I recently spent some time in Mexico, where it seemed that every surface was covered by ads for Bimbo, a wildly popular baked goods company. In a country where tortillas and pan dulce reign supreme, Bimbo's success in peddling packaged breads and sweets to the masses is no small feat. In fact, the company even has a longstanding presence north of the border, where Bimbo also produces and distributes brands like Orowheat and Entenmann's.
So why have I never seen this ad here in the United States?
Or, to ask a better question, why is this ad acceptable in Mexico?
I do not mean to suggest that the United States has moved beyond the realm of questionable visual representations of black people, leaving the rest of the world to catch up with our enlightened perspective. After all, from Aunt Jemima to Uncle Ben, U.S. advertisers have a sordid history of using stereotypical images of black men, women and children to sell products.
And while contemporary ad campaigns are certainly less egregious than in the past, they nonetheless remain contentious: Last year, The New York Timesran a story about the Mars food company's effort to update the profile of Uncle Ben, one of their most recognizable brands. Calling their namesake "an African-American icon," the company developed an interactive Web site that cast the new "Ben" not as a servant but as an executive, inviting visitors into his office where he shares "recipes, tips and history."
The popular brand, "Uncle Ben's" rice, attempted to make their mascot less subserviant looking, last year. Hence, the board room desk in the background.
Critics took issue with the fact that, even in his new role as chairman, "Ben" is referred to by his first name (which harkens back to an era when even white children refused to address black men and women by titles such as Mr. and Mrs.), and argued that a simple makeover could not erase the character's troublesome history.
The latter point gets to the heart of the matter. Sometimes images carry so much painful historical baggage that they are better left in the past.
This is especially true when it comes to using images of black people to sell food, bringing us back to the "negrito" ("little black boy") packaging in Mexico.
The image of an afro-wearing character on a chocolate-themed Mexican product line has its own racially fraught precedent. I found an older (undated) example of Bimbo packaging that showed the "negrito" as he once was: smiling, dancing, wearing a straw skirt and holding a spear.
The company is not alone in its history of trafficking such images. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, black characters have long adorned packages of sugar, coffee, chocolate and other commodities historically produced at the hands of African slaves.
In Peru, for instance, the popular brand La Negrita features a smiling, red-lipped black woman wearing a headscarf. And in Argentina, the ironically named Blancaflor ("white flower") product line uses a character that can only be described as a feminized Marvin the Martian.
Peru's "Negrita" brand pictures a black woman smiling.
Given that Mexico, Peru and Argentina were all colonial slaveholding societies, the origins of the images are not that surprising. But what is really stunning is how long they've managed to stick around.
While the new "negrito," fully clothed this time, is perhaps part of Bimbo's effort to take some of the historical bite out of the earlier caricature, they should have also considered abandoning it altogether. In a country that defines itself primarily in terms of its Spanish and indigenous heritage, there are no comparable blanquito ("little white boy") or indio ("indian") product lines or characters.
Why, then, does Bimbo find it necessary to keep a caricature of a black child in circulation? The choice is especially curious given that Mexicans of African descent, who have had a strong demographic and political presence in the region since the 16th century, are rarely seen on the national stage. In fact, during my visit, the "negrito" was the most widely visible "black person" in the country.
In asking these questions, I was reminded of the recent controversies surrounding the Mexican comic book series, Memin Pinguin. The books follow the exploits of a monkey-like boy who was supposedly modeled after children the author encountered during her travels to Cuba.
Mexican book series "Memin Penguin" depicts a black boy as a monkey.
In 2005, the Mexican government issued a commemorative stamp of the character, which sparked outrage from Jesse Jackson and other Americans who decried it as racist. Defending the stamp, Mexican politicians attributed U.S. reactions to a "misunderstanding" of, and even lack of respect for Mexican culture. In a Washington Post editorial, Mexican historian Enrique Krauze even called the stamp a "highly pleasing image rooted in Mexican popular culture."
The dust-up renewed interest in the series, which until last month could be found on Wal-Mart shelves in Houston, Texas. The store began stocking the books to cater to its Latino customers, many of whom remembered the stories from their childhoods, but Wal-Mart eventually pulled the books in response to African-American customers who found the content offensive.
I'm sure Wal-Mart's decision will trigger a new round of cross-border debates. It should. But we should not oversimplify the discussion by thinking in terms of the "U.S. vs. Mexico." Am I not allowed to be offended by Memin Penguin, or by Bimbo's "negrito" packaging, simply because I am not Mexican? Who says all Mexicans are OK with those images?
Certainly, any conversation about Mexican imagery should take Mexico's history and race relations into consideration. As someone devoting her life to the study of Latin American history, I believe in that analysis more than anything. However, as the descendant of slaves, I am tired of confronting the same tired images of black people around the world. If these depictions are so common and have so much in common with one another, isn't it time to be honest about what they really say?
Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American history.