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Mexicans turn to humor, creativity to endure flu

Saturday, May 2, 2009

(Photo)
A man wears a decorated protective mask as he talks on his cell phone April 27 in Mexico City.
(EDUARDO VERDUGO ~ Associated Press)
MEXICO CITY -- Televisa is cutting all "nonessential" kisses from its soap operas. A song called the "Influenza Cumbia" is climbing the charts. Cringe-worthy swine flu jokes are spreading faster than the illness ever could.

As Mexicans lock themselves inside in fear of the virus, they can't help but have a little fun with it as well.

The surgical masks that Mexicans have donned by the millions have become canvases for creativity, with some adorning their protective coverings with painted-on monkey mouths, outsized mustaches or "kissy lips." Newspapers offer smiley cutouts for people to paste to their masks, and some drivers have fashioned masks for their cars.

Dog lovers walk the streets of Mexico City with matching masks for their pooches, though doctors have yet to confirm that chihuahua-to-chihuahua transmission is a major public health threat.

Mexico's ebullient, spontaneous culture is still trying to adjust to the new anti-flu campaign, in which kissing, hugging, handshakes, eating on the street and standing in crowded places -- all part of daily life in this city of 20 million -- are now discouraged.

There might not be much traffic on Mexico City's streets, but gallows humor about what some call "The Aporkalypse" has been circulating around the metropolis.

"Did you hear that Mexico has become a world power?" goes one joke. "When it sneezes, the whole world gets the flu."

Mexico has decreed an almost total nationwide shutdown for the next five days, creating a particular challenge for parents. They need to keep their little ones from going stir crazy, while also making sure they heed the government's public safety instructions.

But as any parent will tell you, there is always a way.

Regina Martinez, 2, wouldn't wear a mask, so her mother, Jane, got creative. On Thursday, Regina pranced down a Mexico City street, her mask decorated with embroidered hearts.

"I made it for her because she didn't want to wear it, so I made her a special one," Jane Martinez said.

"I'm Tinkerbell," Regina chimed in, speaking shyly through the mask.

With no place to go, television has become one of the only available distractions. But even on the small screen, the disease has made its mark on that most Mexican form of entertainment: the telenovela.

Nothing defines the formulaic soap operas more than overly dramatic kisses. But Televisa, the world's biggest producer of the soaps, has decreed smooching will be reduced to a minimum in accordance with government guidelines to avoid close contact.

"When the script of a telenovela requires a kiss, the kiss will be give in accordance with the guidelines so as not to expose the actors to any risk," a Televisa spokesman said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

He played coy on exactly how the new "safe kisses" would be carried out -- air kisses? cheek kisses? -- leaving observers to speculate.

"Until this thing is over, they will have to give telepathic kisses," joked author and cultural critic Carlos Monsivais.

Mexico's music culture has also embraced a lighthearted approach to the epidemic. The band Agrupacion Carino came out with the song "Influenza Cumbia" just two days after the health alert was issued. The lyrics are not the most sophisticated, with references to Superman and Indiana Jones.

"It's better to commit suicide with tacos," the singer croons to a bouncy synthesizer. "They say it's the perfect flu. They don't know Mexico City folks live in the smog."

And like swine flu, dark humor has spread beyond Mexico's borders.

A U.S. company has rolled out T-shirts featuring a pig-shaped Mexican flag. "I went to Mexico and all I got was swine flu," it reads.

And of course the Internet is alive with dark, swine-flu fun. In a game called "SwineFighter," players blast viral-looking piggies with a hypodermic needle.

And what global catastrophe would be complete without its own Facebook page?

Actually, "Swine Flu" has several pages on the popular social networking site. The most popular -- set up April 26 with a profile picture of a cute white pig -- has accumulated more than 20,000 fans.

The page's creator, who identifies himself only as John, boasts on the page: "There's more people infected on Facebook than in real life."


Associated Press writers Paul Haven and David Koop contributed to this story.


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