November 28, 2006

Speedy Gonzales, Arriba, Arriba!

Speedy Gonzales, the Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes cartoon from the 1950’s, is making a comeback in a new series of ads for Volkswagen. Developed in the early 50’s, Speedy wore an oversized sombrero and spoke broken English with a comical Mexican accent, and his calls of “Arriba, Arriba”, were meant to rouse his fellow mice - who were all stupid, lazy, slow moving, hard-drinking, womanizers - which at the time was how American society generally depicted Mexicans.

Speedy Gonzales

[ Speedy Gonzales - a 1950's depiction of the Mexican. ]

Speedy usually conducted cross border raids into the U.S. for cheese, where he had to outsmart Sylvester the cat in order to succeed. One must put the Speedy Gonzales cartoon in a social context, as the animated series was popular at a time in the United States when Mexican Americans suffered from debilitating racial prejudice and unbearable discrimination. American citizens of Mexican descent enjoyed little if any political representation, and their image was largely defined by the Eurocentric mainstream culture. Speedy Gonzales was part of that demeaning representation, along with the odious “Jim Crow” depictions of African Americans that were popular at the time.

The Frito Bandito

[ The Frito Bandito - a 1960's depiction of the Mexican. Both Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Bandito were voiced by famed animation voice actor Mel Blanc. ]

The financial success and popularity of the Speedy Gonzales franchise lead to the development of another Mexican cartoon character, the Frito Bandito. In 1967 animator Tex Avery created the bandito as the cartoon mascot for Fritos Corn Chips, and the bandito was given voice by Mel Blanc, the same voice actor who played the role of Speedy Gonzales. The racist depiction of the gun toting Mexican bandit speaking broken English became part of American television culture - until the rise of the Chicano movement. [ View a Frito Bandito video clip on You Tube ] Both Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Bandito came under attack by Chicano activists who rightly charged the characters were racist characterizations of Mexicans, and by extension, Mexican Americans. In 1971, community organizing by Chicano activists, along with the work done by the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee, succeeded in banishing the Frito Bandito, with the Frito-Lay company wisely choosing another mascot. However, Speedy Gonzales continued his career, but to an ever shrinking audience.

In 1999, the Cartoon Network decided to permanently shelve Speedy Gonzales because of the cartoon’s stereotypical depictions, but fans of the mouse organized an effective campaign to have the cartoon brought back on the air, and in 2002, Speedy was once again broadcast by the Cartoon Network. Undoubtedly this roll back has opened the door to what was once considered off limits.

Volkswagen’s new compact car, the Volkswagen Golf, also known as the Volkswagen Rabbit, is being marketed by a series of television ads that feature none other than Speedy Gonzales. Unbelievably, Volkswagen hired the Miami-based “Hispanic” marketing and advertising agency CreativeOndemanD (COD), to come up with three Speedy commercials that will be targeted specifically at the Latino market (by stephan at dress head). The 3 ads are airing on Telemundo, Telefutura, Univision, Galavision, Mun2, Fox Sports en Espanol, Azteca America, American Latino, SiTV, ESPN Deportes, CNN en Espanol, GolTV, and MTV en Espanol. The campaign will also include outdoor advertisements in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

You can view one of the VW commercials featuring Speedy Gonzalez at YouTube. On the face of it, the ad seems harmless enough, it uses vintage Warner Bros. Looney Tunes footage but leaves out Speedy’s stupid, lazy, slow moving Mexican fellow mice - after all, it is a fast car that’s being advertised here. The question is, can a cartoon character, or any fictional character from our racist past, be reformed, repackaged, and made acceptable for a contemporary audience? If so then you can expect to see the return of the Frito Bandito, along with his pals Little Black Sambo and Amos and Andy.

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