Mario Moreno, ‘Cantinflas’: Biography of a Great Comedian

‘Cantinflas’ was a kind of Latin American ‘Charlot’. On the other hand, Mario Moreno and Charles Chaplin also had a similar life. Both wrote a wonderful page about white humor and social criticism. How did the famous character originate? What was Mario Moreno really like?

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There are great similarities, both in life, and in the style of his humor, between Charles Chaplin and Mario Moreno, also known as Cantinflas. In fact, the two lavished mutual admiration, which was public and very celebrated. It could be said that both embody the same concept, one in its English version and the other in its Latin American facet.

Mario Moreno, ‘Cantinflas’, was perhaps the most important comedian in the entire history of Latin America. Even his particular way of using language, combining rhetoric, demagogy and chaos of the word, gave rise to the cantinflear verb, which was accepted by the Royal Academy of the Spanish language in 1990.

“The difficult thing I do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.”

-Mario Moreno-

Precisely because in his humor the word occupies a central place, his great successes occurred within the Spanish-speaking public. He was not as successful when his films were translated into other languages. In other languages, no matter how accurate the translation might be, the sense of its speech was lost, of the word games that, in Spanish, refer to picaresque.

The first years of Mario Moreno

Like Charles Chaplin, Mario Moreno was born in the midst of poverty. He had 13 brothers, but only seven of them survived the birth. He spent his childhood in the Santa María la Redonda neighborhood, very close to Tepito, which is considered one of the poorest and most at risk sectors in Mexico City.

His first name was Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes and he was born on August 12, 1911. During his childhood and at the beginning of his youth, he performed several humble trades, such as postman, shoeshine boy and errand boy.

In 1928, he enlisted in the army, but he lied about his age to enter; He was 16 and said he was 21. The lie was discovered and, as a result, he was expelled.

He also tried to be a boxer, a bullfighter and even a dancer. At the beginning of the 30s, he started working in the tents, some traveling theaters in Mexico. There, Mario Moreno began to create and shape his iconic character Cantinflas. During this stage, he married Valentina Ivanova, with whom he remained until her death.

The birth of Cantinflas

Although there is no certainty in this regard, everything seems to indicate that the name of ‘Cantinflas’ arose during his performances in one of those rolling tents. It is said that, on one occasion, they gave him the opportunity to dramatize a monologue; however, he was very nervous and forgot a good part of the speech. The result was an incomprehensible, but funny, string. Thus, the central feature of his character was born.

They say that this confusion of words gave rise to the expression ‘cantina inflas’, which subsequently contracted and the name of ‘Cantinflas’ appeared. However, the heirs of Mario Moreno assure that this version is false and that the great comedian took to the grave the secret of the origin of the name.

Be that as it may, the fact is that Mario Moreno created ‘Cantinflas’, a character that represented the poor young man of Mexico. Her appearance in itself was already fun, the show and success were assured.

At first, he questioned the powerful and always got away with it thanks to the entanglements that he armed with language. Mexico and Latin America adored his character, his white humor, his tenderness and his social criticism.

A dark side

In Mexico, they wanted Mario Moreno ‘Cantinflas’ so much that in many elections they voted for him without being a candidate. The comedian, like Chaplin, became the leader of an actors’ union. However, he did not achieve major achievements in this field. Documents known after his death point out that, probably, his alliance happened with some dark groups of power.

As he got success and money, his films were changing and also he himself. He stopped representing the Mexican “pelado” and began to transmit, in his films, apparently social messages, but basically institutional ones. In addition, he kept an unforgivable silence during the massacre of students that took place in Mexico City in 1968.

Little is known about his family life, and what little is known has dark lines. One of his grandchildren and his own son committed suicide. The grandson did it in 2014 and the son in 2017.

Mario Moreno, on the other hand, died before seeing these terrible events. While he was alive, little was known about his family. The death occurred in 1993, because of lung cancer. You could say that people still love ‘Cantinflas’, but have many doubts about who was really Mario Moreno, its creator.