Forget any book you’ve ever read about Argentines. Forget any class you ever took on sociology, psychology, or behavioral science related to people from this part of the world. Overlook the talking heads on TV, the articles in the newspapers, the endless banter on social media comment sections and internet forums. Pay no attention to every time a friend of yours started a sentence with the words “let me tell you all you need to know about people from Argentina.”
Forget all of that, because there is really one and only one definitive place to learn about this country’s idiosyncrasies, and it can be found under the moniker of Gente Rota (Broken People), an Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook series created by cartoonist and animation artist Gabriel Lucero, that uses real life WhatsApp voice messages as fodder for creating some of the most hilarious and enlightening sketches around.
For as long as Gabriel can remember, he’s had a penchant for drawing: “I was basically born as a drawer,” he explains. “I used to doodle a lot when I was in preschool and people would always say I had a talent for it.” By the time he was a young adult, he had become a self-taught illustrator, practicing his craft constantly, while having to take other, more traditional jobs on the side. “It’s kind of hard to do find work as a cartoonist, so I worked in commerce and other areas.”
His first forays into working as a cartoonist came from illustrating magazines and children’s books, but his first real break came with a company that made video games. “When I was there I had to learn to do animation as well, so that I wouldn’t fall behind; I evolved constantly. Back then it was all done frame by frame, each movement would require about 25 separate drawings, but fortunately things have changed a lot.”
With this new skill set under his belt, he decided to take his talents to social media, creating animations of popular singers, actors and politicians from Argentina and abroad. He began to gain a cult following thanks to celebrities like Marcelo Tinelli, who not only reposted his creations but also actually hired him to work for him during a period of time. But the biggest boost to his social media following came by way of one of the most unexpected places of all: “Madonna has retweeted me three times, but the most famous one came with an animation I made of her dancing with Hillary Clinton, which she sent out during election season in 2016 and actually used to declare her support for [Hillary’s candidacy].”
As his popularity grew, so did his desire to keep pushing his own limits. By 2016 he was working on MTV, which featured a character created by Gabriel as a virtual VJ for the channel’s show ‘MTV Hits.’ The character was Viviana Sarnosa, one of his most successful creations ever, an edgy, politically incorrect celebrity blogger (and riff on real-life TV presenter and journalist, Viviana Canosa) whose own Twitter bio reads: “I can be a real hija de puta when I want to, and I always want to.”
To keep riding this wave of success, MTV asked Gabriel for a series pilot, giving him, at least at the beginning, full permission to let his dark humor go wild. However, the reaction from the channel once he came back with the first drafts was less than enthusiastic: “The pilot didn’t work, my humor was a bit too over-the-top for a commercial channel. So I was left with five or six characters, but no real script. So I got one of them, which was a kid, and combined him with a WhatsApp voice message from my nephew talking to my sister to see what would happen.” And right there and then, almost by accident, Gente Rota was born.
Once Gabriel animated his second voice note, his new series had gone viral. “It was called the crazy lady from Mar Azul and featured a woman complaining about a house she had rented on the coast and which she couldn’t enjoy because it was raining everyday and she was really pissed.” A short while after that, he started animating recordings from telemarketer phone conversations he found in YouTube. Even though he knew he was digging into something with potential, he began to suspect that it would not last; since WhatsApp audios were going viral at such a violent pace, it would be very hard to have any sort of exclusive.
Until one day, about two months in, something extraordinary happened, something that would change the dynamic of Gente Rota forever and cement it as some sort of cultural phenomenon: “I would usually only receive about two private messages daily on my Facebook account, until one day I discovered the tab in my account for message requests and found close to two thousand messages of people sending me voice notes. I decided to check, because I was actually also receiving mails and messages to my WhatsApp account. I discovered right there I would actually have to get organized or things were gonna get out of hand.”
The number of messages plateaued close to the 200 Gabriel now receives daily. Soon afterward, he established a routine in which he would download the audio files and just lay in his bed, listening to each and every one, discarding those he didn’t like. “My filter is very simple: if it makes me laugh, it’s probably going to make somebody else laugh as well,” he explains. After listening to them all, he then categorizes them on his computer, subdividing them into folders that range from “people who mispronounce” to “millennials,” “couples,” and “marriage,” to “women with baby issues.”
This same categorization lead him to create characters based on the overarching patterns of behavior he would find. There’s the teenage girl that channels all the audios from angsty and depressed teen girls. There’s the woman with the baby that channels all the audios related to maternal concerns and complaints, the guy with the football jersey that channels every fan grievance Gabriel has found related to the Argentine national team, and many others. With time, Gabriel has created a sort of expanded universe. “I always look for the characters to interact, even when they don’t speak to each other. I try to tell stories, families that cross each other on the street, that live close to each other. Those who follow my pages can always find Easter eggs in each video.”
He has also become quite adept at making collages with the voiceovers, creating for example one video combining several ‘piropos’ made by different men, with a female character awkwardly listening to each audio one after another. In another recent case he compiled several audios of people mispronouncing medical terminology, placing them all in a hospital waiting room. “You have to always find a twist so that it doesn’t get boring,” Gabriel explains. All and all, he’s pretty much settled on making two or three videos per week, with each taking from three to four hours to complete.
As one might expect, there are a couple of obstacles Gabriel has had to deal with in his path to Gente Rota fame. For one, there is the issue with the anonymity of the audios, which has lead to people posting threats to Gabriel once they identify their voices. “A lot of people have found themselves in the videos or have been tagged by somebody else and they have threatened to sue me. They get really mad. In some cases, the person who sent it was aiming at getting revenge on the original sender, but fortunately none of these threats have made their way to court.”
In any case, Gabriel has made it a point of honor to take down any video which generates that sort of discontent, along with blocking any mention of names and personal information that the audios may contain. “I don’t think it would proceed in court since I’m not drawing the person, nor am I using their real names, but I prefer to stay away from any possible problem. It’s something that was made for people to laugh and not to burn anybody.” He still stresses that most of the people that identify themselves in the videos are more than excited with their 15 minutes of fame, and cites one recent example: “There was this kid and his mother that tells him that he should reconsider his trip to Ibiza. They were elated when their audio went viral.”
Another issue that arose was people sending inappropriate or even down right creepy voice messages to Gabriel. “There was one of a guy who had separated from his wife and was stalking her and threatening to harm her if he found her with somebody else. The guy was out of his mind. Another one was a male nurse talking to a sick person in a hospital that was nearing death, and he was referring to him in a very disdainful manner. That one actually scared me. You listen to so many of them, that you find some really negative and strange stuff as well.”
From his growing collection of videos, he has evolved to understand what works and what doesn’t. He knows not to mess with animals after a video of a parrot interrupting a woman’s voice note got reported and taken down. He discovered that urgency trumps perfection in his line of work: “I find mistakes in all of them because they usually don’t end up how I envisioned them at first. I usually have to rush to publish my weekly quota.” This is the reason why his favorite video is the one with the guy and the flying cockroach, because it came closest to his original idea.
All and all, he has actually found a way to make money out of his idea too, monetizing his YouTube channel, making commercials with his set of characters as the leads, and even working with legendary directors such as Juan José Campanella on the promotion of one of his plays.
Gabriel Lucero seems to have found a firm grasp on the current zeitgeist in Argentine society but even he is surprised by how Gente Rota has evolved: “I think there is something about people wanting to spy on the life of others through these audios, people [see something of] themselves.” But at the same time, he strongly believes his idea digs into something bigger, something that not only has to do with living in Buenos Aires, but about modern life.
“My idea with Gente Rota was to reflect that in all cities like this one, people are broken, be it temporarily broken or constantly broken. And the audios reflect that, they reflect how we treat each other, how we sometimes don’t respect one another, or how we let tiny things affect us more than they should. Maybe when people see it reflected in these animations they can laugh but they can also reflect a bit.”