The Co(s)mic Race: Blackface in Comics South of the Border (Part 1)

Posted by on February 17th, 2011 at 7:15 AM

When talking about his character Ebony White, Will Eisner – creator of The Spirit – claimed he used racial stereotypes, but didn´t exploit them.  It´s a strange distinction to make – and may even border on circular reasoning -, but it makes sense when looking at the comics of the early twentieth century in the United States.

Apply Eisner’s dichotomy to Iron Man comics for instance. Although his foe, The Mandarin, embodied racist Asian stereotype, the comic´s readers presumably didn´t buy an issue to laugh at The Mandarin, or cower before his long nails for that matter.  He simply came with the Iron Man package.

Thinking about this I came upon a used comic stand in Bogotá last week and saw an example of what I believe to be exploitation, even more exaggerated and perhaps offensive then that of Luis Za´s Reco, Reco y Azeitona, mentioned in a previous column.

Memín, a comic of Mexican origin distributed in many Latin American countries, made headlines in the United States October of 2006, when the comic was commemorated in a series of stamps that featured famous Mexican cartoon characters.  The stamps came only shortly after former President Vincente Fox made his now infamous comment about African-Americans (¨Mexicans are willing do the jobs blacks won´t do.¨) The stamps quickly became a treasured collector´s item and quickly sold out.

Then in 2008 Memín showed up the American press again.  A resident in Houston complained  when Wal-Mart was forced to shelve the comic after a Houston resident complained about its offensive content.  According to CNN the Texan resident explained, “To me it was an insult.”

The comic entitled, ¨Memin For President¨ – that incidentally coincided with Obama Barack´s presidential campaign – was pulled.  In the short culture war skirmish that followed some proposed that this was gringos forcing their stereotypes onto Mexico.  This was after all the Cosmic Race as revolutionary intellectual Jose Vasconcelos.  Of course, we know in great part this story of cultural hegemony was simply a nation-founding myth.  One only has to look to some parts of southern Mexico to find a history similar to that of some Caribbean islands.  So it´s not as simple as we´re Mexican, we get Memín and you´re gringos who don´t.

As the late Carlos Monsivais argued these widely distributed media – like television for instance – are actually what has created a unified Latin American identity.  Does Memín, simarly define at least some of Latin American culture.  If so is that culture really a ¨race¨?

Keep in mind, Memín was and is still an extremely popular in Mexico, producing thousands of copies per month – massive by Latin American publishing standards.

Yolanda Vargas Dulché began the strip in the 1940s supposedly after seeing a young Cuban boy in Mexico City where she lived her entire life.  (Cuban expatriates have been a norm in neighboring parts of Latin America since the 19th century).  She married comic distributor Guillermo de la Parra and wrote for the strip, drawn by the late Sixto Valencia Burgos, for some forty years until her death in 1998.  (De la Parra then fired Valencia Burgos and denied him all creative rights to the Memín character.)

If Will Eisner´s distinction between racial stereotypes and exploitation is valid, Memín undoubtably applies to the later.  Memín relies entirely on being a well-intentioned idiot, a dwarfish child, about half as tall as his friends, practically inhuman. Critics can argue that Memín is understood differently in Mexico, but most of the descendants of African diaspora find these depictions extremely offensive.  And Memín is distributed to countries with large black populations like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica, among others.

It´s interesting to note that Memín began after Will Einser´s strip The Spirit had already appeared in dailies.  His side kick Ebony White, is another Sambo-figure, who in the words of Eisner, speaks in the hyperbolic speech of the ¨minelstry show.¨  (It´s even possible that The Spirit had already reached Mexico before Dulché began her strip.)

According to Will Eisner: A Spirited Life,  Eisner said that it was his collaborator Louis Fine who began adding the hyperbolic attributes to Ebony White – such as big buttocks – that the creator found offensive.

Eisner, born in Brooklyn 1917, surely remembered early films of ministrel-like figures from vaudeville and early film stars like Bojangles.  Although today we may cringe to see it, many people found these shows quintessentially American, notably poet Walt Whitman and jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Was it not natural for Eisner to see this – offensive as it is – as essential to portraying black characters?

However, the case of Memín is clearly different.  For one, thanks to the advent of cable television, air travel and the internet, no one can claim to be culturally isolated.  In fact, it´s quite probable that the U.S has influenced many other country´s views of race, particularly in the Americas – for better or worse.  Is supporting Memín an act of cultural rebellion against the ubiquity of gringo ethos?

Perhaps the time has come to open a dialogue, so that comic artists and readers can hear, that what for one person is endearing, for another can be degrading.

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3 Responses to “The Co(s)mic Race: Blackface in Comics South of the Border (Part 1)”

  1. Pedro Arizpe says:

    I remember the so called controversy. Most mexicans will react negatively, sometimes even aggressively, when faced with the idea of Memín as an exploitative character. Memín is a caricature, that’s not up for discussion, but a caricature like many others in mexican comics. Mexico as a culture isn’t riddled with guilt for the way black people were treated (though heavy racism does exist, only of a different kind), so exaggerating their facial features was and should still be fair game. Americans see a picanniny, sambo or minstrel depiction, “thanks” to their history; mexicans see a caricature like many others. As for his character, Memín is deeply rooted in spanish picaresque literature, like Lazarillo de Tormes… not really a generalization of the behavior of black children.

    An example of this attitude came up recently in a thread of the social community Reddit, where a caricaturist posted works based on chatroulette encounters.

    http://imgur.com/sELok

    People noted that he went all out exaggerating the facial features of most people, but showed a lot of restraint when drawing african americans, almost to the point those were regular portraits. He responded by saying “You have to admit, it’s a dangerous and potentially hurtful line to cross, if I ever accidentally crossed it.” To mexicans (and probably other non-americans) that notion is completely alien.

    I think it’s irrational for mexicans to expect people from the US to just let go of an issue so socially and historically complex that is nowhere near resolved… but I think a big part of the discussion should focus on the reader and his/her interpretation, not so much the work itself. Like Enid says in the Ghost World movie, in reference to her black-face found art piece: “Because, when we see something like this, it seems really shocking… and we have to wonder why it is so shocking”

    –Pedro Arizpe

  2. asanti says:

    Realmente Sixto Valencia no es el creador de Memín Pinguin. La primera persona que lo dibujó fue Alberto Cabrera allá por los años de 1940, y él fue el creador del personaje… De hecho, creo que los argumentos fueron encargados a Yolanda Vargas Dulché por él, pues en las páginas de un periódico dominical de 1946, que poseo en mis archivos, dice al principio textualmente: MEMIN PINGUIN, POR ALBERTO CABRERA Y YOLANDA VARGAS DULCHÉ… Esto quiere decir que el VERDADERO CREADOR de ese personaje no era Yolanda, si no Alberto Cabrera… Si se me solicita, puedo enviar la documentación a que me refiero… “Al César lo que es del César…!”

  3. Jesse Tangen-Mills says:

    Pedro, I was focusing on the comics hegemonic reach within Latin American countries with large black populations as in Colombia, where I live (although I don’t really agree with your view of race in Mexico). For years in Central America, Colombia and Venezuela the only historietas available were Mexican (with the exception of Condorito). This makes it even more significant.

    Gracias por el dato Asanti. Le agradecería si me puede dar su fuente (escanear un ejemplar tal vez).