U.S. activists called on the Mexican government to withdraw a postage stamp depicting an exaggerated black cartoon character known as Memin Pinguin, saying the offense was worse than recent remarks about blacks made by President Vicente Fox.
Mexico defended the series of five stamps released Wednesday, which depicts a child character from a comic book started in the 1940s that is still published in Mexico.
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson said President Bush should pressure Mexico to withdraw the stamps from the market, saying they "insult people around the world."
"The impact of this is worse than what the president said," Jackson noted, referring to Fox's May 13 comment that Mexican migrants take jobs in the United States that "not even blacks" want. Fox later met with Jackson and expressed regret but insisted his comments had been misinterpreted.
While calling the stamps an internal issue for Mexico, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was quick to denounce the stamp images, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller. McClellan said "racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin" and such caricatures have no place in today's world.
Mexico said that like Speedy Gonzalez — a cartoon mouse with a Mexican accent that debuted in the United States in 1953 — the Memin Pinguin character shouldn't be interpreted as a racial slur.
"Just as Speedy Gonzalez has never been interpreted in a racial manner by the people in Mexico, because he is a cartoon character, I am certain that this commemorative postage stamp is not intended to be interpreted on a racial basis in Mexico or anywhere else," said Rafael Laveaga, the spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington.
But NAACP Interim President Dennis Courtland Hayes countered that "laughing at the expense of hardworking African Americans or African Mexicans is no joke and it should end at once."
The NAACP — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — called the stamps "injurious to black people who live in the United States and Mexico."
Jackson also said Mexico should "issue a complete and full apology."
Withdrawing the stamps would probably make them more desirable to collectors and increase their value, say U.S. collectors.
Activists in Mexico said the stamp was offensive but not unexpected.
"One would hope the Mexican government would be a little more careful and avoid continually opening wounds," said Sergio Penalosa, an activist in Mexico's small black community on the southern Pacific coast.
"But we've learned to expect anything from this government, just anything," Penalosa said.
"This is a traditional character that reflects part of Mexico's culture," Caballero said. "His mischievous nature is part of that character."
However, Penalosa said many Mexicans still assume all blacks are foreigners, despite the fact that at one point early in the Spanish colonial era, Africans outnumbered Spanish in Mexico.
"At this point in time, it was probably pretty insensitive" to issue the stamp, said Elisa Velazquez, an anthropologist who studies Mexico's black communities for the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
"This character is a classic, but it's from another era," Velazquez said. "It's a stereotype and you don't want to encourage ignorance or prejudices."
Laveaga, the embassy spokesman, countered that "if you look closely at many of the cartoon characters in U.S. pop culture, those who try will be able to find something offensive."
But, he noted, "the vast majority will see a cartoon character, which is what Memin Pinguin is."
The 6.50-peso (60-cent) stamps — depicting the character in five poses — was issued with the domestic market in mind, but Caballero noted it could be used in international postage as well.
Ben Vinson, a black professor of Latin American history at Penn State University, said he has been called "Memin Pinguin" by some people in Mexico. He also noted that the character's mother is drawn to look like an old version of the U.S. advertising character Aunt Jemima.
The stamps are part of a series that pays tribute to Mexican comic books. Memin Pinguin, the second in the series, was apparently chosen for this year's release because it is the 50th anniversary of the company that publishes the comic.
Publisher Manelick De la Parra told the government news agency Notimex that the character would be sort of a goodwill ambassador on Mexican letters and postcards.
"It seems nice if Memin can travel all over the world, spreading good news," de la Parra said, calling him "so charming, so affectionate, so wonderful, generous and friendly."