Speedy Gonzales could be racing his way to the big screen, but for a few years he wasn’t allowed on TV to avoid upsetting his biggest fans. ¿Qué es éso?
Speedy’s Rocky Past
When Speedy first appeared in the 1950s, he was a rare thing to see in a US cartoon: a Mexican superhero. As fast as the Flash, as noble as Robin Hood, and as infallible as Batman, he became an icon for many – even as he spoke in the exaggerated Spanish accent used so often in depictions of Latinos of the time.
As a result, Cartoon Network pulled Speedy Gonzales from the Looney Toons line up in 1999. Of course, what some non-Hispanic Americans perceived as racist, many Mexican Americans viewed with pride – so much so that LULAC, one of the (if not the) most influential civil rights proponent groups for Latinos, actually fought to return the physics-bending mouse to television.
To understand how big of a deal this is, the Taco Bell Chihuahua was facing major backlash from other Latino groups, as the American food (dressed as Mexican food) chain was using the dog so synonymous with Mexico that it’s named after a Mexican state to shill its gorditas. It’s understandable that Cartoon Network was a bit gunshy about having another Mexican stereotype on TV.
Why Is It Racist?
Now, that is a tricky question to answer. See, while the accent is exaggerated and (usually) performed by non-Hispanic actors, the stereotype isn’t without some basis.
And what’s more, Speedy Gonzales imagery has been used in intentionally racist harassment of Mexicans.
The high school where I used to teach is overwhelmingly Hispanic, with most students being first or second generation Americans, and as soccer is the most popular sport in Latin America, it’s only naturally that the game would be a source of pride in border cities. A year or so before I began teaching there, the home team made it all the way to the state championships, playing against an east Texas school.
With one team overwhelmingly Hispanic, and the other predominantly Anglo, it wasn’t long before one side began chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and the other responding with the culturally aware, “¡Si se puede!” When banners began to go up showing an “American” boot crushing Speedy Gonzales, the implications were clear: Despite both teams being from Texas, only one team counted as real Americans.
Similarly, I remember attending a school competition in the 1990s when a female Hispanic student was asked to take the stage and several Anglo students from a different school began aping the Chihuahua with “Viva gordita!” Now, it doesn’t matter whether or not they knew they were saying “Long live the fat girl,” the problem was that just because she had a Spanish last name, she apparently deserved to be dehumanized.
(As an addendum to that little anecdote: I was attending that event as a scrawny, quiet, teenager, and didn’t have much to add, but my classmates were very large, tough-looking, Hispanic guys, so one of the guys sitting next to me cleared his throat menacingly, causing the loudmouths in front of us to turn around, then turn back and quietly slink in their seats.)
Why Isn’t It Racist?
Intention makes all the difference – in this case at least.
While some things, like blackface and racial caricatures, are never appropriate, other things can be given credit for at least trying to be inclusive. The classic comic strip Gordo (the subject of a future Monomythic article) was rightly lauded for its groundbreaking portrayal of Mexicans even as it had them talk like thees.
Similarly, Speedy Gonzales, his well-armed cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez, and yes, even Spanish-speaking Chihuahuas can be appreciated as aspects of Mexican culture borrowed and (in their own way) honored by American pop culture.
Plus, cultural appropriation is a two-way street. Speedy Gonzales helps out in car commercials in Latin America, and heck, the best version of the all-American Hanna Barbara cartoon Wacky Races exists as a Brazilian car commercial, so he’s in good company.
Although Speedy is Mexican, and not Mexican American, and although he certainly does not speak like all Hispanics (as if it were that easy to find one concept to cover such a diverse label), he is a good mouse and a powerful mouse. He represents the mouse that each of us, deep down, wishes we could be.