1915-73 · Comedian
Best known for his characterization of the pachuco — the "Americanized" hybrid of the 1940s and 1950s — Tin Tan is the only authentic rival to (Mario Moreno) Cantinflas's hegemony of Mexican film comedy. Born Germán Valdés on September 19, 1915, in Mexico City, he spent his youth in Ciudad Juárez, where the border region's fluctuating and problematic identities provided the inspiration for the personage that he developed while working as a radio announcer. Tin Tan's pachuco is the obverse of Cantinflas's peladito; the latter is a shrewd and folkloric country bumpkin, representative of native culture. Tin Tan is a picaresque city rogue, embodiment of a rapidly transforming Mexico, increasingly urban, intent upon industrialization, and attracted to as well as repelled by the "Colossus of the North."
The pachuco symbolized transculturation, modernity, urbanization, and the breakdown of traditional values; he did not conform to the suffocating nationalist homogeneity implemented during the regime of Miguel Alemán Valdéz ( 1946-52). Thus, pachucos were viewed with disdain by both traditional Mexican society and the nouveau riche of alemanismo, who regarded them as social no-accounts and mutilators of the Spanish language. Tin Tan often incorporated English phrases as part of his constant linguistic play. As Carlos Monsiváis has written, his was "an urban speech freed from the What Will They Say?, as offensive as solicitous. Tin Tan leaves no word in peace; he twists them, stretches them out, and discovers their sonorous sources. He jazzes up speech, improvising neologisms that explode idiomatic rigidity."
Tin Tan began work as a radio announcer in Juárez and then joined a traveling variety show as a comedian, teaming with Marcelo Chávez (with whom he later would appear regularly in films). In 1945 he moved to Mexico City and worked with Chávez in variety theaters, alternating with comedians such as Cantinflas. He had been appearing in bit parts in many films by the time his performance in 1948's Calabacitas tiernas transformed him into a major comic force in cinema. The comic made an enormous number of films, starring in more than 90 between 1943 and 1972. There are those who believe that he burned himself out with too much work, women, and wine. However, if some of these movies are terrible, there is one or another gem among them.
Tin Tan's most accomplished work is El rey del barrio ( The King of the Barrio, 1949), which historian Emilio García Riera described as "perhaps the best comedy produced in the entire history of Mexican cinema." As the film opens, Tin Tan wakes up and says the English words with which it begins: "All aboard." The pachuco is a railroad worker who will take us on a delirious multipersonality tour, converting himself in turn into a "gangster" from Chicago, "Illinoise," an Andaluz cantaor ( El Niño de Pecho), a French painter ( Gastón Touché), and an Italian opera maestro, before he returns to his "real" identity. At the film's end, he is an engineer of an amusement park train, driving children around in circles, including those in his own family.
Given the fundamental role of the family in sustaining Alemanista nationalism, one could be tempted to read this narrative as if Tin Tan had assumed the different characters in order to ridicule them and end by reaffirming the dominant ideology of mexicanidad. However, the actor's comic power confers such energy and vitality in the exploration of alternative possibilities that, rather than ratifying chauvinism, its infinity of realities is an incitement to pluralism.
During his trip, Tin Tan violates almost all the norms of his period. The family, bulwark of the nation, is ridiculed: the film is a desmadre, in which all the precepts of "decent" people are turned upside down; for example, hired to paint a house, Tin Tan and his cohorts destroy it, smearing the portraits and the piano with coats of color. In place of the family, the film proposes the social sustenance provided by the personal relations in the proletarian barrio. Workers are not the docile and submissive adherents to Alemanista industrialization that they are in many Mexican films of this period. But, neither are they romanticized. Rather, Tin Tan turns the dominant ideology on itself by parodying it. In the housepainting sequence, Tin Tan has been trying to knock out Marcelo, the policeman, so that they can rob the home. Marcelo is unaware that he is being hit and, thinking that his dizziness is a result of fatigue, asks Tin Tan if he can rest a bit. Tin Tan replies scornfully: "That's why Mexico is the way it is, with slackers like you." Beaten down by Alemanismo, workers are nonetheless responsible for the country's crisis.
The upper class and the state are pilloried mercilessly. The juxtaposition of the rich and the poor is instructive. The underprivileged help one another but live in constant anxiety of how to earn the money to buy food and medicines. The wealthy are fatuous and resentful; they have no other preoccupation than their endless cocktail parties. The state is presented essentially through Marcelo, the policeman. At Tin Tan's birthday party, a drunken Marcelo gives him permission to steal. Tin Tan finds that ironic, because he had