As Strother Martin said to Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke," what we have here is a failure to communicate.
This week, the government of Mexico was proud to honor one of its most famous cartoonists, Sixto Valencia, with a special issue of five postage stamps featuring the character that secured Valencia's place in history: "Memin Pinguin," a young Afro-Mexican boy who is always leading his impoverished, striving family into comic situations, at which point hijinks ensue.
As drawn by Valencia, Memin Pinguin has the big lips, big ears and the distinctly chimp-like cranium of a young Sambo. His long-suffering, salt-of-the-earth mother, with her mammy-style head scarf and ample bosom, could be Aunt Jemima's long-lost twin.
I imagine an African American couple vacationing in, say, Cancun, and deciding to send a few postcards home. I'm betting that after the postal clerk hands them a roll of Memin Pinguin stamps, they'll be less likely to schedule a return visit. Jamaica has beaches, too -- and none of the racist images that were shoved down black people's throats in this country for so many years.
Coming so soon after Mexican President Vicente Fox ruffled sensibilities by saying that Mexican immigrants were hungry for jobs that "not even" American blacks would take, and his subsequent attempt to smooth things over by inviting the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to the presidential palace for a make-nice chat, the Memin Pinguin imbroglio suggests the communication gap is wider than I had thought. None of us can afford to let this get out of hand.
Many African Americans are already a little nervous at being overtaken by Latinos as the largest minority group in the United States. Mexican Americans are by far the largest component of the Latino population; in some big cities, especially Los Angeles, blacks and Latinos are already jostling for political power and patronage. This is nothing more or less than the American way, and the next logical step is the formulation of coalitions around common interests. Clearly there should be more that unites African Americans and Latinos than divides them.
That's why Memin Pinguin, in diplo-speak, is most unhelpful.
I spent years living and reporting in Latin America, visiting almost every country in the region, and I know full well that cultural sensitivities often don't translate. In most Latin American countries, you'd think nothing of calling to a co-worker, "Hey, gordita, could you hand me the latest budget report?" In this country, just try calling a female colleague "little fat one" and I guarantee you won't get the budget report, you'll get a "hostile workplace environment" investigation.
In Buenos Aires, where black people are as scarce as hen's teeth, people on the street would stare at me and my family as if we were Martians. There was no hostility, no motivation except sheer curiosity, but it took some getting used to.
In countries such as Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba, where there are substantial populations of African descent, I had to get used to hearing individuals described or addressed casually as "negro," which means black. I knew the word was almost always being used neutrally or even affectionately, not as a pejorative. I said almost always: There were times when it meant something more. For example, in Cuba, where there is no obvious racial friction and interracial marriage is so commonplace that you hardly notice it, I was once warned by a hotel desk clerk not to go alone into a particular neighborhood of Santiago because there were "nothing but negros" there.
In Mexico, the once-sizable Afro-Mexican population is by now almost completely assimilated, both culturally and genetically. The character Memin Pinguin is hardly controversial. In fact it's almost universally beloved, in part because Memin Pinguin comic books are seen as having played an important role in successful literacy drives in the 1960s.
But that was 40 years ago. The world now sees race in a different light. Mexico and the United States are linked, economically and culturally, in ways that once seemed unimaginable, and those linkages will only become stronger. It's long been the case that what happens in the United States matters in Mexico, but now we realize that the reverse is true as well. We're no longer just neighbors; we've become something more like in-laws.
Mexico is a sovereign nation and can put any image on its stamps that it chooses. But intangibles such as history, attitudes and sensitivities are things that in-laws take into account if they want to build a good relationship. Call it touchy-feely if you like; touchy-feely matters. And an homage to Sambo, however you look at it, is a big step backward.