The front page yesterday’s edition of Mexico City newspaper “La Jornada” contained the headline – Racism so established in Mexico that it is hidden. I bought the newspaper and sat down to read the article by Fernando Camacho Servin. The orignal version in Spanish is online here.
A couple of bloggers I follow have written on the topic. David Lida, a well known Mexico City writer, wrote on his blog in 2008 ‘I’ve never met a Mexican who copped to being a racist’ which, seems to support the idea that racism is so ingrained in Mexican culture that, as the La Jornada headline indicates, ‘it is hidden. The entry considers a range of supposedly ‘endearing terms’ that are used to identify people depending on their ethnicity. Read it here.
More recently, El Gringo Suelto, has considered race, privilege and conceptions of beauty during a trip through various parts of Mexico. Some thoughts on Mexican Concepts of Beauty and The Mixed Emotions of San Cristóbal de las Casas are both well worth reading.
A google search – ‘racism in Mexico – leads to a further range of articles, blogs,wikipedia entries and more on the topic.
My photograph from the Chacahua National Park on the coast of Oaxaca, one of the parts of Mexico home to people of African ancestry. (Wikipedia article on Afro-Mexicans)
‘The racist character of Mexican society is an “unquestionable” phenomenon, appearing since the Colonial period when the dominant classes established an entire class system in order to justify their privileges’, pointed out Alicia Castellanos, a professor and researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the Iztapalapa campus of the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM).
The academic detailed that, although formal discourse has change over more than 400 years, these hierarchies remained deeply rooted, creating categories of race in the social consciousness and associating them with the supposed inferiority or superiority of peoples and cultures and reinforcing sayings such as ‘ it’s not the fault of the Indian but of what he does’ and ‘we need to improve the race’.
Over the years racism has been made invisible with the discourse that Mexico is a society of mestizos where ‘we are all equal’ but, according to one specialist, it is overlooked that in this supposed equality the highest positions are occupied by those who are further away from the Indian spectrum and closer to the white.
Castellano highlighted that, since the 19th century, but more strongly after the revolution, the government has “created a nation through homogeneity, a ‘mestizocracy’ where those who are different are sought to be assimilated”, forcing them to leave their identity behind.
One peculiar characteristic of racism Mexican style, pointed out by Emiko Saldivar, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California in Santa Barbara, is that it offers the possibility to those who are different to assimilate themselves into the mestizo norm as a way of self improvement.
Saldivar emphasised that racism in Mexico is of assimilation not of segregation. It is thought to be more benign because it tells you ‘if you’re abused, you just perform some kind of alchemy, you adapt and you won’t be a victim of discrimination’ when the real problem is that this is actually considered an option.
Another unique feature of this phenomenon at a local level is that, in contrast to countries where racial differences are very clear, in Mexico the range of possibilities of racial mixtures is enormous, which results in a game of appearances in which the same person can be discriminated in one situation and privileged in another.
Monica Moreno Figueroa, an academic in the field of Sociology and Politics at the University of Newcastle in England points out that “in one context you’re the güero (blond, fair skinned) of the group, in another you’re the most moreno (dark-haired/skinned) and in yet another one you’re the same as everyone else. This relativity allows us to change from victims to victimizers in a dynamic in which a person may complain of being denied entry to a nightclub because he is moreno but at the same time changes seats because he sees somebody who is more moreno than him”.
Although racism is a practice which is not talked about at an institutional level and to which few people admit, the National Survey about Discrimination in Mexico 2010 developed by the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination shows that 23 percent of the country’s inhabitants would not be willing to live with somebody “of another race” or “with a different culture”.
Similarly, 55 percent of Mexicans concede that people are discriminated against because of the colour of their skin while 11 percent believe it is justified or agree that indigenous people are poor “because they don’t work enough”.
Moreover, 20 percent of people feel an aversion to their skin tone, 24 percent have felt discriminated against because of their physical appearance and 5.5 percent consider it a negative that a society be made up of people of different ethnicities.
Other studies, such as the one undertaken by American researchers Gillette Hall and Harry Patrinos about poverty and development in indigenous towns of Latin America, showed that an indigenous person with a degree in Mexico earned in 1995 just over 3,000 pesos per month whereas a non-indigenous person with the same level of education earned more than 6, 500 pesos.
An analysis carried out by the University of Texas in 2010 indicated that Mexicans with darker skin have 57 percent less opportunities of going to university compared to those of fair complexion which leads their work options to revolve around jobs such as domestic helpers, labourers, chauffeurs and security guards.
Ricardo Bucio, the president of the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination pointed out that ‘as it is a topic that is rarely discussed or analysed, discrimination based on racism is practically never denounced in the country but even if it were, there are no legal mechanisms to punish the offenders’.
According to the figures of this organisation, from 2011 to the current time in 2014, only 15 complaints of alleged acts of racial discrimination have been received. In four of these cases, the alleged victims were descendants of Africans and in six cases the victims were of “indeterminate” race.
In an interview, the official explained that one of the factors that contributes to the lack of complaints is that the Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination is currently only authorised to prosecute public organisations but not individuals or private companies, which are more prone to this kind of behaviour.
On the other hand the legal framework on the subject in different entities of the republic is “very unequal”. While the majority of state legislation prohibits racist behaviours, very few laws have defined the appropriate mechanisms to act in consequence.
There are some states – such as Jalisco, Nuevo Leon, Sonora and Morelos – where racial discrimination is not classed as a crime whereas other states have approved the creation of institutions and laws to fight these practices but “they have not devoted even one peso” to make them work such as in the case of Baja California Sur, Oaxaca and Chiapas.
Bucio deeply regrets that “one fact that helps to understand the scare importance given to this issue by authorities is that in 1975 Mexico signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination but from that year until 1996 the government simply denied that racism existed in the country”.
Racism, in Alicia Castellano’s opinion, generates in the first place an “enormous expenditure of energy as the person feels both rejection and shame which translates to a country that is not capable of valuing the knowledge, contributions and richness” of its peoples and cultures.
Monica Moreno asserted that ” we Mexicans are ashamed and that is very sad. Once I heard someone say that they had met a very intelligent young guy but that ‘nobody would pay a peso for him’ because he was ‘the typical Mexican: short, skinny, dark-skinned and thus insignificant’. If for us insignificance is equivalent to mexicanidad, we contribute to our own oppression.
The experts agreed that, another effect of racism is to criminalise certain groups because of their physical appearance, blame them for their poverty, strip them of their natural resources or simply deny them basic rights as in the recent cases of indigenous women who gave birth outside public hospitals because nobody would admit them to hospital.
They said that, to dismantle the ingrained racism, intercultural education programs need to be put into place along with a new media policy that does not just exalt the western notion of beauty but, above all else, it is necessary to talk about the issue.
Emiko Saldivar stressed that, “part of the solution is bringing it out into the open, creating spaces where people can speak of their experiences, giving words to lived experiences because one of the causes of the tolerance of racism in Mexico is that it can be denied, assumed as a natural thing and in this way used to justify privilege and social inequality”.