The Mexican government’s decision to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the comic strip character Memin Pinguin by putting it on a postage stamp demonstrates forcefully the nationalist and racial illusions that the Mexican establishment propagates in its ever-more-difficult quest for relevancy, with the increasingly irrelevant and arrogant Vicente Fox at its helm.
Karl Marx noted that those with economic power also hold intellectual power. Their illusions and images surround us and seek to control us.
Cartoon character Memin Pinguin is a monkey boy with exaggerated lips and nose and bulging eyes, who lacks language and social skills, and who is mocked by “normal” white establishment characters.
A clownish savage, with a stereotypical “mammy,” Memin Pinguin is representative of and apparently inspired by the environment of institutionalized racism of the 1940s U.S., where similar racist characters abounded. It also reflects the lingering Spanish concepts of “limpieza de sangre” (pure blood) and other European racial fetishes of Mexico’s mostly criollo (Mexicans claiming Spanish ancestry) ruling establishment. Africans are foreign and alien to Mexico, so Mexico’s establishment would have us believe. With Memim Pinguin’s stereotypical racist representation, Black people could be laughed at as “naive outsiders” and “cultureless enigmas.”
But in fact Africans are a vital component of both past and present Mexico.
Shortly after the Spanish conquest, the importation of Black slaves began. Pouring into Veracruz from Senegal, Gambia, the Congo, Angola and Guinea- Bissau, to name but a few points of origin, more than 200,000 Africans arrived during the colonial period. They began to outnumber the Spaniards, who saw them as a potential threat to Spanish control over “New Spain.” Slave revolts erupted in 1546 and 1570. Yanga, a runaway slave — a “cimarron” — led a guerilla revolt from 1607-1611 directly challenging the colonial establishment. Yanga and his rebels, through unity and audacity, forced the Spanish crown to grant them their freedom.
1612 saw the uprising of 1,500 Blacks outraged over the flogging of a Black woman by her white master. They took to the streets, destroying property in Mexico City, burning it to the ground and threatening the slaughter of all white-faced men from Spain, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency and mobilize the militia in defense of privilege and tyranny. The government hanged 29 Black men and women and ordered their heads displayed on pikes in Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor. But this did not deter the freedom struggle.
Other uprisings of slaves, in the common cause of human dignity and self-determination in the face of tyranny, also succeeded in winning freedom. The freed Blacks went on to establish themselves throughout Mexico, often marrying native women.
Because of the numerical superiority of the AmerIndians in Mexico (in contrast to countries like the Dominican Republic and Cuba), by the end of the colonial period Blacks had for the most part blended into the Mexican racial and cultural mix, except for Black communities in Veracruz and in Guerrero and Oaxaca on the Pacific Coast, which today are perhaps the most poverty-stricken and invisible of all of Mexico.
Prominent Afro-Mexicans include one of the leading lights in Mexico’s quest for independence from Spain, Padre Jose Maria Morelos, and the second president of the Mexican Republic, Vicente Guerrero. It is estimated that nearly every Mexican and Chicano has some African blood running in our veins. Africans — these are the roots of the Mexican reality, these were the ancestors of the Mexicans and Chicanos, and we today are the result, the Afro-Mestizos.
Though Mexico’s current president, Vicente Fox, superficially ended the 71-year reign of the PRI, he is really only the latest of four Mexican neoliberal presidents starting with Miguel de la Madrid in 1982.
Despite Mexico’s predominantly Indian and to a lesser extent Black roots, it is dominated by the colonial and neocolonial legacy of white faces who, with the capital accumulated from the extermination of the AmerIndian and the labor of the Black slave, own the means of production and the media, and act as functionaries of the system, headed by the white face of Fox himself, widely referred to as “el gringo.” This bourgeoisie imprints its ideals and norms upon members of the mostly non-white Mexican proletariat who in turn, much like many U.S. citizens, unwittingly work against their own class interests.
Because of the ruling-class ideological influence on their consciousness, they cannot see the outrage in the Mexican establishment’s “celebration” of Memin Pinguin, who acts as a degradation and mockery of the very Black race that flows through most Mexicans’ veins. For it is not the Black face that is foreign in Mexico, it is the class with the land deeds, which forces its population into economic exile hundreds of miles north, which eagerly sells off Mexican resources to foreign white hands. It is their mandate that is foreign, their power, their subordination in the face of neoliberalism, their values that are the distorted aliens, not the Black man in Mexico. This is the class of monkeymen, this is the class of fools.
The only way to relieve the Mexican earth of this capitalist racist class and its power over the Mexican economy and consciousness is with the kind of unity, boldness and audacity that the Black slaves displayed in the early 1600s in the face of tyranny.
Cristobal Cavazos is a Chicano activist and graduate student in Latin American studies and Spanish. He lives in the Chicago area.