Introduction
Stamps can have impact. In late June 2005 the Mexican Post Office released
a set of five postage stamps (Scott 2431–2435) portraying the classic comic
book character Memín Pinguín, a small and mischievous black boy with pro-
nounced Sambo-like features.1 The stamps were immediately perceived as
portraying a racist stereotype and were harshly denounced by many in the
United States, much to the amazement of the Mexicans. President Vicente
Fox stated that he was baffled by the indignant reaction across the border
and said that he, like many Mexicans, had known and loved this charac-
ter since he was a boy.2 Despite comments from the White House that the
stamps were offensive, he rejected a request from the Reverend Jesse Jack-
son that Mexico repudiate the stamps and withdraw them from circulation.
In the U.S. Congress a resolution was introduced condemning the Mexican
government for “printing and distributing blatantly racist postage stamps.”3
In Mexico there was something of a backlash as post offices were crowded
by Mexicans anxious to buy the stamps, and defend their cherished comic
character, refusing to be pushed around by their northern neighbor (as they
saw the situation). On eBay the asking price for the set of stamps, which had
a face value of around three dollars, rose to two hundred dollars, although it
is not clear if anyone actually paid that price; after a month the price on eBay
had dropped to the high thirties. Mexican intellectuals came to the defense
of their government’s position, arguing that the character was not racist
and was deeply cherished, especially among poorer Mexicans who identified
with him.4 Several Web sites and blogs were launched to address the issue,
generally from a viewpoint critical of the U.S. reaction. Although this was
an extreme case because of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the sensi-
tivity of race in the U.S.-Mexican relationship, it does serve to illustrate the
power that the message on a postage stamp can have. Postage stamps, after
all, are official government documents, and their release implies approval
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