A brilliant study of
the humble postage
stamp in Latin
hidden – and deeply
political – messages
Miniature Messages: The Semiotics
and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps
2008, Duke University Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
THEY MAY BE subtle statements often lost on those across whose tongue they pass, but they can also have an enduring effect out of all proportion to their tiny size. Indeed, postage stamps, as Jack Child points out in his brilliant semiotic study of their hidden meanings, can have real impact – not least because the political and cultural messages they convey are reproduced tens of millions of times at the top of letters and packages every year.
In 2005, for example, Mexico and the US almost came to blows over the former’s defence of a set of stamps issued to commemorate the comic book character, Memín Pinguín, a poor Cuban Mexican boy much loved in his homeland and elsewhere in Latin America.
A number of African-American community groups and US politicians including Jesse Jackson deemed the images offensive, the White House waded in, and a resolution was introduced in Congress condemning the Mexican government for distributing “blatantly racist” postage stamps.
Inevitably, the US reaction prompted vigorous retorts from the Mexican government, with the then president, Vicente Fox, stating that he was baffled by the indignant US reaction, the foreign affairs minister Luis Ernesto Derbéz describing it as “a total lack of knowledge of our culture … of respect for our culture”, and other officials pointing out that, if the Americans really wanted to discuss stereotypes, then how about the Warner Brothers’ character Speedy Gonzales, which in Mexico had never been interpreted as offensive?
Moreover, the cross-border cultural dispute sparked by the postage stamps has rumbled on into the current US presidential campaign, with Wal-Mart in Texas reportedly pulling Memín comic books from its stores after the latest issue “Memín para presidente” (Memin for President) was deemed an offensive potential reference to the campaign by Senator Barack Obama.
Memín Pinguín, and other examples provided by Child such as the controversies generated by the issue of postage stamps depicting Che Guevara and Frida Kahlo, as well as the war of the stamps prosecuted by Argentina and Britain respectively over who owns – or should own – the Falkland/Malvinas islands, are ample proof of how these diminutive drawings have fired passions over the years and can become weapons in politico-cultural conflicts.
At the very least, stamps are small but potent devices for imparting propaganda, and Miniature Messages undertakes a detailed and comprehensive semiotic examination of this phenomenon taking Latin America as its sample. Their value in providing an alternative window into the region’s reality through formal semiotic analysis – the study of signs and the messages they contain – but also through inter-disciplinary common sense is eloquently explained in Child’s introduction. To elucidate, he quotes the Pan American Union in 1944:
“Postage stamps have long since advanced beyond their original purpose of denoting the prepayment of postal charges. For many years they have been used by the governments of the Americas as publicity media to invite attention to illustrious sons, national beliefs, scenic beauties, and economic opportunities. Selected by the governments themselves, the nationalistic subjects act as windows through which others may view the culture, accomplishments, and ambitions of distant lands.” [p. 3]
The author takes as his cue David Scott’s pioneering European Stamp Design: A Semiotic Approach to Designing Messages, and employs a theoretical framework that adapts the work of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. We are clearly in the presence of a teacher here, who deploys theory only to the extent that it is a means of furthering knowledge in an understandable and accessible way.
Child sets the scene by providing a fascinating overview of the evolution of Latin American stamps since Brazil issued the first so-called bull’s eyes in 1843, through the emergence of commemorative issues, and into the contemporary era, when there has been much greater attention to the messages stamps convey as symbols of nationhood.
The author then begins to explore the real meat and bones of his topic, the relationship between politics and stamps, and provides a fascinating insight into the latter’s value as mechanisms for conveying propaganda of all kinds – from the merits and glories of a particular national identity to messages promoting good citizenship. Child explores the use of stamps by Latin America’s many dictators, and how these were used to broadcast a leader’s imagined virtues. Were it not for the bloodthirstiness of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, for example, the many stamps issued to laud the country’s murderous strongman “would be almost comical in their exaggerated tributes to the dictator and to so many members of his family”. [p. 58]
Chile’s Marxist president Salvador Allende used stamps to mark major events with political implications such as the nationalisation of the copper industry. In turn, Allende’s successor, Augusto Pinochet, issued stamps to celebrate the violent overthrow of the leftwing leader on 11 September 1973.
Child’s discussion of how stamps are used in situations of international strain – especially border disputes or those over territory – is particularly illuminating. The author looks at how Cuba has used stamps for anti-American propaganda, how stamps figured in the simmering dispute between Guatemala and Belize, the Peru-Ecuador border crises, the war of the Pacific in the Southern Cone and a host of other conflicts and disputes, not least the war over the Falklands/Malvinas islands, to which he devotes an entire chapter.
Not surprisingly, events during the short but bloody conflict between Argentina and the UK in 1982 found their way into the images on postage stamps – but also the postal practices in the capital, Port Stanley, itself after the Argentine invasion, when administrators began to reject all mail carrying British or British Falkland stamps and obliterated by hand any reference on addresses to the Falkland Islands or Port Stanley (renamed Puerto Argentino). Ironically, no thought had been given by the Argentines to having Malvinas-related stamps available for the invasion itself, and the first such stamp was issued not long before their defeat, suggesting that it had been a high-priority item rushed into production once the invasion in April has occurred.
With the Falkland Islands conflict as a backdrop, the author looks at how stamps have been employed propagandistically to bolster the legitimacy of claims to Antarctica – a region without people where no postage would, obviously, ever be destined – within the Southern Cone countries and also the UK by virtue of its South Atlantic possessions. Argentina and Chile have, in particular, made a deliberate effort to use stamps to support their Antarctic claims, to inform the world of their presence in the region, and to develop an “Antarctic conscience” within their citizenry.
The great merit of this work is that it is not one of traditional philatelic research or postal history, but inserts stamps in the historical and political context in which they were produced and interprets them accordingly, giving an energetic shot in the arm to formal semiotic analysis. The passion and expertise with which this book is written confirm, in the author’s own words, that it has been a “labour of love”.
Beautifully written and illustrated, Miniature Messages also offers a colourful and engaging tool for teaching Latin American studies, an approach taken by the author throughout a career dedicated to improving understanding of the region whose students, we can speculate, must clearly have been among the luckiest on campus.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books