Speedy Gonzalez: The Mexican Sambo

- from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Icon of racism gets Mexico's stamp of approval
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
By Tony Norman

"Those of us who grew up with Speedy Gonzales remember him fondly. For many of us, the first lick of Spanish we ever heard was "Andale! Andale! Arriba!" The cartoon mouse with the giant yellow sombrero, overactive libido ("Speedy knows my sister. Speedy knows everybody's sister") and thick accent was the only Mexican other than Zorro Americans were obliged to respect.

The cartoon mice snoozing under sombreros in desolate border towns were our first glimpses of Mexican culture. Looney Tunes portrayed Mexico as a place where tumbleweeds, hiccuping alcoholics and dull-witted mice with toothpicks dangling from their lips were the major export. Would it surprise anyone to learn that some of the vigilantes patrolling the border today carry around many of these images from their formative years?

It seemed to be a place where everyone, including Speedy, engaged in endless siestas until a predatory gringo named Sylvester Pussycat (of "Tweety & Sylvester" fame) came prowling for a dish he could swallow without much preparation. Despite lisping and excessive spitting on his part, Sylvester inadvertently became a metaphor for America's lingering imperialist fantasies of annexation south of the border.

Slowpoke Rodriguez, Speedy's lazy cousin, happily confirmed every negative stereotype of our southern neighbors imaginable, including his well-earned reputation as "the slowest mouse in all Mexico." The heavy drinking of the supporting cast underscored their marginality.
Created in the 1950s, Speedy Gonzales and his friends reflected the cultural biases of animators who couldn't be bothered to think deeply about the humanity of Mexicans. That's how things were done in those days: Paint with as broad a brush as possible, then sit back and laugh. The audience will laugh with you.

Remember Pepe LePew, the French-speaking skunk whose amorous pursuit of female cats he mistook for lady skunks constituted the first animated depictions of sexual harassment? Sure, those cartoons were hilariously xenophobic, but were Pepe's unrequited affections also a sly commentary on postwar Franco-American relations?

Was Pepe LePew a less-than-subtle way of saying that over-perfumed and deodorized Americans believe the French "stink" despite their exaggerated penchant for wine, women and romance? Oh, how the mind boggles at the burden of representation thrust upon cartoons in the last century.

In 1999, Ted Turner ordered the Cartoon Network to take Speedy Gonzales shorts out of rotation because of heightened sensitivity to negative portrayals of Hispanics on television. Hispanics themselves were split over Turner's decision to remove one of the most prominent Hispanics from television altogether, despite his problems.

There are Mexican-Americans who consider Speedy a role model because of his resourcefulness, quick wit and scrappiness, while conceding that his hard-drinking, gun-toting, cat-shooting cousin Slowpoke is a stereotype. No less a revolutionary than the Zapatistas' Subcomandante Marcos compared himself to Speedy Gonzales.

By 2002, Speedy was back on rotation at the Cartoon Network, though banished to obscure time slots overnight. Unlike the notorious Frito Bandito or Dinky, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, Speedy has redeemable qualities most Mexicans want to be identified with.

It's hard to find any redeemable qualities in the big-lipped character at the center of the current imbroglio between the United States and Mexico. Memin Pinguin, the star of a series of Mexican comic books, is indistinguishable from the demeaning coon images that flooded this country during the Jim Crow era. Now Memin is starring in a series of five commemorative stamps issued by the Mexican government.

Memin was created in the 1940s and has remained the most prominent representation of blacks in Mexican pop culture ever since, which tells you everything you need to know about the sensitivity to hoary black stereotypes south of the border.

Memin Pinguin's primary role is to be a childlike foil for the white characters who often chide him about his foolishness. No one growing up in Mexico ever said, "I want to be Memin Pinguin," not even Subcomandante Marcos.

Like his English-speaking cousin Little Black Sambo, Memin represents the distillation of decades of racial hostility into a cartoon image the majority of the population considers "innocuous" and even "cute." The fact that Mexican President Vicente Fox believes the black-faced caricature is an ambassador of his country's racial egalitarianism demonstrates silliness and self-deception on a grand scale.

President Fox and his like-minded compatriots have arrived at the point most white Americans found themselves in the 1950s: willfully ignorant and incapable of perceiving the straightforward logic of an insult not directly addressed to them.

But as bad as the Mexicans are, at least they haven't embraced negative images of blacks to the extent the Japanese have. Mammies, bucks and saucer-lipped stereotypes are still respectable brand icons in Japanese advertisement. Check out "Darkie Toothpaste" (now rechristened "Darlie Toothpaste" after Colgate bought the company and toned down a big-lipped mascot that looked a lot like Memin).

Mexicans love Memin because they "grew up" with him. He's a nonthreatening black boy who has never demanded that they confront their racist assumptions, which is why he has been rewarded with a national stamp. If anything, Memin represents the inability of Mexican liberalism and its progressive classes to engage an obvious insult at the heart of their popular culture.

Memin isn't an African-American problem, he's a Mexican problem. He's a symbol of Mexico's failure of imagination. Blacks in America have enough to deal with without manufacturing outrage over a foreign cartoon character that, arguably, has as much dignity as the gangsta rappers thumping their chests in heavy rotation on BET and MTV.

Mexicans should be accorded the opportunity to have a conversation about Memin without fear of African Americans giving more importance to it than it's worth. We kept Speedy Gonzales, but got rid of Slowpoke Rodriguez, the Frito Bandito and the talking Chihuahua. Perhaps Mexico will figure that it's in its interests to clean house of noxious stereotypes, too."


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Viagra Online said...

I don't know What to say but I think that character"Speedy Gonzalez" was created in order to offend Mexican people, I think that's not fair because "American" people should see their mistakes too.