The Pride In Memin Pinguin

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By Enrique Krauze
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The United States has been an independent nation for 229 years. Has it ever had a Native American or African American president? We all know the answer is no. Mexico, on the other hand, can point to two presidents of Native American origin who were as decisive in the history of their country as Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt in the United States: Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian who learned Spanish as a second language, and Porfirio Diaz, whose mother was a Mixtec Indian.

Other famous leaders in Mexico's history were African American in their origins: Jose Maria Morelos, for instance, who became the second commander of the Mexican rebels in their War for Independence (1810-1821), and his immediate subordinate, Gen. Vicente Guerrero, who became president eight years after Mexico won its independence from Spain. In the 20th century, only two presidents were of pure-blooded Spanish descent (Jose Lopez Portillo and Vicente Fox). All the rest were mestizos, of mixed ancestry.

Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and even President Bush have recently complained that a Mexican postage stamp bearing the image of Memin Pinguin, a dark-skinned comic-book character, is an offensive racist caricature. The reality is different and worth clarifying. Memin Pinguin is a very popular personage of Mexican historietas , a kind of comic book read by people of all ages, and especially by the poor and relatively uneducated.

To Americans, the figure, with his exaggerated "African" features, appears to be a copy of racist American cartoons. To Mexicans, he is a thoroughly likable character, rich in sparkling wisecracks, and is felt to represent not any sense of racial discrimination but rather the egalitarian possibility that all groups can live together in peace. During the 1970s and '80s, his historietas sold over a million and a half copies because they touched an authentic chord of sympathy and tenderness among poorer people, who identified with Memin Pinguin.

The misinterpretation of this postage stamp may have been partially caused by the recent careless and unfortunate language lapse on the part of Fox, when, in defending the very real worth of Mexican labor to the economy of the United States, he said that Mexicans take jobs that "not even blacks want to do" -- words that quite understandably offended African Americans in the United States.

But if Jackson and Sharpton were to look at some of the essential facts of African American history in Mexico, I think they would find much to respect. The terrible demographic catastrophe among the Native Americans, caused by rampaging epidemics of European diseases, was an important motive for the importation of African slaves to the tropical areas of Mexico, where they were used in hard labor in such places as the sugar cane plantations.

But in contrast to the Indians, who were officially freed from local slavery in 1551 but were still subjected directly to the king of Spain, Africans could buy their freedom and give birth to children who were in turn free to marry anyone of any racial origin. Moreover, they were able to move through colonial society with a certain ease and even some advantages.

To be sure, within the society of New Spain, they and their descendants (usually free and intermarried with Indians and mestizos) were not admitted to certain occupations and offices limited to people of pure-blooded Spanish descent. But they could work freely in tropical agriculture and skilled occupations, especially as blacksmiths, painters, sculptors, carpenters, candle-makers and singers in the churches. In the colonial society of New Spain, men and women of color mixed easily with the rest of the population.

Perhaps no society can completely avoid the accusation of racism. Certainly Mexico has -- in some times and places -- shown racism toward its Indian population, especially in areas of the southeast such as Chiapas, where the process of racial mixing -- mestizaje -- barely functioned. And, notably, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in some sections of the north, there were episodes of racism directed against Chinese immigrants. But the great difference between Mexico and the English colonies was that racism had far less effect on the ethnic composition of the population. And the suppression of slavery in Mexico was relatively rapid and for almost two centuries has formed an integral part of every Mexican constitution.

Mexicans have responded with massive enthusiasm to the Memin Pinguin stamp. Purchases, mainly by young people, have exhausted the postal issue. They see the stamp not as a racist slur but as a highly pleasing image rooted in Mexican popular culture. If Memin Pinguin were a person of flesh and blood, I believe he could win the coming presidential election.

Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian and writer, is the author of "Mexico: Biography of Power."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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