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Memin and the Party of Joy

10 July 2008

The comic book character, Memin Pinguin, is back in the news.

While there is a good case to be made (and it is made very well by Marco Polo Hernandez Cuevas of North Carolina Central University in the attached video) that the comics are symptoms of a racist Spanish influence in Mexican culture, I don’t think Mexico is nearly as “racist” as the United States, and looks at stereotypes, like Memin, differently than we do in the U.S.

The cartoon is not as popular as the U.S. press makes out, the series having been discontinued in 2001. The only translation I’ve seen of a Memin comic, in a scholarly article sent to me by Professor Hernandez Cuevas, has Memin speaking “Hollywood Ebonics”.   If I recall correctly, Memin speaks Veracruz/Caribbean Spanish.  He certainly doesn’t talk like Buckwheat.

In the comic, he’s being raised in the Mexico City dump by his long-suffering mother (his father having been killed in an accident). Like another popular Mexican stereotype (Maria la India) he’s an uneducated naif, but making his own way amid sterotyped representatives of the other social and economic groups within Mexico. However, he does indeed drawn with exaggerated “Negroid” features.  For that matter, so was Colin Powell, when he was U.S. Secretary of State during the build-up to the Iraq War, which made him extremely unpopular in Mexico.  At that time, the most popular foreign actor in Mexico was Denzel Washington.

Mexicans, apparently, don’t “get” racial stereotyping.  It was not Mexicans, but Mexican-Americans who complained about Speedy Gonzales (beloved in Mexico) and the Frito Bandito.  Back in July 2005, when the Mexican Postal Service issued stamps featuring Memin (part of a series on comic book characters), the outrage from the United States was simply not understood in Mexico.   David Brook wrote — in Spanish — an excellent overview of the polemics surrounding the issue.    The over-eagerness of the Bush Administration to take up the anti-Memin cause seemed a little out of character… and to the Mexican press, appeared to have more to do with strained relations between the Fox and Bush administrations than anything else.  Vicente Fox didn’t help any when he agreed to meet with Rev. Jesse Jackson about the “controversy.”  At the time, Jackson had been making noises about a “black-brown coalition” to oppose certain Bush Administration policies, and it seemed terribly convenient for Bush to make a postage stamp into an international issue.  And meeting with Jackson (who has no official position in the United States government) made it appear as if Fox was giving special concesions to foreigners.  In other words, giving in to whatever some gringo wanted.

According to the Houston Chronicle’s Neil Stratton:

Wal-Mart announced Wednesday it will no longer sell the controversial comic book featuring Memín. The national chain recently made the comic book available in its stores as part of a series of Spanish-language titles. The books prompted outrage this week from community activist Quanell X, who demanded that Wal-Mart apologize for selling the racially charged books.

However, the decision by the nation’s largest retailer to pull the books wasn’t enough for Meyerland resident Shawnedria McGinty, 34, who originally brought the matter to Quanell X’s attention. She said the statement released by Wal-Mart addressing the comic book was tantamount to “a slap in the face.”

Shawnedria McGinty may read Mexican comic books, and may regularly shop for them, but somehow that doesn’t seem likely.  Quanell X, a controversial Houston political figure, is the head of the “New Black Panther Party of Houston” (disavowed by the Black Panthers themselves), described by the Anti-Defamation League (the Party itself does not seem to have a website) as

… feeding off of the nostalgia for, and presenting itself in the image of, the original Panthers, the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense has been able to … maintain its influence in the black community. While the NBPP still attracts some followers under the guise of championing the causes of black empowerment and civil rights, its record of racism and anti-Semitism has overshadowed any of its efforts to promote black pride and consciousness.

From my time in Houston, I remember Mr. X as being very good at stirring shit up (which sometimes needed stirring), but without a huge following. Whether or not this is true here, I’ll leave to the Houston media to figure out.

One other thought crosses my mind. Mexico’s first mixed Afro-Mestizo President was elected in 1828, and there have been several (Juan Alvarado, Lazaro Cardenas del Rio) since then. It’s only now that the United States has a serious mainstream candidate for president who is of mixed race. While the United States lumps Mexicans and Afro-Cubans and Afro-Dominicans and a lot of other people together in the false “racial” category of “Hispanic,” it’s Mexican-Americans — especially in states that normally vote Republican, like Texas, or are closely contested between the parties (like New Mexico) that are of special concern to the two political parties. The U.S. press hasn’t picked up on this yet, but Juan José Gutiérrez, of LatinosUSA, and an Obama supporter has. In today’s Jornada, Gutiérrez is quoted as saying (my translation):

“What were the odds that the protests would come from a Republican bastion like Texas?  It seems that there are some people interested in creating a pretext to accentuate differences between Hispanics and African-Americans, based on something that has nothing to do with the political reality of the United States.”

I’d originally planned to post this video later, but given the political ramifications of comic-book-gate, Prof. Hernandez Cuevas’ short documentary is well worth posting now:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike S permalink
    10 July 2008 11:22 pm

    When the Mexican Postal service issued the Memin stamps in 2005, all the attention was given to the complaints from the U.S. The issue then quickly (and predictably) became one about Americans not understanding Mexican culture or even about the political intentions of the U.S.

    What was overlooked by just about everybody was the complaint of the Afro-Mexicans from the Oaxacan coast who clearly stated that they found the image denigrating.

    And I can perfectly understand why. Memin Pinguin is presented as something of a simian-ized person. Now, maybe you could argue this is a caricature, except for one thing: NOBODY else in the comic is depicted in such a way. Face it, Memin is made out to be a little black monkey.

    Now, the Costa Chica of Oaxaca may seem a remote and unimportant place in Mexico if you are a self-proclaimed defender of Mexican Culture in Mexico City. However this is one of the most important regions of Afro-Mexican communities in the country.

    The real story here–not reported by anybody as far as I can tell–is that non-Afro-Mexican cultural elites in Mexico City would quickly rush to express their indignation at a cultural critique from the north, while AT THE VERY SAME TIME ignoring what Afro-Mexicans in their own country had to say about how they were being depicted.

  2. 11 July 2008 7:39 am

    The African Diaspora to the Americas between the 15th and early 20th centuries was a European made phenomenon. “African Americans” born from the relations between Africans, First Nations, Asians and Europeans are part of this same phenomenon. African Americans, the Afrodecendants, includoing Mexican “mestizos” have been and are viewed all over the contnent as “impure” beings, particularly by those who identify with the European views of histoty, or “Europhiliacs” as Dr. Quince Duncan has pointed out.
    Such views are called “racism.” Racism is also an integral part of the phenomenon. Particularly interesting is when racism is displayed and supported by “non-white” Europhiliacs. Such people, who are a considerable large number, have also been identified by Duncan as Endophobic.”
    Racism of the sort contained in Memin has to be viewed within its larger historical context to be able to understand the violence it deploys against all conscious and unconscious Afrodecendants (including Mexican “mestizos”) in the continent, and the planet.

  3. Mr. Rushing permalink
    12 July 2008 12:07 pm

    True true, the race pushers will never get over the past and see that everyone coming to the new world was better off than had they stayed in Europe, Africa, and/ or Asia. The Americas in general have always been in competition with each other and racism is an extention of tribalism. When races and ethnicities started mixing in the Americas, each nation’s population handled the situation differently. It is my personal oppinion that we should be concentrating on skin tone more than ethnicity. The stupidity of classifying ethnicity over skin tone has caused us to label white, brown, and black skinned people as “hispanic” if they have a Spanish or Portugees last name. The even crazier idea is that we don’t even think that it is possible for yellow/tan skinned people from mexico to be labeled as Hispanic/Asian. To the US all yellow and tanned skinned people are “Asian”. The fact that we cant just concentrate on skin color alone is silly. It has gotten to the point in America that you can tell people that white people invented the Spanish language, and they will think that you are crazy. The whole idea of mixed race seems to go away too in America. People see Barrack Obama as Black but not White (even though he is both) due to the one drop rule (if you have even just one drop of black blood in you, then you are considered black). Mariah Carey is even considered black by some people in the US. I think that the saddest thing to happen is that people actually label minority skin tones as such so that we can keep a wall of seperation between us. Blacks in America are very prone to this. They will ridicule any black woman who dates white women and vice versa. I have known men who are so rebelious that they won’t even date women who are the same skin tone as they are. It seems that this may go on forever because the leaders of race are always trying to keep any mixed race person as within their own group. It really is sickening, because we will never get over our own messed up past.

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