What Is Latin American Social Media Laughing at? One Critic Offers a Clue


Screenshot from Omar Rincón's interview with Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial

In an interview conducted in Nicaragua for the newspaper Confidencial, renowned researcher and Colombian media critic Omar Rincón explained the ways in which many Latin Americans have a laugh on social media.

Rincón discussed how the general themes of online comedy have evolved over time and how memes have managed to rescue local forms of humor. He pointed out the differences between different types of humor – the kind that takes place within social media and the kind that happens spontaneously on the street. He emphasized the fundamentals of what he calls “good humor,” which is based on the ability to laugh at oneself: “If you're capable of laughing at yourself, it means your don’t take yourself so seriously.”

According to Rincón, humor and power don’t mix. That’s why various Latin American leaders, like late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and current Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, have adopted communication strategies that aren't compatible with forums for dialogue and are aggressive in their responses to criticism. Both Chávez and Correa hosted television programs that seek to communicate with their citizens. However, these programs have given rise to disputes with the critics of their governments, inside and outside of the country:

Creo que por eso quieren dominar tanto las pantallas. Tener buen sentido del humor es autocriticarse, y estos “telepresidentes” que es como llamo a los políticos obsesionados con la pantalla no aceptan ningún tipo de crítica […] El humor es la herramienta de los débiles porque ante el humor no se puede responder. […] Ningún autoritario o poderoso acepta el humor, lo persiguen desesperadamente. Desde [el caso] Charlie Hebdo [el medio humorístico francés atacado por fundamentalistas religiosos] pasando por Correa […y por] por Uribe a quien nunca se le conoce sonrisa. […] Chavez tenía “mal humor” le gustaba burlarse y hacer chistes, pero no recibirlos; y la base del humor es saber reírse de uno mismo. En eso ha hecho un mejor trabajo Obama.

I think that’s why they want so badly to dominate the screens. Having a good sense of humor is self-criticism, and these “telepresidents,” which is what I call politicians who are obsessed with the screen, don’t accept any type of criticism […] Humor is the tool of the weak because in the face of humor, there is no response […] No authoritarian or powerful person accepts humor, they desperately persecute it. From [the case of] Charlie Hebdo [the French satirical magazine attacked by extremists] to Correa and [former Colombian President] Uribe, who has never been known to smile. […] Chávez was grouchy. He liked to dish it out – making fun of others and telling jokes – but he couldn’t take it, and the foundation of humor is knowing how to laugh at oneself. Obama has done a better job of that.

However, not all politicians in Latin America have failed in the same way. For Rincón, some have managed to become recognized personalities in global conversations despite not exploiting mass communication resources:

Yo hago la diferencia entre los “reyes locales”, gente que domina en su comarca, pero mundialmente no son nadie (…) [y quienes logran hacerse nombre internacionalmente…] El héroe del buen humor es [José “Pepe”] Mujica [el ex-presidente de Uruguay]. Eso lo hace un pop star. Mujica fue un tipo de un país re-pequeñito, que se volvió un pop star mundializado, que es lo que en realidad funciona.

I make the distinction between “local kings,” people who dominate their region, but worldwide are nobody [and those who manage to make a name for themselves internationally…] The hero of good humor is [former President of Uruguay José “Pepe”] Mujica. That’s what makes a pop star. Mujica was just a guy from a tiny country who became a global pop star, which is what actually works.

Cartoons reinvented by the people's web

The bridges created by social media and their users also reach more traditional genres, like cartoons. In this sense, jokes are made not only about political events, but also to newer “serious” issues like pop culture.

Las redes sociales redescubrieron la caricatura, pero llevada a niveles distintos. (…) En video, en youtube hay caricaturas sobre no solamente los políticos, sino también sobre la cultura pop. Quienes tienen mayor subscripción son quienes hacen caricaturas de una realidad pop. La caricatura refleja la capacidad que tenemos de ironizar sobre realidades que nos tomamos muy en serio, y como el mundo contemporáneo se está tomando muy en serio el mundo pop y de la farándula, entonces la caricatura está yendo más hacia el espectáculo.

Social networks rediscovered the cartoon, but have taken it to a whole different level. […] On video, on YouTube, there are cartoons not only about politicians, but also about pop culture. Those who have larger subscriptions are those who make pop reality cartoons. Cartoons reflect our ability to satirize the realities we take very seriously, and since the contemporary world is taking the pop world and show business very seriously, it’s becoming a spectacle.

Memes: A Latin American specialty

According to Rincón, Latin Americans are very good at pointing out details: “We’re able to produce something very quickly out of something real that’s happened. And say something that seems humorous and ironic at the time. What we are bad at is arguing for it…writing a few paragraphs.”

La caricatura tiene la ventaja de tener la capacidad visual de descubrir algo. Pero el texto es complementario. En los memes se parte de que la foto en sí misma no es la que produce [el impacto], sino que es la frase, es la espontaneidad latinoamericana de la frase rápida. Por eso ha gustado mucho en América Latina.

Cartoons have the advantage of being able to convey something visually. But text is complementary. In memes, the photo itself is not what produces [the impact], but rather the phrase – the Latin American spontaneity of the quick phrase. That's why it’s so popular in Latin America.

He continued with a reference to the use of written and oral language, and how people make bridges in everyday life:

Lo que están recuperando los memes es la espontaneidad oral y rápida de los latinoamericanos. A la foto se le pone encima una frase y esa frase puede funcionar. (…). Por ejemplo, cuando hay un evento, como un evento deportivo, o un evento político, pues es muy fácil tomar una foto de cualquier cosa y poner una frase [corta] encima de eso que llama la atención de la foto en la que está. Es casi como una “oralidad visual”: Arrancas en lo oral, terminas escribiendo, pero en el fondo es para crear un impacto visual. Por eso es tan fácil [encontrar memes en la región], la gente es muy ingeniosa en las frases que dice. Un teórico decía algo muy importante: América Latina se acostumbró a hablar en sus textos. Nosotros no decimos nunca lo que pensamos en primer instancia, sino en sub-textos. Entonces las frases, los tonitos son los que funcionan, y el meme recupera eso, entonces es muy fácil y muy divertido hacerlo. ¿Qué hace que un meme conecte? Que pueda conectarse con las ironías del mundo local de cada región.

What memes are recovering is the oral and rapid spontaneity of Latin Americans. A phrase or sentence is superimposed upon a photo and that sentence can work. […] For example, when there’s an event such as a sporting event, or a political event, it is very easy to take a picture of anything and put a [short] sentence on it that draws attention to said photo. It is almost like a “visual orality”: You start with the oral and you end up writing, but ultimately the idea is to create a visual impact. That’s why it’s so easy to [find memes in the region], people are very ingenious in the phrases they use. One theory said something very important: Latin America became accustomed to speaking in their texts. We never say what we initially think, only in sub-texts. So phrases, undertones are what is working, and the meme restores that, and makes it very easy and fun. What makes a meme relevant? Whether or not it can connect with regional ironies.

However, there are memes that engage stereotypes and open questions of cultural order:

Los memes que en Colombia [que] molestan mucho, [son los que] siempre [son adaptados] a la droga. La gente se molesta mucho, pero la respuesta son memes con Pablo Escobar, nuestro más grande narcotraficante […] eso habla mucho de la identidad de Colombia.

The memes that bother people in Colombia a lot, [are those that] always [are related] to drugs. It upsets people, but the response is memes with Pablo Escobar, our biggest drug trafficker […] that says a lot about Colombian identity.

As for the relationship between social media and traditional media regarding memes and humor, Rincón says:

Los memes se vuelven famosos cuando los retoman los medios de comunicación. Los memes se están volviendo cada vez más importantes porque los medios de prensa y TV es lo que le da densidad a las redes. […] y esto además es una fuente rápida de información en un mundo en el que los medios cuentan cada vez con menos recursos humanos. Pero eso también tiene que ver con la necesidad de producir. La gente quiere producir información. Quiere producir comentario, quiere tener opinión pública. Y de pronto la gente, los jóvenes sobre todo, no son capaces de tener una opinión pública muy elaborada, pero tienen la posibilidad de hacer una frase que parezca simpática.

Memes become famous when the media get a hold of them. Memes are becoming increasingly important because the press and TV give density to social networks […] and this is also a quick source of information in a world where the media have increasingly fewer human resources. But that also has to do with the need to produce. People want to produce information. The want to produce commentary and have public opinion. And suddenly people, especially young people, are not able to have an elaborate public opinion, but they do have the potential to make a phrase that seems nice.

Rincón elaborates more on humor and its levels in other texts that are more opinionated and more critical of the media in the region in general, and in Colombia in particular. For Rincón, less developed humor is the “type that gets ratings. Humor that is sexist, homophobic and makes fun of others”:

Lo cierto es que en esa pobreza que es nuestra televisión, este programa tiene un ‘rating’ aceptable. Los colombianos reconocemos que no tenemos más humor que la burla, hacer el ridículo o practicar nuestros sexismos o racismos. Nos reímos mucho de los demás, lástima que el buen humor sea reírse de uno mismo.

What’s true is that in the impoverished environment that is our television, this program has an acceptable rating. Colombians recognize that all we have is mocking others, ridiculing or being sexist or racist. We laugh a lot at the expense of others, it’s a shame that “good humor” is actually that laughing at yourself.

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