Judging Mexico's racial sensitivity by the content of its caricature

July 15, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Mexico and the United States have many more important things to worry about than the cuteness or offensiveness of Memin Pinguin.

The big-lipped, big-eared, bug-eyed, black-skinned pickaninny cartoon character recently sparked international outrage when it popped up on Mexican postage stamps.

It was the biggest uproar between the two nations since, well, the last one. That, you may recall, came when Mexico's President Vicente Fox said that Mexicans take jobs that "not even blacks want to do."

Both episodes brought condemnations for insensitivity from White House spokesman Scott McClellan and black activists such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also called the stamps derogatory.

All of which brought proclamations of bemusement from Mr. Fox, who wondered aloud what all the fuss was about. "They don't have information, frankly," he told the Associated Press. "All Mexico loves the character," he said, including himself.

Indeed, many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have pointed out that Pinguin, born in a 1940s comic book, is as cherished in the Mexican national identity as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny on this side of the border. It certainly is no more offensive, many argue, than those all-American characters Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Bandito. Judge Pinguin not by the color of his ink, they say, but by the true content of his caricature.

Yet, like other racial-ethnic eruptions of our times, the Pinguin flap offers insightful lessons about how differently people from various cultures and nationalities define the largely artificial construct we call "race" and how differently we define what we think is racist.

Some American editorialists have howled that Mexico has a lot to learn about racial sensitivity. Maybe so, but Norteamericanos have much to learn from Mexico's experience, too.

On the positive side, today's Mexico did not emerge out of the burdensome racial baggage of the Yankees. It had different racial baggage.

Unlike America's system, enslaved Africans in Mexico could buy their freedom and give birth to children who were in turn free to marry anyone of any racial origin. Mexico abolished slavery decades before the United States and never enacted Jim Crow-style laws.

Mexican historian Enrique Krauze described Mexico's tradition of racial egalitarianism in a recent Washington Post op-ed essay. Famous Mexican leaders of African descent, he noted, included Jose Maria Morelos, who became the second commander of the Mexican rebels in their War for Independence in the early 1800s, and his immediate subordinate, Gen. Vicente Guerrero, who became president eight years after Mexico won its independence from Spain.

Since race had ceased to have much meaning in Mexico's mestizo - mixed ancestry - society, the country abandoned counting people by race in its national census decades ago.

But the downside of that willful colorblindness is that it contributes to the very real sense of invisibility felt by many black Mexicans. As Juan Angel Serrano, 41, a cattle farmer who heads Black Mexico, told Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Hugh Dellios in Costa Chica, a region heavy with black Mexicans, "[Other Mexicans] just don't see us. People ask us where we're from. They say we can't be from Mexico."

The Memin Pinguin postage stamp has sold out and, happily for offended black folks, no further printing beyond the original 750,000-stamp issue was scheduled, in line with original plans. Mr. Jackson suggested that Mexicans commemorate some real-life black heroes on their stamps. Good idea. They do have more than a few.

As for us African-descended North Americans, we might want to look at some of the images of black life that we encourage with our consumer dollars back here at home. Then we might ask ourselves: Is Memin Pinguin any worse than some of the gangsters and hoochy mamas that we promote in our hip-hop videos?

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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