Decoloniality, roaring laughter and mutual resentment in Mexican political comedy
“If the people ask for [my candidacy for president], who am I but a humble servant of my brothers;” this is what the popular political satirist Chumel Torres declared on knowing that Mexico’s president had included him in a list of potential opposition candidates to oust him in 2024. The populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, often rants against Torres in his daily two-hour long morning press conference. He argues that Torres – whose YouTube show has become a major controversial player in political satire – is part of a conservative conspiracy working to bring him down. The duel that ensues encapsulates the tensions of the political present in Mexico: AMLO claims to be the defender of the poor and refers to all critics as conservative capitalists, while anyone who criticises him is usually bundled together by commentators with bigoted pundits who use racist and classist slurs against AMLO and his followers. The constant clash and growing polarization feeds on long-standing colonial classifications that still define the country’s main social, economic and political landscapes. With this project, I seek to examine the postcolonial entanglements that abound in political satire and comedy. The central question guiding my inquiries is: what would decolonial indigenous political comedies sound and look like? In particular, I will focus on the Mexican case, examining carefully racial and ethnic stereotypes that are reinforced in satire and comedy which help provide a cultural justification for pecking orders that prevail in various spheres of public life.
In line with NoJoke, I argue that through punchlines and astute graphic commentary, political comedians and caricaturists shape public debates about core elements of collective life in Mexico. This is especially the case in a country renowned for its population’s constant laughter and bantering. From his leading political position, AMLO constantly claims to have turned the tables on those who laughed at the poor and disadvantaged. But his assertions seem to ignore the feast of jokes and humour that has invaded the public sphere at his expense. So, a tongue-in-cheek-yet-analytically-relevant question is: Who is laughing now? Is it the disadvantaged? Or is it the privileged? Or does the ongoing polarisation overshadow other critiques taking place?
My proposal is of an experimental anthropological approach, combining traditional analytic methods with a series of concerted activities, collaborative endeavours, and provocative performances. This project therefore builds on three axes: study, participate and experiment. I plan to (a) carry out a study about the representation of ethnic and class differences within Mexico in political caricatures and satiric comedy in Guadalajara and Mexico City; (b) participate in various comedy workshops, stand-up academies, and other gatherings of comedians in both cities; and (c) experiment with the possibility of a decolonial political comedy, particularly considering the indigenous perspective as a viewpoint, because what is common is for anything indigenous to be the subject of jokes but not for indigenous comedians to make fun of the political arena. In line with the NoJoke umbrella project, this project will investigate alongside cartoonists and humourists. Each of the three axes is planned as in dialogue with them or directly involved in comedic situations. The choice of Guadalajara and Mexico City follows peculiar political constellations. Both cities are central to national debates, and the current governor of the state of Jalisco – of which Guadalajara is the capital – has presidential aspirations. As the country’s capital, Mexico City is where national debates take place.
For (a), the study of representations, I will carry out a documentary and media investigation as well as interviews with cartoonists and satirical journalists in Mexico City and Guadalajara. This study is foreseen in four stages: (1) selection of media and individuals to examine, perhaps including two cartoonists in each of two national and two local newspapers, as well as two national and two local magazines, as also two comedians or satirists per medium at local and national level; (2) establishment of criteria for the sample of political cartoons, of shows or presentations to analyse (timeframe, frequency, number); (3) development of categories of analyses for cartoons, jokes and performances to study the representation of postcolonial ethnic and class differences; and (4) the search for interviews with the comedians, cartoonists and satirists examined. Each of these stages will benefit from dialogues with local specialists in Mexican journalism and its history. I aim to establish collaborative subprojects with local scholars and practitioners. The main one of these is with the local Jesuit university ITESO, to jointly set up a multi-media exhibition of political cartoonists and humourists.
For the second axis, (b) participation in comedy schooling and shows, I will take part as a trainee in workshops imparted in Guadalajara and Mexico City, as well as attend performances in dedicated venues in both cities. I intend to be fully transparent with workshop organizers in stating that although I will genuinely try to learn to carry out stand-up comedy, my main interest lies in examining the keys of comedic analyses. As a spectator, I plan to attend several shows in Guadalajara and Mexico City, where an effervescent stand-up scene has emerged. I will especially seek to attend the show – and perhaps get a behind-the-scenes view – of Chumel Torres, who has been called the Mexican John Stewart, albeit with a racist, sexist and libertarian position (Dorcé 2022: 12). Originally an engineer, Torres gained notoriety for a tweet criticizing the now president back in 2012. His outspoken style earned him massive attention and he was invited to write a weekly satirical column in a national blog and a local newspaper in Mexico City. Soon, he set up his own YouTube channel, launched in 2013 under the name ‘El pulso de la república’ (The [Mexican] republic’s heartbeat). His popularity soared to such an extent that HBO decided to host two seasons of his program, until they discontinued his show after a national scandal in 2020. The National Commission against Discrimination (Conapred) had set up a panel specialized on YouTube, in order to better scrutinize the increasing number of denunciations over discriminatory content in the video platform. One of the Conapred’s guests for the first meeting of the panel was Chumel Torres. This led to a media storm and the cancellation of the event. Subsequently, Torres gained much more notoriety and a larger following. Torres has since doubled down on his perceived racism, making even more fun of what he criticises as self-righteous individuals who do not get his sense of humour. His current stand-up tour for the winter 2022 season, for example, is called ‘El blanco de tus burlas’ (literally meaning the ‘target of your jokes’, but blanco also means ‘white’). AMLO appears obsessed with Torres, referring to him often in his daily press conferences, and even accusing him of being a mastermind of his conservative critics.
For the third axis, (c) experimenting with a decolonial comedy, I will help facilitate the training of two or three indigenous youth as stand-up comedians. I link decolonial to indigenous because indigenous viewpoints are seriously undervalued in the country. It is also important to emphasise that individuals who self-identify as indigenous very seldomly carry out stand-up or other types of performative comedy in Mexico. The few who do tend to perpetuate negative stereotypes – like lack of education or faulty language skills – in a slapstick way. An example is La India Yuridia, whose YouTube channel has almost three million subscribers and who has offered live shows in Las Vegas. My idea is to support indigenous youth and viewpoints and provide them with an environment to nurture their talents and a platform to reach wider audiences.
Decolonial political humour
In the current historical moment, as democratic institutions around the world are undermined, legitimate grievance claims are increasingly challenged. Arguments for and against certain measures – like positive discrimination – have been subjected to unprecedented levels of public scrutiny and debate. In this context, some indigenous artists in several countries have explored creative forms of expression to address their communities’ concerns. They do so navigating a balance between creativity and loaded contexts. The efforts to frame such portrayals within a decolonialising frame is to actively address the remaining power inequalities and symbolic legacies that negatively affect the lives of millions of people. Decolonial representations of indigenous peoples, thus, offer “pointedly unidealized images” (Prouty 2018: 30), avoiding a typical trap of portrayals that tend to romanticize indigeneity. My intent is to identify issues that are funny among indigenous peoples in Mexico without falling into the current logic of polarization, in order to try it out on local and national audiences.
The challenge to face is that what earns roaring laughter in performances or a high number of followers in social media are the caricatures – both figurative and actual pictorial – that simplify and reproduce preconceptions and established wisecracks. In the Mexican political sphere, for example, the current polarization between Morena and opposition parties leads caricaturists to stress extreme stereotypes of each camp. One case was when in November 2022, a national debate about a perceived threat against the electoral institute by AMLO led to a large opposition march. A renowned caricaturist from a left-leaning newspaper published a caricature on Sunday November 13, that showed two visibly angry white men in suits representing the conveners of the march. The larger one made a rude gesture against an unseen foe, while saying: “It may well be that the call for the march is based only on lies,” while the other adds: “but the hatred that moves us is very true!” On the other side, a caricaturist of a centre-right newspaper used a formulaic phrase, repeatedly used for different intents, to lambast AMLO’s party Morena: “All we need to do is add the requirement that voters are required to have finished high-school and, bum!, Morena is history!” Both sides, thus, continue to paint simple caricatures of the perceived ‘other.’
In Mexico, subaltern humour has been a permanent ingredient of private and public exchanges (Neria 2012; Schmidt 2014). Even the single-party regime which governed most of the twentieth century received a comical name that captures its ethos: dictablanda, instead of dictadura (a play on words that means soft dictatorship, see Gillingham and Smith 2014). A three-volume history of the twentieth century is called Mexican Tragicomedy (Agustín 1992a, 1992b, 1998). I am certain that beneath the mediatic surface a wave of new political humour is serving as a tool – like occurs in other parts of Latin America – to imagine what justice might look like (Delupi 2016). My hypothesis is that the principle of homo ludens plays a role in testing the limits and experimenting with the imagination of what is possible (Huizinga 2014). With this project, I intend to examine the political satire, comedy and caricature milieu beyond the self-referential polarisation in order to trace – and instigate – vernacular concerns about political events and constellations.
Agustín, José. 1992a. Tragicomedia mexicana 1: La vida en México de 1940 a 1970. Mexico City: Planeta.
———. 1992b. Tragicomedia mexicana 2: La vida en México de 1970 a 1988. Mexico City: Planeta.
———. 1998. Tragicomedia mexicana 3: la vida en México de 1982 a 1994. Mexico City: Planeta.
Delupi, Mximiliano. 2016. ¿De qué te reís?: el humor político y la construcción de sentido por la igualdad. Villa María: Eduvim.
Dorcé, André. 2022. “Networks of alterity in syndemic times: sociodigital media controversy around racism in Mexico.” Journal of Intercultural Studies no. Online first.
Gillingham, Paul, and Benjamin T. Smith. 2014. Dictablanda: politics, work, and culture in Mexico, 1938-1968. Durham: Duke University Press.
Huizinga, Johan. 2014. Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press. Original edition, 1938.
Neria, Leticia. 2012. Humour as political resistance and social criticism: Mexican comics and cinema, 1969-1976, Modern Languages, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews.
Prouty, Amy. 2018. “Drawing inuit satiric resilience: Alootook Ipellie’s decolonial comics.” esse arts + opinions no. 93:30-37.