Covert Cartoons: Animated Anti-Communism in Mexico and Beyond

Still image from “Viaje Interplanetario.” (306.6376)

In the 1950s, the United States and its allies were deep in the throes of the Cold War. To face and fight the spread of communism, the United States Information Agency (USIA) unleashed anti-communist film campaigns across the globe. Although laden with serious political messages, some films took the form of charming, animated shorts. This post takes a closer look at a series of 12 films that came to the Motion Picture Preservation Lab with the simple and mysterious title of “Mexican Cartoons.”

The story of the “Mexican Cartoons” begins when Hollywood executive Richard K. Tompkins was contracted by the USIA to oversee anti-communism film projects in Mexico. His animation studio, simply named “Dibujos Animados,” translates to “animated drawings” or “cartoons.” The studio’s animation team was led by Ernesto Terrazas, who had previously worked on Walt Disney’s The Three Caballeros as a part of Disney’s “Good Neighbor Policy” efforts towards Latin America, and would later go on to produce early episodes of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  (Check out this Spanish-language “Latin Animation” blog to see pictures of Tompkins and Terrazas working together in the studio). By establishing an animation studio through Tompkins, the USIA was able to produce quality content in Mexico without revealing a direct link to the agency. Thus, anti-communist messages of the United States were distributed throughout Latin America under the guise of local production.

All 12 of the cartoons begin the roughly same way: an upbeat tune plays as “Dibujos Animados, S.A.” fades in at the top of the screen, followed by four adorable animals that appear one after another in time to the music. These recurring characters reveal themselves to be Burrito the donkey, Manolin the rooster, Lios the raven, and Chente the wolf. Burrito and Manolin always play the innocent victims of communist schemes, while Lios and Chente play the villainous perpetrators.

A common theme in the films is neutrality in the fight against communism. When Lios and Chente arrive in town, Burrito and Manolin put up a fight while one-off characters declare themselves neutral and attempt to avoid conflict. Ultimately these neutral characters are attacked by the villains, forcing Burrito and Manolin to come to the rescue. Then they all fight off Lios and Chente as a team, showing pride in their new unified strength and emphasizing the message of anti-communism over neutrality.

In Mucho Macho, train conductor Manolin warns passengers Don Fiero and his daughter Ava about local bandits and asks them to bear arms in defense of the train. Don Fiero declares that defending the train is not their responsibility, and the two literally hide their heads in buckets of sand and post signs reading “Neutral, Do Not Disturb.” In the clip below, the neutral passengers are the first to be robbed by the bandits, Lios and Chente.

Bandits board the train in “Mucho Macho.” (306.6370)

Los Cuatreros depicts another western tale in which Burrito and Manolin defend their ranch against the cattle rustlers, Lios and Chente. A neighboring pig farmer named Don Inocente refuses to join their cause in the name of neutrality. In disguise, the cattle rustlers befriend Don Inocente, rob him of his pigs, and then use his farm as a means to sneak into the undefended side of Burrito and Manolin’s ranch. Once again, Burrito and Manolin stop the villians and come to the rescue of the unsuspecting neutral character. In this clip, Lios and Chente spy on their intended victim, Don Inocente.

The cattle rustlers strike again in “Los Cuatreros.” (306.6375)

At other times, Lios and Chente are spotlighted as untrustworthy characters, while Burrito and Manolin learn lessons of remaining vigilant in the face of communist influence. In Viaje Interplanetario, journalist Burrito and scientist Manolin visit the “Red Planet” and are given special glasses with which to view the planet’s flourishing society. In the clip below, Burrito removes his glasses to reveal the “Red Planet” for what it really is, and Burrito and Manolin flee back to their home planet.

Things are not what they seem in “Viaje Interplanetario.” (306.6376)

Many of the “Mexican Cartoons” arrived at the Motion Picture Preservation Lab with advanced vinegar syndrome, a destructive result of acetate film decay. Vinegar syndrome, if left unmanaged, can result in warping, color-fading, and brittleness, rendering a film unusable. In order to ensure that these films will be available for future use, new photochemical copies will be made, and the original materials placed into cold storage to prevent further decay. Check out this vinegar syndrome blog post to learn more.

Cambio de Música (306.6378), Los Cuatreros (306.6375), Manolin Totero (306.6377), Mucho Macho (306.6370), Pravda Prado (306.6379), Viaje Interplanetario (306.6376), and Vice Versos (306.6371) are all currently available to view in the National Archives catalog.

Canción de la Sirena (306.6369), Diestro vs Siniestro (306.6372), Fue por Lana (306.6374), Maíz para las Masas (306.5549), and No Me Acorralen (306.6373) are undergoing digitization and preservation and will be added to the catalog in the future. Stay tuned for more adventures from Burrito, Manolin, Lios, and Chente!