Mexican postage stamp depicting exaggerated black cartoon character Memin Pinguin, which sparked charges of racism by U.S. activists against the government of President Vicente Fox / BushidoBrown
In a speech to a binational agribusiness audience this past May, Mexican President Vicente Fox complained about growing American barriers to Mexican immigration. Faced with an anti-immigrant vigilante movement, a forbidding wall raised on the Arizona border, and a Real ID program that denies Mexican illegals a driver’s license, a bank account, and legal identification, Fox confidently told his audience that “una solución win-win” was possible. After all, he said, Mexican immigrants are doing the jobs that “not even blacks are willing to do.”
Fox’s statement caused a political storm in the United States. Jesse Jackson traveled to Mexico and met with Fox. So did Al Sharpton. Both demanded explanations and apologies. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, expressed concern to his Mexican counterpart, and the White House issued a formal complaint. Mexican-American and African-American organizations decried the statement; African-American businessmen considered boycotting tourism to Mexico. The story was picked up by all the major American media—The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, CNN—and it caused an even bigger storm in Mexico: when the United States catches a cold, Mexico gets pneumonia.
The ruckus completely overshadowed the original subject of debate; Mexican racism replaced immigration as the issue of the day. Then, just when the scandal had finally subsided, a new conflict broke out around a set of five Mexican postage stamps issued as part of a commemorative celebration of Mexico’s comic books. The stamps, which featured a cartoon character named Memín Pinguín, raised the accusation of Mexican racism once again.
Memín was created in the 1940s by Yolanda Vargas Dulché, an exuberant sentimentalist and blockbuster photo-novella writer. In a country in which newspaper runs rarely exceed 100,000, reprints of Memín still sell 125,000 copies a week. Memín has black skin, thick lips, a flat nose, and eyes like saucers. He lives alone with his mother, doña Eufrosina, an Aunt Jemima–like washerwoman who speaks Spanish with a Cuban accent. Memín, who was named after Vargas Dulché’s boyfriend, and later husband, Guillermo (“Memo”) de la Parra, loves his “Ma’ Linda,” who spoils him adoringly, though she does not spare the rod (her famous palo con clavo—board with a nail). Doña Eufrosina is, in any case, honest and clean, a dignified representative of the “working poor.”
Memín is the only black kid in a gang of four boys, all of whom attend the Benito Juárez public school in Mexico City. They are a multi-class group from the unmarked (i.e., mestizo, or mixed-blood) portion of Mexico’s racial and class spectrum, with the exception of Ricardito, who is blond and rich, but (predictably) has unhappy family circumstances. Memín often provides comic relief in ways that are reminiscent of blackface minstrel theater (a well-developed genre in Cuba, where Yolanda Vargas Dulché first conceived of the Memín character, but with precedents in Mexico’s popular puppet theater of the 19th century).
The gang’s core characteristic is its absolute internal loyalty. When the gang travels to Texas to play soccer, for example, Memín’s friends defend him with indignation when he is subjected to Jim Crow laws and personal insults. The boys go on to win their game and triumphantly return to Mexico.
American reactions to Memín in June after the stamps had been released were not informed by the comic book’s plotline, which is of course virtually unknown in this country, but rested entirely on Memín’s image, which is deeply familiar to Americans. Inspired by the cartoon character Ebony White, from Will Eisner’s 1940s comic strip The Spirit, the Memín drawing is a variation of the Little Black Sambo theme.
The White House spokesman, Scott McLellan, condemned the Memín stamps, stating imperiously that such images “have no place in today’s world.” Jesse Jackson, who had just accepted a tortured and ambiguous apology from Fox for his May statement, saw the stamps as a deliberate insult. The African-American community agreed, and the question of Mexican racism against blacks again undermined the Mexican government’s ability to claim the moral high ground in immigration debates.
The Mexican public was caught by surprise in a storm that the Mexican press quickly dubbed “The Memíngate Affair.” Mexican racial attitudes had suddenly emerged as a factor in bilateral relations with the United States. How exactly had this happened? At what point did Mexicans start to be thought of as racist?
After all, Memín Pinguín is not the only comic book of the mid-20th century that was both wildly popular and racist, and that continues to be reissued and avidly consumed. Tintin, the character created by the Belgian Hergé, is a French journalist who, together with his lily-white dog Milú, goes around the globe straightening things out and protecting the feeble colonial races—Bedouins, Congolese, Chinese, Peruvian Indians—from their exploiters and from themselves.
Asterix and Obelix, a Gallic-nationalist duo, also have their racist moments and are nonetheless widely adored. They even have a theme park in France.
And the United States’s own Speedy Gonzalez has been massively popular. Speedy (“Arriba! Arriba! Andale! Andale!”) is a fast mouse in a town of drawling and anemic compadres and beautiful mouse señoritas. Like Memín, Speedy fools and tricks arbitrary authority (in the form of a cat), while domesticating and reproducing prejudices about Mexicans.
With these images in mind, Mexican response to the Memín affair ranged from surprise to indignation: ethnic caricatures are a standard and relatively innocent form of entertainment, they claimed, and in any case, the United States should not cast stones from its glass house. At least in Memín the black kid is the hero; at least he has a lovable mother; at least he goes to the same public school as Ricardito.
But the roots of the dispute run deeper than American hypocrisy and Mexico’s refusal to inspect its own racism. The Memín affair reflects decades of profound and unacknowledged changes in the relations between the United States and Mexico.
Until the 1980s, Latin America, and especially its two great mestizo countries, Mexico and Brazil, claimed moral superiority to the United States on race relations. In the case of Mexico, their superiority was predicated, first, on Mexico’s early abolition of slavery in 1829, shortly after its independence. Because Mexico later went to war with the United States, and the United States has been a constant source of nationalist anxiety, Mexican superiority on race issues became an explicit theme of public discussion from the mid-19th century forward. Moreover, anxieties about annexation by the United States, which were a constant through the 19th and early 20th centuries, were fueled by American discrimination against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in American territory. In short, the experience of discrimination in the United States has helped to sustain Mexican nationalism for a century and a half.
Another source of Mexican self-images on race dates back to the colonial period. While British, Dutch, French, and, later, American empires translated and disseminated the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas’s 1552 Treatise on the Destruction of the Indies and developed the so-called Black Legend of unspeakable Spanish cruelty against Indians to justify their allegedly more humane colonial projects, Spain and Spanish America countered with a legend of racial inclusion and incorporation through sex, marriage, and religious communion that stood in contrast to the Anglo-American penchant for genocide, apartheid, and Jim Crow. This idea was made into a cornerstone of national identity in the early 20th century, when Mexicans identified the mestizo as the ideal citizen.
At the outbreak of the Cold War, acknowledging the fruits of the good-neighbor policy, Americans recognized that they had something to learn from Latin American race relations, with their love of mixtures. Thus, at its creation in 1945, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, an institution that was much concerned with racism, accepted the self-representation of Latin American countries as “racial democracies” and set up those countries as positive examples. Cold War–era textbooks introducing Latin America to U.S. audiences often cited “racial democracy” as an admirable Latin American characteristic.
This position gained strength as American tourists and businessmen traveling in Latin America discovered a world that was more flexible on race, a world in which touchy subjects could be aired. Indeed, the use of exaggeration and ridicule as a kind of vaccine against prejudice is common practice there, and terms like gordo (fatty), flaca (skinny), negro (black one), prietita (little black one), or cholo (Indian one) are often terms of affection. While Mexican-Americans have protested against images such as Fritos’s Frito Bandito or Taco Bell’s Chihuahua dog in the United States, Mexico’s own choice for its mascot and symbol for the 1986 Soccer World Cup, El Pique, was a sombreroed and mustachioed goal-scoring chile pepper of indisputable Speedy Gonzalez parentage.
Mexicans, by and large, seem content to believe that they have conquered racism through mestizaje. Indeed, Mexican opinion in response to the Memín affair predictably displayed a sense of superiority on racial issues.
So, for instance, the writer Elena Poniatowska argued that “in our country, the image of black people generates an enormous sympathy, which is reflected not only in characters like Memín Pinguín, but also in popular songs. . . . In Mexico, as opposed to the United States, our connection to black people has been affectionate.” The intellectual Enrique Krauze, in an op-ed for The Washington Post, called Fox’s remarks offensive but still maintained that Mexico is a less racist country than the United States and concluded that in Mexico, “if Memín Pinguín were a person of flesh and blood, I believe he could win the coming presidential election.”
In both substance and tone, these responses reveal a profound misunderstanding within Mexico’s political and intellectual establishment about social change in the United States. For more than 50 years, racial inequality has been a central issue of political contest here, and the result has been a significant renegotiation of race relations, a process that in Mexico is often misunderstood as mere window dressing.
At the same time, there has been a sea change since the 1980s in the ways that Latin American race relations are understood by American academics and educators. Criticism of race relations and racism in Brazil, Mexico, the Andes, the Caribbean, and Central America has developed as a natural extension of multiculturalism and identity politics in the United States, and many studies describe persistent racial inequalities masked by the idea of racial democracy. This criticism and research has, in turn, fed discussions of race in Latin America, albeit in an attenuated manner: Brazil has had its own proponents of “black power,” and racism against Indians has become a theme in Mexican social movements. Because these challenges are difficult to reconcile with Mexico’s 80-year-old ideology of national integration, they are often downplayed in public debate—as if Mexican racism had long been taken care of, and as if whatever remains of it were somehow less harmful because things are worse in the United States.
Americans, for their part, are reluctant to view the gains of the civil-rights movement and affirmative action as anything but an internal conquest. They rarely acknowledge the role of international pressure—both during and after the Cold War—in shaping a working alliance between civil-rights activists and federal officials. Racism has always been an international embarrassment for the United States, and avoiding that embarrassment has provided an important incentive for striving for racial equality. This dynamic is highly visible outside the United States. Foreign observers, and certainly Mexican analysts of American politics, often interpret American political decisions as efforts to fend off charges of racial injustice.
No one fails to notice, for example, that Bush’s ambassador to Mexico—the official who is charged with defending the wall in Arizona, passing judgment on Mexican drug-control efforts, and minimizing the significance of vigilantism—is named Tony Garza; that the man who wrote the briefs defending U.S. policies on prisoners of war in Guantánamo Bay is called Alberto Gonzales; that the American ambassador to Iraq is Zalmay Khalilzad; and that the man who told the world that Iraq needed to be invaded because it was stockpiling uranium and making weapons of mass destruction is Colin Powell, an African-American. So when Scott McLellan announces that there is “no place in today’s world” for images like Memín Pinguín’s, the statement is taken as yet another generous helping of the new American imperialism: put the Condoleezza Rices, the Alberto Gonzaleses, and the Tony Garzas in office, give them Memín’s head on a platter, and proceed with anti-immigrant policies as usual.
This is what Mexicans have in mind when they denounce American hypocrisy. But the Mexican side of the Memín affair reveals a disturbing insularity, which begins with President Fox but by no means ends there. It is reflected in Mexico’s shameful lack of attention to the Mexican experience in the United States.
Fox, like practically every Mexican politician, businessman, or intellectual today, is adept in the idiomatic expressions, the modes of argument, and even the tonality of American professional and political circles. Fox calls Mexican immigration a “win-win situation” in order to sell it to the American public, and he even imports the phrase directly into Spanish. Unfortunately, Fox lacks a comparable mastery of the facts that are most directly relevant to migrants, not least the significant tensions between Mexican workers and African-American workers in this country.
Al Sharpton, in his visit to President Fox, invited him to visit Harlem and witness the unemployment that Mexican immigration has brought to his community. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center documents a growing number of conflicts between black and brown in this country, ranging from derogatory remarks in the ethnic media to confrontations between gangs to the occasional hate crime. The leadership of both communities has worked hard to keep these conflicts away from the limelight, but that is no excuse for Fox or the Mexican people to ignore them. Fox also seems to be oblivious to the fact that ideologues on the right, from Samuel Huntington to Lou Dobbs, portray African-Americans as truer Americans than Mexican-Americans. This combustible situation requires careful handling, not thoughtless remarks, or stamp collections that appear to suggest that Mexicans are racists.
Indeed, the Mexican public is used to burying its head in the sand when it comes to Mexican immigrants, whose lives unfold in an entirely different sphere. Fox’s slip that Mexicans “do jobs that not even blacks want to do” masks a fear that is perhaps more unnamable than Mexican racism: the migrants who do those “dirty jobs” have increasing clout, and they are making claims for themselves more forcefully than many Mexicans in Mexico care to acknowledge. Best to ignore them and focus instead on the persistence of American racism.
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the United States today represent a significant proportion of all Mexican nationals, a larger minority than Mexico’s indigenous minority; and Mexico’s $16 billion revenue from remittances is the country’s second-largest source of foreign income. There are claims on Mexicans back home that come with all of this: claims of recognition and acceptance, challenges to established local customs and practices, disruption of existing hierarchies.
The practice of skimming off the top of migrant earnings has received minimal attention in Mexico, probably because it is practiced by everyone from family members and business leaders to the Mexican government itself. For example, Elektra, the money-wiring-service-cum-domestic-appliances-emporium, is one of the largest business ventures that have arisen in Mexico since trade liberalization. It has benefited substantially from charging high rates that especially affect Mexico’s immigrants. But while Elektra’s counterparts in the United States, Western Union and MoneyGram, had to settle out of court for price gouging, in Mexico there has been little corresponding outrage.
Moreover, immigration unsettles the status quo in unexpected ways. This is most powerfully captured by monolingual indigenous immigrants (Mixtecs, Mixes, Tzotziles) who learn English before they learn proper Spanish. Although these cases may not be very significant statistically, they are striking examples of a more general problem: migrants embracing the promises of modernization only by leaving Mexico. In the United States peasant immigrants earn hourly wages, they drive cars, and they consume products that in Mexico are markers of middle-class status. In some cases, immigrants are finding exotic spouses—Polish immigrants, African-Americans, Anglo-Americans—that place them decidedly outside of Mexico’s expected race and class hierarchy.
Shutting migrant experiences out of the public discussion, or limiting the discussion to difficulties in border crossing and discrimination against immigrants in the United States, delays the recognition of these diverse experiences and helps to keep established values and hierarchies in place back home. President Fox’s insensitivity to America’s blacks corresponds to his distance from the experience of Mexican immigrants: both groups appear to him as political objects rather than as people capable of claiming a political voice of their own.
By denying any progress made in the racial integration of the United States, Mexicans have embraced a nostalgia for the culture of yesteryear, with its images of Mexican racial democracy. At the same time, they have continued to treat the Mexican immigrant experience as marginal, and exploitable. This process has gone so unquestioned, has become so natural, that it seems not to have occurred to anyone that putting the image of Memín on a postage stamp just might be a problem.
Claudio Lomnitz is a Distinguished University Professor of anthropology and historical studies at New School University and the author of Death and the Idea of Mexico.