I’ve started and restarted this post a half-dozen times; it’s a good thing I work in digital media, otherwise I’d have the stereotypical (and humorous) piles of crumpled paper littering the floor around me. Here’s the problem: I have a couple of historian friends who accuse me of “wasting my time” on 1930’s and 1940’s pop culture, and I’ve been trying to find a nice way to tell them they’re totally wrong without being personally insulting.

So, after starting this post six (or nine? I forget) different ways, I’ve decided to show them (and you) a graphic example (no pun intended) of what you can learn from the pop culture of a particular historical period, one I stumbled across very recently. It’s an example of how everything you read, hear, learn, and know bumps up against everything else you’ve absorbed over the years. We’ll start with a couple of seemingly random tidbits, read a 1940’s comic book story, then we’ll have a short bit of history, after which – like the end of an episode of Seinfeld – it’ll all come together.

Random tidbit #1: I play and listen to a variety of music, primarily blues, country, and old rock’n’roll. A few years ago when I discovered a couple of sub-genres of country, contemporary stuff from Texas and Oklahoma that never gets played on the radio (not because it stinks – quite the opposite, it’s because it’s not Seventies pop being touted as “country” like most of the commercial crap these days), I noticed several songs that referenced the Mexican Revolution. I didn’t have much more than a passing familiarity with that event, so I did the obvious thing – I grabbed a few books and read up on it.

Random tidbit #2: As I was reading bits from the appendix of a Hideouts & Hoodlums rulebook about a year ago, I saw a reference to Mexican President Cardenas. I didn’t know one blessed thing about him, so I looked him up online and read a few things about his national reform movement in the 1930’s.

Store that stuff away in a back corner of your mind for a few minutes while we have some fun reading a comic book.

Only the most hardcore Golden Age comic fan is going to have the faintest idea who Toreador might be. A back feature in the pages of the short-lived Blue Circle Comics, Toreador’s career lasted five adventures, one published in each (non-reprint) issue of Blue Circle.

The Keltner index of Golden Age comics displays the name of costumed “mystery men” characters in bold print, while other features appear in a regular type face. Toreador’s name is in bold, which I find curious being as he’s a matador. That’s it. No mask, no secret I.D., everybody knows who he is, and he’s actually a matador – the guy fights bulls, that’s his job. So I’m not sure how he qualifies for bold print. But what the hell, let’s just roll with it.

Toreador is an American who is living in Mexico, and is touted in the book as being that country’s greatest bullfighter. By his fourth appearance or so, he’s also the foreman of a Mexican ranch owned by Patsy King, who is also an American expatriate. The only recurring Mexican character is on hand mainly for chuckle value. His name is Pedro, and his main schtick is that he owns a bull named Delilah; Pedro thinks his bull is female.

Yeah, I know. Let’s just not mention that again, OK?

Now you might be thinking from the description that the Toreador stories are really dreadful, but, truthfully, some of them are actually pretty danged good. A couple of them, like the story we’re about to read, deal with social issues. Late in Toreador’s run the stories also taught the reader a little Spanish by providing English translations for Spanish phrases used throughout. Although the main characters are Americans, the writer(s) may have been using that as a device just to get the reader through the proverbial tent flap and inside to see the show, because many of the stories really are about Mexico.

The following story is the final appearance of Toreador from Blue Circle Comics #5, cover dated March 1945. I really enjoyed this tale because it has a lot of heart. Read on, and we’ll get together afterward to talk about it:

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

The whole “good neighbor” thing as it applied to U.S./Latin American relations was a really big deal in the late 1930’s and during the war years. Although the Monroe Doctrine was kind of passé by the Thirties, the U.S. government was still pretty serious about keeping the fascist powers away from our neighbors to the south. So America set to work on building better relations with countries in Central and South America. (In fact, that’s exactly how Orson Welles wound up in Brazil right after he finished Citizen Kane, the place where he ultimately destroyed his career – but that’s another tale for another day.)

So this story (as well as another in the Toreador series) is a kind of metaphor for the United States’ “good neighbor” policy with the rest of the Western Hemisphere. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Today’s little “history lesson” is based on what we can learn from a single throwaway line from a single panel from this story. Here’s the panel:

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

The moment I read this panel, I said to myself, “He’s referring to Porfirio Diaz. But I thought Cardenas was president in the Thirties…” It’s been a few years since I read about the Mexican revolution and I didn’t remember many details, so I had to go back and take a short refresher course. What I ultimately figured out really surprised me.

When you hear the phrase “Latin American dictator”, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Some guy wearing a uniform with a chestful of medals, ruling a Spanish-speaking country with an iron fist, right? You don’t know it, but you’re thinking of Porfirio Diaz, who essentially wrote the manual on how to be a Latin American dictator:

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz

It’s tough to summarize a life in just a paragraph or two, but here’s the Cliff Notes version of what Porfirio Diaz was all about. He was born dirt poor, became a guerrilla fighter against Santa Ana (yeah, the “Alamo” guy), then joined the organized military. He rose rapidly through the ranks, achieving high rank, popularity, and national renown. Diaz even ran for president in 1871 against Benito Juarez, but that’s when he got a surprise: Diaz lost.

So Diaz did the natural thing – he launched his own revolution against Juarez. By 1876 Diaz took control of the government by force (with United States’ support, mainly because Diaz had fought against Austrian rule in Mexico – there’s that pesky Monroe Doctrine rearing its ugly head again) and installed himself as President. Diaz promised the Mexican people that he’d serve just one term in that office, and he came through on that promise, by throwing away the national constitution, rigging elections, assassinating political opponents, jailing and executing dissenters, and ultimately serving a single term as president that lasted thirty-five years.

Although Diaz was interested in “modernizing” Mexico through technological improvements, economically and socially he was a throwback to the time of the old Californian dons (familiar to every Zorro fan). During Diaz’s reign as Mexico’s dictator, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class all but disappeared. If you were already wealthy (and especially if you were a Diaz crony) or if you were a foreign business investor, things were great for you. But for the lower classes, it became a hell of abject poverty and disease with no opportunity for improvement, no upward mobility, no way out. For thirty-five years.

It finally started to unravel for Diaz in 1910 when he went one rigged election too far. Open revolution broke out, what we today term “the Mexican Revolution”. The U.S. perception is that Pancho Villa was the star of the show, but he was actually just a bit player. The main reason Villa’s so well remembered today is because he dared to raid an American town (Columbus, NM) and the U.S. sent an expeditionary force into Mexico to track him down (which failed) – but we did get a pretty entertaining movie starring Antonio Banderas out of Villa’s exploits.

Back to the topic: Diaz was deposed in 1911, the Mexican Revolution dragged on for several more years. The government eventually stabilized, and by the 1930’s President Lazaro Cardenas had revamped the Mexican political system and established social and economic programs to try to undo the damage that Porfirio Diaz had done to the lower classes of Mexico. Although Diaz’s name is largely forgotten today north of the border, he’s still well remembered in Mexico, both for his modernization programs and for his oppression of the peon class.

So why is this panel such a big deal?

Blue Circle Comics #5, March 1945

Because, friends and neighbors, that’s a meme. This story was published in 1945, more than thirty years after Diaz was ousted as Mexican president, and American readers were expected to read the almost throwaway line “He is a follower of the arrogant Diaz and the old aristocracy of Mexico!” and immediately understand the character (or, rather, lack thereof) of the story’s villain. That tells us how awful Porfirio Diaz was – three decades after he was deposed, his name was still a meme, a verbal shortcut, and in another country.

Let’s try to put that in perspective by comparing it with a similar meme. Ferdinand Marcos became president of the Philippines in 1965 until he was deposed in 1986. Like Diaz, his regime provided a great climate for business and infrastructure, but was lousy as far as civil and human rights went (tortures and executions were the order of the day). Marcos had married a former beauty queen named Imelda; when Marcos became seriously ill late in his regime, Imelda stepped up and ruled in his place. When the duo fled the country after Marcos was deposed, it was discovered that Imelda owned over 2,500 pairs of shoes, more than a few of which were custom made and cost more per pair than the average Philippino made in a year.

For a long time afterward, the juxtaposition of the words “Imelda Marcos” and “shoes” was a meme for extravagance and wretched excess. For years after Marcos left power, late-night TV comedians could nearly always get a laugh by bringing up the subject of Imelda Marcos and her shoes. Even regular people used the meme often; a catty woman might obliquely describe another woman as a slut by saying “She collects men the way Imelda Marcos collected shoes.” And this meme was no “ninety day wonder” — it lasted for years.

Today, just over twenty-five years after Ferdinand Marcos left power, you can toss out an Imelda Marcos “shoe” reference to a gaggle of twenty to thirty-five year olds and get nothing but blank stares. It’s no longer a meme. It’s no longer even a blip on our cultural radar.

But Porfirio Diaz? His meme lasted for decades. Blue Circle Comics #5 demonstrates that and, by inference, also tells us how bad Diaz’s rule really was for the poor people of Mexico.

Several “pop culture” sources have collided here: some “outlaw country” song lyrics, a line from a role-playing game rulebook, and a seemingly “throwaway” line from a 1940’s comic book. Combine them, do a little outside reading, and you get a (admittedly small) window into a century of history concerning our neighbors to the south. If, like me, you enjoy and learn from these references, but catch flak from “serious” historians about how social history and pop culture are just “a waste of time”, don’t bother arguing with them – just point them to this post and let the defense rest.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.