The Perils of Pirateria

Phone-card company swipes !Ask a Mexican! logo for long-distance card

Piratería is a religion in Mexico, a phenomenon so pervasive the government spends millions fighting the problem each year and many music-CD commercials end with a baritone announcer warning, "Diga no a la piratería" (Say no to piracy). You can buy almost any type of counterfeited good from Mexicans—Los Angeles Timesjournalist Sam Quiñones wrote in his masterful True Tales From Another Mexico how Mexico City street vendors hawked imitation Viagra just a couple of weeks after the pill's American debut.

Nevertheless, I always thought of piratería as plucky capitalism, a low-cost testament to the resourcefulness of Mexicans—hell, I even bought a couple of illegally copied movies and records myself. That is, until I discovered a phone card for sale that featured the grinning-bandito logo of my ¡Ask a Mexican! column.

Pancho and Poncho.
Pancho and Poncho.

I first learned about the card from an anonymous poster who left a comment on my MySpace page ( I laughed the graphic off as a clever cut-and-paste joke: Other commentators have splattered my column's logo on everything from the presidential seal to Mexican Revolution-era photographs. But last week, my brother walked into an Anaheim liquor store and found that not only was the phone card legit, but that it also offered some damn good long-distance deals.

Technically, the phone card wasn't piratería. The company that printed it, Total Call International, is a real company with offices in Los Angeles that offers low-rate phone cards for calls to virtually every country in the world. The offending card in question featured a guy with a guitar wearing sneakers, a poncho and sombrero giving the thumbs-up. The icon's face is that of artist Mark Dancey's ¡Ask a Mexican! logo. " La Mejor Mexico" the card screamed.

No one had asked me or Village Voice Media (the cabrones who own the copyright to the ¡Ask a Mexican! column and logo, as well as my second-born son) for permission to use the image. So I tried to contact someone with Total Call International—but the line was busy. I tried again—busy. Finally, someone picked up the phone—and promptly hung up.

This continued all day, until a receptionist finally put me through to the art director. My questions to him were simple: How did Total Call International find the logo, and who gave them permission? "That would not be under my care," the art director replied nervously. He transferred me to Voltaire Hernández, senior vice president of sales. Again, I got cut off.

Hernández returned my call the following day. After apologizing for the bad connections the day before, he explained how his company had come to rip me off. Seems a graphics designer was trying to find a stock Mexican character for a new phone card designed for Latino consumers and found my logo after a Google search. "[The graphics department] is usually pretty careful with copyrights," Hernández explained. He was polite and apologetic and promised to recall the 10,000 phone cards already printed.

One final question: I asked Hernández if the logo—which many intellectual-type Mexicans find grotesque—had offended any customers. Not at all, replied Hernández. In fact, the card had sold quite well: "If it was a bomb, we wouldn't be selling it on the street."

Two days later, I received a signed letter from Hernández notifying me that Total Call International had "instructed the distributor of [the offending] card to initiate the return of these cards to us immediately." He also attached their substitute logo—another grinning, mustachioed Mexican. A rip-off of the original. Bastards—now that's piratería.