cubans, however, did not equate to the eradication of anti-Black racism in the workplace, family relations, media, school curricula, and so on. See Fuente, A Nation for All; and Esteban Morales Dominguez, Race in Cuba: Essays on Revolution and Racial Inequality (New York: Monthly Review, 2013).
Elpidio Valdés fuerza la trocha, dir. Juan Padrón, 1978, ep. 10 (cartoon shorts), 8:40 min.; Elpidio Valdés en campaña de verano, dir. Juan Padrón, Mario Riva, and Tulio Raggi, 1988, ep. 13 (cartoon shorts), 8:40 min.
Elpidio Valdés y Palmiche contra los lanceros, dir. Juan Padrón, Mario Riva, and Tulio Raggi, 1989, ep. 17 (cartoon shorts), 10:06 min.
Vladimir Propp, On the Comic and Laughter, ed. and trans. Jean-Patrick Debbèche and Paul Perron (1976; repr., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 145.
Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 20.
See Vijay Prashad, Red Star over the Third World (London: Pluto, 2019).
See A. Hernández-Reguant, ed., Cuba in the Special Period: Culture and Ideology in the 1990s (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
It was not only the loss of Soviet subsidies but also the strategically timed hostility of the United States via the Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton (1996) Acts that, as they were designed to do, made life miserable for Cubans. See Salim Lamrani, The Economic War against Cuba: A Historical and Legal Perspective on the US Blockade (New York: Monthly Review, 2013).
Juan Padrón, dir., Más se perdió en Cuba, ICAIC and Telemadrid, 1995, 156 min.; Elpidio Valdés contra el águila y el león, ICAIC and Telemadrid, 1996, 78 min.
The USS Maine tragedy is what defined the war for Americans: “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!” was the war’s most popular slogan. On the erasure of Cubans in American historiography of the war, see Louis Pérez Jr., The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
See Lois M. Smith and Alfred Padula, Sex and Revolution: Women in Socialist Cuba (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
See Emilio Bejel, Gay Cuban Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
A third Elpidio Valdés series of animated shorts fared no better. The digitized and polished style of the four episodes (2000–2003) have none of the improvisation and vitality of their predecessors’ vintage, hand-crafted aesthetic, and the presence of Black characters with exaggerated lips and gorilla-like phenotypes is troublingly racist. That the animation and directing are not credited to Juan Padrón is some solace, but the timing could not have been worse, given the racial inequalities aggravated by the Special Period and the tourist economy. A final short appeared in 2015.
“Tembla[ndo] … de indignación”; Planas, “El reverso mítico.”
See Reyes, “El ethnocentrismo blando.”
Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Starchey (1905; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1960), 123.
Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel,” 23–24.
Mañach, Indagación del choteo, 73–76.
Gustavo Pérez Firmat, “Riddles of the Sphincter,” in Literature and Liminality: Festive Readings in the Hispanic Tradition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), 73–76.
García, Cuban Cinema after the Cold War, 137.
Pérez Firmat, “Riddles of the Sphincter,” 62.
White, Metahistory, 8.
“Esta es la historia de un hombre al que todos creían un patriota … No te pierdes este verano … ¡Elpidio se fue!”; El Pichy Films, “Elpidio se fue,” 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=du8qKzXf53o.