Saturday, December 19, 2015

Racism in Mexico

I've been thinking hard about how to write this post. First, it has to do with inequality, an issue I can get passionate about. But, second, I'm no expert on this subject, and this is just a simple post, not a real well-researched essay. Nevertheless, I've been wanting to mention this - a problem not that many people are willing to acknowledge - for a while, so here it goes.

On a Sunday, taking advantage of a long walk in the neighbourhood, I decided I was going to snap a photo of any advertisement I saw picturing people and that wasn't a foreign movie or program. This was a walk from what is known as El Caballito (a modern sculpture of a horse) on Paseo de la Reforma, all the way to Zona Rosa (a queer district).

Now, before I get to the pictures, I did carry out just a little research about Mexico's ethnic makeup. I tried to find good statistics on Mexico City, but I couldn't, so I'm afraid we'll have to do with national ones:

  • People of mixed Indigenous-European ancestry: 73-78% 
  • Indigenous people: 10-14% 
  • People of European descent: 9-10%
  • Afro-Mexicans: 1% 
  • Arab Mexicans: less than 1% 
  • Asian-Mexicans: less than 1% 
  • Others: no available data

A warning: these figures are approximations, as Mexico's census doesn't register ethnic group affiliation. Ergo the wildly diverging numbers.

But now, with those numbers in mind, have a look at these ads I found on my walk. Remember, I only took pictures of ads with people (that is, there were many more ads on that walk, but they were not useful for this experiment) and they don't include ads for foreign programs or movies (because those ads would feature populations from outside of Mexico, therefore they didn't apply either).

There was a total of 15 individuals. Seven of them (46%) are clearly of European descent. The other 8 could be classified as mestizo with very heavy European features. None are Afro-Mexican. None are Asian-Mexican. None are Indigenous. A couple could be Arab-Mexican. 

The sample is, of course, very small. And I have seen ads with dark Mexicans, but the vast majority of those were government ads for public services.  

I'm afraid this is not just a special and unique sample. As anyone who's aware of racial issues and who's spent any time in Mexico can tell you, this preference for white people does not apply just to ads. This applies to most media: soap operas, newscasts, movies... In 2013 Aeromexico made a casting call for an ad, specifying no dark skinned people should apply. Watching Mexican TV, it's hard not to notice the overwhelming presence of white people, way above the percentage of the population they represent. 

As an anecdote, I can say that, more than once, I heard the sentence "mejorar la raza" (to better the race) in relation to Caucasian people marrying non-Caucasian people. Granted, I haven't heard that in a long time (though it's hard to tell whether it's because I associate with less prejudiced people, because people are more aware of how racist that is and are careful not to say it in public, or because attitudes have really changed). But I can give you some depressing statistics: according to a study by CONAPRED, Mexico's National Council for Preventing Discrimination, 55% of Mexicans recognize that people are insulted based on their skin colour, and fully 6% of Mexicans justify it; A whopping 20% of Mexicans feel unhappy about their skin colour

When the Spaniards conquered the native peoples of this land, a complex caste system was set into motion, with Europeans at the very top, indigenous peoples at the very bottom, and different mixes in between, in rigid order, with dramatic consequences for people's lives. That was wrong. But that was a different time, too. What I find appalling is that, since the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1521 until today - almost half a millennium later - economy, power and desirableness still show clearly racial patterns. 

Now, statistics are being gathered on discrimination, there are governmental institutions engaged in educating to eradicate discrimination, there is indeed outrage by at least some people when cases like Aeromexico's come to light. So the seeds for change are there, and change is taking place. But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that blatant, unacknowledged, widespread racism still takes place. 

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