The widespread denunciation of the "Memin Pinguin" stamp recently circulated by Mexico’s postal service is absolutely righteous. The stamp presents a hardcore, all-too-familiar racist stereotype. "It’s a good thing it happened," commented Ron Wilkins, a Black activist, teacher and photographer in Santa Monica who often visits Afro-Mexican villages on the West Coast. Those villages were settled by descendants of the more than 200,000 enslaved Africans brought to Mexico by Spain after the Conquest. "The issue of Mexico’s racism," Wilkins continued, "has been raised, loud and clear, as never before."
There is little need to prove the existence of Mexican racism toward people of darker skin color, which includes millions of Native or Indian peoples as well as the approximately 50,000 Afro-Mexicans. The popular hostesses on Mexican TV are blonde (not a common color of hair in reality). Depictions of the War of Independence from Spain do not show the dark color of its great leaders like José María Morelos or Gen. Vicente Guerrero. The denial of darkness is everywhere.
The problem is not limited to Mexico. Latin America holds some 150 million descendants of Africans, who are slowly but surely raising their voices across the continent. They all need our support. We can say the same for Japan, for Russia today (although not 40 or 50 years ago, when it welcomed African Americans), and other countries as well.
The stamp does leave us with a question. Is it simply an example of historic Mexican anti-Black racism rooted in Spanish colonialism? Has Mexico’s government always encouraged or tolerated such blatant prejudice?
In the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century, thousands of Black people in Texas escaped slavery by fleeing across the border into Mexico. One record shows 4,000 crossing in a relatively short period. Mexicans helped them to set up colonies, called maroons, in Mexico. An Afro-Mexican known as Yanga organized armed Mexicans to defend the colonies against slave-owners who came with hopes of retrieving "their property." There is a 25-foot high statue to Yanga in Veracruz.
Mexico, which had an abolitionist movement leading the government to abolish slavery shortly after independence from Spain in 1821, welcomed the escaped Blacks. According to the many enthusiastic letters home written by refugees, Mexico was freedom: "No Jim Crow here," "nobody calls us nigger," "we are equal with anybody else here." Prof. Gerald Horne’s book BLACK AND BROWN: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution is full of such comments as well as reports from the pre-World War I years of plans by U.S. Blacks to bring many African Americans (20,000 in one case) to settle in Mexico, with Mexican government support.
How to explain the apparent contradiction between that welcome and today’s "Memin" stamp? One possible explanation is that different relations between Mexico and the United States at different moments in history may have conditioned Mexico’s attitude toward Blacks. During the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution, for example, Mexico’s relations with the U.S were shaky. "Many Africans throughout the hemisphere were driven to join Mexico and inflict damage on the bastion of white supremacy: the United States," as Gerald Horne tells us. With the passing of Revolutionary leaders, Mexico itself lost some of its idealistic humanism. It began to look more to the West as the source of progress and adopted U.S. values in new ways. This could have opened the door to U.S. racist images like Memin as well.
All that is speculation, and awaits a lot more research. Meanwhile, we can note with satisfaction that Mexico’s President Fox will not have the stamp (which sold out) reprinted for future use. He responded well to the protest. We can ask him to use his office to discourage production and circulation of the Memin comic books.
Mexico has been defending the Memin stamp based on the tradition of a funny, adorable little guy who makes us laugh at his antics. Ask Mexico to recall a different tradition: that of abolishing slavery 40 years before the U.S., of helping thousands of slaves to escape and welcoming them as full human beings. Defend tradition, but an anti-racist one–not a racist tradition.
Let us, here in the United States, remember that we are all residents of the imperial North, which has used and abused Mexico and its people for at least 150 years. We would do well, then, to talk to Mexicans about their racism with a certain effort not to sound superior. Of course we should point out what is wrong with Memin. But consider the fact that "negra" is constantly used by Mexicans (and other Latin Americans) as a term of endearment like "Honey," which is unimaginable in the U.S. The issue is both simple (racism is racism) and complex (not just a black/white problem in Mexico).
It is most important for U.S. Latinos who are denouncing the stamp, as they should be, to denounce the continuing racism against Black people in this country with just as much anger. Let us affirm our joint struggle against the powerful, evil force that links our lives profoundly. Let the Mexican stamp protest help us build a stronger Black-brown alliance, not encourage further division.
That stamp represents a common enemy inside this country. Think of all the stereotypes and other racist imaging directed at people of color here: the sleeping Mexican, the bucktooth Chinaman, the Savage Indian, the whole white supremacist gallery. Memin is everywhere. Let us not forget it as we work to build our common strength.
Finally, we should support the Afro-Mexican protest against the stamp. You can write or email your support to the organization that has sent a formal letter of protest to President Fox. Ask how to help.
Juan Angel Serrano Mariche, President Comité México Negro AC Biblioteca Tercera Raiz El Ciruelo Pinotepa Nacional Oaxaca, MEXICO Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gracias a todos.
Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez is a Chicana writer, activist and teacher who has worked 50 years to help build a revolutionary society. A longtime anti-racist, she currently directs the Institute for MultiRacial Justice in San Francisco that supports alliance-building between peoples of color. She was recently nominated as one of the "1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005."
portside (the left side in nautical parlance) is a news, discussion and debate service of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. It aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left.