FQ columnist Manuel Betancourt, whose mother ran an animation studio in Colombia, reflects upon the diversity of contemporary Latin American animated production. Unlike in America, where animation has long been misunderstood as child’s play, an ever-growing network of Latin American creators refuse to see animation as beholden to family-friendly fare. Noting the didactic potential of this malleable medium, which is being used to educate children about everything from the Spanish conquest to modern-day environmental issues, Betancourt also calls attention to a growing animated canon bringing Indigenous traditions into the twenty-first century.
For years I’ve trotted out a cheeky mantra that feels truer every time I utter it: everything I know I learned from animation. At times, I’ve come to use it flippantly, as a way to honor my formative years spent watching Disney films, Hannah-Barbera cartoons, Looney Tunes shorts, and Japanese anime from the comfort of my childhood bedroom. But my mother ran an animation production company in Bogotá, Colombia, so I’ve always been aware that my relationship to this medium is tinged by a personal attachment to its very process, a connection that few others share. My first forays into the kind of film criticism I practice today were informed by the unlikely behind-the-scenes access I had as a teenager. I watched cartoons growing up, always keeping in mind the many editing and storyboarded choices that went into a visual gag or the aesthetic choices that made emotional moments sing.
For years, and from afar, I’ve watched homegrown animated productions from Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and other Latin American countries be celebrated at film festivals and (for a scant few) garner recognition when released theatrically. Such films, including the nightmarish stop-motion take on the horror of Pinochet’s dictatorship, La casa lobo (The Wolf House, Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, 2018); the black-and-white coming-of-age tale based on Colombian-Ecuadorian graphic novelist Power Paola’s memoir, Virus Tropical (Santiago Caicedo, 2017); the painterly allegory about fear in Brazil, Tito e os Pássaros (Tito and the Birds, Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, and André Catoto, 2018); and, even more recently, the corporate dystopian world of the Pablo Larraín–produced Homeless (Jorge Campusano, José Ignacio Navarro, and Santiago O’Ryan, 2019), have showcased an ever-growing network of creators intent on telling probing stories which refuse to see animation as beholden to family-friendly fare.
Still, I remain fascinated by the didactic potential of this malleable medium and by its ability to inspire other kids like myself (then) to find therein the tools they need to navigate the world. There is a conversation to be had, of course, about the way animation has long been misunderstood as child’s play, especially within the US cinematic canon. What’s striking about contemporary Latin American animated work, though, is how much of it is intentionally being leveraged to educate children—about everything from the Spanish conquest to modern-day environmental issues like fracking.
More importantly, perhaps, there is a growing animated canon bringing Indigenous traditions into the twenty-first century, keying into the potential of this medium to reanimate long-forgotten histories about the “pueblos originarios” all over the continent. Nahuel y el libro mágico (Nahuel and the Magic Book, Germán Acuña, 2020), for instance, is based on Mapuche mythology. With a kalku sorcerer at its center, this 2D animated production anchors its plot in the beliefs that are very much still present in the Chiloé Archipelago in the south of Chile. Pachamama (Juan Antín, 2018) takes its title from an earth-mother goddess worshiped by the Indigenous people of the Andes, retracing the havoc that the arrival of Spanish conquistadores caused in Incan territories, especially those on the outskirts of the Andean empire’s main settlements. El camino de Xico (Xico’s Journey, Eric D. Cabello Diaz, 2020) finds its young protagonist trying to save her modern-day village from impending destruction—at the hands of craven industrial capitalists who aim to ravage the nearby mountain for its natural resources—with the help of its titular mystical canine that further frames this story as being part of a long-standing local folklore tradition.
If the Colombian-produced El libro de Lila (Lila’s Book, Marcela Rincón, 2017) stands out, it is because it puts a young girl front and center. Set in Cali, Rincón’s necessarily blunt fable about keeping histories alive borrows freely from Indigenous cosmologies to create its very own fantasy worlds: the aptly named “Desert of Lost Memories” and the junglelike “House of Memory.” Like Pachamama’s use of Incan sculptures for its character design and El Camino de Xico’s aesthetic nods to Oaxacan alebrijes, this pastel-hued Colombian fairy tale’s visual vocabulary owes plenty to Colombia’s many Indigenous communities. This debt is most salient in the film’s playful “Tralala” figures, whose squat design feels of a piece with the stonework found in Tierradentro, the UNESCO-protected hypogeum located less than eighty miles from Cali.
Wrapped in family-friendly plots about saving one’s community and learning to adhere to formerly firm traditions that have been neglected if not outright forgotten, these productions can be oppressively earnest. Yet there’s something endearing about this treacly sweetness that is meant to attract a mainstream, global viewership. Even if produced by small, independent teams with the aid of government grants and/or a slew of international producers, these are not art-house features: both Pachamama and Xico’s Journey, for instance, were acquired by Netflix for global distribution and are currently available on that platform.
These last few years have seen Latin American thinkers and activists renewing their calls for unearthing the violent legacy of colonialism in political protests and revisionist histories alike. Amid the 2019 protests in Chile that called out economic inequality and state repression, Mapuche communities all over the country began toppling statues of Spanish conquistadores. “These are actions of a very potent symbolism, in rejecting an official version that has falsified and grossly airbrushed our history,” said Pedro Cayuqueo, a Mapuche writer and historian. “There’s something far deeper going on.”1
Similarly, the Minga Indígena in Colombia toppled the statue of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada in Bogotá in May 2021 as a direct call for “historic justice” from a government that’s all but ignored and abandoned its Indigenous communities in rural areas. The group, which has been calling for reform for decades, borrows its title from the Quechua word minka, a communal agreement. Per Martha Peralta Epieyú, national president of the Movimiento Alternativo Indígena y Social MAIS (Alternative Indigenous and Social Movement MAIS), the group’s name “is derived from the knowledge that the aborigines had about shared work for the common good. It is the meeting where the debates are had, and collective well-being is imagined and built.”2 These film projects enter into these ongoing conversations about how to recenter Indigenous bodies of knowledge within contemporary popular culture while steering clear of exploitative, superficial, or otherwise condescending approaches.
Beyond these feature films, filmmakers all over the globe are tapping into the imaginative possibilities of animated worlds to capture, engage, and inspire younger generations to look back and keep their cultural histories alive. Such is the guiding principle behind the Mexico-focused 68 voces—68 corazones series. Led by Gabriela Badillo and Hola Combo, the ambitious project hopes to animate sixty-eight different folktales, one in each of Mexico’s sixty-eight linguistic groups. As of summer 2021, they had completed thirty-six shorts—including Badillo’s 68 Voces: Ja b’ajlami sok ja chulachuli (The Tiger and the Grasshopper, 2016), which screened at the Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival in 2018—and have another five in production.
This year, the 2021 edition of Colombia’s Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (playfully dubbed FICCI INTERRUPTUS, after the festival’s unplanned pandemic pause) featured two animated projects in its Reconocimiento Diversidad NETFLIX–FICCI competition, both of which centered Colombia’s indigenous populations: Muu Palaa: La abuela mar (Luzbeidy Monterrosa Antencio and Olowaili Green Santacruz, 2021) and Piurek, hijos del agua (Programa Nidos y Autoridad Ancestral Misak Misak Nu Køsrak, 2021).
The central conceit of the former is a suturing of the innocence of youth with the wisdom of age. Its young protagonists (modeled on the filmmakers, who hail, respectively, from the Wayuu tribe and the Gunadule community) bond with their sage grandmothers as they conjure up a mystical connection with the film’s titular water spirit. The latter, meanwhile, stands as a perfect example of a number of short features being produced across the region in its animating of Indigenous origin myths, not merely by depicting folktales wedded to oral traditions but by actively working with Indigenous communities. Piurek, hijos del agua uses stop-motion techniques to tell the story, in the Nam Trik language, of the Misak people; it was created by Nidos, part of a citywide, government-sponsored program that develops opportunities for Bogotá’s youth population.
Add one more to these films: Antonio Coello’s Hant Quij Cöipaxi Hac (La creación del mundo) ([The Creation of the World], 2019), which also recruited young kids from the Seri community in Mexico to animate decades-old recordings of community elders speaking about their various myths, joins in valuing an artisan quality that sets them apart. In some cases, as with Coello’s work or the kind of shorts being produced by Cine Bajo el Cielo’s Ciclocinema, this style is due to working with amateur animators—the children who were found during the very process of working on Hant Quij Cöipaxi Hac—making it a learning experience in itself. Animation in this case became an act of preservation, one that comes about by recuperating oral storytelling in (and into) a different medium.
Ciclocinema, based in Mexico, is a traveling animation workshop whose goal is to reach remote communities while also championing a sustainable way of filmmaking. Each workshop animates with recycled materials and screens the finished projects (made with young would-be animators in their own languages) using alternative energy sources. Their work is as much about outreach as it is about the playful shorts therein produced. Each video stresses the ownership these kids feel for their projects, and their culture.
In a video tutorial created in 2020 in response to the project’s inability to continue its work as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, Diego Suárez Balleza, one of Ciclocinema’s workshop leaders, made clear why animation was an apt tool for the work he and his team conduct throughout Mexico. Noting how the tutorials were focused on stop-motion animation, Suárez Balleza stressed the tactility of such a process: “We all have inside of us entire worlds, full of characters and things. And animation is a great way to bring them into our reality, to be able to touch them with our hands and give them life.”3 Even without the English-language wordplay inherent in such an expression (“to animate”), Suárez Balleza does get at something important: why rudimentary processes like cutout and stop-motion animation are perfectly suited for this project. The felted world of Piurek, hijos del agua, the kid-drawn brushstrokes in Hant Quij Cöipaxi Hac’s characters, and the hand-cut backgrounds in a short like Ciclocinema’s La apuesta del Aluxe (The Bet of the Aluxe, Claudia G. Covarrubías, 2018) ensure that makers and audiences alike can’t miss the handcraftedness of these works.
Moreover, in contrast to the live-action filmmaking produced on similar (at times, shoestring) budgets, the ability of animated works to conjure up fantastical beings and expansive mythical worlds is limitless. Witness the way director Kristian Mercado, for example, laces his neon-tinged Puerto Rico–set dystopia of reggaeton, Nuevo Rico (2021), with Taíno and Yoruba folk imagery. His Taíno gods, who reward and curse a pair of siblings with fame and fortune in a future, flood-ravaged Miami, look entirely at home in this anime-inspired project. Hearing the kids’ competing voice-over narrations in Hant Quij Cöipaxi Hac is a reminder, as similarly invoked by watching the many shorts that 68 voces—68 corazones has produced so far, that plurality is central to these initiatives. These aren’t definitive accounts or consecrated (let alone official) narratives. Rather, they are collaborative exercises in storytelling, imaginative leaps that glance backward and push forward, de- and recentering who will get to be the hero(es) that kids and adults alike can look up to.
And so I return again to my personal mantra as I continue learning from animation every day. It remains, in my eyes, an expression of cinema at its most elemental, and, for that, it remains the oft-unheralded but powerful vanguard of moving pictures. In a year that’s already set to give audiences such mainstream US-produced fare as Netflix’s Vivo (Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords, 2021) and Disney’s Encanto (Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro Smith, 2021), which aim to animate Latin American folk stories for global consumption, just as The Book of Life (Jorge R. Gutiérrez, 2014) and Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, 2017) did before them, these indie and grassroots projects feel all the more relevant. They contain lessons about empathy and collaboration, about world making and sustainability, about historiography and preservation.
At their very core, these artisanal animations embody the inherent expansiveness of the medium. Animation is perfect as an avatar for an abundance mindset. There are no limits to what it can depict. Nor is it beholden to what already exists. At a material level, the medium pushes back against colonial and capitalist ideas of what the world is and can look like, dreaming up lost histories and possible futures with equal ease.
Quoted in Laurence Blair, “Conquistadors Tumble as Indigenous Chileans Tear Down Statues,” The Guardian, November 5, 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/05/chile-statues-indigenous-mapuche-conquistadors.
“¿Qué es la minga indígena y por qué marcha?” Semana, October 21, 2020, www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/que-es-la-minga-indigena-y-por-que-marcha/202012/. The original reads: “ … se deriva del conocimiento que tenían los aborígenes sobre el trabajo compartido para el bien común. Es el encuentro donde circula la palabra, se piensa y se construye el Buen Vivir.”
Cine Bajo el Cielo Mx, “Recetario para animar: 1 Precine y animación,” https://youtu.be/rHaZPH8PVw8. The original reads: “… y es que todas y todos llevamos dentro mundos enteros llenos de personajes y cosas. Y la animación es una gran manera de traerlos a la realidad y de poder tocarlos con nuestras manos y darles vida.”