Memín Pinguín is one of the most popular fictional characters in Latin American comics. He is intellectually significant because he has inspired transnational polemics over racial identity, racism, and racial stereotypes in the region. The Mexican writer Yolanda Vargas Dulché (1926–1999) created the character in the mid-1940s in response to a request from the magazine Pepín for a children’s comic strip. Memín is a contracted nickname for Guillermo, the name of Guillermo de la Parra Loya, who would become the writer’s husband. One interpretation of Vargas Dulché’s adoption of Pinguín is that it refers to a slang term for mischievous, but in some parts of Latin America the name’s proximity to another slang word for penis meant that some editions of the comic book spelt the last name as “Pingüín,” giving it a closer association with the Spanish word for penguin (pingüino ).
It was largely due to the success of the Memín Pinguín series and other comic books that Grupo Editorial Vid (the company founded by the couple) was able to become established as one of the most successful publishers in Latin America. The company produced about 25 million comic books a month at the height of the popularity of the genre in the 1970s and 1980s. Grupo Editorial Vid produced 372 Memín Pinguín comic book stories over a period of over 30 years. Memín, the chief protagonist of the stories, is an elementary-school-aged child intended by his creator to be likeable and clever. His cuatachos (buddies)—Ernestillo, Carlangas, and Ricardo—partner him in mischief and adventures that are always resolved successfully by Memín by the end of each story.
Memín has phenotypically black features that are exaggerated by the artists to make him appear similar to a monkey. The only other character in the stories with the Negroid phenotype is his mother. The Memín Pinguín series deployed archetypes derived from American minstrel shows, specifically the pickaninny (to depict Memín) and the nanny (to depict his mother, Eufrosina). It is specifically this dimension of the comic books that provoked American President George W. Bush and civil rights activists to denounce the Memín character as racist when the Mexican government issued a stamp to honor Memín in 2005. A substantial amount of empirical and theoretical research had been amassed at that time by such scholars as Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Donald Bogle, and Jan Nederveen Pieterse to show not only the popularity of such archetypal depictions of blacks in the history of American popular culture, but also how such depictions are deployed to justify the dehumanization and exploitation of blacks.
Ironically, the creators of Memín Pinguín adopted a creative device that was developed in the United States and then disseminated to other parts of the world, including Mexico. The defense of these depictions in Mexico and several other Latin American countries, where such archetypal depictions of blacks are still quite common and popular, has been a range of arguments within a paradigm known as mestizaje. These arguments are most directly associated with the writings of the early twentieth-century Mexican intellectual José Vasconcelos, and they include the claims that malicious racial intent is not to blame because black communities are small or nonexistent in their countries, and that Latin American ruling classes cannot be racist because they themselves have a mixed racial ancestry. The fact that some Latin American countries have had heads of state of color is given as evidence that these societies have been more progressive on the issue of race than the United States. One problem with the mestizaje paradigm is its deployment of essentialized notions of race and racial hierarchy (with Europeans at the top and blacks at the bottom) as its basic intellectual premise. This point leaves Memín Pinguín and other Latin American pop culture icons that deploy racial archetypes as targets for activists within and outside Latin America who would like to see them eliminated.
Vasconcelos, José. 1997. The Cosmic Race. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mark D. Alleyne