Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Canada (& Spain) Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage + Mexico's Racist Stamp

Canadian FlagA truly momentous event has occurred just north of the upper tier of "blue states," which is to say, the U.S. border: Canada's legislature, by a vote of 158-133, has ratified the 2004 decision of its Supreme Court that gay marriage legislation would not violate the country's constitution, making our sister nation and largest trading partner only the third country in the world (after the two constitutional monarchies of the Netherlands and Belgium) to legalize same-sex marriages. Liberal Party leader and Roman Catholic Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose brief tenure at the head of the minority government has been marked by an ongoing financial scandal and a razor-thin win over his Conservative opposition just a few months ago, led the push for the legislation, which confirms what has been increasingly evident over the last few years, Canada's considerably more progressive stances on a range of social issues.

According to Beth Duff-Brown's Yahoo! News/AP account, some of Martin's fellow Liberal lawmakers voted against the legislation and at least one Cabinet member resigned, but a coalition of various left-leaning parliamentarians--including members of the Bloc Québécois, who represent constituencies in what was once Canada's most conservative province but which is now one of its most socially liberal, and the reliably progressive New Democratic Party, which is part of the Liberals' governing coalition--provided enough votes to seal the win. The legislation is expected to pass in Canada's smaller, unelected, Liberal Party-dominated Senate, thereby becoming law at some point in July 2005.

Whatever one thinks of gay marriage or marriage in general as a social, political and economic institution--as a legal entity--the Canadian vote represents a landmark statement on behalf of equality, democracy and freedom. Many news accounts have noted that a majority of Canadians support the rights and freedom of gays and lesbians to marry, and so far 34,000 have done so. While the US Constitution's 14th Amendment, Section 1, final clause, passed in the wake of the North's resounding victory in the Civil War and the defeat of the nefarious slave system, clearly guarantees equal protection under all federal laws, the truth of the matter is in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories LGBT people are obviously still being denied the equal protections and rights provided under our government's acknowledgement and certification of civil marriage. In Canada, although this was no longer the case in Ontario and British Columbia, two of its most populous provinces, as far back as 2003, the House of Commons decision comprehensively extends it by law to all the provinces, including the more conservative ones like Alberta.

Despite the fact that the US usually recognizes heterosexual/opposite-sex marriages contracted in most (all?) foreign countries, I would imagine that only Massachusetts will honor the Canadian same-sex marriages. (Will other nations, such as the more liberal ones in Europe, honor these marriages? How do they respond to unions civilly contracted in Belgium and the Netherlands?) That is, until other US states follow Massachusetts' lead. A judicial decision on same-sex marriage, I believe, is pending in New York State.

Addendum: Spain has just joined Canada in legalizing same-sex marriage. Despite vocal protests from the Roman Catholic Church and conservative politicians, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who assumed control of the government after the popular uproar over the formerly right-wing government's inadequate response to the Madrid train bombings, was able to push the legislation through Spain's lower house of Parliament, the Congress of Deputies, by a vote of 187-147, overriding the country's Senate, which means that as in Canada, it will become law. (Doug Ireland quotes from Rodríguez Zapatero's remarkable speech, which in addition to making an impressive argument for equality and the notion of how interconnected everyone in Spanish society is, cites two of the greatest gay poets of all time, Luis Cernuda and Constantine Cavafy.)

In fact, this is probably probably more earth-shaking than the Canadian vote, in part because Spain was for many years one of the most consistently conservative and Catholic of the major European countries. You could possibly chart this conservative period as running from Ferdinand and Isabela's unification of Spain and their expulsion or forced conversion of the Arabs and Jews in 1492, through the long period of the Holy Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries, to Francisco Franco's fascist rule, which lasted from 1939 through 1975, with a few interludes of liberalization. Since Franco's death and the restoration of the monarchy, Spain's government has alternated between the right and left, and in recent years, the former has consistently held power.

In fact before the horrific train bombing on March 11, 2004, Spain had a right-wing governing coalition, headed by José Maria Aznar, which against the public will had sent Spanish soldiers to Iraq. With the ascension of the Socialists under Zapatero ("Shoemaker"), the country has witnessed a political sea-change that mirrors a longstanding change in social views, especially among the young. Zapatero promptly recalled the soldiers from Iraq and this week pushed through new divorce legislation and changes to stem-cell rules. Yahoo! News notes that such changes are "popular among young people," and that a poll last year showed that 70% of the population overall supported the move.


On a completely different note, I was planning to post an article I came across on DR1 by a young Black American woman who'd spent time in Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, as part of an educational program and experienced a profound cultural--and in particular, racial--shock (Mendi and Keith Obadike's operatic piece The Sour Thunder is based in part, I think, on Mendi's sojourn, while a student at Spelman, in Santiago); and I intended to post my own remarks, somewhat in response, on my experiences there. But it isn't happening just yet. Instead, I return to Mexico's problems with racism and racialist thinking, which have gotten some attention in recent months because of Mexican President Vicente Fox's comments on Mexicans immigrants' willingness to take jobs that "not even blacks" wanted, and because of what I describe below.

(Since I have mentioned the Dominican Republic, though, that country's inexactly parallel situation with Haitian workers--who are being forcibly repatriated as I type this, despite the incoherent Haitian government's attempts to close its borders, its appeals to the current Dominican administration's good will not to repatriate its people, the Dominican government's fear of appearing insensitive and racist, many Dominican patriots' desire to have the Haitians expelled and their fear of a "unification" of the two countries, and machinations of Dominican landowners and businesses to employ Haitians, who, given the devastation of their own country and their inability to freely immigrate to the US or Canada, take low-wage or slave-wage jobs in the DR--is worth broaching.)
Where am I going with all of this? Memin Pinguin. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Well, he's a Mexican cartoon figure who is featured on a series of official government postage stamps being issued today. Nothing wrong with that, you say. Except that as shown at right, Memin Pinguin is a racist grotesque, a homegrown Mexican Sambo-style coon depiction. And the racism of the Memin Pinguin depiction doesn't lie in the images alone; in the cartoon series in which he's featured since the 1940s, according to several accounts I've read, he embodies a number of the traditional, infantilizing racist stereotypes attributed to Black people in the US, particularly during the Jim Crow period (and exported all across the globe). Look out, Topsy!

But the Mexican government officials don't see there being anything wrong, of course. Their cartoon pickaninny is going to be an ambassador, "spreading good news," according to the publisher of the comics in which he appears! Ah yes, a racist and buffoonish drawing is going to serve as an international herald--to whom? Fortunately, this "good news" wasn't lost on Black activists and others in Mexico, who condemned the Mexican government's decision to feature this overtly racist stereotypic depiction (along with the equally racist depiction of his Mami/Mammy) on a series of national stamps. To quote the CNN article:
The boy, hapless but lovable, is drawn with exaggerated features, thick lips and wide-open eyes. His appearance, speech and mannerisms are the subject of kidding by white characters in the comic book.

Activists said the stamp was offensive, though officials denied it.

"One would hope the Mexican government would be a little more careful and avoid continually opening wounds," said Sergio Penalosa, an activist in Mexico's small black community on the southern Pacific coast.
An official of the Mexican Postal Service couldn't help but reinforce the stereotype:
Carlos Caballero, assistant marketing director for the Mexican Postal Service, said the stamps are not offensive, nor were they intended to be.

"This is a traditional character that reflects part of Mexico's culture," Caballero said. "His mischievous nature is part of that character."

However, Penalosa said many Mexicans still assume all blacks are foreigners, despite the fact that at one point early in the Spanish colonial era, Africans outnumbered Spanish in Mexico.
Their own little trickster bad chillun Other, and on stamps no less! I won't get into Mexico's complex and troubled racial history, which like every other nation in this hemisphere has included the marginalization and slaughter of Native peoples and the subsequent enslavement of Blacks (the two in particular were linked in Mexico's case because of Bartolomé de las Casas); one aspect of this history has been an enduring racism against its large indigenous Indian population, which has resulted in periodic flareups such as the war in Chiapas; a racism of a different but intense sort against its native Black population, which has long been presumed not to exist; and, among the White/European ruling élites, against the visibly mestizo majority, which is evident in Mexican-language media, politics, business circles, and so on. Related to these forms of racism is Mexico's guiding mestizaje ideology, from which the Black "third root" has been almost completely erased and effaced in both official and popular discourse.

I will, however, broach the fact that when Lázaro Cárdenas (the son of Mexico's famous leftist leader Cuahtémoc Cárdenas, who was mayor of Mexico City and had the presidency stolen from under his feet by the notorious Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1988, and the grandson of one of Mexico's greatest leftist and uncorruptible presidents, Lázaro Cárdenas) ran for the governorship of Michoacán State a few years ago, his opponent AlfredoAnaya viciously attacked him because Cárdenas married an Afro-Cuban woman. In fact, Anaya managed to conflate Blackness and foreignness in such a way as to claim that Mexicans--or Michoacanos in particular--wanted to be governed by "our own race, our own people," as though Cárdenas's marriage to a Black women rendered made him ontologically Black as well (racialization by association has a long history in the US, of course), and as though the Black presence in Mexico could only be (seen as) alien and foreign. Although Anaya lost--though by only five percentage points--it appears that his rhetoric was not so idiosyncratic but representative of a mindset, also clear in Fox's and other officials' comments, that is quite prevalent.

Dr. Bobby Vaughn and others are conducting fascinating research in Black Mexican communities, so as I did before, I'll direct you here, here or here for more information. Also, UPI correspondent Steve Sailor provides a basic run-through in his article "Where Did Mexico's Blacks Go?" He notes that despite the long history of marginalization of Black Mexicans, attitudes are changing slowly, and a Black-oriented museum opened up in Guerrero State, which is named after Mexico's second President, who was an Afro-Mestizo.

But hey, let's get back to our little grinning inky boy-on-a-stamp:
Publisher Manelick De la Parra told the government news agency Notimex that the character would be sort of a goodwill ambassador on Mexican letters and postcards. "It seems nice if Memin can travel all over the world, spreading good news," de la Parra said, calling him "so charming, so affectionate, so wonderful, generous and friendly."
Irony, as they say, is utterly lost on some people. Many of them, too many, in fact.


  1. Marriage: Bravo also to Spain for passing gay marriage and adoption legislation today as well.

    Stamps: What astounds me in the NYTimes article about this is that one of the Mexican officials compares this character to the Speedy Gonzales cartoons, and considers both non-offensive! While maybe you can consider the 'broken eeenglish' speaking Speedy not entirely awful, his amigos and the other Mexican mice surrounding him conform exactly to stereotypes of slowness, laziness, and ignorance. I think that if the US wanted to put Speedy -- or the Taco Bell dog -- on a stamp, you KNOW there'd be some major uproar.

  2. Reggie, I just read about Spain's good news, so I'm going to add that, and I haven't read the NY Times's coverage of the stamp controversy.

  3. What you should now its the fact that Memin is a Comic Book that's been around for decades, and that it was written in a more innocent time. Besides, here in México the "Politically Correct/Incorrect" thing it's not the same as in the States. Personally, I don't get offended when I see a caracter like Speedy, or any "latino-like" character portraited in cartoons or even sitcoms. It's a matter of knowing who you are, be certain and happy of it. And finally, historically, México and the US have had different ways of dealing with the matter of racism.

  4. Dear Lex, given that México had both Native American and African slaves, as well as a long history of struggle between its elites and the majority of Mexicans, I'm not sure if there was ever a more "innocent" time. Perhaps one in which racism was more readily accepted, especially with "coon"/"Sambo" depictions of the sort "Memin" represents. I could care less about "political correctness," which is usually tossed out to silence people who object to racialist or ethnicist, or any kind of derogatory statements--perhaps in México's public discourse there is no problem with demeaning Black people, but that doesn't mean that people either in the country or outside it shouldn't object. Also, Speedy Gonzalez (nor Tonto nor Charlie Chan, etc.) isn't being promoted by the U.S. government on stamps; were this government doing it, I would speak out as would many others here. The comparison doesn't hold. But I do agree with the historical differences in dealing with racism, which has to do with the different colonial masters and histories of the two countries. And Mexico has had at least one president of known African descent, while the US has yet to elect anyone of African or Native American descent, or who was Latino, to our highest office. Yet.

  5. John, I'm not saying that there's absolutely no traces of racism in México. We are aware of it. But it's also true that some cultural elements are lost in translation beetween countries. Memin is a caricature inspired on cuban kids, and never a bad example. In fact, Memin was the one in the comic book who had the biggest heart and the best intentions. The "N" word doen't really exists here, and the adjectives "negrito" "negro" and such are used as a way of showing love or care. My mother calls my brother like that, and trust me, he's never offended. Quite the opossite. I think that, even when México and the US are really close to each other, some cultural issues are still somehow incomprehensible (I bet our "Dia de Muertos"-"Day of the Dead" make you guys raise your eyebrows). On the other hand, maybe we have a different aproach to ethnics because our "race" it's so mixed (I have french, spanish, chinese and mexican in my blood) that practically everyone has relatives with caucasian, african-mexican, asian mexican characteristics (one of my sisters got the chinese look of our ancestors) so there have never been real segregation. By example the vote was granted without limitations by race. And I'm not saying we're better than the States because of it, I'm just sayin we're different, we have different backgrounds. Finally, Memin has been an endearing memory for over 40 years, my grandfather read it, then my father an then me. I think that is a matter of trying and study this differences to understand them, to avoid missunderstandings like this one.

    Best regards

  6. Hi Lex, I think I see where you're coming from. Let me just say that I have studied Mexican history to some extent, and am familiar with its Indian--and particularly Aztec past--and the period of initial European colonization, so I'm not just popping off without any sense of México's complexity. In fact I did mention México's racial complexity in this and other posts. I'm aware that the "N" word doesn't appear there; in fact it most Spanish-language countries it doesn't exist, though I have heard and read Mexicans use derogatory terms for Black people ("mayate" for example). The racial mixture issue also is significant--you're so right that the majority of Mexicans are mixed; but at the same time, the people who constitute the business elite, who are at the top of your government (I'm thinking of people like Madrid, Zedillo, Fox, Castañeda, etc.), etc., are mostly European, while the populations that are identifiably of African descent or Native American are still at the bottom of the society. Mexico thankfully never had Jim Crow or the kinds of institutionalized racism that marked the US--I do recognize this. But racism in México, as in other parts of Latin America, took other forms. I do understand that Memin is an endearing character for many people (and may be based on a "Cuban," which is an interesting note not being discussed here--doesn't this resonate at all with the commentary in Michoacán about Lázaro Cárdenas's Black Cuban wife?), but just like "Amos and Andy" or similar imagery in the US and in other countries, it is based on racial stereotypes and profoundly degrading. If you are not Black maybe you don't see this, though it doesn't just pertain to Black people, but I can't think of any other way of saying it, and it's also very upsetting that the Mexican government (or any government) would commemorate such imagery and then act as if it wouldn't offend or insult anyone. Respect isn't just a catchword, but should be put into practice.

    Take care and thanks again for reading.

  7. Just a little note "mayate" its not used to insult black people. It is indeed an insult, but towards gay people (kinda like the word "fag") I understand your point about stereotypes, its just that in México we always had this tendency to exagerate everything, comic book characters, religion, anything. It's like our representations of Death on Dia de Muertos (just a day after Halloween)We have this sugar skulls (Calaveritas de Azúcar) and we put the names of our loved ones on them. We lay all the favorite foods our dead relatives used to eat, etcetera. And I would understand if someone in Asia or Africa found this practices to be offensive because of their own believes. I also understand why to some people Memin looks like the kind of thing they're fighting against. What I would like it's that no one would take it personal. It's just some postal stamps from a country in which they're releasing a series of them, all portraying famous mexican comic books. It's not an attack to black people anywhere in the world. I really hope to live and see the day when people will stop caring about the color of anyone's skin, or their sexual preferences and start embracing just the human in each of us.

    Have a grat day, thanks for reading me too, greetings from México.

  8. John, did you ever post about that article about a Black American woman in the DR? I'd love to hear about it when you get a chance.