Mexico’s Race ProblemAnd the real story behind Fox’s faux pas
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.
Memín was described by his creator, Yolanda Vargas Dulché, as un chiquitín negrito de ojos enormes y muy chistoso – “a very funny little negrito with enormous eyes.” Although she drew the comic between 1945 and 1952, the series has been perpetually reprinted, and beloved, to this day. In 2005, when the Mexican Postal Service printed stamps in honor of Memín Pinguín, they sold out within a matter of hours. Various U.S. politicians, including Jesse Jackson, complained, ensuring the historical place of the stamps as collectors’ items. (Source: David Lido, Mostly Mexico City)
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.
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 anemiccompadres 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. (source: Boston Review, Nov./Dec. 2005, byClaudio Lomnitz. )
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