Just when you thought it was safe to cross the border, Memín Pinguín made an encore appearance of sorts. The editorial below ran in the latest issue of Marketing y Medios, a Hispanic-focused magazine from the publishers of Adweek. The editorial is followed by MultiCultClassics’ rebuttal.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Transcending Stereotypes
July 18, 2005
AS THIS ISSUE WENT to press, a new rift had erupted between the United States and Mexico involving a question of racism — again. Barely a month after President Vicente Fox came under fire for making remarks that were considered racist by some African-American leaders in the U.S., Mexico again was in the spotlight. This time the culprit was Memín Pinguín, a comic book character from the 1940s that was featured on a special series of postage stamps commemorating Mexico’s cartoon tradition. The problem? Memín Pinguín is a naughty young boy who happens to be black, of Cuban origin to be precise.
The dispute reached a critical point in early July, with the White House demanding the withdrawal of the stamps and the Mexican government refusing to do so.
I grew up reading Memín Pinguín, as did my parents. Memín often got into trouble, mostly for being poor, not for being black. We laughed at, and with, Memín not because he was black but because he was mischievous — not unlike, say, Dennis the Menace. Yet the only thing critics of the comic strip in the U.S. see is the use of stereotypes. (He is dark-skinned, and his “mama” wears a bandanna on her head.)
Contrary to what his detractors think, Memín Pinguín actually transcended stereotypes by reaching millions of people (young and old, rich and poor) throughout decades, regardless of the color of his skin. That is the exact opposite of a stereotype and something marketers, advertisers and the media could learn from.
(signed) Laura Martínez Ruiz-Velasco
Dear Laura Martínez Ruiz-Velasco:
The great thing about Marketing y Medios is the publication’s ability to create forums for insightful dialogue and debate.
As Marketing y Medios is quick to point out — with monthly criticisms and examples — everything doesn’t directly translate from culture to culture. Advertising taglines, images and concepts generate entirely different meanings and responses for different audiences. This is especially true in the case of Memín Pinguín too. The Chevrolet Nova had opposing definitions for people from separate countries. So does the Cuban critter you adore.
The “detractors” offended by Memín Pinguín may be unaware of the mischievous boy’s origins. However, most of them are painfully aware of stereotypical depictions — which, incidentally, are not exclusive to Mexico and the United States. Characters with Memín Pinguín’s features are never universally positive. Subsequent news reports have already detailed even Mexican Blacks are not fans of the comic hero. News reports also revealed the bias and discrimination Blacks face in Mexico. Sorry, but Memín Pinguín is no Dennis the Menace.
You claimed Memín Pinguín often got into trouble for being poor, not for being Black — which led to laugh-inducing hijinks. Oddly enough, you’ve stumbled upon one of the great misconceptions about the bigger problem. Contrary to what Bill Cosby or conservative fanatics may lead the public to believe, the adverse issues involving minorities are rarely based on race or culture; rather, things are mostly rooted in poverty and economic status. If our global society hopes to make progress, we cannot allow ourselves to respond with amusement or indifference to the plights of the poor.
Everyone recognizes the hypocrisy of the United States’ outrage. Little Black Sambo, the Frito Bandito, Charlie Chan, the Cisco Kid, Uncle Remus and Golliwogs are blatant samples of once popular characters now deemed derogatory. But we shouldn’t turn this into a bizarre competition. Few of us are not guilty of past indiscretions. Heck, more than a few are guilty of current and continued indiscretions.
Has Memín Pinguín transcended stereotypes? The answer is a resounding no. The proof is all the controversy that exploded once he ventured beyond Latino borders. Take a closer look at Memín Pinguín, particularly how he is rendered — literally and figuratively — versus others in the comic book. And when you look, try to view matters through the eyes of outsiders.
If Memín Pinguín is indeed beloved, then make him Marketing y Medios’ official mascot or add him to the comic strip roster. See how quickly your VNU parent company reacts. Not to mention your readers and advertisers.
Marketers, advertisers and the media could absolutely learn something from Memín Pinguín. Perhaps you could as well.
P.S., Please visit MultiCultClassics.blogspot.com for more about Memín Pinguín. See Essays 60, 62, 65, 66, 68 and 70 (Plus, Essay 11 showcased Marketing y Medios).