“Zé Povinho” is a character that originally represented a very specific class of uneducated, underprivileged “saloios” (peasants), used in a sarcastic manner to criticize those in power politically, economically and culturally. Created and christened by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro (1846-1905), to many extents the “father” of Portuguese comics, the character appeared in 1875 in a full-page cartoon in the satirical newspaper A Lanterna Mágica (5th issue, dated June the 12th). He would quite swiftly become the collective embodiment of the Portuguese, a totem-like figure not unlike “John Bull” or “Uncle Sam” for the British and the Americans. But whereas these the paternity of these figures is debatable and shared, Zé Povinho’s is uncontroversially attributed to Bordalo, even if the character would be promptly adopted by many authors to come, mainly in cartooning but also popular theatre, up to the present day.
Considering the particular cultural context of Bordalo’s work, within the so-called “Generation of 70,” comprising Realist painters and writers, the character draws from many influences of both foreign traditions and domestic tropes, with the typical self-deprecating humour of the Portuguese. It should not be surprising then that contrarily to those more famous characters, Zé Povinho has little to no heroic traits. A rather picaresque figure, he is frequently found in terrible situations, forever repeating the self-pity mantra, “woe is me!” If he does “win” in relation to whatever antagonist he crosses paths with, that would be due to a turn of events that would place his “enemy” in an even worse condition.
His name is made of two diminutives: for “José,” a very common name in Portugal, and for “povo,” i.e., “people.” Short, stocky, with a rotund face with flushed cheeks, and an old-fashioned beard around his chin, he always uses a black vest, a black pork pie hat and cheap clothes, often torn. His usual bearing is that of resignation, sometimes displaying an idiotic and beatific smile but sometimes he’s pushed to the limit. And out comes his signature obscene gesture, the “manguito” (or “Iberian slap”).
As the historian João Medina wrote, Zé Povinho is a sort of “resigned Sancho Panza without a Quijote,” which means that he is a representation of all the base materiality of human passions and appetites, but reaches no metaphysical or ideal levels. Due to these non-tragic qualities, but also his no-frills plasticity, the character has been used uninterruptedly by caricaturists throughout the last 130 years, depicting the self-professed resignation nature of the Portuguese during the end of the Monarchy, the turmoil of the First Republic, the long-winded dictatorship, the Colonial Wars, the Democratic Revolution and the contemporary financial crisis. Above all, Zé Povinho has been adopted as a perennial self-caricature, yet deeply beloved.
— Pedro Moura
See also: Bordalo Pinheiro, Rafael