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Judging a Cartoon by Its Character

July 08, 2005|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is an editorial writer at The Times.

Not even in his wildest dreams would Memin Pinguin have guessed he could create such a fuss in the White House. But, in keeping with his tendency to get into trouble, he did just that. This time, though, he will have a harder time than usual getting out of the mess because he's dealing with an audience that has condemned him based on the color of his skin and his cartoonish features, rather than on the content of his character.

Memin is a cartoon character from a decades-old and much-beloved Mexican comic book, a caricature of a young, black Mexican boy. He leads a group of boys and is famous for his childish pranks, street smarts, neat sense of humor and remarkable ability to smooth racial conflicts among his peers.

But last week, when the Mexican post office issued a series of stamps depicting his image -- including his big lips, big ears and big eyes -- Memin made the news in newspapers in Los Angeles, Washington and New York. As might have been expected, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led the charge, demanding an apology from Mexican President Vicente Fox for the "Sambo-like" stamps and asking that they be taken off the market immediately. Less expected and more worrisome was the reaction from White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who said smugly that Memin had "no place in today's world," and left many Mexicans wondering who granted him the authority to decide whether Memin belongs in Mexico or not.

McClellan probably doesn't know much about the subject, but I do. Describing Memin Pinguin as a racist stereotype is an outrageous misrepresentation of the character's character. Memin, who shares the nickname of his creator's husband, first appeared many years ago as one of many characters in a comic book about urban life in Mexico. By popular demand, he took over the lead role and the comic book was named after him. Adapted from many sources (the Our Gang movie series among them) Memin is as mischievous as Dennis the Menace, although he operates in a very different environment. Simpatico and restless, Memin is always dragging his family and friends into messy comic situations that, in the end, he'll manage to solve.

One episode in Memin's fictional life is worth mentioning. He and the rest of the gang travel to Dallas to play a soccer tournament, and they all go to a diner where the waitress refuses to serve blacks and Mexicans. Memin refuses to be discriminated against and creates such a ruckus that he lands in jail. When he's released, the team goes on to beat the U.S. in the finals.

Because the Memin stamp comes on the heels of an unfortunate remark by President Fox, who said Mexican immigrant workers in the U.S. took jobs "not even" American blacks would take, some people in the U.S. have suggested racism is deeply ingrained in Mexico. Some Mexicans have expressed concern about the Memin stamp, and many would no doubt agree that some groups (mainly indigenous people, blacks and Chinese, etc.) are discriminated against in Mexico.

But as deplorable as that is, one must be careful to consider race issues in Mexico in context, and not try to transplant them into the American experience.

Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 -- nearly 40 years before the United States -- and ever since, the law has prohibited discrimination in most of the forms in which it appeared in the U.S. In the Mexican census questionnaire, race is not even included as a category, and out of 105 million Mexicans (most of them mestizos, people with mixed Spanish and Amerindian blood) the estimate is that fewer than 1 million are black.

Racism has never been institutionalized in Mexico as it was in the U.S. or South Africa (nor did Mexico ever experience a civil rights movement). Furthermore, Mexico has had two indigenous presidents and two of black ancestry. Also, the revered leader of Mexican independence, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon, was partly of African descent. For the most part, the word "negro" -- which means black -- is not a used in a pejorative sense in Mexico. If anything, it would be like a badge of honor when it names such legendary singers as "Tona la negra" and "El negro Ojeda." Negra is the stuff of love songs, including "Negra Consentida" (My Beloved Black) and toddler's songs such as "La negrita Cucurumbe." People kneel to pray at a Christ made in black wood called "El Cristo Negro."

Had the stamp been printed in the U.S., where racism was institutionalized until recent times and images of African Americans were drawn to mock, disrespect and humiliate, then even a latecomer to the U.S. like me would have joined the chorus demanding it be taken out of circulation. That is not the case with Memin, who belongs in a particular historical and cultural context.

If anything, this latest episode involving the fate of a cartoon character that has endured decades of good and bad times should illustrate how in spite of the ongoing integration between Mexico and the U.S., the two countries remain very different and culturally apart.

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