It's hard not to draw comparisons between different places you've lived in. After all, if you live somewhere long enough, you simply get used to whatever your surrounding reality is. And then, when you move, countless things that would otherwise seem completely ordinary to the locals all of a sudden become salient to you. That's what's happened to me with race. Granted, Toronto is not perfect. No city is. But if there's one thing Toronto tried to be, it was tolerant and inclusive. Again, sure, not perfect, but that most cosmopolitan of places sure tried hard at it.
And then, there's Mexico City. I'm not going to try to soften what I'm going to say by mentioning a list of wonderful things about the city. I've written enough and aplenty about Mexico City, and most of what I've published has been good. So I'll just say it – this is one very racist city (you can read my previous post on racism here: "Racism in Mexico"). But – and this mis very important – it is also doing a lot to correct that.
That photo above is an Aztec serpent's head serving as decorative part of the architecture of a Colonial building. A poignant symbol of the power of the Spanish over the locals. A power that would influence race relations and perceptions until our days. And that corner, in fact, belongs to the Museo de la Ciudad, where we had headed to visit an exhibition on – surprise – racism, called Imágenes para Ver-te (Images for looking at your-self).
I was very excited about this, as one very visible effort by this multi-racial multi-cultural city at addressing the still lingering prejudice against dark skin and indigenous features...
I highly recommend you visit. It took us a good two hours to see the whole exhibition. It starts with a very nice introduction that clearly takes into account that many people may see racism through a United States lens, believing that that's a black vs white problem, and that it only happens north of the border. But one look at the introductory film presents you with not only a number of racist and derogatory words used in other cultures, but quite a few incredibly insulting ones used in Mexico to talk about people of indigenous heritage.
The exhibition takes you on a historical tour. A fascinating one. There was this book, some 100 years old, "explaining" the differences between "savage", "barbarian" and "civilized" cultures. There was this ironic relationship between science and prejudice, classification and discrimination. You can only stare in disbelief at some of the things that were actually printed down.
At some point, people in Mexico believed that, once indigenous peoples "became civilized", they'd disappear. And so some researchers made the effort of preserving these soon-to-vanish features through casts of indigenous faces.
Phrenology – the idea that certain very specific traits were located on very specific areas of the head – played an important role. Criminals, the homeless, the dispossessed, they would be measured and photographed as if they were objects in order to study what features they had in common and to supposedly confirm a racial basis for their misfortunes.
The assumption of the inferiority – in all aspects – of the indigenous peoples of Mexico facilitated their mass killing, their concentration in camps, their forceful deportation. The article below praises the government for killing the Yaqui native tribe to get their land for its use by "civilized" people. One of many atrocities committed. And a version that clashes – at least partially – with the myth of the integration of native peoples in Mexico, as opposed to their anhilitaion or confinement in reservations in the US.
So, what happens when for centuries Europeans have had the upper hand, when the dominant canon of beauty and civilization is western, when local cultures are despised and made fun of? You end up in a system – some people call it a pigmentocracy – where it's incredibly hard to find positive role models if you happen to have indigenous features or belong to an indigenous culture. Interestingly – though not surprisingly – this has caused reactions where a mixed-race identity that includes local elements is finally surfacing in conjunction with feelings of pride and belonging.
Which is not to say that racist feelings still run amok, especially abetted by the anonymity of the internet. I won't translate the image below, I'll just say that, online, revulsion to and violence against native elements is alive and kicking and open in as vile a way as possible.
This was the last part of the exhibition, the contemporary section. It was nice, though I feel it could have delved a bit deeper into how racism takes place in Mexico nowadays, and the subtle ways it exerts power.
The final section includes a series of photographs, questioning who is indigenous and who's not, inviting the observer to think whether that distinction is helpful, to ponder how you yourself identify, and to probably find yourself in the faces photographed. A real treat, given the widespread white-washing that happens in the media and in advertising.
Like I said, it took us about two hours to see the whole exhibition. For the first of its kind in the city, it's amazing. And I certainly hope there will be more like this. So kudos for the organizers.
But that wasn't it. Since we were close to the city's main square, the Zócalo, we went to the "III Fiesta de las culturas indígenas, pueblos y barrios originarios de la Ciudad de México" (the 3rd Mexico City festival of indigenous cultures and originary peoples and neighbourhoods).
Mexico City has been organizing these for three years now, usually choosing a guest country (this year's – Ecuador) and a guest region from Mexico (this year's – la Huasteca). To be honest, it still looks to me more like a crafts market than anything. But it gives you the rare chance to buy products that are produced by very specific communities, and to get to know a little about them. When you go to the food stands, it's the same – all of a sudden you realize that there are specific and subtle variations, and finally get to identify the culture some dishes really belong to. But the best part, in my point of view, is to hear poets and panellists and speakers expressing their views from their very personal – and until very recently rather looked down upon – points of view, and often in their own languages. This I really love. For a long time, people in Mexico City who spoke an indigenous language would feel ashamed to use it in public. To find myself in the country's most important square and hear different native languages spoken to big audiences? Priceless.
So, step by step, who knows, we might be getting there.