I wanted to know why everyone was laughing.
A series of colorful little books were spread across my aunt’s table in the Argentine countryside, where I was visiting with my parents for the holidays. I had just turned eight and was one of the youngest there.
As I sidled up, I realized the source of their mirth was a collection of comic strips in Spanish. Despite my limited understanding of the language, I stayed to read them as everyone else left, just letting the black-and-white vignettes wash over me. This character reminded me of my teacher; that place is similar to the plaza we visited; and my God, Susanita was annoying. Every now and then, my father came up behind me and chuckled, reading a punchline out loud.
When it was time to leave, I dutifully packed a couple in my backpack to read on the plane home.
As a small child, I was always a voracious reader, but in English. My parents raised me in several European countries, and it wasn’t until I was 14 that we returned to Buenos Aires. Our household was bilingual, but compensating for my English-language education was basically impossible. There were no Spanish books in my school libraries or Spanish-speaking children to play with. Access to my family’s culture was limited to a yearly visit and a sparse collection of Argentine media, but I did have a cartoon strip about an outspoken, inquisitive little girl named Mafalda.
Mafalda was first published on September 29, 1964, 59 years ago today. Created by Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón, better known as Quino, the comic follows the travails of a precocious child from a middle-class family in San Telmo while offering biting social commentary along the way. Think of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, but far more cutting and cynical.
Her friends are also central to the comic’s sociopolitical critique. I was especially fond of Felipe, the sweet and generally clueless procrastinator with a penchant for intense daydreams who rues that “Even my weaknesses are stronger than I am.”
Translated into 25 languages — the last being English, allegedly due to its constant questioning of the Vietnam War — Mafalda has an Argentine soul. Between its subject matter, which covered cyclical issues like inflation and political instability, and its characters’ mannerisms and speech patterns, the comic couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
Mafalda was practically the only thing I read in Spanish as a child. Admittedly, my grasp of the language wasn’t great, and the pictures made things easier, but the comic was more than a literary crutch. My parents quoted from it extensively, so it became something we could share exclusively in their native language. The English-speaking world wouldn’t learn about Mafalda’s deep and abiding hatred of soup for a few more years.
Beyond the inside jokes, she offered a window into the Buenos Aires childhood I never had. Mafalda was exactly the kind of girl I would have been friends with, and when I finally moved to Argentina as an adolescent, she provided a roadmap, however flimsy, to understanding and embodying a culture I couldn’t yet call my own.
It wasn’t until I was subjected to rapid-fire recitations of different verb tenses in my new Spanish classes that I truly got the joke of Susanita telling her teacher that the “perfect future of the verb amar (to love)” is “hijitos” (“little children”). Learning that you need your national identification document (DNI, by its Spanish acronym) for basically everything, I saw firsthand why Mafalda named her pet tortoise Burocracia (Bureaucracy). And when the prices at my corner kiosco climbed, I couldn’t help but think of Manolito, the ambitious son of the local almacén owner, who would have been thrilled to see those numbers “growing up.”
The classic Toda Mafalda — a massive, mustard-yellow tome with a large picture of Mafalda reading, her book resting on a red floor — appeared suddenly in our Buenos Aires home. No one in my family can remember where it came from.
As the years went by, my focus shifted to, well, everything outside of the world of Mafalda. There were cumbia songs to familiarize myself with, quinceañeras to attend, and a wholly different adolescent social life to navigate. When I read the comic, if I read it at all, it was usually just a panel being shared on social media. I found that Mafalda herself was misquoted as often (and as badly) as Buddha and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Had I continued re-reading, I would have recognized many of the comic’s names and events from my history class: the affection of Miguelito’s grandfather for Mussolini, allusions to the Cold War, and the state repression of multiple de facto governments that coincided with Mafalda’s run, to name a few. Soup, it turns out, is quite the metaphor for authoritarianism.
Anti-fascism ran deep for Quino, the son of two Spanish Republicans who followed the country’s civil war on the radio when he was a child in Mendoza. While the earlier Mafalda strips offered more quotidian observations and commentary, some of its characters underwent a radicalization over the years that’s hard to miss. The last to join the group, Libertad, was a vociferous socialist who also happened to be the tiniest of Mafalda’s friends. That she was introduced in 1970, on the eve of Operation Condor, doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
Quino stopped making Mafalda comic strips in 1973. In his words, he had run out of ideas and wanted to respect his readers and his creation. Mafalda’s popularity endured, of course, and the paramilitary organization known as Triple A raided Quino’s home in 1975 when he refused to let its director use his beloved characters for a political campaign. He fled to Milan with his wife a year later, when the last military dictatorship came to power.
Despite lasting less than a decade, the comic strip left an indelible mark on Argentine society that went well beyond its acerbic punchlines. Quino had created a set of archetypes that were eminently recognizable. If someone is described as a “Susanita,” you know exactly what they mean and who they’re talking about. Perhaps more importantly, he gave voice to the nation’s social conscience as its political institutions were collapsing in real-time.
When I recently told my mother that I found some elements of the comic misogynistic, she replied, “Yes, but that was Quino.” His cartoon remains beyond reproach.
In 2020, as New York slowly opened its doors after the horrific first wave of COVID-19, I was walking through my Queens neighborhood and saw, from about a block away, a large yellow-and-red book in a bookcase outside a thrift shop. “That can’t be Toda Mafalda,” I thought, quickening my pace. As I got closer, I saw that yes, it was. What’s more, it was a Spanish-language edition — the same one that had somehow appeared at my parents’ house years before.
I hugged the volume close and spent the rest of the afternoon thumbing through its pages, immersing myself in a culture for which I realized I was desperately homesick.
When Quino passed away just a few days later, on September 30, I was genuinely upset. My relationship with his cartoon had grown and evolved since that afternoon at my aunt’s home in the Argentine countryside. At 31, I have a new appreciation for its anti-authoritarian jokes like the “little ideology-bashing stick” on a policeman’s belt and Libertad’s constant cries for revolution. But I’ve especially come to admire its prescience.
During the same conversation with my mother, she sent me a couple of photos from the well-worn books: one featuring Manolito selling us a “foreign currency” perfume to impress house guests and another showing Mafalda and Miguelito standing before a gigantic votive candle, which she explains is for “Saint Ballot.” Both could have been published yesterday.
She also pointed out that I have a framed Mafalda illustration that we cut out of a newspaper back in 2007 — a stained-glass portrait of her holding a banner that reads, “¿Y por qué?” (“But why?”). I won’t say that she led me to a career in journalism, but she’s definitely inspired me to question the world around me and challenge injustice wherever I see it. As Mafalda turns 59, Quino would have invited you to do the same.