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stamp: Memín Pinguín

Mexico's Racist Postage Stamp
Afro-Mexican Scholar Calls "Memín
Pinguín" an Insult

By Karen Juanita Carrillo Diaspora Writer

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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 their opinion.''

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.

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August 3, 2005

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