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Mexican Stamp Honors Controversial Comic Figure


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

There's a heated international argument going on with black Americans on one side and Mexicans on the other. First, Mexican President Vicente Fox offended many people here in the US when he said Mexican immigrants take jobs that not even blacks want to do. Then last week, his government released a commemorative stamp that American officials say is racially offensive. DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.


If you put Dennis the Menace and Little Black Sambo in a blender and hit pulse, you'd get Memin Pinguin, a beloved icon in Mexican popular culture for almost 40 years. When a stamp honoring him was released, Jesse Jackson and the NAACP immediately denounced it as racially degrading. Even the White House got into the act. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan pronounced the stamp offensive. Mexican-born Sergio Munoz is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. He's lived in the US for more than two decades, and Munoz says people like Jackson and Bush don't understand Memin because they're not Mexican.

Mr. SERGIO MUNOZ (Los Angeles Times): We are not conscious of race the same way that Americans are because there was a huge problem here that wasn't solved until recently that we fortunately didn't have.

BATES: Furthermore, Munoz says, the Bush White House is fixating on something it cannot control.

Mr. MUNOZ: I take issue with the White House and with Scott McClellan telling Mexicans where Memin belongs or where he doesn't belong. Mexico's business is none of Scott McClellan's business. He should not be meddling with this thing. He should be doing important things instead of arguing against a little cartoon.

BATES: Many Mexicans see Memin as a hero, a plucky kid who stands up for himself and, in one famous strip, even ended up in jail for defying US segregation during a visit to Texas for a soccer match. Americans, especially black Americans, see a racist caricature reminiscent of stereotypes of the past.

Professor MARJORIE BECKER (University of Southern California): I think that, you know, it may well be true that some people found Uncle Remus and Little Black Sambo and Aunt Jemima comforting and charming, but we also know that for many people, these were quite offensive and hurtful.

BATES: Marjorie Becker is a professor of Latin American studies, specializing in Mexico, at the University of Southern California. Becker says that Mexico's racial problems historically centered on indigenous peoples. Black Mexicans are about 1 percent of the total population, so blackness there may be somewhat romanticized. In criticizing Mexico, Becker suspects the Bush administration is more concerned about how Americans view the controversy.

Prof. BECKER: It sort of disturbs me that considering the complexity and sort of the tendency of the Bush administration to, most of the time, ignore Mexico that at this particular moment, this particular president decided that this was an opportunity to say something.

BATES: An international incident over a stamp? Lalo Alcaraz is a cartoonist whose La Cucaracha strip is nationally syndicated. It's political and often satirizes racial and ethnic tensions. For him, the Memin flap is more grist for the mill.

Mr. LALO ALCARAZ (Cartoonist): Wow, you know, for me as a cartoonist, this is like a ground zero issue, you know, when I can do a cartoon about a cartoon character and it involves so many important issues of race and class and immigration.

BATES: So far, the controversy has proved great for business. Reports from Mexico say Memin stamps can no longer be purchased. They're sold out. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: To see Lalo's cartoon featuring Memin Pinguin, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.