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Mexican comic character -- lovable or loathsome?

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Friday, Jan. 20, 2006 at 9:10 AM

Many Mexicans refer to dark-skinned persons, both Mexican and non-Mexican, as "negritos," or little black people

Mexican comic character -- lovable or loathsome?

Denying racism won't resolve it

The Mexican government's sale of the racially offensive cartoon character Memín Pingüín as a commemorative stamp is an outrageous sign that top Mexican officials still refuse to deal with Mexico'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 color lines 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, 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, blackface 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.

Mexican President Vicente Fox and most of Mexico's past presidents, top officials, business leaders, educators and government leaders are light- skinned 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, whose members routinely asked if my son was into gangs and drugs (he was a university senior at the time). I chalked up their insensitivity in part to the one-dimensional depiction of blacks in the global media, and in part to negative racial attitudes in the country.

Blacks in Mexico suffer from those attitudes. They make up an estimated 1 percent to 2 percent of the population, and that's difficult to verify, because 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 are filled with requests for applicants who are young and beautiful, and though it is 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, 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 police harassment.

Then there's Pingüín. An entire generation of Mexican schoolchildren (and many adults) has grown up delighting in the zany frolics of the popular comic hero. Pingüín has grossly distorted, monkey-like features, a bald head and big ears. His mother is a grotesquely fat, bandanna-wearing mammy. She routinely wears her bandanna around their house, a ramshackle affair in a poor barrio. Though the Pinguin series reached the height of its popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, the comic books are still popular collector's items in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and continue to be much discussed and much read.

Gilberto Rincon Gallardo, president of Mexico's 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 Pingüin stamp. Then they can take the bigger step and begin to seriously acknowledge and address racism in Mexico.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black"

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Is this the image? AA Friday, Jan. 20, 2006 at 10:25 AM
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