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  • Natalie Taylor

CANTINFLAS: A Mexican Chaplin and Groucho, all in one package

Mario Moreno Reyes was born in Mexico City, in 1911; one of eight children of an impoverished family. Growing up in a tough neighborhood, Moreno learned to survive through street smarts and quick wit, which he later began to use in a circus tent act. He did not want his parents to know what he was doing, so he invented the pseudonym Cantiflas to cover up. According to a story, his mother went to see one of these acts, and when he learned she would be in the audience, he put on extra makeup and she did not recognize him. But that night at dinner his mother proclaimed: “I went to the circus today, and the funniest act was by this character named Cantiflas!”

To this day, Cantinflas is beloved in Mexico, Latin America, and everywhere Spanish is spoken. He was a great physical comic, doing slapstick routines that earned him the moniker “Mexico’s Charlie Chaplin,” yet his verbal comic skills were the epitome of his humor. They have survived not only on screen, but also immortalized in print. He became known for his chatter loaded with Mexican idioms, intonations, and syntax developing a unique comic persona. His way of speaking and acting has given rise to several new words that are now part of Spanish, have been accepted as such by the Spanish Academy of Languages, and are included in dictionaries. His very name has become a verb—cantiflear—to talk like Cantiflas; and doing something ridiculous is known as a cantiflada, a noun.

The persona he created was that of an impoverished slum dweller with baggy pants held by a string, and a unique moustache. Audiences loved this “Everyman of the Mexican poor,” particularly when this comic persona put down the wealthy. In movies, Cantinflas often played a character put upon by the rich, or by the entire system, but he managed to act and talk in a way that put them down instead. His verbal acrobatics would pit his character against someone in a much more powerful position—a judge, a police officer, a politician, and Cantinflas would manage to get himself out of the jam by using any one of his famous cantiflandas or simply by cantinflating, obfuscating the meaning of his discourse until the listeners were completely lost. He would proclaim something absurd in a quick staccato of words that led to nothing: We are in a state of war because we already are. What are the reasons? You tell me. And I will answer: fundamental reasons a conglomerate of which must be understood and there are three: the first, the second, and the third. What things, right? Well, that’s how it is.

A speech like that, rattled off without a pause, delivered as a single thought, leaves the listeners scratching their heads as to what exactly has been said. Often he would proclaim truisms such as I am here because I am nowhere else, or I am not here for you to tell me, nor me to tell you…or, There must be something bad about work, or else the rich would not have gotten rid of it.

As silly as these statements are, they reveal a deeper truth. Obfuscating speech is preferred by many politicians, who frequently don’t want to commit to a particular platform, but prefer to throw out many high-sounding words that don’t make much sense. Legalese is often something similar. So Cantiflas was not just a nonsensical comic, he was making an important point in criticizing such oratory—he was a social satirist. Of course, some examples of cantinflear (cantinflating) were simply humorous, as in one movie scene where Cantiflas appears before a stern school board and is told to conjugate the verb llover (to rain). With hardly a pause he declares: “I get wet, you get wet, he gets wet, we get drenched, you get drenched, they drip…” Something may be lost in translation, but not entirely. However, the Spanish version, especially as Cantiflas delivered it, is truly funny.

Moreno’s totally Spanish-based humor did not translate well into other languages, and has kept him as a strictly Hispanic comic. His first foray into Hollywood was well received—he played Passepartout, butler to David Niven’s character in the movie Around the World in 80 Days.

His comedic timing through slapstick came through very well and he received the Golden Globe award for best actor for that role. But his major skill—the verbal shenanigans for which he is well known, could never be properly expressed successfully in any other language than Spanish; particularly Mexican Spanish. Moreno was a chain smoker, and he died of cancer at the age of 82, on April 20, 1993.

Something you may not know is that Cantiflas was a resident of San Miguel de Allende. Yes, indeed. In the 1960s he purchased the property next to Templo la Ermita church. He made it both his residence and a hotel, calling it Posada la Ermita. It is still a hotel to this day, offering some of the best views of the city from its position high up on Salida a Queretaro.

Then, further east, going uphill along the same road, you come across Hotel Mision. This was another Cantinflas property, a hotel and residence where he would provide lodgings to his many visitors.

You can visit both places, and see Cantinflas memorabilia on the walls, in the furniture, and in many of the decorative elements that he himself chose. At Posada La Ermita, in the restaurant, you can even have eggs Cantinflas, in honor of the comic. And, when the temperatures rise in May, and you are looking for a place to cool off, you might enjoy the pool, at Hotel Mision. They offer day passes allowing you to spend time at the pool, with food and drinks served right on the lawn. You could then imagine yourself being one of the guests invited by Cantinflas himself!

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