Memim Penguin and Racial Relations

It was another derogatory comment from another arrogant “I’m above Blacks” president of a country dependent on the United States, putting down Black Americans. First, two Japanese Prime Ministers called Blacks inferior. The first time, we protested. The second time, we protested again. We demanded that they apologise. They balked, but after pressure from American officials, they eventually did.

It’s back to business as usual.

Vincente Fox, former president of Mexico (a country where Blacks are still regarded and treated like slaves), joined the bandwagon by insulting Black Americans. It was a familiar scenario. Mr. Fox made his statement, then refused to rescind it.  After pressure from U.S. government officials, he finally decided to offer a luke warm apology by calling on Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to express remorse about his statement.

Fox made the comment during a meeting with Texas businessmen in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico when he said, “There’s no doubt that Mexican men and women – full of dignity, willpower, and a capacity for work – are doing the work that not even Blacks want to do in the United States.” Vincente Fox meant to imply here, is that Blacks in America are not “full of dignity, willpower, and a capacity for work,” hence Mexicans (illegally invading the country have all these attributes), are doing their work.

When the controversy about his statement surfaced, Vincente Fox defended his statement saying he had nothing to apologise about. The Archbishop of Mexico City was quoted as saying that Fox was merely stating the fact.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, demanded apology from Fox. Jackson was quoted as saying, about Fox, “His statement has the impact of being inciting and divisive,” and was said to have noted the tensions already existing between Blacks and Latinos in many U.S. cities because of unfair wage competition for jobs, and their children crowded into underfunded schools dominated by illegal aliens.

Al Sharpton is quoted to have said that the comment was especially disturbing, because Fox was educated in the United States.

“He is not unaware of the racial sensitivities here?”

Go through any American city. The unspoken truth is that Mexicans have gotten jobs that used to be available to Black Americans. From Los Angeles to New York City, Mexicans have lowered the wage standards, and dominate the construction industry. You name it, they are there.

In restaurants, you don’t see Blacks employed as waiters or waitresses anymore. Go through urban areas. You need a carpenter, an electrician, a mechanic, or a gardener, who do you call?

The question really is, what is the essence of this apology? Do Black Americans need another empty apology from another fool?

Especially one who does not know his heritage is part African. Should Black Americans get even? Has the apology solved the substance of what Mr. Fox (some say) rightly articulated?            Should we be dealing with the truth instead.

In July of 2005, Memín Penguin, a Black Mexican comic book character who resembles Curious George, or even a stereotypical Black Sambo, was celebrated with a postage stamp in his honor. The stamp was well received by many sectors of the Mexican public, representing a fond image of childhood. But the stamp’s image offended Black Americans in the United States, and a wide segment of the International community, since it smacked of discrimination.

The stamp’s release came only months after Mexican President Vicente Fox made disturbing public remarks that Mexican immigrants to the United States take jobs “that not even blacks want to do.” The public attention that both episodes garnered on each side of the border reveals interesting new dimensions of the ongoing, shifting saga of race relations. For the first time, within the context of high-level forums, Mexican images of blackness were pitted against those of Black Americans. Notably, the ways that Mexicans of African descent might have responded to these episodes did not appear to be part of the public relations considerations.

Our extensive ethnographic field-work in Afro-Mexican communities over the past decade affords us an additional vantage from which to analyze the unfolding of these racially charged events. The ideas and actions behind the discourse and debate signal important differences and dynamics. On the one hand, President Fox said what was perhaps on the minds of many Mexicans, legal and illegal aliens alike.

From his point of view, Blackness served as a form of class marker. By invoking the notion that all Mexican illegal immigrants “occupied” a space that, within the structure of the United States’ hierarchical system of social relations was traditionally held by Blacks, Fox compared Mexican illegal immigrants at the lowest rung of the social ladder. However, in perceiving race as being analogous to class, Fox made an error—essentially miscalculating the trajectory of race relations in the United States.

One reason why Blacks demanded an apology, and were offended by his remarks is the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent gains for equality have marked significant strides in helping Blacks move beyond the freeze-frame, lower-class stereotypes held by invocations of Blackness. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton traveled to Mexico to help bring the leader up to speed on Black American progress and diversity. Knowingly, Fox turned back the clock on Black American history with his remarks, even though he was commenting about the plight of illegal aliens.

Fox stalled before issuing an apology. Part of the delay may have come from political posturing. The Mexican leader did not want to appear malleable to U.S. whims (the same kind of mindset did not offer condolences to the US after the attacks Sept. 11, 2001).

On the other hand, the delay was due to infer the belief that his remarks were innocent, with little wide-reaching effect. The stalling did not play out well in the Mexican press, and numerous headlines and political cartoons were released on the issue. The seemingly small affair began mushrooming into something greater. It is important to note that as events continued to unfold, the debates about Fox’s comments also sparked an internal, national conversation about race in Mexico that called into question the nation’s race credentials. The conventional wisdom of mestizaje asserts that because racial mixture is an inherent feature of national life, those who live within “racial democracies” such as Mexico are usually vigilant against racism.

Fox seemingly broke the principles of this idea with his comments. Opportunists, critical of Fox’s leadership, took the incident as a chance to expose his shortcomings of leadership, even to the point of labeling him a racist both against Blacks and the very Mexican illegal immigrants he was trying to defend. Salvos like these were launched from politicians in the PRI and the PRD, the two major opposition parties in Mexico. But there were others, less fettered by the political jockeying, who probed for deeper meaning from the event. In fact, on the airwaves and in the newspapers, a public space was opened to critically examine Mexico’s own Blackness. After all, African heritage is a part of Mexico. How can that fact be disregarded?

A few articles appeared on Afro-Mexicans living in the Costa Chica (an area renowned for its Black Mexican heritage and presence), as well as essays reflecting on why Mexico has been so reluctant to acknowledge its own African heritage. Recent struggles by politicians to obtain communal rights for Afro-Mexicans (based on claims to ethnic status) were also featured in the press, particularly the activities of Angel Heladio Aguirre Rivero, the ex-governor of the state of Guerrero (1996-1997).

In many ways, numerous aspects of the rich discussions were short lived. With the issuance of the commemorative Memín Penuin stamp, negative U.S. responses toward the comic book image inspired some Mexicans to revert to defensive attitudes and posturing with respect to their outlook on race. According to several commentators, academics, and observers, particularly within Mexico City, the caricature should not have been understood as a racialized figure, but a cultural emblem. Created in the 1940s by Yolanda Vargas, the comic book proved instrumental in the literacy campaigns of mid-century. Thematically, it was a risk taker, addressing subjects such as interracial family dynamics and class disparity, but always from a humorous perspective (at least in the eyes of some Mexicans).

It quickly became a success, running new storylines into the early 1970s. Although repeat issues with freshly designed cover art can still be found on the streets of Mexico today, large numbers of Mexicans fondly remember Memín as an image of their childhood (while dismissing their African ancestry). On this score, shortly after the stamp was released, many pleaded for the United States to consider the broader context of the image and its production, as well as its storylines, rather than simply rushing to interpret and chastise Memín’s physical features.

Several advisors and ministers close to President Fox conceived that it might be wise to invite Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton down to Mexico for another visit, this time so that they might be able to bring these civil rights leaders up to speed on the nuances of racial sensitivities. Memín had come to demonstrate what many Mexicans had always feared about the influence of ideas from the North—a desire to over-analyze situations for racially charged themes.

A number of critical themes can be detected in the subtext of the Memín episode and the Vicente Fox comments. First, Mexican historian Miguel León-Portilla wondered, why was it that the media and others were intentionally undermining the relationship between Black Americans and Mexicans? The question is an excellent one, with significant trans-border implications. As we have seen in our research, the distant relationship between Black Americans and Mexicans is marked by suspicion and tension. The high profile given to the “racist” tendencies of Fox, and the history of discriminatory caricature that the Memín image invoked, and the racist conjecture of the Mexican people has arguably not smoothed over these relations.

Secondly, both episodes call attention to the new landscape of cultural politics emerging in the United States. As the border becomes more permeable and as millions of racist illegal Mexicans continue to overly increase their demographic presence, there will be many incidents like the Memín controversy. Illegal Mexicans coming to the U.S. are bringing with them different attitudes towards race and Blackness that is not the same as ours.

Meanwhile, the United States will insist upon conformity to a multi-cultural sensitivity that is strange to Mexicans. This insistence upon conformity tends (unintentionally or not) to permeate politics within Mexico. Interestingly, the change in political regimes in Mexico, from the PRI (which held presidential power continuously from the 1920s until 2000) to the PAN, provided a historical break in Mexican political culture, and quite possibly an opportunity to facilitate wide changes in racial thinking. And as witnessed in 2005, Mexican politicians played the race card against Fox.

Will this translate into a new form of multi-cultural politics, one that evaluates a Mexican politician’s success on his/her ability to maneuver successfully within the international scene of racial diplomacy?

One of the key, under-publicized issues regarding the Memín/Fox episodes is how they unfolded in the Costa Chica, and to what extent they have influenced Afro-Mexican perceptions of Blackness. Arguably, the results of the affair were most impactful symbolically—gesturing towards ideas of Blackness rather than affecting the reality of lived conditions. While Memín’s image and Fox’s words certainly had real transnational effects in political circles (and in shaping attitudes among Black Americans towards Mexicans), at the same time their impact may have rung hollow in the everyday experiences of Afro-Mexicans and their families in Mexico.

Indeed, in the Costa Chica during the summer of 2005, Fox’s comments and the Memín controversy received little attention and were not being widely discussed. Carlos, a self-described moreno, didn’t feel personally offended by the image, but could see how Blacks in the United States might not like it since, as he saw it, the character is supposed to be a depiction of an Black American (un negro de allá), and not a Mexican!

While many Afro-Mexicans expressed an understanding of their own racialized marginalization, they do not read images of Memin as speaking to that marginalization. Being caricatured in cartoon or other mass media images is not a form of racism with which Afro-Mexicans have much experience — which is strange considering the Olmec people (Africans) were the first to occupy what is now Mexico.

Afro-Mexican activists in the region, however, responded much more strongly and condemned the Memín stamp project. Representatives from Mexico Negro called for the withdrawal of the stamp and published an open letter to the President. These Black leaders see the Memín controversy as a kind of blind spot in Mexico and one leader with whom we spoke informally mentioned that it probably never occurred to the government to ask any Afro-Mexican leaders what they thought, before they introduced the stamp. These dissenting voices among Afro-Mexican leaders contrasted markedly with examples of an embrace of Memín as a symbol of nationalist pride.

If you go through Mexico City, you’d glimpse at large billboards prominently situated along a major freeway. The signs feature the image of Memín, along with the words “Are you talking about me?” and “100% Mexicano.” In addition, the noted Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, in a Washington Post column, appears to count himself among those Mexicans who see Memín not as racist, but as “a highly pleasing image rooted in Mexican popular racist culture.”

While the heated events of race are playing themselves out transnationally in nearly all U.S. cities, Mexico City, the Costa Chica, and elsewhere in Mexico, at the same time, there are macro-level changes and shifts in racial discourse that are equally transnational, and that are in a constant state of re-invention. While it is still too early to tell where these processes are headed, we can certainly surmise that the changes they bring about will impact racial formation processes on both sides of the border. In the United States, Blackness as a category seems poised to become stretched—inclusively bearing within it the histories and experiences of blacks throughout the greater diaspora.

To some degree, this process seems inevitable, given the overwhelming flow of illegal aliens into the country. But if diasporic Blackness is to configure into the conceptualizations of Blackness in the United States, a certain amount of racial consciousness is needed from the Black immigrants themselves. Specifically in the case of Black Mexicans, this is precisely where the power of macro-level racial discourses may prove to be a contributing factor. The Memín/Fox episodes, despite being as sinuous, complex, and problematic as they were, at the very least sensitized broad sectors of the population on both sides of the border to Mexican Blackness and Mexican debates on Blackness, and Mexican ignorance to its Black origins. In this fashion, the episodes may have set the stage for possible convergence of racial histories.

Black Americans don’t need an apology from Vincente Fox: what we need are solid methods, and the will to provide the solutions to the conundrum raised earlier. We need to switch gears, step to the plate, and provide the retraining, and reprogramming necessary for Blacks to start taking back the jobs that even criminal illegal aliens from Mexico will do.

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