The Girl Who Knew Too Much

What I learned from Mafalda.

A statue depicting Mafalda is seen on a bench and near some flowers.
Flowers are seen by a statue depicting Mafalda in Mendoza, Argentina, on Sept. 30. Andres Larrovere/AFP via Getty Images

Like a lot of South American children, I grew up reading Mafalda comics. Starring a group of little kids, the Argentine strip about the anxieties and misunderstandings of childhood was like Peanuts meets Calvin and Hobbes, then crossed with Doonesbury. The comic offered plenty of sharp jokes about the world as kids see it, but with a twist: Mafalda was a politically passionate child. She loved the Beatles, hated soup, and listened avidly to radio reports on the Vietnam War. She took the news personally: She swaddled her globe instead of her doll, putting Band-Aids on its war zones and taking its temperature as it lay in her toy crib. For a kids’ comic, it had some sharp edges, and it took its hero and her questions seriously even when her friends mocked her for being a downer. Quino, the pen name of Mafalda’s creator, published the enormously popular strip for nine years, from 1964–73. Asked why he stopped, he’d sometimes say he’d run out of ideas. Other times, when asked what Mafalda’s future might have been, he’d say she’d have been disappeared by Argentina’s military dictatorship. This wasn’t that far-fetched: Quino and his wife relocated to Milan during the dictatorship, but the Argentine publishers of the Mafalda books and other children’s books were detained by the military government and spent a few months in prison for “indoctrinating” children.

Quino—officially named Joaquín Salvador Lavado—died Sept. 30 at age 88. This is both sad and strange. Sad because the creator of those lovably pessimistic kindergartners was a Seussian moral force in South America, and strange because he ended the comic so long ago that it was a little surprising to learn he was still alive. The comic began as an ad campaign Quino was working for that never took off. When he decided to turn the family he’d created into a comic, he described it as a cross between Peanuts and Blondie. In Quino’s hands, the strip became, among other things, a time capsule of Argentine life during that particular decade: There is a statue of Mafalda on the street in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo where she lived. The building she occupied with her family—they lived in apartment E—has a plaque on it that says, “Mafalda Lived Here.” But despite its rootedness in a specific place and time, it’s also been a formative influence for several subsequent generations of children, partly because its multiple meanings accrue as those children grow up. Many kids (like me) missed the full force of the jokes until they reread the comics and saw what they were saying about political problems or adult concerns. I didn’t think it was that funny when Mafalda named her pet turtle Bureaucracy, called for it, and spent several panels waiting for it to arrive. Now I do. When a friend of Mafalda’s named Libertad tells Mafalda that her family’s last chicken was written by Sartre, I didn’t understand the setup. I get it now: Libertad’s parents are intellectuals and they’re barely making ends meet. Her dad’s salary goes toward the apartment, and her mom’s translations pay for what they eat. Her most recent translation? Sartre. Libertad, a comically tiny girl who sourly invites new acquaintances to get their jokes about her name out of their system, is a kind of parody of an intellectual’s disorganized, fiercely idealistic, and slightly impoverished life. She names her chicken dinner after the existentialist who made it possible.

If the comic represents adult worries improbably well, it also nails the freewheeling irreverence typical of children’s ethical squabbles. Mafalda herself is always sorting the people she observes into social categories or walks of life (“To what sector of democracy do cats belong?” she wonders in one panel), and her friend group reflects a similar interest in how different people approach the world. Mafalda’s friend Felipe—based on a friend of Quino’s—is a dreamer who puts off doing his homework by reading Lone Ranger comics and suffers agonies of self-hatred over how much he’s not doing. He has a rich fantasy life and a lot of theories. “Do you know why paper bills have been so nicely ironed lately?” he says to another friend, Manolito, showing him some money. “They’re wash-and-wear!” Manolito, an eager and dim proto-capitalist who makes deliveries for his father’s small corner store and plans to own a supermarket chain, corrects him: “They’re not wash-and-wear. They’re best-sellers.” “Best-sellers are books, man!” Felipe says. “And why not currency?” Manolito asks, his eyes wide, his mouth open. “They’re what we print most specimens of and the editions run out the quickest!” Manolito’s monetary preoccupations coexist with Miguelito’s sunny simplicity and Susanita’s peculiarly forward-facing fixation on becoming a mother. Motherhood is neither simple nor easy in the Mafalda universe; Mafalda warily watches her own intelligent, bedraggled mother endlessly cleaning the house. Terrified of repeating whatever mistakes brought her to this pass, Mafalda frequently (and a little cruelly) asks her mother what she did to end up this way. Susanita, by contrast, longs to grow up and become a mother. But she can’t help slipping into the lonelier parts of that social bargain. She speaks of her future son with smug pride, often adding that he’s a doctor, before her fantasies about him take a dark turn in which she ages into irrelevance and imagines his future wife replacing her in her son’s life, leaving her alone. Susanita’s dolls sometimes feel her motherly wrath.

As for Mafalda, she likes playing, but there’s a geopolitical tilt to her games and observations. Concerned that the globe has Argentina below the equator—meaning that she lives upside-down, and that this perhaps explains why her country is subdesarrollado (underdeveloped)—she nails the globe to the wall upside-down so Argentina is back on top. She’s a keen observer. A typical panel has her pausing as she walks down a city street to look up at some STOP THE CENSORSHIP graffiti on a wall. “BASTA DE CENSU” it says, the unfinished phrase still dripping. It should have said “BASTA DE CENSURA” but someone had chased the artist away; it’s a typical kid’s joke about … censorship. (And indeed, Mafalda was censored in several countries with right-leaning administrations. In Chile it was briefly suspended for being “tendentious and destructive.” In Franco’s Spain, the Mafalda books could only be sold with a warning: PARA ADULTOS.)

I didn’t know what I was reading when I first started reading Mafalda. I loved her passionate, wide-mouthed hatred for soup, but I didn’t quite follow when she wondered whether soup was to childhood what communism was to democracy. I thought it was cute when Felipe brought Mafalda a flower, blushing. “Where shall we put it?” she said, delighted, leading him to her father’s massive collection of houseplants. I had no idea what a miffed Felipe meant by saying the experience had been like bringing Fidel Castro a lump of sugar.

I don’t think Mafalda “indoctrinated” me into any particular viewpoint. But I think I may have learned from her that taking the world’s troubles to heart—even if it leads to a certain amount of personal misery—is a thing worth doing. And that hard questions are worth asking, just as peace is worth hoping for. For a comic where all the kids have big heads and tiny bodies, it taught me that kids can be as serious as they are silly. That they can feel things about the world and look beyond their own circumstances, even when the results are grim. It may say something about us that a comic set in 1960s Argentina feels more relevant today than it did when I first read it.