The Spanglish title “How to Read El Pato Pascual” encapsulates the dynamic cross-border cultural exchanges highlighted in this two-venue exhibition. Part of the Getty Center’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA initiative, the show explores links between Los Angeles and Latin America by focusing on how Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck have been reinvented in various Latin American contexts. Disney’s playful anthropomorphic animals functioned as imperialist icons, as Chilean scholars Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart detail in their seminal 1971 semiotic analysis How to Read Donald Duck. Yet far from being passive recipients of imperial culture, the forty-eight Latinx and Latin American artists in this show deploy Disney trademarks in films, videos, paintings, and sculptures that illustrate the hemisphere’s syncretic culture.
The “Pato Pascual” of the show’s title is an ersatz version of Donald Duck used as the mascot for a worker-owned soft drink cooperative in Mexico. Shown in the portion of the exhibition held at the Maya-influenced modernist home/studio that architect Rudolph Schindler designed for himself in 1922, Carlos Mendoza’s short documentary Pascual: The War of the Duck (1996) commemorates the fatal 1982 strike (two workers were murdered by the proprietor) that led to the Pascual company’s becoming a leftist cooperative. The soft drink company had licensed the duck from Disney legally, an arrangement that has allowed the workers to continue using the character in their ads. Two of the Pascual’s goofy television spots play after the documentary. In one, a figure in a Pascual mascot head dances “Gangnam style” with two miniskirt-clad women in front of Mexico City’s opera house.
Many of the works on view suggest links between Disney characters and pre-Hispanic art, the connections underscored by an apocryphal piece of lore, quoted in exhibition texts, suggesting that Disney illustrators originally found inspiration for the famous characters in depictions of animals in ancient Mesoamerican art. Colombian Nadín Ospina hired skilled forgers to produce sculptures in stone and other materials that could pass for pre-Hispanic artifacts if not for the mouse ears and duck bills adorning the visages. In addition, the stone examples, positioned throughout the Schindler House grounds like small pillars, echo Indigenous forms Schindler appropriated in his architecture. Also at the Schindler House, Enrique Chagoya’s painting The Governor’s Nightmare (1994) employs illustrations reminiscent of depictions of Aztec rituals from a sixteenth-century codex. Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead, sprinkles salt on a Mickey figure bound with rope. The cartoon mouse is poised to become the second course after the god’s warriors have finished feasting on human flesh. Chagoya’s work offers a jarring juxtaposition of extreme violence and cartoon innocence. Yet, like Dorfman and Mattelart, he seems intent on questioning the assumed innocence of Mickey; seen as an avatar of centuries of colonial violence, the mouse may be receiving the fate he deserves. Other works in the show rely too heavily on a simple dichotomy between cartoon whimsy and suggestions of violence. Robert Yager’s photos from the 1990s, for example, show Latino gang members visiting Disneyland. These images present the subjects’ love of cartoons as a quirky counterpoint to their stereotypically aggressive personae without altering or complicating that stereotype.
One of the oddest—and to US audiences, least familiar— historical chapters explored in the show relates to Eva Perón’s Republic of Children, a fantasy development near Buenos Aires that predated Disneyland by some four
years. At the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State LA, Daniel Santoro celebrates and satirizes the Peronist mythos in his painting Niños peronistas combatiendo al capital (Peronist Children Combating Capital, 2004). Two children wearing the white school uniforms of the ’50s ward off an Uncle Sam–headed serpent with a copy of Perón’s autobiography. Behind them appears a fairytale castle similar to the version Disney later constructed in Anaheim. But unlike its northern counterpart, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the Peronist version was intended to encourage active citizenship. Its name is the House of Government.