Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mexican Stamp Controversy Brewing

Just a note of politically-correct caution: unless the context clearly indicates otherwise, all references to nationality or ethnicity should be understood to have a "-American" attached. I'm too lazy to type out the full PC hyphenation designation each time.

CNN is covering the start of what may prove to be a real firestorm of political correctness. Mexico recently issued a series of stamps featuring "Memin Pinguin", a cartoon character depicting a black boy with thick lips, large eyes, and exaggerated, almost-simian, features. The character first appeared in Mexican comics in the 40's, and is still being published today.

The African-American population-- with justification -- is annoyed at the stereotypical image of the "pickaninny" (to use columnist Leonard Pitts' term). This comes just a few weeks after Mexican President Vicente Fox annoyed the same contingent with his comments about Mexicans doing jobs "not even blacks" are willing to do. Pitts asks, "When did [Mexico] hire David Duke as an image consultant?"

A few comments on this...

First, while the US and American citizens have a right to make their thoughts known on a subject, we do not have the right to impose those beliefs on others. Especially when the "others" in question is a sovereign nation. (Yeah, kinda like the way we don't have the right to impose our system of government on Iraq, Chimpster & Co not withstanding)

Second, maybe the Mexican goverment should have thought a little harder about using this particular character on its stamps. Back in the mid-80's, I was given a book discussing the cultural history of the 60's. In a chapter on advertising icons, the authors discussed the Frito Bandito... pointing out that Frito-Lay declined to give them permission to show the character, citing complaints from Mexican-Americans, based on the negative stereotypes portrayed. Mexicans also raised a considerable stink over the stereotypes using in creating Warner Brothers' Speedy Gonzales.

Third, the character is not intended to be the butt of racially-motivated jokes. A long-time reader of the series has this explanation:
Memín Pinguín was first published in the magazine Pepin back in 1945. Vargas Dulche had just returned from Cuba, and inspired in the kids she saw there she wrote a story and asked artist Alberto Cabrera to design him. He was a poor kid, dumb and clumsy, that spoke with a cuban accent. He lived with his mother, which looks a lot like Aunt Jemima. He had a couple of friends and got into a lot of trouble. He was teased because of his accent and color, but he was part of the gang. It was a very tender comic book, sweet and innocent. I read it as a child and flipped through an old issue a couple of years ago and I don't think the book was racist; quite the opposite, I think it had a message of integration and acceptance, it criticized racism and, like all of Vargas Dulche´s stories, tried to teach strong family values.

The United States has a long and unfortunately rich history of racial intolerance. While much of that intolerance has been aimed at blacks, a regrettably large fraction has come from blacks as well (witness Louis Farrahkan's comments the Jews, etc.).

We had Amos & Andy, Al Jolson, and Mickey Rooney all in blackface; fortunately, such egregious "humor" is pretty much gone today, although we have black actors -- primarily self-proclaimed "comedians" -- whose roles are far more stereotypical in a negative sense than anything from Archie Bunker or the actors listed above.

Blacks, of course, weren't the only ones targeted. German-Americans during World War I, Germans and Japanese during WWII, Asians during Vietnam, and Middle-Easterners (or anybody with a swarthy complection and/or headwrapping) today have all been penalized to one extent or another, simply for being who they were (or, worse, for "being" who they weren't). Poles have been portrayed as "slow" -- Wojohowicz on "Barney Miller -- Italians are all mobsters ("The Sopranos", "The Godfather"), and so on.

Intolerance hasn't been limited to racial characteristics, either. For some reason, handicapped characters have traditionally been played by non-handicapped actors. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it was a fear of handicapped actors "not being able to do the job". Marlee Matlin, Deanne Bray, and Michelle Banks -- all gifted deaf actresses -- are helping bring about a positive change, along with a growing number of actors with Downs Syndrome (one series on ABC featured a Downs child in a prominent role, as has "Law & Order - SVU").

More to the point... It's a friggin CARTOON CHARACTER. Okay, maybe some people may consider Memin Pinguin to be tasteless (despite the clear intention to promote acceptance). This ranks right up there with bitching about Sponge Bob being gay, Dora the Explorer's 'Spanish word of the day' (which has alienated the "English-first" crowd), Pepe Le Pew's French-ness (which is obviously a mortal sin in these days of 'freedom fires' and 'freedom toast'), or Bugs Bunny's "Noo Yawk" accent.

You think Memin Pinguin is racially intolerant? Fine. Next time you're IN MEXICO, mailing a letter FROM MEXICO, tell the MEXICAN guy behind the MEXICAN post office counter you want a different MEXICAN stamp. Of course, if the MEXICAN clerk at the MEXICAN post office doesn't speak English (or pretends not to), you can throw a hissy-fit over that, too.

Just remember that most nations are much more multi-lingual than the US. Many Arab leaders speak English; how many American leaders speak Arabic? Same thing with French, German, Italian, even Russian and Chinese leaders. Most Europeans have at least a smattering of English. Most Americans are lost outside of English (some Americans don't even speak English, for God's sake, never mind a 'furrin' language).

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