The Mexican comic strip character “el negrito” Memín Pinguín has been put on a series of postage stamps. The character is bug eyed, fat lipped, has enormous ears and looks like a black rubber mask compared with the white people in the cartoon, who are drawn with the realistic precision of the old “Prince Valiant” strip. Compared to the whites in the strip, Penguin is Bugs Buggy in the movie Roger Rabbit.
The White Chicks of the Wayans brothers were 10 times more realistic than little black Memín. Lil’ Memín has a loving rubber-faced handkerchief-head mother. Lil’ Memín can’t speak good Spanish, his white friends tell him. Considering the above, one wonders why the Memín Pinguín postage stamps have drawn little criticism from within Mexico. And most of what there is merely complains that it is insensitive to give “the cute kid” the international exposure of a stamp, considering how “oversensitive” people are on race in some other countries. Bold defenders of the Pinguín stamps are numerous in Mexico. One declared the U.S. critics of the cartoon are agents of the imperialists who are trying to dominate the world culturally as well as militarily. Another commentator said that we up north should mind our own business, adding that “Mexico never had separate water faucets for white people.”
Defense of the cartoon is long on Menín Pinguín’s honor and good nature and short on answers to the issue of racial stereotyping. Anti-black racism is rarely discussed in Mexico, out of a belief that the nation solved that problem long ago. Mexico abolished caste law at independence in 1821 and eight years later abolished slavery. Mexico has had presidents with African heritage and one with pure Indigenous roots. Mexico’s slavery revolt leader, Gaspar Yanga, has a city and county named in his honor. What does Nat Turner have? Yanga also has a children’s coloring book. Curiously, the cover is adorned with “Topsie” look-a-likes, bug eyed, messy haired, squirly and big-handed lil’ blacks. The author, a left-wing historian, was surprised when told that the “Topsie” depictions would be considered racist in the United States.
Perhaps if there were more people in Mexico with African appearance there would be less of the stereotyping, but the African population that two centuries ago was counted 10 percent of the nation is now mostly mixed into “the mestizo nation,” as is the case with the majority of the Indigenous. Despite the assimilation, there are still Indigenous beggar women with their emaciated children on the sidewalks of cities all over Mexico.
A major cause of Mexico’s blind spot on race is that the same independence decade that saw caste and slavery washed away in a mass movement previewing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also previewed Ward Connelly. Action to deal with race met action to outlaw race. First came the 1821 independence war peace plan of Iguala which declared “All inhabitants... without distinction to their being Europeans, Africans or Indians are citizens...with the option to seek all employment according to their merits and virtues.” Law 279 of independent Mexico’s first congress codified this clause. But there was a twist. Instead of “Europeans, Africans or Indians” the equality was extended to all from “whichever of the four corners of the world one may come.” This congress was out to abolish mention of race. Law 313 prohibited references to race in any Mexican government document, or in the records of the parish church.
Law 303 prohibited any elected official from “speaking disparagingly of anyone’s origins,” which at first glance was an anti-n word law which Dr. King might have supported, but in interpretation meant it was not proper to mention anyone’s origins, either positively or negatively. The congress came close to passing a law to make it illegal to utter the word “Indio” in congressional debates.
Over the past two centuries the class focus has led Mexico to more years of serious class revolution than almost any other nation. Faceless masses under a sea of sombreros march for leaders and lieutenants who, with a few exceptions, have mention of their race relegated to obscure tomes. But the muralists during the 1910 revolution discovered that they could focus upon history and put color and race in their works. Diego Rivera, for instance, took racial information from his and Frida Kahlo’s exquisite personal library of obscure tomes to publicize African and Indigenous heroes. Today, people privately identify with Rivera’s assortment of heroes of color, who evoke memories of Grandmother’s long Indian braids, or Grandfather’s dark brown skin. It could also be said that a similar quiet personal identification is made with the actor Cantinflas, who clearly has non-white roots, and with very little imagination, an African root. Cantinflas often played the quick-witted, uneducated, poor guy who gets into the society ball. Memín Penguin was a cartoon version of Cantinflas, outwitting the stronger, better educated of the world.
However, Pinguín’s physical appearance, shoddy clothing and awkward speech are hard to excuse, and these factors are probably a reason that the number of newspapers carrying the 50-year-old comic strip has declined steadily from the early 1960s, as the issues of race raised in the civil rights and black power movements of the U.S. seeped into Mexico. Today, the strip has less than a twentieth of the circulation at its peak. Among the recent defenders of Memín are those who concede having not read the strip in years, and attribute their fondness for the “little black” to their long ago youthful identification with a boisterous and imperfect youngster.?