Most of us are familiar with the beloved character Jiminy Cricket, from Disney’s 1940 animated classic, Pinocchio. A charming little cricket, full of cheer and song, who acts as the conscience for a little wooden boy. What is more iconic and most representative of Disney’s magic than Pinochio’s opening credit sequence, where we hear the sweet voice of Jiminy Cricket singing, “When You Wish Upon a Star”? However, many of you might be surprised to know that this singing cricket actually has a predecessor, one ten years his senior.
In 1934, the character of Cri-Cri was created by one of Mexico’s greatest composers, Francisco Gabilondo Soler, for his program on XEW, which is one of Mexico’s oldest radio stations. Soler would take on the persona of the singing cricket and sing fantastical, humorous, and cheerful stories. By the 1940s, his songs and stories grew so massively popular that Walt Disney approached Soler to buy the rights for the character. Disney wanted to bring Cri-Cri over to American audiences, and produce works featuring the singing cricket similar to the film The Three Caballeros. However, Soler famously refused his offer, as he was a firm believer that Cri-Cri’s legacy would be for Mexican children. But what is this legacy?
Francisco Gabilondo Soler was born in 1907 in Orizaba, Veracruz. The stories he read in his youth from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Aesop’s fables inspired many of his own stories. For instance, many of Soler’s stories often feature anthropomorphic animals.
It was on October 15, 1934 that Soler sang his fantastical songs on the radio for the first time. After his first few sessions, Soler created the character of Cri-Cri following a suggestion from his art director. Soler was originally granted a 15 minute program on XEW station that was only intended to last for a few weeks. Instead, it spread like wildfire, filling a previously untouched niche for children’s entertainment. It was such a hit that the program lasted for almost 27 years, and the name Cri-Cri (which became synonymous with Soler) became a household name. Cri-Cri’s legacy has lasted beyond the end of the program in 1961, and even beyond Soler’s death in 1990.
When he sang, children listened. For a brief time, they could be transported to the whimsical world of Soler’s creation filled with lovable characters and unforgettable songs. As a child growing up in Mexico, I distinctly remember doing one of my kindergarten shows to the Cri-Cri song “Caminito de la Escuela,” which tells of different animals making their way to school (one of my personal favourites). It was adorable! On road trips we would sometimes put on Cri-Cri DVDs and my whole family would sing his songs. To put it into perspective, my father was born in 1966, well after Soler’s program ended, and he can still sing his songs word for word. Cri-Cri has had a cricket-y grip on over four generations!
Soler wrote 228 songs, which varied greatly in style and genre, but all captured the essence of traditional Mexican music. Soler uses the Tango in “Che Araña”, polka in “El Ratón Vaquero,” the waltz in “La Muñeca Fea,” and Son Cubano in “Cucurumbé.” The song “Cucurumbé” pays homage to the place of his birth — the state of Veracruz. This state is one of great historical importance in Mexico, and is also a state with one of the highest Afro-Mexican and Afro-descendant populations in the country. My own grandfather and his side of the family are Afro-descendants from Veracruz, and I distinctly remember him singing and dancing to “Cucurumbé” and other Cri-Cri songs with his grandkids. It is very likely he sang these songs with my mom and her siblings too, and as he has been a teacher for most of his life, he would be familiar with the sounds of Cri-Cri around the classrooms.
However, it is important to note that like other media aimed at children at the time, such as the works of Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney, some of Soler’s works contained racist and classist imagery reminiscent of the time. This is evident in his songs “Negrito Sandia,” “Métete Teté”” and “Chinescas,” which contain blatant colourism, racist caricatures, and tragically normalized violence towards Black bodies that stems from Mexico’s history of colonialism. Old performances of songs like “Métete Teté” were often conduits for minstrelsy. These songs are often forgotten amongst Soler’s repertoire, or in the case of the generally well-known“Negrito Sandia,” have not been recognized as harmful until recently, in the past decade or so.
However, Soler’s grandson Gabilondo Vizcaíno stated in a 2017 interview that he remembered his grandfather didn’t share the racial prejudices of the people of his time, and that his aforementioned song, “Cucurumbé” reflected this. The song tells us the story of Cucurumbé, a little girl who wished to lighten her skin with the ocean foam. But a fish with a hat swims up to her and exclaims that there is no need for that, for she with her black skin, is beautiful the way she is. Gabilondo Vizcaíno recounts that Soler deeply loved Veracruz and its people. Soler is remembered fondly, by my family, by Veracruz, and by most of Mexico, as many of us have memories of family and childhood attached to his music. Although throughout his life’s work, Soler created a space for children to explore their imaginations, even great composers like him are not free from accountability. The impact of his harmful works should not be excused because of all his positive contributions to musical traditions. It is important to face, recognize, teach, and remember the harmful works he created that helped perpetuate racism, regardless of Soler’s association with childhood innocence.
One thing remains true, and that is that Cri-Cri is part of Mexico’s cultural and musical history, as well as many of our personal stories. I, for one, will forever hold in my heart the memory of laughing and pretending to howl with my jaded, Gen-X father, while we sing about a dog with a tooth ache in “El Perrito.” It is these moments of connection between generations that I cherish, and where Cri-Cri has carved his music into our memories. I don’t know if a decade from now school children will still perform “Caminito de la Escuela” like I did. Or maybe they will. I do hope that if Soler’s music and legacy carries on, we would do right by history and not sweep his harmful works under the rug and remember Cri-Cri as he was.