Carlos Carmonamedina is an illustrator and graphic designer
Editor’s note: Though neither Canadian nor American comics are known for their unbiased portrayal of non-white characters, this issue is certainly not exclusive to English-language works. Here, Mexican artist Carlos Carmonamedina takes us through racism in Mexican comics of the 20th century and beyond.
You will hardly find another country that debates its own identity as much as Mexico does. Trying to reconcile the idea that we descend both from colonized and colonizers, Mexican intellectuals have structured their arguments around questions of “who am I” and “what’s my role in this world.”
Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz writes in his 1950 book El Laberinto de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) that Mexico’s enormous inferiority complex can be explained broadly by its historical dependence on other economies: “The whole history of Mexico, from the Conquest to the Revolution, can be regarded as a search for our own selves, which have been deformed or disguised by alien institution, and for a form that will express them.”
Examples of this identity crisis can also be found in Mexico’s immensely popular mid-century comic books, a huge contribution to contemporary Mexican and Latin American culture. This type of mass literature touches on issues like class conflict, gender inequality, and globalization; but interestingly enough, it almost never focuses on race. In a country as diverse as Mexico, these incredible popular comic books rarely represented how Mexicans really looked. With important exceptions like Supermachos, El Payo, or La familia Burrón, which were heavily focused on national life, most comic book characters looked like they came out of American comics.
An example cover of Memín Pinguín, created by Yolanda Vargas Dulché and Sixto Valencia
Unlike in the US and other Western countries, race is not a prevalent discussion in Mexico. Mexicans embrace their mestizo (mixed) category, although the people in power and the media are significantly whiter. Other races are officially non-existent; only recently has the term Afro-Mexican gained acceptance.
This is in part due the politics implemented by secretary of education José Vasconcelos, who coined the term “cosmic race” in 1925. Vasconcelos envisioned a new mestizo race, fomenting the idea of a cultural, ethnic, and racial unity. All ethnic groups were culturally assimilated, including the ones that were not native to Mexico. This racial melting pot has affected all Mexican sociocultural, political, and economic policies ever since. Artists and writers worked together to create a visual narrative around the romanticization of the indigenous figure, the glorification of the Mexican Revolution, and the identity of Mexico as a mestizo nation.
The murals and novels that were result of this social effervescence were made with the belief that art was for the education and betterment of the people. Let’s not forget, however, that they also had the purpose of promoting certain ideals. In this nationalistic rhetoric, the portrayal of other races besides the mestizo is rarely seen—except for the imperialist white man, who is often intoxicated with greed.
But the post-war generations craved new narratives that murals and elaborate novels couldn’t fulfill. The rapid growth of the urban population, new techniques in the printing industry, and high levels of illiteracy all contributed to the success of comics books as a tool for mass communication.
As novels had in the 19th century and popular soap operas (telenovelas) did afterwards, mid-century comic books provided a model for social change that presented–explicitly or implicitly–a conservative vision. Ironically, most Mexican comic books are consumed predominantly by the social classes whose cultural representation is often denied. The characters emphasize an upper-middle-class model and values, consistent with the American cultural model, giving readers a way to escape their immediate reality. Comics’ “narrative and aesthetic dimensions appeal to popular experience and the popular imagination, even when they do not represent the Mexican worker directly,” writer Bruce Campbell states.
Kalimán, created by Rafael Cutberto Navarro and Modesto Vázquez González
A good example that comes to mind is Kalimán, a superhero and possibly Mexico’s most beloved comic book, with weekly sales averaging around two million copies. Kalimán is an Indian orphan who wears a distinctive turban and is accompanied by Solín, an Egyptian boy. His broad-chested, square-jawed appearance resembles the archetypical American superhero more than his supposed South Asian origins. Blue-eyed, brown-faced Canadian actor Jeff Cooper starred in the Kalimán film production, which was the most expensive Mexican movie ever filmed at the time.
In a similar fashion, Chanoc‘s protagonist looks nothing like a native Mexican, despite living in a fishing village in the Gulf of Mexico. The secondary characters of this series are heavily stereotyped: cannibals and Pygmies who are often used as slapstick humour, while an uneducated black boy, Merecumbré, resembles the black stereotypes in early American cinema.
Perhaps the most notorious racially-charged comic book in Mexico, which was later exported to all Latin America) is Memín Pinguin, the story of a poor black boy and his mother. His heavily caricatured appearance contrasts with the rest of the characters, who are depicted in a more realistic way—they are all white, despite being in poor Mexican neighbourhoods—and from the first impression, this provokes enormous controversy among non-Mexicans. When African American leaders strongly opposed the character being printed on a series of Mexican postage stamps, it led to national outrage and calls to defend Memín as a national symbol. Gilbert Hernández also references the character in his book Beyond Palomar.
Rarotonga, from the creator of Memín Pinguín
From the creator of Memín Pinguín, a series called Rarotonga would also find success with Mexican readership. Despite coming from the Polynesian islands, Rarotonga was described as a mestiza who manipulated superstitious natives in a South Pacific island paradise. Once the doctor Alejandro Rivera (a Nobel Prize nominee, generous, intelligent, and very married) arrives on the island, Rarotonga uses her powers of death and love to trap him. This drama suggests a clash between the white agent of faith, reason, and civilization, and the black divinity of lust and desire.
Contemporary comics in Mexico have largely moved to a digital format and audience, at the same time racial stereotypes are starting to become a wider discussion. A good example is Cindy la Regia, a webcomic that portrays some of the Mexican middle class’s presumptuous values. The titular Cindy is unapologetically racist, often belittling her maid and potential boyfriends for the colour of their skin.
These tropes, of course, aren’t exclusive to Mexico. Stereotyped racial representations have consistently been used by writers like Hergé or Carl Barks as narrative resources, representing a more general context of structural oppression and cultural violence. In Mexico, comic books have an important role in conveying and disseminating identity. Their consumers allow and perpetuate an absurd racial model, one that is part of a larger media project that is perhaps one of the causes of the country’s abysmal inequality.
In these pages are the keys for our own sensibility, the way we perceive ourselves and others.
Carlos Carmonamedina is a Mexican illustrator and graphic designer living in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter.