If you've watched any television at all lately, you've probably seen the little beast: a high-strung, Spanish-speaking chihuahua that goes by the name of Dinky.
The job of this scrawny, nearly hairless dog is to get people like you and me to eat the tacos, burritos and other would-be delicacies peddled by the fast-food chain, Taco Bell. And from what I gather, the pointy-eared mutt, who's part of a $60 million advertising campaign, is doing his job exceptionally well.Now I'm not big on chihuahuas, or fast-food tacos for that matter. But this dog Dinky apparently has his fans. When he stares out bug-eyed from the TV tube and whimpers, "Yo quiero Taco Bell" (I want Taco Bell) in Mexican-accented Spanish, the fast-food chain's sales go up.
It turns out, however, that not everybody is charmed by Dinky. Some people even find the dog offensive and are starting to protest.
Chief among them is former mayor of Clearwater, Fla., Gabriel Cazares, who considers the chihuahua a demeaning stereotype that has no place in American mass-market advertising. Cazares, president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens created a stir recently by calling for a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell until it takes Dinky off the air.
Taco Bell - no surprise - plans nothing of the sort, especially since the Dinky campaign is the hottest ad on TV since Anheuser-Busch got a trio of frogs to croak out the name of its top-selling beer, Budweiser.
And in any case, it's far from clear that most Latin Americans go along with Cazares and his outrage over Dinky. Even the national headquarters of LULAC wants no part of the ex-mayor's boycott campaign.
I was listening to a Latin American talk show on the radio the other day and the majority of listeners calling in said they thought Dinky was more amusing than demeaning. They couldn't understand why anyone would be offended.
Even so, a determined minority of callers, most of them Mexican-Americans, were vehement in saying that it was insulting to have a dog - an ugly dog at that - representing their country on national television.
"It's like saying all Mexicans are dogs," one caller complained.
But it's not only Mexican-Americans who don't like Dinky. Some members of the Cuban-American community in Miami are upset, too, especially over the latest Taco Bell commercial that features the chihuahua wearing a red-badged beret like the one once worn by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba almost 40 years ago.
In a way, the commotion over Dinky reminds me of a flap about 25 years or so ago when Latin Americans protested against the "Frito Bandito." The complaint then was that the Frito-Lay company was using a cartoon character portraying Mexican-Americans as highway robbers in an campaign to sell corn chips. Frito-Lay soon retired the Frito Bandito from active service.
Something similar happened more recently when an Asian restaurant in Seattle started using an exaggerated cartoon figure of a Chinese "coolie" wearing a pointed straw hat as its symbol. When Asian-American groups protested, the restaurant dropped the coolie figure in a flash.
And some of you may remember a restaurant chain called Sambo's. Its original symbol was a cartoon figure of a small boy apparently adopted from the old Scottish children's story, "Little Black Sambo." Though the story took place in India, not Africa, many African-Americans didn't like the connotations of the symbol and boycotted the chain, which went out of business except for one outlet in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Some of these examples - the coolie figure and the Frito Bandito - seemed to be fairly easy calls. Like the black-face minstrel shows of old, they had no place in a modern, multicultural America and had to go.
Making the call on Dinky the chihuahua could be more difficult. Other than the fact that he's a breed of dog named after a state in Mexico and has a Mexican accent, there's nothing really bad you can say about him.
On the contrary, the ad campaign portrays the chihuahua as courageous, bright (he answers a "Jeopardy!" question in one ad), bilingual and charismatic (thousands cheer at his every word).
Nevertheless, this dispute over Dinky seems far from over. The fact is that America's ethnic and racial sensitivities are in a constant state of flux these days, and we'll no doubt be hearing more about the Spanish-speaking chihuahua in the coming months.
Where do you stand on this? Does Dinky stay or does he go?
Scripps Howard News Service.