Racism in Mexico Rears Its Ugly Head

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2010

Every morning during television coverage of the World Cup, on the Mexican equivalent of the “Today” show, co-hosts chat, trade barbs and yuck it up. Behind them, actors in blackface makeup, dressed in fake animal skins and wild “Afro” wigs, gyrate, wave spears and pretend to represent a cartoonish version of South Africa.

Yes, in the 21st century, blackface characters on a major television network.

But this is Mexico, and definitions of racism are complicated and influenced by the country’s own tortured relationship with invading powers and indigenous cultures.

Many Mexicans will say they are not racist and that very little racism exists in Mexico, a nation, after all, of mestizos, who are of European and indigenous blood.

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But the full truth is that racism is alive and well in Mexico. It is primarily directed at indigenous communities who account for as many as 11.3 million people, or roughly 10% of the national population. The indigenous remain disproportionately mired in poverty and denied work, political access, education and other rights.

And there is a smaller community of black Mexicans, Afro Mexicanos, many descendants of slaves first brought to the region by Spanish conquerors in the 16th century.

Often referred to by academics as the “third race” and concentrated in the coastal states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Guerrero, they have been fighting for years for recognition as a distinct ethnic group, to be included in history books and to be given opportunities to transcend poverty.

“Racism in Mexico is covered up,” said Ricardo Bucio, head of the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination, which has protested the blackface TV caricatures. “There is a lot of denial about it.”

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Still, in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, people operate with a different comfort level when it comes to physical attributes. It remains common for Mexicans to use nicknames like “Chino” for someone with almond-shaped eyes, “Negrito” for someone with dark skin, “Gordo” (Fatso) for a plump person.

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