Mexico's Racist Postage Stamp
Afro-Mexican Scholar Calls "Memín
Pinguín" an Insult
SeeingBlack.com Diaspora Writer
about these issues! Click here.
The Mexican government's issuance of commemorative "Memín
Pinguín" postage stamps has led to renewed charges
of racism by Black and Latino activist organizations.
The "Memín Pinguín" stamps, featuring
a Sambo-like man with exaggerated lips and eyes, were printed recently
as part of a postal series meant to pay tribute to the history of
Mexican comic books. Memín Pinguín comic strips first
appeared in 1947 and became so popular in the country that they
were later exported throughout Latin America, to Spanish-speaking
Caribbean islands, and to the Philippines.
African Americans—who were already upset with the quip by
Mexico's President Vincente Fox that Mexicans who migrate
to the U.S. do jobs that "not even Blacks" will do—have
led the outcry in objecting to the stamps. But the Associated
Press noted in a July 2 interview with Fox that he has "refused
to back down" from criticism from Rainbow/PUSH, the NAACP,
the National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League and even
the White House.
"Frankly, I don't understand the reaction," Fox told
the Associated Press. "Let's hope they [the critics] inform
themselves ... and later form an opinion…I would suggest to
them that first [they] get the information and then express publicly
Fox bases his stubbornness on the idea that Americans don't
understand Mexican culture or how the Memín Pinguín
character fits within it. But just two years ago, the Afro-Mexican
scholar Marco Polo Hernández Cuevas wrote about the racist
origins of Memín Pinguín.
Hernández, who is informed and understands Mexican culture,
says U.S. activists are right in calling any celebration of the
cartoonish character an insult.
In the Spring 2003 edition of the Afro-Hispanic Review,
Hernández published the scholarly article "Memín
Pinguín: la ironía como método de codificación
del negro en uno de los cómics mexicanos más populares
[Memín Pinguín: the use of irony to codify Blacks
in one of Mexico's most popular comic strips]" (available
on the internet here).
The article notes that "Memín is the caricature of
a so-called child who is notably dark black-skinned and who more
than anything else gives off the impression of a chimpanzee. He
has a large head with big, wide eyes. He's bald, long-eared,
has a large flat nose and lips that are expressively thick and undignified."
Memín's mother, Eufrosina, is reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima
character: obese, constantly wearing a handkerchief on her head
and loud jewelry.
In the 1930s, comics formed part of a literacy promotion effort
in Mexico. With a general public that consisted of indigenous Mexicans,
African descendants, Asians and Europeans (mostly from Spain), the
government initiated a campaign to advance Spanish as Mexico's official
language. "At the same time, they propagated and institutionalized
an ideology that promoted a white esthetic," adds Hernández,
whose most recent book, African Mexicans and the Discourse on
Modern Nation (University Press of America, 2004), examines
Mexico's "cosmic race" theory, and shows how it has been
used to degrade Afro-Mexicans.
Mexicans of African descent, whose communities are today mostly
found in the coastal states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, were
encouraged to believe that they were part of the country's
"cosmic race," a new kind of human being made up of African,
indigenous, Asian and European people. The most significant part
of this cosmic blend was its European feature. "This ideology
was an evolutionary way of thinking," wrote Hernandez. "At
one side of the spectrum were Blacks and, at the other side, on
the side that had supposedly evolved the highest, were whites."
Readers of "Memín Pinguín" were taught
proper social etiquette by learning to read the Spanish language
and by understanding that everything Memín Pinguín
was, they should aspire not to be. "Mexico's people of color
learned to disassociate themselves from their indigenous, Black
and Asian selves," wrote Hernández. "They learned
to exalt their Spanish and Creole heritage, to the extent that some
even invented white parents for themselves, even though they knew
that they were claiming to be a Black woman's illegitimate child
and that the one who raped his mother—and his mind—is
the white Mexican who, according to Mexican culture, is the one
he should be proud of."
The heritage of disrespect that Memín Pinguín promotes
is now being viewed on an international stage: U.S.-based criticism
of the commemorative stamps led to their first edition being sold
out in a matter of days. Mexican collectors are now selling them
on Internet auction sites.
All translations made by author.
— August 3, 2005
2001-05 Seeing Black, Inc. All Rights Reserved.