Growing up in Central America, it was impossible not to know who Chespirito was (is!). This Mexican television sitcom had a huge impact on my childhood. I moved to Guatemala right before I turned 6 years old, and so watching TV was very influential in learning to speak a second language (I couldn’t figure out how our same TV set now “spoke” Spanish instead of English!) If you have some Latin American influence in your life, it’s probable that you have heard about what I’m talking about, if not, let me fill you in!!
Roberto Gómez Bolaños, writer, actor, director, poet, comedian, and most successful creator of shows and TV personalities in Mexico, created a phenomenon with deep social roots that has extended through all Latin America. His iconic characters “El Chavo del Ocho” and “El Chapulín Colorado” have become part of the Latin American culture.
As a child, I grew up watching all the shows on TV. It wasn’t until lately that I actually did a bit of research on this “phenomenon” and have found some facts that really interest me and have given me a different perspective on this part of my childhood. I watched the Biography Channel’s Bio on Roberto Gómez Bolaños here (in Spanish). There are also some interesting articles on wikipedia on El Chavo del Ocho (English) and Roberto Gómez Bolaños (Spanish).
Here are some things that interested me: Roberto Gómez Bolaños was born in Mexico in 1929. He says that as a child, he was always scared, of things under the bed, of bullies, of everything: his life was characterized by fear, and that’s why he became a fighter (a scrapper!) His father died when he was 6 and it’s evident that this was very difficult for him. He was a rather short boy, but secretly took up boxing as a kid, winning prizes and everything without his Mom knowing about it. He also played soccer of course! He would go after the bullies now, but he says that it was inspired by his fear as a child. (I love how this is portrayed in the character of Chapulín Colorado! It’s not just the biggest and bravest who can be the hero and save the day!)
Bolaños worked in radio and later wrote for some famous Mexican comedians. At one point, someone started calling him Shakespeare-ito (little Shakespeare) and then he just colloquialized it into “Chespirito”. So it was the writer/actor who’s name became Chespirito (later on, it was also the name of one of his series). I found it interesting in the Biography Channel’s Bio that they talk about how (in the “olden days”!) it used to be that The Comedian in a show would get all the laughs, and that they were quite jealous of anyone else in the show getting “their” laughs. When Roberto Gómez Bolaños, now Chespirito, launched out on his own, writing and directing, he was determined to change that stereotype and create a forum where actors could share equally in the limelight and in “getting the laughs”. When you watch his shows, it is obvious that he accomplished this, and the main cast of the show work together on the same level, each playing off the other, so that there isn’t just one character who hogs the whole show. They would alternate and each get their turn in the limelight in the different sketches.
In the interview, one of Bolaños’ daughters comments that her father showed everyone that a sitcom could be both “clean & healthy” (sano) and a great success. They are definitely family-friendly shows. What we used to love was the versatility of the actors, as the main cast played in both series, Chavo and Chapulín. The shows were composed of different sketches, with the same actors playing very diverse parts in the different sketches and series.
In 1970, Bolaños created the character of Chapulín Colorado. (the next part is from wikipedia) “The show’s success was largely due to the fact that it embodied many aspects of Latin and Mexican culture, while making a critique on the unrealistic image of superheroes. From the name itself to the slang and proverbs, Chespirito made a great effort to reflect Latin culture. Many of his characters’ names start with “Ch” (a separate letter in the Spanish alphabet) and several secondary characters with the Spanish letter “Ñ”. The name translates literally in English as “The Red Grasshopper” (the word chapulín is of Nahuatl or Aztec origin, and a current part of Mexican Spanish). It is also known in Brazil as “Vermelhinho” (“Little Red”) and “Polegar Vermelho” (“Red Thumb”).
He was a superhero who dressed all in red, with yellow shorts and shoes, a red hood, and bore a yellow heart on his chest with CH inscribed in red (akin to Superman’s “S”). He was conceived as the opposite of the image of traditional American superhero: a weak, ugly, fearful, clumsy, cowardly, short and foolish man, but in the end always overcame his fears to defeat his enemies. For some reason, Chapulín is believed by people (in the show!) to be a great superhero, but they usually end up disappointed when they realize he is actually puny and timid. Despite this, Chapulín did try his best to help, and all his adventures ended well (though sometimes by sheer good luck or outside help.)
Seemingly parodying Superman’s “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive” introduction, Chapulín was introduced as follows in the show’s opening, reinforcing the idea of a barely powered hero:
- Más ágil que una tortuga, más fuerte que un ratón, más noble que una lechuga, su escudo es un corazón… ¡Es el Chapulín Colorado!
- (More agile than a turtle, stronger than a mouse, nobler than a lettuce, his shield is a heart… It’s the Red Grasshopper!)”
I went on to read more of the article, and I laughed till the tears came out when I was reading through the descriptions of Chapulín’s “equipment and weapons” here! I remember how all the markets sold Chipote Chillónes (large plastic “Squeaky Mallets”) and Antenitas de Vinil (Little Vinyl Antennae) on plastic headbands and you would see kids everywhere with these “icons” from the show!
A year or two after El Chapulín was created, Bolaños came up with the idea for the character and later show, El Chavo del Ocho (I’ll post about Chavo tomorrow!). “El Chapulín Colorado and El Chavo are farcical sitcoms: they rely heavily upon physical comedy, slapstick, running gags, literal interpretations, double entendres, misinterpretation (and even, sometimes, elements from the comedy of errors) in order to amuse the audience, and the characters and situations were mostly persistent (wikipedia)”. Which made them great programs for a family who was just learning the language! Each character’s theme phrases and actions were easy to pick up on, and bit by bit we were able to figure out what they were saying. We really felt that we were advancing in learning Spanish when we started being able to understand the puns and plays on words and get the jokes!!
El Chapulín had some great phrases, some of which became a permanent part of Latin American vocabulary, and our family’s in particular. (from wikipedia) Usually, the show would introduce the characters of the current episode until one of them was endangered or victimized in some way, at which point they voiced the catchphrase “Oh, y ahora ¿quién podrá defenderme/nos?” (“Oh, who can save me/us now?”), or “Oh, y ahora ¿quién podrá ayudarme/nos?” (“Oh, and now, who can help me/us”). Chapulín would appear out of nowhere (usually tripping or hurting himself with something as he did), and say “¡Yo!” (“Me!”), to which the people in need would instantly yell “¡El Chapulín Colorado!” (“The Red Grasshopper!”) with relief, after which he’d be greeted by the victim(s). He always answered with his catchphrase “¡No contaban con mi astucia!” (“They did not count on my cleverness!”).
“Todos mis movimientos están fríamente calculados” (“All my movements are coldly calculated”)
“Se aprovechan de mi nobleza” (“They take advantage of my nobility”) — which he would usually say after an insult, like “We should’ve called Superman or Batman…”, or when he is forced to do something against his will.
“Lo sospeché desde un principio” (“I suspected it all along”/”I knew that”) — which he would say after someone pointed out something obvious that he had missed.
“¡Síganme los buenos!” (“Good guys, follow my lead!”)
From wikipedia, under outside sources: “The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening has declared that he created the Bumblebee Man character after watching El Chapulín Colorado on television at a motel on the U.S.-Mexico border. (This notwithstanding, the Bumblebee Man character also bears resemblances to an early Saturday Night Live recurring sketch with “Mexican killer bees” although the Chapulín character predated the SNL Character.) Simpsons fans sometimes call the character Chespirito, even though Bumblebee Man is only based on his character. It should also be mentioned that many Simpsons characters enjoy Chespirito/Bumblebee Man’s show; competing comedian Krusty the Klown watches one gag and remarks in admiration, “I gotta steal that bit.” Bumblebee Man’s show also features characters similar to Doña Florinda and Quico (with the inevitable stereotyping mustache), as well as Chómpiras. However, there is no real similarity between the character of Bumbleblee Man and El Chapulín Colorado.”
Something that I found out that surprised me (well, maybe it’s not that big of a surprise) was that the show El Chapulín Colorado was the first program made in Mexico to go International! (It was with Televisa at the time). Guatemala was the first country to buy and start showing the sitcom, and from there it spread to countries around the world including countries like the USA, China, Japan and Italy!! It has been translated into 50 languages! Interestingly enough, Cuba is the only Latin American country that has not (officially) bought/shown the series! 😉 The cartoon-sitcom The Simpsons has a character called The Bee Man that is a parody of El Chapulín Colorado, FYI. Roberto Gómez Bolaños’ TV series hold the world record: 40 years of continuos airtime!! 🙂Chespirito is a part of my childhood and the Spanish language I speak! I hope you enjoyed finding out a bit more about him! If you are into paper crafting, here’s a paper cubee of El Chapulín Colorado for you to download and assemble!!
If you are really into this research, you can watch the Bio here: Aqui se puede ver el programa de Biography de Chespirito. And here’s a site that has recent news about Chespirito Informe 21. Apparently there was a rumor of his death being spread around, but it was just a rumor.