Conguitos

A Spanish candy mascot with a bad reputation

When british formula one driver Lewis Hamilton, who is black, was poised to win a title last year, angry Spanish fans bombarded websites with racial slurs against him. Besides calling Hamilton a “nigger” and a “half-breed,” one wrote “Conguito, you are going to die,” referring to a popular Spanish candy whose package features a pygmy-like character with thick red lips and bulging eyes. The brand was launched in 1961 with the character created by Spanish graphic artist Juan Tudela Férez at a time when such racist stereotypes were commonplace, even in the U.S. (think Aunt Jemima).

The name, which freely translated means “little Congo boys,” was apparently chosen because of heightened interest in Africa—the Congo had recently become independent—and for that continent’s exotic appeal when selling chocolate. But while we’ve entered the age of political correctness, Spaniards continue to munch through 30 million bags of chocolate-covered-peanut Conguitos a year. The label, notes design critic Steven Heller, “is seen in Spain as innocent as it used to be for Americans to eat ‘black babies’ chocolate, which was discontinued in the ’60s.”

In 2003, a Spanish professor launched a letter-writing campaign to the company denouncing the packaging as “racist and insulting,” especially to Spain’s many African immigrants. In response, a company spokesman was quoted in a local paper saying that consumers have shown only “affection and support” and that the Conguito character “respects everyone.” Still, there have been alterations to the little Congo boy in the past decade to make him more “urban,” according to the spokesperson, rather than a character “located in the jungle”: He lost his spear, his belly button, and his huge red lips, and gained a white twin.

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