The little girl who challenged a nation
Mafalda cartoon statue, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sometimes it takes the innocence of a child for people to realise their own foolishness. The apparent naivety of youth is easy to dismiss… but often it reveals a view of the world that is unburdened by the twisted and ambiguous ideologies of adulthood. In Mafalda, a young girl who hates soup, Argentines once found an insightful commentator of social events.
Mafalda first appeared in a comic strip in 1964 when she was six years old. Despite her age, she was a child with a big heart and an awareness of the world she lived in. She cared about humanity and world peace and, in her own way, she struggled against the problems she saw around her. She also liked The Beatles… but I guess everyone did back then.
For ten years Mafalda appeared in newspapers in Argentina until the cartoonist, Quino, stopped the series. In those ten years she had gained only five years of age but a huge following in Latin America. Readers were drawn to her in a way that, in this region, had never been seen before with a cartoon. She spoke to a community that needed to question the state of the world but lived in a time when it was safest for a fictional child to do the questioning.
As you’ll see in these examples, Mafalda looked beyond the usual primary school problems of muesli bars, skipping ropes and boy germs. She tackled the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons and the meaning of life.
The influence of Mafalda grew over the years that she was published in Argentinian newspapers (and in compendiums of the cartoons). It got to the point where she was even influencing the dietary habits of children. I mentioned earlier that she didn’t like soup, a recurring theme in the comic strip. Well, a survey of children in Argentina aged 7-11 found that only 5 per cent of kids who read Mafalda regularly said soup was a favourite food while 55 per cent of kids who never read it gave soup the thumbs up.
These days the young social analyst is officially retired, although collections of the cartoons are still published. She would be in her late twenties if the ageing process stayed at the same rate – but the Argentines don’t like to think about that.
A life-sized statue of her as a young girl was installed two years ago in the neighbourhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires, outside the old home of the cartoonist Quino. It’s become a popular tourist attraction in the city and every day, no matter the time, there are always people waiting to have their photo taken with her.
It’s strange that almost 40 years after Mafalda disappeared from the daily pages she still elicits such a response. Perhaps it’s from memories of her bravery and strength in fighting against the malevolent forces of a time caught between a world war and a cold war. Or perhaps it’s a longing for someone to stand up to the villains of today. Argentina, like much of the world, is slipping into an economic black hole where more is being sucked in than could possibly ever come back out. Now is a time when the simple truth, however naïve it may seem, is what people need to hear. And perhaps they need to hear it from a child like Mafalda.