/ 23 October 2015

Racism rears its ugly face in Latin American pop culture

‘Harmless’ joker: Jimmy Morales
‘Harmless’ joker: Jimmy Morales

Latin America’s enduring fondness for grotesque racist caricatures has returned to the spotlight with the political rise of Guatemalan performer Jimmy Morales.

Morales, currently the frontrunner in the country’s presidential election, was until recently best known as a comedian who performed in blackface portraying a hapless character called “Black Pitaya”, or Black Dragonfruit. Morales no longer plays the character, which he’s defended as a harmless joke. But his image is still used in the country to sell hair products and soap.

Racial caricatures have been used as brands across the region. In Colombia, Mimo’s ice cream flavours were depicted by race: a black man for chocolate, a white girl for vanilla.

Peru perhaps has some of the continent’s most racist characters. Negro Mama is a popular blackface TV personality who wears a prosthetic nose, lips and black hairy gloves. His motto is: Podré ser negrito, pero tengo mi cerebrito” – I might be a blacky, but I have my little brain.

The character, loathed by the Afro-Peruvian community, is associated with drug trafficking, sexually transmitted diseases and violence. But Negro Mama remains popular.

Offensive blackface skits also remain common in Brazil. The programme Zorra Total of the Globo TV network featured a white male actor playing a toothless, dirty, ugly, lazy and stupid black beggar woman who constantly humiliates her daughter.

And for the children there is the racist Mexican comic book character Memín Pinguín, who first appeared in 1943. He is a little black boy with the face of a monkey who is slightly exotic, charming and sympathetic, but also inferior and in constant need of discipline and education. Memín was initially depicted as a “pickaninny”, though Mexican authorities insist his character has done much to oppose racism in recent years.

In 2005, Mexico’s government provoked outrage with the release of five postage stamps depicting the character, just weeks after then-president Vicente Fox riled many by saying that Mexican migrants to the United States take jobs that “not even blacks” want.

Omar Ali, associate professor of comparative African diaspora history at the University of North Carolina, said: “In some ways Latin America is 25 or 30 years behind the US and England in terms of awareness of racism and the Africa diaspora. There hasn’t been a black cultural revolution.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015