Friday, July 01, 2005

Where have you gone, Speedy Gonzalez?

Elsewhere on the international front, a controversy erupted this week when Mexico released stamps honoring a cartoon character named Memin Pinguin who appears to be closely related to little black Sambo. American civil rights groups have denounced it. Jesse Jackson is on the case. Even Scott McClellan chimed in:

"Racial stereotypes are offensive, and I would say racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin. The Mexican government needs to take this into account. Images such as these have no place in today's world."

The character is atrocious. But this is an interesting test in an era of globalization: whether an essentially American sensibility/sensitivity on ethnicity can - or should - be applied to another country's cultural prejudices, no matter how objectively offensive they may be. Gene Robinson’s thoughtful take is yes, it can. This blog has another perspective, noting that this kind of image is still floating around, imbedded in odd niches of American culture, mostly unremarked-upon.

But there are a lot of things in the mix here. Mexico’s reflexive impulse against American cultural imperialism, for one. If Scott McClellan and Jesse Jackson were hectoring me about anything, I’d pause before doing what they told me. If the stamps are withdrawn at this point, would it actually reduce racial prejudice in Mexico or just create more anti-American sentiment?

But then there's Mexico’s image as an up-and-coming nation, riding the global flux – and the role of global media and the Internet as leveling, homogenizing forces. The world popular culture coming out of the cuisinart is heavily American-flavored -- including American cultural mores in all their trashy glory. But American pop culture is also by definition multicultural. If Mexico wants to play in the world of MTV, Memin Pinguin will have to be left behind.

Update: President Vicente Fox is standing firm:
"All Mexico loves the character," Fox said, adding that he himself was fond of it.