Last Sunday, a coffin containing the body of Roberto Gómez Bolaños was placed on the field at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca.
But the 40,000 or so filling a third of the cavernous stadium weren’t there for Gómez Bolaños, who had passed away two days earlier in Cancún. They had come to say good-bye to his television personas, mostly El Chavo del Ocho, the suspendered little tyke with the middle-aged face.
“El Chavo” the show and El Chavo the character — both Gómez Bolaños’ creations — were unmitigated triumphs of ultra-lowbrow entertainment. Why the endless abuse of a simple-minded orphan — delivered via obvious jokes and ghastly wordplay — has remained a soothing staple of Mexican family life for more than four decades is a topic best left to the social scientists. But the program and its characters are so engrained in the national psyche that they’re complaint-proof; show a hint of doubt and you’re either a snob or a malinche.
Maybe that’s why Gómez Bolaños (or Chespirito if you prefer) got a free ride in his posthumous news coverage, even beyond the customary suspension of judgment in writing about the recently deceased. It’s as though a negative word about Gómez Bolaños is the same as taking yet another shot at the lovable little Chavo, or blaspheming the family hearth.
You see, this was not the first time Gómez Bolaños had been the center of attention at a soccer stadium. There he was with the “El Chavo” cast in 1977 at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile, doing live skits for the adoring Chilean fans, who if anything were more enthusiastic than their Mexican counterparts.
Nor was that the first time that the Estadio Nacional had been used for non-sporting purposes. From September of 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile’s elected president, through 1975 — just two years earlier — the stadium had been used as a concentration camp where citizens were held, tortured and prepped for slaughter.
One would think that simple queasiness, if not moral conviction, would discourage a comic actor from entertaining at such a site. Years later, Chespirito defended his appearance as a step toward rehabilitating the stadium, pointing out that if past abuses were the sole criteria, there’d never again be entertainment in Mexico City’s Zócalo.
Save for the discrepancy in scale, those are sound points. But they beg the question of what he was doing in Pinochet’s Chile in the first place.
In most of the obits I’ve read, if it’s mentioned at all, this shameful episode is lumped in with other “controversial” aspects of his life, such as his anti-abortion activism. Which is nonsensical. Good people can differ on abortion, but not on mass murder.
Besides, there’s nothing controversial about the Pinochet dictatorship. The facts are incontrovertible. His regime was bloody, sadistic and sickening in its scope. Tens of thousands were tortured, thousands killed and buried in mass graves, thousands more disappeared and hundred of thousands forced into exile.
And the butchery was still going on as Chespirito took the stage.
What’s more, the atrocities’ victims weren’t enemy combatants or guerrillas or even strikers. They were simply citizens whose political views Pinochet abhorred, all the more so for having been in power for three years. It was politicide — the elimination of an entire generation of liberals and leftists. What Pinochet achieved was the equivalent of torturing and killing thousands of Elena Poniatowskas, Oscar Chávezes and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenases.
Did Gómez Bolaños condone that? It would be comforting to think he was merely naive (like John Denver, who a decade later praised Pinochet’s Chile during a visit because he saw a surprising number of Mercedes on the roads).
But Chespirito had to know the implications. To make his appearance, he consciously broke a solidly established artists’ boycott, which was in place not to deny Chileans foreign entertainment but to deny Pinochet legitimacy, to avoid handing him a victory.
Chespirito handed him one.
Thus falls flat his contention that he went for his fans, not for the authorities. The adulation of a mass of avid admirers must be intoxicating. But does it justify aiding and abetting one of the great monsters of 20th century Latin America?