Americans have been struggling with the issue of white caricatures of Mexicans for a very long time.EXPAND
Americans have been struggling with the issue of white caricatures of Mexicans for a very long time.
Emna Mizouni / Wikimedia Commons

Frito Bandito, Speedy Gonzales and City Council Member Jennifer Gates

Last week I wrote about Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates, who is white, appearing on her own Facebook page dressed in a Halloween costume as a caricatured Mexican man in a sombrero with a black mustache. Later Sharon Grigsby at The Dallas Morning News wrote a thoughtful column taking Gates to task for “the insensitive message she signaled with her Halloween attire” but also saying Gates “has a record of being sensitive, not offensive.”

Certainly both things can be true. Sort of. In particular, the costume incident is not an irrefutable indictment or proof positive of overt bigotry. I don’t know Gates. But after I wrote, I heard from people who do know her — people whose opinions I respect — who describe Gates and her husband as conservative North Dallas Catholics without “a racist or anti-Semitic bone in their bodies.”

By the way, I got slapped back a bit by my own editor, who thought I had gone too far in using the term “brown-face” for the offending photo of Gates. Readers complained that they saw no evidence of brown makeup on Gates’ face in the offending photo.

True. My editor changed the reference to say Gates had dressed in a way that made her resemble Frito Bandito, a reference to a cartoon character in a 1960s advertising campaign for corn chips.

My use of brown-face to describe what Gates did, a term I think I made up, was a broad reference to the tradition of blackface. Blackface is not necessarily only literally about white people wearing black face paint but white people generally using racist stereotypes to mimic black people disparagingly.

Blackface was a prominent story in the news cycle at the time Gates posted pictures of herself on Facebook mimicking a Mexican. Television personality Megyn Kelly, who had been slated to host NBC’s election night coverage, had just been suspended and her morning show left in limbo, not because she had appeared in blackface but only because she had made remarks minimizing the offensiveness of blackface.

So any kind of face-face was in the news and fairly red-hot at the time Gates posted pictures of herself in her Halloween costume. My editor was right: If I intended to use the term, brown-face, metaphorically rather than literally, then I should have said it was metaphorical, and I should have stated clearly that Gates was not wearing makeup.

I apologize to Gates, and I apologize to readers for that omission. But what she was doing was brown-face. Metaphorically.

And it’s not as if white caricatures of Mexicans are anything new or anything very mysterious or even oblique at all in the culture. Let’s say she wasn’t doing brown-face but she was engaging in a popular white version of Mexican-ness, like Frito Bandito. In fact let’s talk about Frito Bandito, a character in ads for Frito-Lay corn chips.

He was a little cartoon man with a gold tooth, sombrero, messy hair and a pair of six-guns on his belt. And let’s also talk about Frito’s cousin, Speedy Gonzales, a movie theater cartoon character who was a very fleet mouse, also in the requisite sombrero and pajama-like clothing.

The Frito Bandito character probably made his last television appearance before Gates was age 7. The voice of Frito was performed by famous American animation artist Mel Blanc. Frito Bandito was a close cousin to Speedy, a better-known and longer lasting Blanc character.

Not to take you too far into American stereotypes of Mexicans or anything, but Frito and Speedy were two very different sides of the same cartoon coin. Speedy’s character was as broadly caricatured as Frito’s, but Speedy was always out-speeding and out-smarting Sylvester the cat, whom Speedy called “El Gringo Pussygato.”

Frito Bandito, on the other hand, is described by Wikipedia as a character who “spoke broken English and robbed people of their Fritos corn chips, a reference to the Mexican bandit stereotype in Western movies.”

Speedy was like some of the comedic black characters in white media in being able to get over on whites, a little. Certain black characters in the Amos n’ Andy shows on radio and TV; Rochester, who was white comedian Jack Benny’s man-Friday and comedic foil; certain black characters were given a sneaky sly ability to put down whites in clever asides.

Not Frito. Frito was a hapless, hopeless, irritating but amusing Mexican, who also happened to be an inveterate thief.

The two characters, Frito and Speedy, were equivalent in one important sense: Both pandered to the proclivity of white audiences to laugh at and be amused by portrayals of nonwhites as funny-looking, funny-talking and generally childlike, inferior to whites.

Both characters bit the dust eventually for all of those reasons. In 1968 two Mexican-American advocacy groups, the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee in Washington and the Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors (IMAGE) in San Antonio, began prevailing on Frito-Lay, headquartered then in Dallas, now in Plano, to retire Frito.

Dallas City Council member Jenifer Gates, top left, posted photos of an office party at City Hall on her Facebook page.
Dallas City Council member Jenifer Gates, top left, posted photos of an office party at City Hall on her Facebook page.
Facebook

In response, Frito-Lay agreed only to drop Frito’s gold tooth and to comb his hair. Then in 1968 after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Frito-Lay decided to disarm Frito, taking away his brace of pistols — a very ambiguous move under the circumstances to say the least.

A market-study company hired by Frito-Lay to do a national survey at the time reported that 85 percent of Mexican-Americans liked Frito. By the way, I noticed that most of the commenters on the Observer Facebook page who identified themselves as Latino said they were not offended by Gates’ costume.

Maybe someday someone should get the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research to do a serious study of why so many Mexican-Americans tend to insist they are not being insulted by white people when they are being insulted by white people. My own two-bit guess is that it has to do with a sense of honor and never letting the bastards know they’re getting to you, which I respect enormously.

On the other hand, I’m glad the Mexican-American advocacy groups ignored the Frito-Lay market study saying Latinos liked Frito and continued to press for Frito’s banishment anyway, because I’m white, and I feel I have a vested interest in white people not acting stupid.

The advocacy and leadership groups ignored the Frito-Lay survey and shifted their campaign to local TV stations, and several of them in heavily Latino markets began banning the Frito character from their airwaves. The advocacy groups also lobbied the Federal Communications Commission for free air time to respond to the Frito Bandito caricature.

I wish they could have won some kind of equal time agreement by which they got to produce cartoons whose central character was a silly blond sorority girl named Bunny in a pink polo shirt who was always getting her corn chips stolen from her because she was passed-out drunk. But that’s why nobody ever paid me the big bucks for my sense of humor.

Frito-Lay in 1971 finally sent Frito into quiet retirement, never acknowledging the years of insult and injury the campaign had wrought. But what ever happened to Speedy, the ethnic stereotype who had out-smarted El Gringo Pussygato so many times to such great hilarity?

In 1999 Cartoon Network, a subsidiary of Time Warner, acquired exclusive rights to Speedy Gonzales and immediately shelved the cartoons and the character. In 2002, Cartoon network spokesperson Laurie Goldberg told Fox News, “It hasn't been on the air for years because of its ethnic stereotypes.”

This is all by way of saying that the topic of white people creating what they believe are humorous portrayals of persons of nonwhite ethnicity is certainly not at all a new topic, has been with us for centuries, in fact, and has been fully and painfully litigated in the recent history of the nation. Until right now.

Right now white ethnic stereotypes are back in the news because President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have made both a science and a circus of them. The circus is the sickeningly coy use of dog whistles – Barack (pause,pause) H (pause) Obama – by the president to give white people the idea they can indulge in public racism and not get caught or at least not have to apologize.

But the science of it is more serious. The science is the formula by which rich people in the country can talk the white middle and working classes into killing their own unions, giving up their own healthcare and giving the resulting windfall to the rich, merely by giving the white under-classes permission to laugh at and disparage minorities.

You mean we get to laugh at black people and Mexicans, and all we have to do is impoverish ourselves to your benefit? Deal!

Again, my own reason for wanting us white folks to wake up and snap out of the trance has less to do with minorities than with us, ourselves. I don’t know how much longer we can afford to be such suckers.

In the roiling context of ethnic politics today in America, the white Dallas City Council member’s public use of ethnic stereotypes is not just a bad mistake. It’s almost incomprehensible.

We have been struggling with these issues such a long time in this country. How could she not get it? Where has she been living?

Gates, who has been prominently mentioned as an establishment candidate for mayor of Dallas in 2019, sent a response to Ken Kalthoff of NBC 5 saying, “I posted a picture on my private personal page of my colleagues and I dressed as a lime in a margarita. I am sorry if I offended anyone for being a lime in a margarita.”

The only way to take that so-called apology is as a big middle finger to anyone who was offended by what she really did — dressed up like a Mexican clown. I do get what the people who know Gates have been telling me when they say Gates doesn’t have a racist bone in her body. But I also think we might need to look for some cartilage.

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