Walt Disney’s Latin American Tour
Two 1940s Disney features show how the film industry learned to sell American empire.
Walt Disney announced his arrival in Latin America with two animated films: 1942’s Saludos amigosand 1944’s Los tres caballeros. Their debuts — in Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, respectively — were milestones in the decade-long Good Neighbor Policy, which had begun in 1933 when the United States wound down its military occupation of Central America. In the 1940s, the Roosevelt administration saw hemispheric collaboration as vital to the American war effort.
With the rise of fascism in the region a real, if exaggerated, threat, the two Disney films and the accompanying diplomatic mission were intended as anti-Nazi propaganda for a South American audience. Riding high on a wave of similar goodwill tours — including Henry Wallace’s Hemispheric New Deal — the resulting animations initially seem like earnest, if naïve, attempts to engage in an authentic dialogue with Latin American culture.
But pan-American rhetoric withered and the dream of a Latin American Marshall Plan evaporated in the postwar period. Good neighborliness gave way to the Cold War nightmare of Guatemala in 1954. Today, it seems clear that the two Disney pictures established a precedent in which the film industry would work to justify American intervention in the region and around the globe.
One of the many animated shorts that appears in Saludos amigos finds Goofy (called Tribilín in Spanish) dressed as a gaucho, acting out his usual foolishness across the Argentine Pampas. The bumbling character’s familiarity makes the setting’s novelty more accessible, embodying the neighborly goodwill that the film’s opening credits intone:
The time has come
to become good friends!
We must now come together as one.
The version released in the United States doesn’t mention “neighbors” nor hint at any kind of alliance. (On account of this and other discrepancies, the quotes cited here come from the Spanish language versions of these films.) Cleansed of political overtones for its domestic release, the film slyly recreates the “imperial amnesia” that often marks the United States’ grip on the region.
The song, at least in its Spanish and Portuguese versions, explicitly appeals to Latin American nations to enlist in the American war effort. The closing credits also stress continental unity: the inscription states that the film was made thanks to “the kindness and collaboration of artists, musicians, and all of our friends across Latin America.”
These and other overtures betray the ideological motivations behind the cartoonists’ South American expedition, which the narrator describes as a mission to discover fresh material and recruit “a new friend for Donald Duck.”
Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s classic essay “Para leer el Pato Donald” (“How to Read Donald Duck”) made “cultural imperialism” into a household word with its look at the ideological function of Disney entertainment. A fascinating document from Allende’s Popular Unity government, the book concentrates on the slew of Disney comic strips that flooded Latin America in the Cold War period. In one case study, Donald travels to the fictional Andean region called Altiplano del Abandono in hopes of finding a “golden goat.” Dorfman and Mattelart argue that Donald’s quest replays the Spanish conquistadores’ search for the rich mines of Potosí.
But Disney’s 1942 goodwill tour took a different tack. Neither Bolivia nor Peru seemed important to the Allies’ war efforts, and the scenes set around Lake Titicaca make that clear by, according to the narrator, “avoid[ing] any urban setting, preferring instead focus on the aborigines.” In practice, that means Disney portrays the “Land of the Incas” through the eyes of “an American tourist”: namely, Donald Duck.
Donald makes a good-faith effort to engage with the local culture, but the film still deploys exaggerated provincialism: the figure of the “chola” personifies the region, and mestizo women perform “exotic melodies” and withstand the inhospitable climate by virtue of their deep connection to the “remote Incan civilization.”
The animators replace the burros (donkeys) typical of the region with the “proud llamas,” the true “Andean aristocrats.” The narrator carefully prioritizes the animals over their human counterparts, explaining that the creatures are capable of humiliating any bystander “with a mere glance.”
Crossing Lake Titicaca proves to be a “big adventure,” and only the indigenous seem suited to it. As they begin the crossing, the same natives “allow themselves to be photographed freely, perhaps because they still don’t know what a camera is.” Ignorant of modern technology, they are nevertheless fluent in animal-speak and enlist the llamas to help them cross. Donald, the tourist, cannot adapt to such backwardness and reverts to boasting of his technological advances. At a particularly treacherous crossing, we learn that the llamas’ gait, just like the indigenous of the altiplano, is “perfectly adapted to the suspension bridge’s swaying motion.”
The narrator emphasizes the local people’s adaptations throughout, but, for the tourist, he can only offer words of encouragement: “Keep your wits, stay calm, and try to relax.” As a reward, Donald gets to visit the pottery market and purchase regional crafts.
Returning to the live-action sequence, the cartoonists, all wearing business attire, board a plane while a procession of barefooted cholas march across the Andean Puna with their infants tied to their backs. The following frame provides an aerial view — a token of cultural superiority — that gives a snapshot of the region’s most outstanding features. Dorfman and Mattelart explain the political force of representing Latin America as a mosaic of cultures:
By selecting the most superficial and singular traits of each people in order to differentiate them and using folklore as a means to “divide and conquer” nations occupying the same dependent position . . . [o]ur Latin American countries become trashcans being constantly repainted for the voyeuristic and orgiastic pleasures of the metropolitan nations.
From Chile — represented by “Pedrito, the Little Airplane” — the picture transports viewers across the Andean cordillera to Buenos Aires. A series of postcards depict the “beautiful and modern” capital of Argentina: we see the Plaza de Mayo, the Colón Theatre, and the Kavanagh building, the “tallest of its kind in South America” and an emblem of the “third great city of the Americas.”
Before the American tourist’s gaze fixated on Andean exotica, but now those “imperial eyes” have turned mercantilist. They focus on Argentina’s grilled meats and fine wines, sealing the nation’s status as food exporter in the international division of labor. As Argentina’s great statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento said, the nation’s endless tracts of land ultimately became its greatest curse, opening it to two centuries of exploitation at the hands of a landowning, creole elite before it became a devaluation-fueled tourist hotspot.
The cartoonists watch a folk dance that reminds them of American cowboys, providing the backdrop for a “flight of fantasy” to the United States, where Goofy prepares for his starring role.
The animation begins with a wardrobe change — like a currency conversion or a translation — in which Goofy trades his Western wear for Gaucho garb, thus becoming the “centaur of the Pampas” atop his Arthurian-inspired steed, “Bucephalus.”
As in the previous live-action scene, North American economic and cultural interests converge around the scene of Argentine meat, “the world’s most delectable.” The narrator explains that it serves as the foundation of a “vitamin-rich, healthy diet” that grants its consumers their robust physiques. What better candidate for a war partner — especially against the athletics-obsessed Nazis — than these hardy South Americans?
But the scene’s closing sequence suggests that there will be no lasting love between the two countries: as night falls on the Pampas, the gaucho is left alone, singing a traditional vidalita to the sound of a guitar, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a record player.
The transition from the Pampas to Brazil marks a sharp shift in tone. The plane arrives in Rio de Janeiro, home of the cariocas and carnaval, city that “exceeds all expectations in terms of its sheer beauty.” “Defenseless against the cartoonists’ advances,” José Carioca first appears.
Though the parrot wears the outward signs of a “Gran Senhor” — a Panama hat, an umbrella that serves as a cane, and a cigar — he doesn’t boast of the region’s wealth. Rather, he signifies Brazil’s incredible natural beauty. “Aquarela do Brasil” blares over the country’s exuberant landscape as waterfalls, flowers, birds, and bananas fill the screen.
Already anticipating 1944’s Los tres caballeros, Carioca and Donald meet and exchange business cards. Donald accepts his new friend’s gracious offer to see the sights, and they end their tour at a bar offering cachaça, the local spirit of choice. Only under the influence of the drink can Donald dance in step with the tropical rhythms emanating from the Copacabana dance hall, where the silhouette of Carmen Miranda can just be made out in a window.
Los Tres Caballeros
Los tres caballeros came out just as World War II was nearing its end. By that time, the fractious Argentines had professed their sympathies for the Axis powers, so the United States doubled down on their other targets. In this feature, Disney celebrates the good neighbors to the south while solidifying America’s role as regional leader.
Again, Donald Duck plays the leading role. In fact, he typically serves as Disney’s proxy in political matters, as in war-era shorts such as “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” (Though, in light of Disney’s well-documented antisemitism, the image of Donald with the swastika armband inspires unease.)
Dorfman and Mattelart observe that Donald made a better emissary than Mickey, who increasingly played the straight man to his friend’s adventurism. Indeed, Disney limited the mouse’s appearances in the European theater of conflict in part to maintain his hallowed status. Just as much, however, Mickey had already become an icon of American conservatism, a figure inimical to the kind of ironic representations of military totalitarianism that the erratic Donald could more easily embody.
Los tres caballeros begins as Donald receives birthday gifts “from [his] South American friends.” The first gift, a film highlighting native South American birds, briefly reverses the flow of power from north to south. As the nature documentary proceeds to the South Pole, the narrator allows Donald to invert the map in order to avoid standing on his head: only to ensure the American viewer’s comfort will the film invert the north-south orthodoxy.
The first story follows a young penguin who dreams of moving to warmer climes, but Donald cuts the story short as he rushes to open his second gift, which contains his old friend José Carioca.
Carioca whisks Donald to Brazil, where they observe all the rara avis the jungle has to offer. The narrator engages in a series of verbal flourishes — “observe the bird’s pompous, proud pompadour” — that recall the poetic constructions of Latin America’s great modernist poet, Rubén Darío.
As the two friends wander, they slip almost imperceptibly back into the Pampas. Where Disney devoted a short entirely to Argentina in Saludos amigos, here the Axis-friendly nation receives a more superficial treatment. Reminiscent of the Andean sequence from the earlier film, Donald and José focus on indigenous culture: a group of gauchos play a game of sapo and recite lines typical of a “gaucho-esque language.”
When they watch a young boy performing the “doma gaucha” (bronco riding) on a donkey, the animal looks suspiciously like the donkey from Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio. This perfunctory recognition reflects the United States’ waning interest in the Pampas.
Brazil, in contrast, declared war on Germany in 1942. Though President Getúlio Vargas may have initially been inclined to throw his support behind the Axis powers, by 1944, his nation, in the form of Carioca, happily serves as Donald’s companion for his birthday tour.
Brazil, of course, offers many fascinations for the tourist. On the one hand, it holds the immense natural wonders of the Amazon and its boundless natural resources — hence Fordlandia, the Amazonian rubber plant Henry Ford imagined would become the nerve center of a tire-manufacturing empire. On the other hand, visitors find traditional dances, tropical fruits, and all the other symbols that eventually conquered Hollywood’s imagination. Thus we find ourselves in Salvador de Bahia — “land of romance,” Carioca adds — where Donald is entranced by the figure of Aurora Miranda, sister to the more famous Carmen.
Recalling 1940’s Fantasia, the soundtrack comes to life as a series of instruments perform a dance in unison with Miranda’s song, creating a tableau that foreshadows the overwrought “magical realism” that would become the continent’s most famous artistic export in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the United States maintains its status as leader: in one scene, Carioca multiplies, turning into series of assembly-line reproductions that contrast with Donald’s singular iconicity.
The third gift takes us to Mexico, where the rooster Panchito fills the vacancy left conspicuously open in Argentina. Presumably a Jalisco native, he wears a suit, sombrero, and spurs, and he goes to work outfitting Donald and Carioca so that they fit the part of “los tres caballeros.”
As Panchito breaks into song, he observes: “No one is quite like us” — that is, the Allies in the Americas — and adds “where one leads, the others shall follow.” The scene then bursts into a shootout that must have seemed de rigueur in the land where another Pancho, Pancho Villa, had also managed to attract the sympathies of some Americans. But alliances do not make a common identity: while Carioca and Panchito strum their guitars, Donald stands apart with his upright bass.
Panchito offers to explain how “the history of Mexico is contained in its flag” and elucidates the meaning of the eagle and serpent before offering a ride on a traditional sarape that recalls the orientalist flying carpet.
With an aerial view of Mexico City at their backs, they continue on to Chihuahua where they find few traces of the revolutionary violence that brought the state under Pancho Villa’s control. When they arrive in Veracruz, it shows no sign that Woodrow Wilson had recently ordered a US occupation. As the flying sarape enters and exits one Mexican state after another, the cityscapes are revealed to be postcard still-frames.
Once more, Dorfman and Mattelart detect the ideological maneuver behind the familiar reduction of geography to a postcard: “Geography becomes a picture postcard, and is sold as such . . . [t]he vacations of the metropolitan citizens are transformed into a modern vehicle of supremacy.” This cultural supremacy also appears in the Acapulco sequence, when Dora Luz reinterprets a bolero by Agustín Lara — archetype of modern Mexican sensibility, according to Carlos Monsiváis — in English for Donald Duck’s benefit.
The American presence that has tacitly appeared throughout the film is broadcast in lights as it ends. The three friends look up at the sky, where “The End” appears in red, white, and blue letters. No plumed serpents, no “Ordem e Progresso”: the characters are united under the stars and stripes.
Later, those letters will read “OAS.” Later still they will spell out “NAFTA,” and, at some future point, we will have new letters that name a cartoonish Pan-American unity.