Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

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The Real Academia Española’s renowned Spanish-language dictionary has an entry for ‘cantinflear’ (a term widely used in Mexico), which refers to a way of speaking that “makes no sense, is incongruous, and says nothing.”

This peculiar verb takes its roots in the name of Cantinflas, born Mario Moreno, comedian, singer, and actor who appeared in more than fifty films. A philanthropist and beloved Mexican icon, he was famous for improvising endless plays on words, which were matched in originality only by his amazing physical comedy.

Imagine a body that could express as much pain, pathos and humor as Charlie Chaplin attached to a mouth that could ad lib like Robin Williams. That comes almost close to describing Cantinflas.

And all the while Cantinflas seemed to make no sense at all, as a card-carrying and activist member of the union of his industry, he criticized the intense bureaucracy and stagnancy of a wide variety of Mexican institutions from political to religious to judicial to social from a working man’s point of view.

In celebration of the upcoming Cantinflas movie, we’ll do our best to share some classic ‘cantinflismos’ from the real thing — a few scenes that display his marvelous comedic skills in both words and movement.

Grammar according to Cantinflas

In this scene, the doorman of a school tells teachers (who have Spanish accents, poking fun at the Spain’s insistence on its version of Spanish being most standard and correct) how to conjugate. Cantinflas, as the doorman, refers to “el indioma castellano” (instead of idioma), making a reference to the indigenization of the Mexican dialect of the Spanish language.

Cantinflas crosses the border

Cantinflas makes gentle fun of immigration, borders, Americanized Latinos who work for Immigration Services, and the whole customs process as he crosses the U.S. border “door” at a point where it is nothing but a fence between two posts in the middle of nowhere. The official documents Cantinflas as a tourist, but with his burro and his horse (who have to be admitted to the country as his relatives).

Ahí está el detalle

The title of this movie actually coined a phrase in Mexican Spanish, “ahí está el detalle,” and this masterful dialogue between a scorned wealthy husband and the ne’er-do-well Cantinflas.

Cantinflas being interrogated by the police

In this movie, “Abajo el Telón”, a common theme in several Cantinflas movies is playout out. A humble worker (in this case a window-cleaner) is wrongfully accused of a crime (in this movie, a robbery of a jewel). In this scene, he is confronted by the police.

Master of the dance moves

In his movies, Cantinflas danced just about every dance imaginable, including cumbia, tango, swing and twist, always with his famous little hops and wearing probably the very first, the original low-riding pants (we’re talking low-riding pants as of the 1940’s). But one of the most classic scenes is the following one of Cantinflas dancing to Ravel’s Bolero.

The Cantinflas movie opens in Chicago August 28.

Catalina explores nuestra cultura via the music on Beat Latino every week. Visit Facebook,  subscribe via Itunes or download the podcast on the archives. However, she was trained as a linguist and has loved Cantinflas as long as she can remember.