What _Chespirito_ Left Us

I was used to the fact that, as a soap-opera actor in demand, my father would occasionally be stopped on the street for an autograph. If he played a principal character, people would even connect him personally to whatever traits that character had. If a villain, they would harass him; if a hero, he would suddenly hear applause as he walked by.

But, as I remember it, at no time was my father more besieged than when he played an amusement-park owner in _Chespirito._ He would be seated at a restaurant without delay. Groups of people would ask him to take a picture with them. And at the bank where he did his business, the manager told him never to wait in line. I even remember an old lady coming to him at a grocery store in tears, telling him he had been saved by Jesus Christ because of the amusement-park owner_s connection to one character in the program, El Chavo.

_Chespirito_ featured rotating sketches, some of whose characters were later spun off into separate shows; El Chavo was the protagonist of _El Chavo del Ocho_ (The Boy From No. 8); another sketch revolved around a character named Chespirito. All the leads were played by the show_s creator, Roberto G__mez Bola__os, who died last week in Canc__n, at the age of 85, and who was nicknamed Chespirito _ _Little Shakespeare_ _ in real life.

The names of all these lead characters started with _Ch_: El Doctor Chapat__n (Doctor Chapat__n) and El Chapul__n Colorado (The Crimson Grasshopper). At a time when American TV shows, dubbed into Spanish, were already the talk of the town, _Chespirito_ was fully _ and truly _ Mexican, albeit in bizarre, unexplored ways. It was about being a homeless kid with a limited vocabulary in a poor neighborhood, or about becoming a humble superhero in an age when Batman and Superman were quintessential icons.

_Chespirito_ aired from 1971 to 1992. To this day, it is watched by millions in syndication (from which I get no income). Not only was it a fixture of my upbringing but it also shaped that of scores of my students. There have been all sorts of spinoffs of the show, including a weekly comic strip and an animated TV version. The faces of Chespirito, La Chilindrina, El Profesor Jirafales, La Mococha Pechocha and its other characters still appear on T-shirts, sandals and lunchboxes. For years, I had an action figure of El Chavo on my office desk. Sentences in the show have become fixtures of speech. There are online encyclopedias devoted to it.

Interestingly, the content of the show is utterly apolitical. That, it strikes me, is probably why Televisa, the Mexican media conglomerate often seen as a mouthpiece of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico_s ruling party from 1929 to 2000, endorsed it without reservations. It never directly addressed issues like violence. Nor did it talk about drugs, abortion or homosexuality. Its repertoire overflowed with stereotypes like the crying girl, the fat real estate developer and the goofy teacher. In short, its content was docile, even anodyne in the milieu of its time. And although it might have been lowbrow, it was never of low taste. It humanized its characters with a sense of humor that was accessible to all social classes. No wonder my father felt immortalized by it.

It is fitting that right now, when Mexico seems to have become one of the antechambers of Dante_s hell _ pushed to the brink of chaos by the presumed murders of 43 innocent students who disappeared on Sept. 26 in the town of Iguala _ a comedian who entertained audiences by ignoring the obvious was bid farewell with unreserved devotion. Indeed, instead of placing Roberto G__mez Bola__os_s body at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, as President Enrique Pe__a Nieto ordered when Gabriel Garc__a M__rquez died, the actor_s body was displayed in the legendary Estadio Azteca, the country_s most important soccer stadium. There, thousands of followers, dressed up as El Chavo and El Chapul__n, danced around him. A champion of the masses had returned to his origins.

The nickname _Chespirito_ was a nod to Mr. G__mez Bola__os_s apparently inexhaustible capacity to create stories. But it also points to his universality, which I came to understand only after I left Mexico in 1985 and immigrated to the United States. My point of entry was New York City. Upon my arrival, I sought a place among other Spanish speakers. Soon, I realized there was no such thing as a _Latino,_ at least not yet. We were all still Mexicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and so on _ members of different countries who ate different food, danced to different rhythms, and used the Spanish language in subtly different ways.

With time, I came to understand that what united us all was neither geography nor history but popular culture. A number of undisputed kings of our imagination transcended national backgrounds, among them the freedom fighter Che Guevara, the poet Pablo Neruda, the comedian Cantinflas, and, yes, the TV star Chespirito. Whenever a Spanish speaker would find out I was Mexican, he would manage to insert in the conversation the sentence ___S__ganme los buenos!_ _ _Follow me, good guys!_ _ uttered by El Chapul__n as he readies himself for another adventure. And if by chance I responded by confessing that my father had been part of the Chespirito cadre, the love I would immediately receive would be palpable.

In truth, Chespirito is no longer only Mexican. He has become a symbol of the Hispanic middle class, no matter where it is.

New York times | By ILAN STAVANS

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