By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The Mexican government’s sale of the racially offensive cartoon character Memin Pinguin as a commemorative stamp is an outrageous sign that top Mexican officials still refuse to deal with the country’s racism. But it’s just that a sign. Racism goes much deeper in the country. Even while Mexican writers and politicians rail in articles against American racism, many Mexicans are quick to boast of differences in skin color among their own family members.
A few years ago, a Mexican-American friend made me acutely aware of the rigid race differences in the country. When I told him that I’d be traveling extensively in Mexico, he urged me to pay close attention to the workers doing the hardest and dirtiest work in restaurants and hotels, and who the beggars and peddlers on the streets were. They were overwhelmingly dark, and in most cases with pronounced Indian or African features.
Many Mexicans refer to dark skinned persons, both Mexican, and non-Mexican, as negritos or little Black people. This is not seen as racially offensive, but rather as a term of affection even endearment. A popular afternoon telenovela has a comedian in Blackface chasing madly after light complexioned actresses in skimpy outfits. Ads have featured Blacks in Afros, Black face, and distorted features. The most popular screen stars in film and on TV, and the models featured on magazines and billboards, are white or fair skinned with sandy or blond hair. That’s the standard of beauty, culture, and sophistication that’s held up as the penultimate standard to emulate, and that standard is unabashedly commercialized, and peddled as top commodities in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Mexican President Vicente Fox and most of Mexico’s past presidents, top officials, business leaders, educators, and government leaders, for instance, are light skinned or Castellan Spanish. They routinely boast that they can trace their bloodlines to Spain (Fox’s mother is from Spain).
During one of my stays in Mexico, I lived with a well- to-do Mexican family. Family members routinely asked if my son was into gangs and drugs (He was a university senior at the time). I chalked their insensitivity in part up to the one-dimensional depiction of Blacks in the global media world, and in part to negative racial attitudes in the country. And Blacks in Mexico suffer from those attitudes. They make up about two percent of the population, and that’s only a rough estimate. The Mexican government propagates the myth of a color-blind society and has never designated any racial categories. There is no formal ban in Mexico on employment discrimination. Classified ads in magazine and newspapers are filled with requests for job applicants who are young and beautiful, and though its unstated, the lighter and more fair skinned the better.
In recent years, the guerrilla war in Chiapas, and land battles between Indian groups and government officials in other parts of the country have drawn national and international attention. This has forced the government to make minimal reforms to deal with the economic and racial ill treatment of the Indians. But the government has not shown the same level of sensitivity and enlightenment toward its Black population. They remain invisible, and the lowest of the low on the country’s social and economic totem pole. They are crammed into enclaves in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, where the schools are underserved, the roads and public services are poor, and they are subject to harassment by police.
Then there’s Pinguin. An entire generation of Mexican school children (and many adults) has grown up delighting in the zany frolics of the popular comic hero. Pinguin has grossly distorted monkey like features, a baldhead and big ears. His mother is a grotesquely fat, bandanna-wearing mammy. The Black mammy domestic was the stock racist image of Black women in countless 1930s and 1940s American movies. But Pinguin’s mother isn’t a domestic. She routinely wears her bandanna around their house, and it’s a ramshackle house in a poor barrio. The Pinguin series ran in Mexican newspapers and magazines during the 1960s and 1970s. It was created by Sixto Valencia Burgos, one of Mexico’s top creative artists. In 1998, Burgos became president of the Mexican National Association of Comic Artists.
The Pinguin series is so popular that decades after Burgos discontinued the series, fan clubs still sprout up on both sides of the border. The comic books are still wildly popular collector’s items in Mexico, and other parts of Latin America, and continue to be much discussed and much read. Gilberto Rincon, President of the National Council to Prevent Discrimination, noted that a report on racism in Mexico was released prior to Fox’s racially loaded quip in May about Blacks and immigrant jobs. That was a small sign that top Mexican officials grudgingly realize that race does matter in Mexican affairs. Now Mexican officials can take another small step and dump the Pinguin stamp. Then they can take the bigger step and fully come clean on the country’s racism and do something about it.