For nearly five decades, millions of Mexican families gathered around their televisions every Sunday morning to watch Chabelo.
Mexican actor, entertainer, and businessman Xavier López Rodriguez, who died on Saturday at the age of 88, played the squeaky-voiced, short-wearing child character.
His children’s game show En Familia con Chabelo (Family Time with Chabelo) aired live every Sunday for 45 years and was even inducted into the Guinness Book of Records for its record-breaking run.
This apparent immortality inspired a massive internet fandom to celebrate Chabelo’s apparent immortality. Despite the fact that the television show ended in 2015, memes about the character – inserting him into Mexican historical events, placing him at the Last Supper, or even implying he lived through the Big Bang – persisted for years.
These irreverent jokes, however, concealed a genuine affection. Chabelo’s albums, films, and Sunday television series influenced generations. “There isn’t a single Mexican who doesn’t know Chabelo,” Laura Martnez, a Mexican journalist based in New York, told the BBC.
López was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 17, 1935 to Mexican parents. Soon after, the family relocated to the central Mexican city of León, where he and his two sisters were raised. In 2020, he told the magazine Caras that he had lived in Mexico “all my life” and considered himself “100% Mexican.”
Because of his dual citizenship, he was drafted into the US army at the age of 18 during the Korean War, but the conflict ended before he could participate, and he spent his brief service on a military base in California. He then returned to Mexico to study medicine and worked as a doctor at a private clinic for several years.
While studying medicine, he began working part-time as an assistant at the Mexican broadcaster Televisa’s headquarters. He began filling in for actors who were late for shows and was once asked to read a joke about a boy named Chabelo on the air.
“I read it and the voice came out like a child, and that’s where Chabelo was born,” López told Caras. He decided to turn away from medicine and went instead to study drama. “I’ll never forget my father’s face [when I told him],” he told the magazine.
In the 1950s, his character became one of the faces of soft drink brand Pepsi. López appeared in their adverts throughout North and South America, before launching his own radio show in Mexico, La media hora de Chabelo (The Chabelo Half Hour).
But it was his television show that cemented his place in Mexican culture. En Familia con Chabelo has been broadcast live every Sunday morning since its debut in December 1968.
Families would appear on the show and compete for prizes by climbing greased-up poles, running in hamster wheels, or crossing the studio with a giant water balloon between their legs. Tens of millions of Mexican children would gather in front of their televisions to converse with Chabelo.
Roberto Carrera Maldonado, who grew up in Zacatecas in the 1980s, used to get up early every week to watch the show. “It was the best part of my Sunday morning,” he said. “We only had one TV at home, which my sister and I watched.”
“Parents used [the show] to keep children quiet while they were trying to get more of a snooze,” he said. “I was really jealous of the children able to go [on the show]. I always wondered how to get on there.”
Ms Martínez was in the audience for one of his shows in the late 1970s. She remembers her grandmother waking her up at 06:00 to queue outside the studio in Mexico City for a live broadcast.
“I will never forgive her for that,” she said. “I remember I was really disappointed because you expected it was the same thing you would watch on TV – Chabelo really close to you, and he had clowns, and he had hostesses, really cute girls with mini skirts. But everything [in the studio] was so far away, it was dark [and the show] was very, very long.”
There was a special segment at the end of the show called La Catafixia. Chabelo would give contestants the option of risking their prize money for prizes hidden behind three numbered doors.
The audience would see the options, which ranged from inexpensive gifts like candy and toys to white and electronic goods, furniture, and even a car, but the players would have to choose blindly. Many of the brands that sponsored the prizes became well-known as a result of the show, including the furniture company Muebles Troncoso.
As the show grew in popularity, so did López’s film career. Mr Carrera recalls him appearing in Saturday afternoon films, battling “mummies, vampires, and lake monsters.”
“Chabelo did several of them, I don’t know how many. But definitely I watched a lot of them,” he said. “What’s weird is seeing him not being Chabelo. Because as a child, I only saw Chabelo. I never saw Xavier. The guy was always in character. Later I saw a couple of interviews, and it was like, ‘That’s weird! He has a different voice, why?'”
En Familia con Chabelo aired nearly every week for 47 years, starting in December 1968 and ending only on special occasions, such as the 2009 swine flu pandemic, Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the country in 2012, or when López fell ill.
Later, he was awarded two Guinness World Records, one for the longest career as a children’s television host and the other for his six decades as Chabelo.
The show ended in 2015, but for years afterwards, every Sunday brought a flurry of memes about Chabelo, lamenting the loss of the iconic show.
López, who continued to act in his later years, including voicing a minor character in the Spanish-language version of Pixar’s Coco, was never offended by his online fame.
“I am very grateful to each and every one of the people who take the trouble to make a meme about me,” he told news programme Hoy. “Maybe they think they are offensive, I don’t take it that way, with all my heart… I say thank you.”
“His show lasted so long,” Ms Martínez said. “My aunts and uncles got to see him, he used to be a figure in their childhood. And then I was born and he was a figure in my childhood.
“Many decades past, and my brother’s son Gael – who must be 17, 18 – he grew up watching this dude. Same programme, same show, on Sunday, live.
“I think this is why there is this image that he’s been here forever – not so much that he’s old, but because his show spans so many generations.”