The Bush administration strongly condemned a set of newly issued Mexican stamps yesterday, calling them "offensive" for featuring an Afro-Mexican boy with oversize lips, exaggerated eyes and an apelike head.
At a White House briefing, spokesman Scott McClellan said the stamps were "an internal issue for Mexico." But he added: "Racial stereotypes are offensive, and I would say racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin. The Mexican government needs to take this into account. Images such as these have no place in today's world."
But in Mexico, a spokesman for President Vicente Fox said he could not understand the fuss in the United States over stamps that celebrate Memin Pinguin, a black Sambo cartoon look-alike beloved by Mexicans.
"I find it odd not to understand this celebration of popular Mexican culture and this tribute that the Mexican post office is making to Mexican cartoonists," spokesman Ruben Aguilar said, according to the Reuters news service.
Memin Pinguin is a 1940s creation of artist Sixto Valencia Burgos. Mischievous and bumbling, he gets into trouble and is spanked by his mother, also a caricature that some civil rights activists find offensive.
Mexico abolished slavery decades before the United States and never enacted Jim Crow-style laws. But Memin Pinguin resembles hundreds of characters created during legal segregation in the United States, animated and real, including the Amos and Andy minstrels who joked in racist overtones about their ethnicity to the delight of whites-only audiences.
Black historians say that caricatures depicting black people as noble savages paved the way for their dehumanization and, ultimately, mass lynchings. The caricatures' place in history may help explain the strong reaction on this side of the border.
Memin Pinguin's image permeates Latin America, where people of African descent traditionally do not have a strong voice. Latin American television has been criticized for portraying indigenous Indians and black characters as criminals or maids, if at all.
McClellan's comments followed outrage expressed by black and Hispanic civil rights leaders on Wednesday, when the stamps were released. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League all called on Fox to apologize and on President Bush to denounce the stamps.
Yesterday, at its annual summer convention, the League of United Latin American Citizens joined the condemnations and submitted a petition calling on Fox to apologize.
A spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, which was deluged by phone calls yesterday, said Wednesday that Mexicans are not offended by Memin Pinguin. The spokesman said yesterday that the embassy would have no further comment on the matter.
But one of the most influential newspapers in Mexico, El Universal, denounced the stamps, and an Afro-Mexican activist told the Associated Press that their release disappointed him.
"One would hope the Mexican government would be a little more careful and avoid continually opening wounds," Sergio Penalosa said.
In May, La Raza hosted a forum on Afro-Mexican culture and its connection to the slave trade. In the forum, scholars spoke of how African Americans traveled to Mexico to escape U.S. discrimination and how Afro-Mexicans are now moving to Illinois and North Carolina.
Mexican Americans and other Latinos joined black civil rights groups in complaining about the stamps, saying they, too, are sensitive to stereotypes.
In the 1970s, they complained about the Frito Bandito, a Mexican cartoon mascot of the Frito-Lay company who was overweight, wore a sombrero and had gun belts strapped across his chest. Use of the image stopped after Hispanics complained.
Black and Hispanic groups previously rallied against a statement by Fox in May, when he said that Mexican immigrants to the United States work jobs that "even blacks don't want." Janet Murguia, president of La Raza, joined the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, president of Rainbow/PUSH, to denounce the statement, and Fox later apologized.
After meeting in May with Fox in Mexico, Jackson called for an alliance between African Americans and Latinos and exhorted black people to learn to speak Spanish, something he said he is doing.
"A majority of the hemisphere speaks Spanish," he said. "Learning to speak Spanish is one of the great challenges we face."