Saviour of Little Juan, maths teacher extraordinaire and all-round badass Mexican gerbil, El Nombre is one 90s cartoon character definitely worth a second look.
1993 – the year Teletext launched, Ford unveiled its Mondeo hatchback and former One Direction heartthrob Zayn Malik was born. All these events pale into insignificance, however, in comparison with the UK TV debut of a certain superhero gerbil.
El Nombre was the cape wearing, masked maths whizz ready to enthral the five-year-old viewers of BBC Two’s Numbertime with the joy of numbers.
The scene opens on a dusty, deserted and impoverished Mexican village where young gerbil Little Juan is in tears over his poor numerical literacy. His mother cannot help. No one in the village can come to his aid.
Cue the dramatic arrival of the enigmatic El Nombre, a mathematical genius complete with his very own mariachi soundtrack. Just as Zorro slashed his iconic ‘Z’ into the sand with his sword, so El Nombre uses his gerbil paws to “write numbers in the desert sand”.
Pitched to its young audience as a “Thrilling Western Serial”, as a cartoon El Nombre more than lives up to the promise, presenting a multilayered portrayal of heroism that is just as memorable 24 years on.
First and foremost El Nombre is a teacher. A teacher, that is, with the swagger of Zorro and mathematical know-how unsurpassed in all of Mexico. He appears out of nowhere, swinging on a rope like the enigmatic lead in a low budget 1960s Spaghetti Western.
El Nombre is every inch the hero, from his black cape and mask to his sparkling white sombrero. His arrival in the sleepy town enraptures the inhabitants, who rush to their windows to see the spectacle and implore him to draw a number in the sand just one more time.
As a hero El Nombre is confident and impressive, without being showy. His teaching style is encouraging and supportive, while being pared back much like the animation itself. His sign off to the village is simple – “Adios amigos and keep counting!”. And with that he is gone, disappearing into the searing heat like a figment of the imagination.
Being raised by a single mother in a struggling village cut off from civilisation means life is tough for Little Juan. The audience is left to guess where his absent father might be, killed in some conflict on the Texan border perhaps, the cruel victim of a gunshot wound too deep to be saved.
This narrative follows in the Western tradition of absent fathers and single mothers, raising sons who eventually face a painful crisis of identity. Little Juan is desperately in search of a father figure, a protector who can help make sense of the world.
In flies El Nombre. Dashing, clever and smartly dressed like any true heartthrob, El Nombre is the ideal father figure for any little boy/gerbil. Dressed in his matching white sombrero, Little Juan literally follows in El Nombre’s footsteps to form the numbers one to 10, gaining a new sense of pride from every little gerbil step.
Forget the lurid hues of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the US cartoon phenomenon which also hit our screens in 1993, El Nombre is a minimalist stop motion animation with the grainy charm of Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men.
It is precisely this old fashioned style that keeps El Nombre grounded in the tradition of 1960s Westerns and is also so evocative of a hard-up Mexican village in need of a saviour.
Looking back, 1993 also happened to be a great year for stop motion animation. The debut of El Nombre coincided with the release of Aardman Animation’s Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers, which remains a watershed moment for British animation.
Moving forward, fans of El Nombre may see something of our hero in Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop motion film adaption of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. The suave heroism of Mr Fox, voiced by none other than George Clooney, is reminiscent of the dashing figure cut by El Nombre.
A hero, teacher, mathematician, surrogate father and total badass – El Nombre we salute you.