Mexican Postage Stamp Pushes Racial Envelope
A newly issued series of postage stamps showing a once-popular black comic book character with exaggerated thick lips has reignited controversy over racial attitudes in Mexico, six weeks after President Vicente Fox was forced to apologize for remarks perceived as insensitive toward black Americans.
The five new stamps show a cartoon figure named Memin Pinguin, a picaresque urban child who gets by on wits and moxie, that has been one of Mexico’s best-selling comic book characters.
Created by Yolanda Vargas Dulche in 1947, the character remains well known, though its popularity peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.
A day after the stamps were issued, an outcry ensued, with civil rights groups and prominent Afro-Mexicans, including pop singer Johnny Laboriel, calling the images outrageous.
“Of course people are going to be offended by the caricature,” Laboriel said Wednesday. “The idea to put out this postage stamp is the biggest stupidity.
“They do this without thinking of the consequences.”
Gustavo Islas, director of Mexico’s postal service, emphasized that the stamps were intended to have nostalgia value. There was no plan to recall them, he said.
“Whoever sees the character as something offensive is looking at things completely wrongly,” Islas said, adding that the comic book figure was “a beautiful personage with no importance given to color.”
Mexico’s Foreign Relations Ministry issued a statement saying that no offense should be taken, “just as Speedy Gonzalez has never been interpreted in a racial manner by the people in Mexico because he is a cartoon character,” the statement read.
The dust-up comes in the wake of the indignation caused by Fox’s remark in mid-May that Mexican migrants do jobs that “not even blacks want to do in the United States.” Fox spent several days explaining and finally apologizing for “any hurt feelings.”
He did so personally to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited Fox at his official residence, Los Pinos, on May 18.
Reached by telephone Wednesday night in Little Rock, Ark., Jackson said that he found the “Sambo-type” stamp demeaning and “in many ways worse than what President Fox said last month.”
“I called the Mexican ambassador in Washington and asked him to call President Fox and ask him to apologize and to take the stamp off the market,” Jackson said.
Now the stamp is forcing Mexico to reexamine an issue that usually remains below the surface.
Many here and in other parts of Latin America say that their societies are more classist than racist in explaining discrimination suffered by indigenous and black people. Money and family history, they say, are the real social markers.
But many social commentators say that light-skinned Mexicans of European heritage are generally seen as having a leg up in competing for jobs, social prominence, education and other public services.
The social pages in local newspapers infrequently feature Mexicans of color, and Indians are rarely seen in television programming.
“Mexican society is fundamentally racist and classist,” said Guadalupe Loaeza, a newspaper columnist. “The color of your skin is a key that either opens or shuts doors. The lighter your skin, the more doors open to you.”
Racism extends to political preferences, she added. Many upper-middle-class Mexicans are expected to vote against front-running presidential candidate and Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party because he is partly indigenous and brown-skinned, Loaeza said. That group of voters might tend to support Santiago Creel of the National Action Party because he has light skin and blue eyes, she said.
Racism is one of the many forms of discrimination practiced in Mexico, according to a survey published last month by the federal secretary of social development. It said 80% of Mexicans, among them women, children, indigenous and disabled people and the elderly, suffered discrimination in some way.
In Mexico, the problem of racism is most often manifested toward indigenous people, who get the short end of the stick in “a thousand different ways,” Loaeza said.
Discrimination toward Mexican blacks should be placed in a “Mexican context” because the nation’s history is very different from that of the United States, said University of Veracruz professor Sagrario Cruz.
“Mexico hasn’t had a civil rights struggle,” Cruz said. “There isn’t a conscious awareness of being black. Most black Mexicans don’t think of themselves as being black.”
But Jose Luis Gutierrez Espindola of the National Council to Prevent Discrimination says many Mexican blacks feel marginalized. Blacks are poorer and receive less education and social services than any other Mexican demographic group, he said. “They don’t feel integrated into the country.”
Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based writer researching a book about how Mexico’s past may shape the future of the United States, said Mexico was a racial hodgepodge that evolved for five centuries with many of its tensions left unaddressed.
“Mexico is not even comfortable dealing with its white and brown heritage, let alone its black heritage,” Rodriguez said.
Mexico’s conflicted feelings about its black heritage, Rodriguez said, can be seen in artistic depictions of one of its national heroes, Jose Maria Morelos, a leader in the Mexican War of Independence. In some paintings and sculptures, Morelos, who was partly of African descent, is shown with dark skin and kinky hair. In others, he is light-skinned and more European looking.
Sociologist Luisa Strickland said Mexican blacks -- most of whose ancestors entered the country centuries ago through the Caribbean port city of Veracruz, becoming slave laborers in sugar cane fields -- were Mexico’s “forgotten, invisible people.”
Veracruz and Guerrero states remain the centers of Mexico’s black and mulatto population, estimated at fewer than 1 million of the nation’s 105 million people. Roughly 12 million Mexicans are indigenous.
Black Veracruzanos, Cruz said, take pride in their heritage, particularly in the African slave leader Gaspar Yanga, who organized a revolt in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. That resulted in the establishment of Yanga, the first town of free blacks in the Americas.
Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, more than three decades before the United States. But though racism toward blacks is prohibited by law in Mexico, Cruz said, discrimination remains evident in today’s popular culture.
“You just have to watch Mexican TV and see the guys who are appearing on the screen. They are blond with blue eyes. Many Mexicans don’t even know we have an important black population,” Cruz said.
Postal director Islas insisted that the stamps were meant merely to commemorate a beloved cultural figure.
“In the post office, there are no races, there are no colors, no social positions,” he said.
“It is just an excellent service that delivers in the most remote places.”