Mexican Comic-book Character Causes Controversy in Texas

This week Wal-Mart announced it was pulling Mexican comic book Memin Pinguin from the shelves in response to a complaint by African American Wal-Mart shopper Shawnedria McGinty. "I was like, OK, is that a monkey or a boy?" McGinty said to CNN, "To me it was an insult."

Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said the retailer decided to remove the beloved comic books from the store in response to McGinty’s complaint, "We received the customer complaint regarding the book, which we knew was based on a popular cartoon character in Mexico. We looked into it further, and we decided to no longer distribute the book and are in the process of removing the books from the stores."

There is no doubt that Memin, the subject of a widely popular comic book in Mexico that has been around since the 1940's, has exaggerated stereotypically black features. He has protruding ears, plump cheeks, and over-sized lips a la minstrel shows from the early 20th century. But Memin is hardly a strict promoter of racism.

In the Memin Pinguin series, the Cuban-Mexican character deals with racism head-on. The moral, again and again, is acceptance. In fact there is even an issue when he goes to Texas (the very state that just ousted him!) and his friends are outraged when a malt shop refuses to serve him due to his color. In addition advocating racial tolerance, Memin's working class identity made him a hero to lower and middle class Mexicans, who read him religiously.

Compare this to Warner Brothers' Speedy Gonzales, a Mexican mouse known to be lazy, womanizing, and a bit of an alcoholic. His "best" quality was that he could never be caught. (Watch out la migra!) No child walked away from their TV after watching this show with a better understanding of the Mexican experience in the U.S.

A similar controversy occurred in 2005 when Mexico issued a series of stamps based on the comic book sparking an outcry in the U.S. Both then and now, would it not have behooved all the naysayers to take a peek inside the comic to see why this character is cherished and respected by millions of Mexicans? They might have realized that while yes, some elements are racist, Memim has played a  complex role in teaching Mexican children about tolerance.

How do you feel about Memin Pinguin’s portrayal? Racist stereotype or crusader against intolerance? Do his monkey-like features and obvious play on minstrel stereotypes offend you? Should children be allowed to read these comics or was Wal-Mart justified in pulling them from their shelves? Has Memin's true meaning been lost in translation?

- Elissa Strauss