Mexico must give respect to earn it

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

What is it with Mexico lately? When did it hire David Duke as an image consultant?

I can’t imagine what else might explain that nation’s recent blundering into not just one but two racially charged controversies. The first, of course, was President Vicente Fox’s remark in May that Mexican immigrants in the United States take work “not even blacks” are willing to do. Fox’s comment outraged many in this country and bestirred the readily bestirrable Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to go down and show him the error of his ways.

For what it’s worth, I thought the anger was pitched a little high. Fox’s larger point, after all, was unassailable: Mexican immigrants do grimy, low-paying work that most Americans of whatever ancestry consider beneath them. His mistake was those three little words, “not even blacks,” which suggest blacks are the gold standard for wretchedness and desperation. Not correct, not terribly sensitive but also, I thought, not worthy of more than a few sharp words of correction.

One can’t be as sanguine about Mexico’s latest faux pas. It seems the country is issuing a series of postage stamps in honor of Memin Pinguin, a Mexican cartoon character created in the 1940s. He is a black boy with swollen lips, simian features and a propensity for ineptness and trouble. In other words, he is a classic pickaninny, albeit one said to be much beloved in Mexico.

Which tells you something about Mexico.

Its response to the latest controversy is even more revealing. While Memin Pinguin is such an obvious affront that even the White House felt compelled to denounce it, a spokesman for Fox told Reuters he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Come to think of it, Fox himself seemed surprised by the response to his ill-chosen words in May.

Our friends down south need to get out more often.
I’m reminded of the controversy over “Darkie,” a popular toothpaste that was sold in China until well into the 1980s. Carried a picture of a blackface figure in a top hat. The Chinese couldn’t understand why anybody was upset.

It can hardly be immaterial that China, like Mexico, is a homogeneous society where people of African heritage have little visibility or voice. But insularity and ignorance are no excuse. China is not the world. Mexico is not the world. And if even homogeneous nations wish to do business in the world, they should, at a minimum, be able to conduct themselves without giving gratuitous offense to citizens of the world.

It’s worth noting that in decades past, Americans who came here from China and Mexico protested popular and beloved American cultural icons based on ugly stereotypes and drove them to extinction. When’s the last time you saw Charlie Chan or the Frito Bandito?

Memin Pinguin should join them in obscurity. He is a reminder of a painful time in U.S. history, a time when “Nigger Head” stove polish was sold in stores, pickaninnies cavorted in a Disney movie, Mickey Rooney acted in blackface and black actors could act only as servants, criminals and layabouts with an unnatural attraction to fried chicken. A time when “strange fruit” hung in the poplar trees.

Mexico never had Jim Crow, so maybe Memin Pinguin cannot have the same resonance there as it does here. But a stereotype is a stereotype, no matter its country of origin. Mexico must recognize that it is hurtful and a sign of stunted character to blithely undermine the worth and dignity of a people — racial minorities emphatically included.

It feels strange to have to say this at a time when Mexico’s president is seeking respect for the contributions Mexican immigrants make to American life. Apparently, he doesn’t understand that respect is a two-way street.
You’ve got to give some to get some.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com