Mexico’s President Vicente Fox is having a tough year.
During the much-publicized Minuteman Project in Arizona last March, Fox’s arrogant comments and dismissive attitude didn’t win him too many fans north of the border. Then in May, while making yet another speech about how America couldn’t function without illegal immigrants from Mexico, Fox managed to insult African Americans in the process. He claimed that illegals do the work that “not even black people want to do,” implying that African Americans make up the lowest rungs of society.
About a month later came the unveiling of Mexico’s latest series of postage stamps, featuring none other than a black character like something out of a minstrel show. Needless to say, Fox found himself on the defensive yet again — with good reason.
It turns out that racism in Mexico, both against blacks and dark-skinned indigenous Indians, has a long history. Mexico’s colonial past has left its mark on modern-day society. Prejudice toward “pureblood” Indians from those who are “mixed-blood” (Spanish and Indian) is rife. Almost uniformly, people who are darker-skinned and of Indian descent make up the peasantry and working classes, while lighter-skinned, Spanish-descent Mexicans are in the ruling elite. Fox himself comes from that background, as his appearance makes evident.
This inequality may explain in part why the majority of immigrants coming into the United States fall into the darker-skinned category. Beyond the failure of the Mexican government to sustain a decent economy, darker-skinned Mexicans have a difficult time getting work because of job discrimination. According to the Web site IndigenousPeople.net, “sixty percent of Indians over 12 years of age are already unemployed, and of those who work, most earn less than the minimum wage of about $2.50 a day.” The same story notes that Mexico City’s top restaurants don’t allow patrons to bring along Indian domestic workers for fear of tarnishing their business image.
Mexico’s racial dynamics are perhaps best summed up by Steve Sailer in his article, “Where Did Mexico’s Blacks Go?” He writes that “what Mexico does have instead of a color line is a ‘color continuum.’ There are no sharp racial divides, yet the rule for social prestige remains ‘the whiter the better.'”
With this in mind, the popularity of the “Memin Pinguin” postage stamp series in Mexico starts to make sense. In fact, the flat-nosed, thick-lipped, bug-eyed, shucking and jiving Memin Pinguin is one of Mexico’s most beloved comic strip characters. He’s a children’s character from a 1945 comic book that’s still published in Mexico today. The cartoonist, Sixto Valencia Burgos, describes Memin as “this funny little kid. And nice. And generous. Oh, and black, too.”
Fox’s spokesman Rubén Aguilar vehemently denied that the character was racist, even going so far as to make the absurd claim that the series served to “combat racism and promote family values.” Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez chimed in with his own defense of the Mexican comic strip and had the gall to accuse critics of showing a “a total lack of respect for our culture.”
But Americans were unmoved. The White House issued a statement saying that the stamps had “no place in today’s world,” and the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson demanded that the stamps be withdrawn from the market. He also vowed to lead a demonstration at Mexican consulates unless Fox apologized. Leaders of the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League also spoke out against the stereotypical stamps.
Similar to U.S. Caricatures
Far from it being a “cultural misunderstanding,” as members of the Mexican government term it, Americans know all too well what Memin Pinguin represents, as such caricatures originated in their own backyard. According to David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., the character is “consistent with what we in the United States would refer to as a pickaninny image.”
But such stereotypes have long been banished to the realm of collectibles in this country, and rightfully so. Long before the overreach of political correctness, people worked to rid the nation of some truly ugly elements. This was a product of political struggle on the part of African Americans and others who fought for an integrated society. So naturally most Americans recoiled in disgust when the offending stamp was revealed.
But in Mexico the stamps have been selling out, with lines out the door of local post offices. In fact, the Mexican postal service defended the series vigorously, calling Memin Pinguin a “nice, little motor-mouth who, thanks to his good humor and particular way of seeing the world, wins the hearts” of the other characters. Isn’t that special?
Mexicans themselves seem perplexed by all the hoopla. In a society where such terms of endearment as guero (blond) for Caucasians or fair-skinned Mexicans and negro (black), negrito (blackie) or moreno (brown) for darker-skinned Mexicans are standard, the Memin Pinguin stamps are simply par for the course.
So is it reasonable to suggest that the struggles that have been waged by African Americans have not filtered down south of the border? Both countries have a legacy of slavery, but different pathways led to the divergent populations that exist today.
Slave Trade in Mexico
Although the study of slavery tends to focus exclusively on the United States, it was widely practiced in the ancient world and later by various people around the world, including of course Europe. It was the Spanish slave trade that first brought Africans to Mexico, as early as 1520. Although slaves were initially treated more like personal servants and Christianized before their arrival, the Spanish crown soon expanded the practice into a full-blown slave trade. The population of blacks grew to outnumber the Spanish and eventually reached 200,000. With Mexico’s independence in 1829, slavery was finally abolished after almost 300 years.
But slavery had taken its toll on the remnants of African culture, and intermarriage with indigenous people, and to a lesser extent with the Spanish, created a population of mixed-bloods, or mulattos. The descendants of these people continued to intermarry, which may be why the contemporary Afro-Mexican population is relatively small.
The two areas where the most blacks in Mexico live are the Costa Chica and the state of Veracruz. Like the indigenous people in the area, Afro-Mexicans are mostly campesinos or peasant farmers. Because the Mexican government does not use “race” in its census data, it’s difficult to gauge population, but Afro-Mexicans appear to be short of both political and economic power. Compared to the legion of African American faces among the rich and famous, Afro-Mexicans are relatively invisible in popular culture, except of course for derogatory figures such as Memin Pinguin.
Despite the backdrop of slavery, many Mexicans are in denial about this aspect of their history. Colin A. Palmer, in an article titled “A Legacy of Slavery,” recounts one such conversation in which a Mexican student insisted that Africans came to Mexico only as fugitive slaves from North America or Cuba. Yet at one time, Palmer notes, Mexico “probably had more African slaves than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere.” And unlike the United States, where people have openly confronted their past, Mexico has yet to come to terms with its history. Maybe this is why gross misrepresentations of blacks such as Memin Pinguin are considered harmless. If racism never existed in Mexico, then how could this caricature be racist?
Then there’s the factional attitude of various Latin Americans toward each other — often partly based on the color continuum. These prejudices have traveled along with their purveyors to the United States and are well known by those who rub shoulders with Latino workers. My stepfather and his brother work in construction, and over the years they have noticed the hostility between Mexicans and the mostly darker-skinned Hondurans. They often refuse to work together and must be segregated by job. Although hardly politically correct, this bigotry is overlooked because it’s perpetrated by one brown person against another. The truth is, racism transcends any one group, and when one looks beyond the white-vs.-black paradigm, discrimination is between degrees of brown.