In 1941, as America hovered on the brink of war, President Franklin Roosevelt recruited a cute, charismatic 13-year-old to help in the fight against fascism in South America. The new recruit literally fell short in a few categories: age, size, experience.
But what he lacked in physical stature, he made up for in outsized personality.
“Mickey (Mouse) was already extremely popular” worldwide, explained filmmaker and writer Jesse Lerner, so it made sense to use Mickey and the other cartoon critters created by animator Walt Disney to reach Latin American audiences. “It wasn't starting from square one, but rather building on an existing infrastructure (or) tool palette.”
More than 75 years later, Mickey's impact can be felt in the group exhibition “How to Read El Pato Pascual: Disney's Latin America and Latin America's Disney,” curated by Lerner and artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres. It's part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA collaborative project.
Featuring 150 works by 48 Latino artists, “How to Read El Pato Pascual” opened Sept. 11 and runs through Jan. 4, 2018, at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House and the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at CSU Los Angeles.
“You'll see a variety of different approaches, from documentary photographers … to performance artists, experimental filmmakers, painters and sculptures,” Lerner said. Featured works range from “Paloma Negra,” a painting by Mexican artist José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros that finds Frida Kahlo tossing back drinks with Cinderella, Belle and Snow White, to Mexican painter Columbian sculptor Nadin Ospina's “Siameses Aureolados,” which interprets Mickey as a two-headed Pre-Columbian artifact.
Lerner and Ortiz-Torres, a visual arts professor at UC San Diego, first delved in Disney's influence in their 1995 movie “Frontierland/Fronterilandia,” which examines cross-pollination between the United States and its neighbors to the south. (The pair revisited that subject as the curators of “MEX/LA: Mexican Modernisms in Los Angeles 1930-1985” at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach in 2011.)
“You can't walk around downtown Mexico City for more than a couple minutes before seeing (a Disney icon),” explained Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College in Claremont. “Those characters really have a presence in Latin American popular culture.”
Although Mickey and his cartoon pals – Donald Duck, Goofy and the rest – have been a part of the cultural conversation in Central and South America from the beginning, Disney's influence in the region got a huge boost on the eve of America's entry into World War II.
Hoping to curb the influence of Nazis and fascists south of the border, the U.S. government sought to promote Pan-American friendship as part of Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy. Hollywood celebrities sallied forth for visits. And movie studios – making up for decades of tone-deaf depictions of Latin Americans as lazy peasants and sinister banditos – sought to infuse Latin-American themes into their films.
In 1941, the Roosevelt administration sent Disney and 15 of his employees on a research trip-cum-goodwill tour of Argentina, Brazil and Chile. The result was two animated feature films – “1942's “Saludos Amigos” and 1944's “The Three Caballeros” – as well as several shorts.
Part travelogue, part polemic, the movies find Donald Duck and other familiar Disney figures exploring Latin America's vast and varied cultural terrain with the help of new characters such as José Carioca, a cigar-smoking Brazilian parrot, and Panchito Pistoles, a pistol-packing rooster from Mexico.
The movies were “designed to play to many audiences, so an Anglo audience … who doesn't have a lot of exposure (to) or knowledge about Latin America learns a little something without feeling like they're being lectured to,” Lerner said. “And Latin Americans who are more familiar with the landscape and the cultural context that's being represented are also entertained but not offended. There's this spirit of sharing.”
The sinister side of that cross-cultural pollination is revealed in the controversial classic “How to Read Donald Duck” (“Para leer al Pato Donald”), first published in Chile in 1971. Looking at popular culture through a Marxist, post-colonial lens, Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart critique Disney comics as vehicles for American imperialism.
“For a lot of our artists, that was an important point of reference,” Lerner said.