Collectors Snapping Up Racially Controversial Mexican Stamps
Times Staff Writer
12:28 PM PDT, July 12, 2005
racist past came alive for African American memorabilia collector Brian Breye of
Los Angeles when Mexico issued a commemorative stamp set celebrating the comic
book character Memin Pinguin, a wide-eyed black boy with exaggerated thick
Breye was so offended that he now wants to buy his own set of the
stamps to preserve a disturbing page of history, part of a multifaceted
purchasing frenzy for the images that have sparked a diplomatic tiff and
highlighted the immense cultural divide between the U.S. and Mexico over racial
"Here we go again. Here we go with race-baiting another group of
people trying to place us at the bottom of the totem pole," Breye
About 700,000 stamps sold out within days at post offices across
Mexico, where people often waited in line for hours.
At Internet auction
sites like EBay, the price for a sheet of 50 stamps — with a face value of 6½
pesos each, or about 60 cents — had reached $200, though it has dropped in
recent days. The sheet sold for about $30 at the post offices.
are part of a series of limited editions celebrating comic book characters, and
Mexican officials say they have no plans to issue more of the Memin Pinguin
Collectors' motivations vary. Many are profit-minded investors
hoping the controversy pushes up values.
But strong emotional feelings,
ranging from nostalgia to outrage, are also motivating factors, reflecting deep
differences in the way Mexicans and African Americans perceive Memin
Mexicans are snapping up the stamps because of fondness for a
beloved comic character whose popularity peaked 40 years ago and is surging
again thanks to the controversy. Mexican President Vicente Fox defended the
stamps, calling Memin Pinguin a cherished figure. Others said the stamps
reminded them of their youth.
"I read it as a child," said Miguel
Alarcon, a 35-year-old graduate student who bought the stamps at a post office
in Sinaloa. "I want to keep these stamps as a memory."
For many American
collectors, the stamps prompt disgust, but they say possessing them is a way to
preserve a bit of racist history. Breye plans to buy a set and display them with
his collection of Mammy cookie jars, Negro-head salt and pepper shakers, and
other racist memorabilia for sale at his Leimert Park store.
of racially offensive images are not uncommon in African American homes. The
Mexican stamps are a modern example of images that haunted blacks through
slavery, the Jim Crow years and the civil rights era. Such collections — often
prominently displayed in living rooms — raise youngsters' awareness of past
indignities, say some collectors.
David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow
Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Mich., said he purchased two sets of
stamps for the museum, where the 5,000 items — everything from Ku Klux Klan
robes to Aunt Jemima advertisements — already include Memin Pinguin comic books
"Our mission is to use items of intolerance to teach
tolerance. Racism has to be viewed openly, honestly and directly," Pilgrim
The Memin Pinguin character was created in 1947 by an impoverished
aspiring singer, Yolanda Vargas Dulche, who was inspired by the black children
she saw during a trip to Cuba.
She said she "made Memin black because the
children of color fascinated me, with their faces so open," according to a quote
attributed to her by her son, Manelick de la Parra.
Memin Pinguin, the
mischievous son of a poor washerwoman — a chubby, Mammy-like character — hangs
out with a group of white kids. They often taunt him and ridicule his antics,
but their short friend teaches them lessons, De la Parra said.
can't say it's racist. He suffers because they make fun of his color, but he
shows that he's like anyone else," De la Parra said in a telephone
De la Parra said the comic book was once distributed in other
Latin American countries, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Schoolchildren in the
Philippines, he said, were once obligated to read it because officials believed
it promoted family values.
African Americans say it only perpetuates
negative racial stereotypes. Where Mexicans see a cute and adorable child,
blacks see an ignorant, anatomically exaggerated fool.
released comic book issues, Memin Pinguin smashes a rock over a man's head,
knocking him out. He swats a child for a perceived insult to his mother. But in
general, he exudes a happy-go-lucky attitude that African Americans say is
typical of caricatured images of black people.
"He's a typical Sambo
character," said Sidney Lemelle, a professor of black studies at Pomona College
who has studied Afro-Mexican history.
Criticism from African Americans —
among them the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — has been met with defiance
from Mexican officials, including Fox, who refused their requests to recall the
The controversy has baffled ordinary Mexicans. On the same day
last week that three African American activists in Los Angeles were arrested
during a protest outside the Mexican Consulate, Tijuana residents were eager to
buy the latest issue of the comic at newsstands downtown.
a Tijuana print store owner, missed out on the stamps, which sold out in five
hours Monday, so she bought the comic book for her son. Told that African
Americans consider the character's exaggerated features demeaning, Serrano,
gazing at the image, disagreed.
"It is not racist. He's funny," she said.
"It's a Mexican tradition. We don't have anything against people of
Some Americans agree. Janelle Norris, a 40-year-old white woman
from Austin, Texas, said she bought a set of stamps on EBay because she couldn't
believe such a stir for "something so innocent." The character reminded her of
her own youth in Kansas reading Sambo books, she said.
Norris wants to
put the stamps in her granddaughter's safe deposit box, so she can someday tell
her how "stupid people were."
"Maybe 20 years from now, people would
realize that this is not racist," Norris said. "It's just celebrating a comic
book character from the '40s."
Such varied motivations are not surprising
to Pilgrim, the curator. He said black memorabilia draws many types of buyers,
from racists to regular stamp collectors to nostalgia fans.
the largest group — seek profits. Liberators, as he calls them, purchase items
to destroy them because they don't want anyone to see them. Parents buy them to
give their children a sense of history.
One EBay buyer said he bought the
stamps so his children realize "they must always work through the drama life
"I've only bid on the stamps to show my kids that no matter how far
society believes it has come, there are always thoughtless acts," the buyer
Some racist memorabilia collectors will be sitting out the
Avery Clayton, chief executive officer of the Western States
Black Research and Educational Center in Los Angeles, said the stamps are too
hurtful to be instructive, particularly at a time when black-Latino relations in
Los Angeles are strained.
While he believes owning racist items can take
away their "racial sting," he said the stamps serve no purpose other than to
"This is a racial stereotype that harks back to a time
when depictions of blacks were done to be deliberately vulgar. It's an insult,"
Clayton said. "They're saying, 'We don't give a damn about how you feel.' I
think it's horrible."