Paddington Bear and the Displaced Child

Growing up, one writer saw the beloved character as a mascot for the Latin American immigrant experience. Sixty years after Paddington’s debut book was published, his story still feels relevant.

A demonstrator holds Paddington Bear soft toys during a protest highlighting the plight of child refugees, outside the Home Office in London, Britain, on October 24, 2016. (Peter Nicholls / Reuters)

We ran into each other at Heathrow Airport last year. “Hello, friend,” I said, picking up a Paddington Bear plush toy from the duty-free bin. “Te ves guapo,” I said, brushing lint off his hat. I knew he understood my compliment. He is, after all, an immigrant from Latin America; it’s what brought us together.

Though Paddington has starred in dozens of books, TV shows, and films, his origins were revealed in his very first story, A Bear Called Paddington, published 60 years ago this month. More recently, Paddington’s immigrant status has moved from a thread in the books and in the animated series to a focal point in the 2014 and 2017 movies. His tale feels particularly timely—against the backdrop of undocumented children being detained at the U.S. border and families being separated—offering a powerful, if at times limited, look at the difficulties of leaving one’s homeland and being a stranger in a new place.

It’s been more than two decades since Paddington and I first met. At 8 years old, I was a latchkey kid watching after-school shows in the suburbs of Virginia. Paddington was already a TV star, and his program was part of my regular lineup. The show’s stop-motion-animation style placed the rotund 3-D teddy bear in a paper-cutout London, and the shuffling theme song seemed to echo the protagonist’s waddle. In the series, Paddington lived in Windsor Gardens with the Brown family, which included two siblings named Jonathan and Judy. But I didn’t see myself as the family’s blonde, bobby-socked daughter. I saw myself as the bear—bumbling through the day as politely as possible; trying, and failing, to grasp the basics of London life.

I had watched the show several times before I caught the first episode exploring Paddington’s past. “Where are you from?” Mrs. Brown said, asking the classic immigrant question. “Darkest Peru,” was his whispered answer. “I’m not really supposed to be here at all. I’m a stowaway. I came all the way in a lifeboat. And I ate marmalade. Bears like marmalade.” The Browns, moved by his story (and by a little sign he wore that read Please look after this bear. Thank you.), decided to bring him home. It was then that I understood our kinship.

In my early childhood, I boomeranged between North and South America. My mother was from Chile, my father was from the U.S., and they originally planned to stay in my mother’s homeland. But political unrest and a military coup made it clear that America was both the safer option and the one where my father could find work. I was about 4 years old when we returned to the U.S. for good. By then my English had melted away like a Life Saver; all that was left was the vague flavor of a language I had once known. My family continued to visit Chile for long stretches, but on either side of the equator I felt out of place. This was something I felt Paddington understood. After all, Peru was the top hat on Chile’s skinny body; our countries were neighbors. I was certain this bear would know what it’s like to cry your way through customs or to miss your friends and family terribly.

I wasn’t projecting these thoughts onto Paddington so much as detecting the frequency through which his creator, Michael Bond, had transmitted his stories. When Bond first published his Paddington book series in 1958, he fully intended his protagonist to be an immigrant and a refugee. He based his hero’s backstory on families displaced during World War II. “I can remember trainloads of refugees coming down from London,” Bond told The Telegraph before his death in 2017. “A lot of the children had luggage labels ’round their necks with their names and addresses on them.” Paddington was a stand-in for these kids, displaced children shuffling toward an unknown future, wearing tags with addresses they couldn’t read.

However, the detail that Paddington came from Peru was an editorial revision that came later. Initially, Bond had his protagonist coming from “darkest Africa”—a racist and Eurocentric phrase long used to depict the entire continent incorrectly as an exotic, dangerous jungle. Bond’s agent, Harvey Unna, took issue not with the language itself, but with the zoological inaccuracy. “There are no bears in Africa, darkest or otherwise,” Unna wrote, suggesting Bond look to other continents. Eventually, the author settled on Peru, but kept the “darkest” modifier to add “a touch of mystery.” In other words, my attachment to Paddington as a Latinx hero was purely from a last-minute substitution; as a child, I overlooked the troubling adjective Bond had elected to keep.

Besides helping to give Paddington his Latin American origin, Unna shaped the story in another important way. As a young Jewish refugee, Unna fled Nazi Germany and arrived in England with “just a suitcase and £25 to his name,” according to Bond. In the Paddington stories, the author transforms Unna into the Hungarian expat Mr. Gruber, Paddington’s best friend and protector. Bond was apparently disappointed that the Englishman Jim Broadbent portrayed Gruber in the 2014 film. “I wanted someone foreign,” Bond complained. He wanted, in essence, to preserve the dynamic of two outsiders finding solace in each other.

A Paddington Bear sculpture sits in front of the Bank of England in the City of London.

When I was younger, I didn’t quite pick up on the Hungarian-Peruvian connection of these characters. What I loved about their friendship was that it was formed around the ritual of “elevenses,” a teatime break that takes place at 11 o’clock. “Most mornings, they had their elevenses together,” the narrator said. To me, Chilean onces (Spanish for “elevenses”) was the very best part of any day: an excuse for tea and cake, although I swapped Paddington’s marmalade for manjar (Chilean dulce de leche). But I couldn’t share this tradition beyond my family; once again, I turned to a bear for solidarity.

As an adult, I’ve also grown more attuned to issues of representation, and so I’ve questioned the trope of using animals as stand-ins for marginalized people. Though these portrayals are often harmless, rendering such groups as nonhuman is still a way of treating them as “the other,” a framing that can be deployed for anti-Semitic or racist ends. Such comparisons continue outside of fiction today: In May, President Donald Trump was criticized for comparing undocumented immigrants to “animals.” Still, Bond’s decision to put Paddington in teddy-bear form was a strategic and emotionally effective way of challenging xenophobia.

In the opening pages of A Bear Called Paddington, Bond emphasizes his protagonist’s vulnerability. When meeting him, Mrs. Brown declares, “You’re a very small bear,” and frets that he’ll be in harm’s way in big London. In that way, Paddington is set up to defy stereotypes. The term bearish has the dictionary definition of “surly,” “negative,” and “bothersome,” which is sometimes how foreigners are labeled as well. But Paddington strives to be agreeable and overwhelmingly polite—an approach to respectability that even puts him in danger. At one point in the TV show, when the bear was practically drowning in the bathtub, the narrator said, “He tried calling out ‘Help!’ very quietly, so as not to disturb anyone.”

Although Paddington’s default is gentility, he pushes back when necessary. His primary defense is a “hard stare” directed at anyone talking down to him. Essentially, the look is a way of deflecting shame back at the instigator. In the first Paddington story, a taxi driver who didn’t want the bear in his vehicle announced with disgust, “Bears is six pence extra. Sticky bears is nine pence.” Paddington huffed, “Nine pence extra!” and “directed a hard stare at the driver.” Under that glare, the cabbie “seemed to grow a funny shade of pink.” He was shamed into relenting, and my hero got his lift home.

I studied this lesson carefully, wishing I’d known about the hard stare sooner. Just a few weeks before learning about the technique from Paddington’s TV show, I’d been ejected from a toy store. My brother and I had been admiring the stuffed animals, whispering to each other in Spanish. “Que bonito, mira es—” Then the storekeeper appeared over us, yanking the items out of our hands. “I know what you’re doing! You’re trying to shoplift. You can both get out now!” In shock, we obeyed. I sat on a bench outside crying hot tears until my mother came to collect us. It seems to me now that the hard stare Paddington gave people who treated him rudely or who misjudged him implied a certain optimism about human nature. It suggested that people know deep down that discrimination is wrong and that they can be gently nudged to confront the biases within themselves; this is perhaps a naive idea, but it can be a soothing one nonetheless.

Despite the challenges of displacement, both Paddington and I have landed in cushy places. I’m a U.S. citizen; I’ve had a comfortable home and a loving family. Paddington is an icon of England; he’s lived in a posh district of London, also with a loving family. We’re the lucky ones.

Yet Paddington has become a political symbol in recent years, mostly to represent the not-so-fortunate. In 2009, Bond and his mascot kicked off a campaign to end the “arrest and detention of hundreds of child asylum-seekers in prison-like conditions.” This was a call to action in response to reports that the U.K. Border Agency was arresting and holding up to 2,000 refugee children. Bond, speaking in the voice of Paddington, told the press, “Whenever I hear about children from foreign countries being put into detention centers, I think how lucky I am to be living at 32 Windsor Gardens with such nice people as Mr. and Mrs. Brown.” He went on to say, “Mrs. Bird [the Browns’ housekeeper] says if she had her way, she would set the children free and lock up a few politicians in their place to see how they liked it!”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Paddington’s immigration story took center stage in his two live-action movies. Unlike the TV series of my youth, these updates show Paddington’s Peruvian home, his family there, and his homesickness. Earlier versions never openly acknowledged that Paddington could be mourning the world he said goodbye to while still bonding with his new family and homeland. One of the most emotional scenes in Paddington 2 is an animated dream sequence where Paddington takes his Aunt Lucy—the bear that was left behind—by the hand and shows her all the wonders of his life in London.

The film also offered an alternate version of A Bear Called Paddington’s happy ending, delivering a conclusion that would’ve meant a great deal to me had I seen it as a child. Sixty years ago, Paddington found contentment through his home with the Browns and through being accepted and assimilated. Meanwhile, the triumphant ending of Paddington 2 sees the entire multicultural community of Windsor Gardens pooling its resources to bring Aunt Lucy to London, where she can join her nephew at last. Finally, Paddington has been granted a “happily ever after” that unites his two worlds. It’s a finale that doesn’t erase whatever lingering sense of loss Paddington might feel, but instead finds a way to lessen the burden—or to make it a little less lonely to bear.