Memin Pinguin: Mexican Cartoon Boy As Obama

Last week, blogs lit up over cartoon depictions of Obama. The New Yorker story with the Obamas as a terrorist First Couple got a lot of headlines, but the cartoon at the heart of another low-heat controversy recalled the scandal in Japan two weeks ago that saw mobile phone retailer eMobile pull television spots featuring a monkey leading a political rally -- a thinly veiled reference to Barack Obama.

CNN and The Houston Chronicle reported on a protest in Houston that has caused retail giant Wal-Mart to pull a popular Mexican comic book from its shelves, at least in the Houston area. The offending comic is entitled "Memin Runs For President" and is about the beloved Mexican character Memin Pinguin. Shawnedria McGinty, an African-American woman, was browsing the store shelves and came across the comic. Memin is a young boy, clearly of African descent, and indeed is generally referred to in the comics as what is translated to as Black or Negro. Nothing wrong there. But Memin, and his mother, are drawn with huge lips and ears, and with features that together, to most, undoubtedly looks like a monkey.

In the CNN piece she was quoted as saying:

"I was like, OK, is that a monkey or a boy...To me it was an insult...So I asked my boyfriend, does that look like a monkey to you?"

Houston activist Quannel X joined with McGinty and others to organize the protest.

He was interviewed by the Houton Chronicle. "Even Hispanics of conscious minds sense this is racist and that to sell this is totally unacceptable," he said in the newspaper piece. "It is a disgrace. It is an insult to all African-Americans."

Except to many Mexicans, particularly those who have practically grown up with Memin, this was, as it was with the Japanese monkey controversy, just a cultural misunderstanding.

Speaking to CNN, Javier Salas, a Spanish-language talk show host in Chicago said, "We respect him (Memin), we love him. And that's why its so absurd for us to hear complaints from people who don't know, don't understand Memin."

He pointed out that to many Mexicans, the Memin character, who has been around for sixty years, is a positive role model, that many Mexican kids use to learn from. It should also be pointed out that this is not the first time Memin has come up as an issue in this country. In 2005, the Mexican government decided to honor Memin by issuing stamps with his image. The uproar in the U.S. from Blacks and leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, even prompted The White House to issue a statement decrying the decision. Then Mexican President Vicente Fox even stepped into the discussion and defended the character and said Americans simply didn't understand Mexican culture.

Others argue that it is Mexican culture itself that is to blame, by not being more sensitive to how Blacks are treated and portrayed even in their own country.

Ironically, Barack Obama's candidacy has, according to many in Mexico, opened up dialogue on culture and race in that country. According to a recent piece in the Lufkin Daily News, the Mexican media considers Obama the "Black Kennedy" and reports that he has created a buzz in Mexico and is seen as proof of the American dream. At the same time, the piece goes on to say, his prominence has exposed the problems in Mexican culture.

Reyes Larrea, a coordinator of an Afro-Mexican civil rights association in Oaxaca, was quoted in the piece as saying "For Mexico, there aren't any Blacks, they don't exist." This he said is despite there being an estimated 500,000 Afro-Mexicans in Mexico, mostly in the coastal areas.

Mexican columnist Carlos Tello Diaz was quoted in that same article. "We see them as apart from ourselves, we don't identify them as as what they are, part of our roots, because we don't see them around us," he wrote.

Which may explain why it is so hard for so many to understand the uproar over Memin, both years ago with the stamps and now with the comic.

Wal-Mart has not commented on whether they intend to remove the comic from just the Houston-area stores or everywhere it is being sold.