Mustache, That Must-Have Facial Prop Of Any Strongman

Dictators, gangsters and gun-toting guerillas all seem to have a fondness for facial hair — specifically above their upper lips. But why?

Puppets of 20th century's worst history
Puppets of 20th century's worst history
Mauricio Rubio


BOGOTA — Saddam. Stalin. Pinochet. Hilter. Dictators all of them, with an unquenchable thirst for power and a terrifying taste for violence. They had something else in common too: All of them had mustaches. The world has also, of course, had its share of clean-shaven tyrants. And yet there's something about strong-man leaders and mustaches that seems to fit.

When Hergé, the creator of Tintin, sought an emblem for Kurvi-Tasch, the dictator of the fictitious state of Borduria in The Calculus Affair, he made the leader's mustache the symbol of his personality cult: It appeared on the national flag, calendars, cars and even in the country's language, as an accent.

More than half-a-century later, in 2012, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad reacted to the popular uprising against him by trimming the mustache he had donned since the start of his political career. French journalists from the website Slate interpreted the gesture as a desire to erase a possible totalitarian image, which prompted them to examine whether or not there was a tendency for despots to don a mustache.

What did they find? Turns out 42% of modern dictators have indeed had what Hergé considered a typical trait of tyrants. The study also found that mustachioed dictators lasted longer than other rulers, and that among the most bloodthirsty dictators, 75% had mustaches. Exceptions included Mao, Cambodia's Pol Pot and the North Korean Kim Il Sung, who as Asians, were less prone to facial hair.

Slate broached the subject of Assad's mustache with an expert, who described it as a "military mustache," something many Syrians have. The source also noted Assad's habit of wearing fine suits tailored in England. His trimmed mustache, the expert suggested, was perhaps an attempt to bridge two worlds: politics and the army, East and West.

Hitler's is the best known dictatorial mustache, though it took him time to cut it into the shape we all know. It was in 1922, when he founded the National Socialist Party and designed its emblem, that Hitler decided to trim his mustache considerably, initially leaving it a little rounded, then square. It seemed to perfectly complement the tyrant's furious tirades at mass rallies.

A terribly comical face

The actor Charles Chaplin closely studied pictures of Hitler for his parody in the film The Great Dictator. He wrote in his memoirs about Hitler's "terribly" comical face and ridiculous gestures, but acknowledged that the humor faded somewhat as people like Albert Einstein and the writer Thomas Mann began to flee their homeland.

I have no idea why I never grew a mustache, or why my father shaved his off, once and for all, on his first trip to the United States in the 1970s. Some of my relatives do have them, however. And others have them just for a while, so I can only speculate on the links between mustache and dictatorship.

Rallying for modern-day mustachioed tyrant, Bashar al-Assad — Photo: Sammy Aw

In 2012, Chile's left-leaning leader, Michelle Bachelet (who was in between her two, non-consecutive presidential terms at the time), advised Josefina Vázquez Mota, the conservative presidential candidate in Mexico, not to "give into the temptation of donning a mustache." If elected, she reportedly told Vázquez Mota, "Govern like a woman."

The historian Lucinda Hawksley believes the mustache trend gains vigor when men feel threatened by feminism, like when women were demanding the vote in late Victorian Britain. It came back with a vengeance in the 70s when feminist politics were in full flow. And these days, with the media turning new attention to gender equality issues, we have the full hipster beard.

Here in Colombia, mustaches have flourished like nowhere else. All the big guerrilla chiefs have had them, from Nicolas "Gambino" Rodriguez Bautista of the ELN to Jaime Bateman and Carlos Pizarro of the disbanded M-19 and Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, aka Mono Jojoy, of the FARC. The drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had one too. Mustaches are more popular, it seems, among people seeking power through arms than among vote-seeking politicians.

Perhaps what Colombia needs then is a general shave-off. Maybe that's the key to the country's hopes for lasting peace. But that would imply that wearing mustaches was the worst crime committed by the FARC's politburo and field captains. If only it were true.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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