Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tamazulapan

I was travelling around the countyside the other day and passed briefly though the Mixteca town of Tamazulapan. They were having a big festival there, and as my passenger van sat idling in traffic, I noticed a big sign advertising an event at the bull ring. I couldn’t tell if it was a bull fight or a bull riding, but in any case, they had listed the names of all the bulls who would be participating. Most had pretty fearsome names, like El Ejecutor (the Executioner), El Luminoso (the lumnious one), or Tiburón (Shark). But one name that caught my eye was El Periodista, or the Journalist. I just kept picturing a bespectacled bull with a pencil and pad in one hoof and a tape recorder tucked in his back pocket hasseling the torero with question after question. He didn’t seem all that fearsome, actually, and I think I’d even be willing to get in the ring with that guy.

There is also a nice thermal spring in Tamazulapan, which is where my doctor said I got my infection last month that I had (before coming back to the United States). So don't dunk your ear underneath the water if you go to the springs.

couple of coins

I've always appreciated countries that use large-denomination coins, or at least in larger denominations than we do in the US. When I lived in Arizona, I would often make trips into Nogales, and part of the fun of those trips was that I got to use the the coins. It just feels more like "real" commerce when you're paying for stuff in coins rather than slips of paper.

Here in Mexico, we have a 10-peso (US$1) and 20-peso (US$2) coin, and I'm a big fan of both. Although I should tell you that the later is not as common as the former. Nevertheless, they are both in circulation and are used quite frequently. You will recall from previous posts that change in general is an important thing in Mexico, you need to carry change with you everywhere.

Last month, for example, I went out to pick up a large pizza, and I paid for it with just a couple of coins. When you come from a country where the quarter is essentially the largest coin in circulation, and the only purchases you make with all coins are for things like packs of gum, you really feel like you're getting a bargain when you pay only in coins. So when I got that pizza, I felt like,"Wow, I paid nothing for that!"

Of course, I didn't really pay nothing for the pizza, but it's nice to at least treat yourself to that sensation.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Memin Pinguin

















Last week, the Mexican postal service issued a stamp series commemorating "Memin Pinguin," a comic book character from the 1940s.

Black activists in the U.S., such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who were already sore at Mexico's government after President Fox made an insensitive remark about U.S. blacks last month, have condemned the stamps as racist and offensive. The White House also issued a statement condemning the stamps, and activists in the small black community on southern Mexico have expressed indignation as well.

The Mexican government and media, on the other hand, have leapt to the defense of the stamps. "Memin Penguin is part of our culture," is the basic argument, and so, since the stamps are merely celebrating a part of Mexican history and culture, they are acceptable. The Mexican people seem to agree, and have flocked to buy the stamps. They sold out in two days.

While you certainly have to question the wisdom of a government that would issue a stamp that clearly was going to cause a controversy, one thing this government is very adept at is exploiting disagreements with the United States. So this week, we saw Foreign Minister Luis Derbez, Presidential Spokesman Ruben Aguilar, and even President Fox, speaking passionately in defense of poor little Memin Pinguin. Complaints against the stamp from the U.S. are blatant attacks on our culture, they told the Mexican public.

For a government that has offered little to the Mexican people and, as a result, doesn't have a heck of a lot of support here, resentment against the U.S. is always rich material for rallying the common man to their cause. And in the week leading up to an event celebrating the 5-year celebration of Fox's election, what better way to get people on your side than to lash out at attacks from the U.S.? The "cultural " angle is a very good one as well, for as Mexicans find their country more and more overwhelmed with U.S. fast food restaurants, Wal-Mart stores and Hollywood movies, they are very sensitive to issues of cultural imperialism from the north.

But unfortunately, as the government and the Mexican media (which often tends toward sensationalism) have turned the controversy into a purely cultural conflict, the issue as to whether the stamp might actually be offensive to black people has been essentially ignored. People have been so quick to dig in their heels to defend Memin Penguin and their culture, they seem entirely unwilling to even consider that the image, while acceptable in the 1940s, is offensive to many in 2005. Even Elena Poniatowska, one of the nation's most acclaimed authors and left-leaning intellectuals, spoke out in defense of the stamp. I saw a quote from her this week saying that images like Memin and a popular folk song called something like "Little Black Watermelon Boy," are, in fact, demonstrations of the affection that Mexicans feel for black people. The only public condemnation I have seen of the stamps came from the leftist newspaper La Jornada, but they were criticizing the Fox government for causing an unnecessary diplomatic row rather than criticizing the wisdom of reproducing and celebrating outdated and insensitive imagery.

When I have talked to people I know about the stamp, the responses I get are: "Memin Pinguin is part of our culture," "He was created in the 1940s, and so he reflects the norms of that period," "Memin is an adorable character, not a villain in any way, so how is he offensive to blacks?" and, "Who are Americans to criticize us when they're the ones whose culture is racist?"

I've also seen a couple of TV news reports where they've interviewed people on the street or in line at the post office about the stamp controversy. "Of course the stamp isn't racist, Memin Pinguin is an adorable character that all Mexicans love," is the usual comment. Funny that I haven't seen any news reporters venturing into the black Mexican communities in Veracruz, Oaxaca or Guerrero to get their perspective.

And that's the argument I keep hearing here: "Memin Penguin doesn't offend me, so therefore he's not offensive. You who are offended are at fault for your misinterpretation." In fact, that's essentially the argument Fox made last month after his comment that Mexicans in the U.S. "do the jobs that not even blacks will do." No, said Fox, the statement was not racist, and it's really too bad that the African-American community interpreted it as such.

Mexicans laugh at Americans sometimes for their ultra-sensitivity. And yeah, extreme PC-ism deserves to made fun of. But I'm not sure if a total lack of concern for sensitivity -- like calling overweight people "fatty" or referring to handicapped people as "minusvalidos," or "less valids" -- is any better. Seems like there should be a happy medium out there somewhere.

And yeah, I can understand why Mexicans would get a kick out of something that winds up the gringos so much. But at the same time, they should remember that it's not just the U.S. that is viewing these stamps; the rest of the world is seeing them now thanks to this controversy. And I don't think that Memin Pinguin is going to do much to improve the world's view of Mexico.

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