Mexican Cartoon Character at Center of Dispute

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Memin Pinguin is a Mexican cartoon character whose image is seen as derogatory by many African Americans. Publicity over a Mexican postage stamp fueled the controversy. Historian Enrique Krauze tells Jennifer Ludden Mexicans are puzzled at the controversy.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Since the 1940s, Memin Pinguin has been a pop culture icon in Mexico. In the comic book series, young Memin and his friends find themselves in the middle of adolescent misadventures. Memin is a wisecracking kid whose smarts help get his friends out of sticky situations, but drawn with dark skin, thick lips and bulging eyes, Memin Pinguin is seen by some in America as a racist caricature. Earlier this summer when Mexico released a set of commemorative stamps featuring the cartoon, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the White House all denounced it as stereotypical and offensive. Yet historian and writer Enrique Krauze says Mexicans are puzzled, even amazed, at the controversy surrounding Memin. Mr. Krauze is the author of "Mexico: Biography of Power" and joins us from his office in Mexico City.

Welcome, Mr. Krauze.

Mr. ENRIQUE KRAUZE (Author, "Mexico: Biography of Power"): I'm very glad to talk to you.

LUDDEN: So how do Mexicans view this comic strip character?

Mr. KRAUZE: Well, you see, Memin Pinguin is a very popular personage of Mexican life. It's a Mexican comic book read by all ages and especially among the poor and the relatively uneducated people. To Mexicans, he's a truly likeable character. He's never felt to embody any sense of racial discrimination.

LUDDEN: If that's so, why then these exaggerated features that he has?

Mr. KRAUZE: Well, this is something that is sensitive to Americans. In my point of view and knowing Americans and knowing the United States, I understand it because, of course, if you see the character, how it's portrayed, I know it is obviously a character that strikes a chord of grievance in the United States.

LUDDEN: So what did Mexicans then make of the flap on this side of the border over this stamp?

Mr. KRAUZE: The general reaction was we were puzzled. You see, people were puzzled because Memin Pinguin is a character which is loved by millions of people.

LUDDEN: Have there been similar flaps the other way where Mexicans maybe have found things in the US offensive?

Mr. KRAUZE: That's very interesting that you ask that. For instance, many Mexicans said, `Well, why are they so mad? Didn't they invent the character of Speedy Gonzalez or the lazy Mexican or the Mexican greaser?' But this was not very much in the press.

LUDDEN: And you're saying these comic books have characters from all different...

Mr. KRAUZE: Yes, of course...

LUDDEN: ...strains of...

Mr. KRAUZE: ...and that is why people love--people identified with Memin Pinguin because he was poor and he suffered because he was poor, not because he was black. And as a matter of fact, I do remember one story of Memin Pinguin, the only story when Memin Pinguin really suffers because of his color. You know where that story is?

LUDDEN: No.

Mr. KRAUZE: In the United States.

LUDDEN: Ah.

Mr. KRAUZE: The little guy of Memin Pinguin and his friends go to the United States...

LUDDEN: Uh-huh.

Mr. KRAUZE: ...and he finds that they treat him bad.

LUDDEN: Huh.

Mr. KRAUZE: And the friends say, `We are outraged to see this.'

LUDDEN: His friends are, some of them, white?

Mr. KRAUZE: Yeah.

LUDDEN: White.

Mr. KRAUZE: As a matter of fact, let me tell you--may I say a little personal story?

LUDDEN: Sure.

Mr. KRAUZE: I come from a Jewish family. My parents came from Poland to Mexico. We have never had any problem at all in Mexico for having a different religion. My father went for the first time in the '40s to Texas and he tells me the story how he was shocked by discrimination to blacks that he found there in the streets of San Antonio, which I guess was not particularly a racist state at that time. He offered his place in the bus to an Afro-American woman and the white people around him saw him with fierce eyes and fists.

LUDDEN: Ah, that wasn't done.

Mr. KRAUZE: That's very interesting. We have all the problems in the world--in fact, Mexico has had some racist strains in its history. For instance, Chiapas.

LUDEEN: Right.

Mr. KRAUZE: Chiapas...

LUDDEN: The uprising by indigenous...

Mr. KRAUZE: ...the uprising.

LUDDEN: Yeah.

Mr. KRAUZE: Do you say, `Why those Indians?' Well, it is almost the only place in the whole country where you didn't have racial mixing between Spaniards and Indians. So there's a vast majority of Indians and a little, little minority of white Spanish.

LUDDEN: Can I ask, are these Memin Pinguin stamps still for sale?

Mr. KRAUZE: No, they sold--you know, they took them up, they put them for sale and they sold immediately.

LUDDEN: Oh!

Mr. KRAUZE: Everyone went to buy them. Everyone adores the character and they're through there. The stamp is not there anymore.

LUDDEN: Historian and writer Enrique Krauze in Mexico City. He's now working on a book about a century of misunderstanding between Latin America and the US.

Thanks so much.

Mr. KRAUZE: You're very welcome. Bye-bye.

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