She could be any one of a thousand impoverished Mexican children who sell gum or beg for money on the street in dirty clothes except for one thing–her blonde hair.
The flurry of internet attention to the photo, and the quick way officials reacted, has renewed a debate about racism in Mexico, a nation that is proud of its mestizo heritage but where millions of indigenous people live in poverty and passers-by often barely notice the dark-skinned children begging in the street.
The controversy started last week when a Facebook user posted a photo of the girl standing next to a rear-view mirror on a Guadalajara street.
He suspected she might have been kidnapped as ‘her parents are brown,’ and he immediately contacted a welfare agency and state prosecutors.
‘Let’s spread this photo around,’ the unidentified user wrote.
The photo was shared by tens of thousands with some praising the photographer and other complaining the post was racist.
‘The concern was the suspicion the girl had been stolen,’ said Lino Gonzalez spokesman for prosecutors in Jalisco state, where Guadalajara is the capital. ‘We had to respond because there was suspicion a crime had been committed.’
Mexican authorities immediately began investigating the girl.
They soon found the 5-year-old, put her in a Guadalajara orphanage, and detained her 23-year-old mother for two days.
Authorities said she lied about her address and about the father of the girl, first stating he was a foreigner, then saying he was was Mexican, but estranged from her.
The child’s grandmother – who also has green eyes – was able to hand over the birth certificate of the girl.
The mother was later released and there were no signs the girl had been kidnapped, though DNA results are pending.
Authorities say they are also considering charges of child exploitation.
The case sparked international outrage.
‘We need to see a white girl to worry about kidnapping, trafficking of children and child exploitation,’ wrote human rights activist Yali Noriega. ‘I’ve never seen photos of Indian children or simply dark-skinned kids circulating on the Internet with people asking others to help them’
Others believe the mother could sue the government for taking her daughter based only on uninformed public opinion.
‘It is not right that just because of the color of her skin, they can say it’s not her daughter,’ said Xochitl Galvez, a former federal Cabinet minister who is an advocate for Indian rights. ‘There is no such thing as a pure race. We are a mix … that tells you a lot about the authorities’ lack of knowledge.’
Galvez said authorities should focus on reducing the high rate of child labor in Mexico and create more programs to support poor single mothers.
‘The solution is not to arrest the mother or take the girl from her,’ she said. ‘We should be asking what do we do to help these children?’
Amparo Gonzalez Luna, director of the orphanage where the girl has been living, said the mother is poor and the episode should encourage her to take better care of her children.
‘It has caused her a lot of pain,’ she said.