Posted on October 21, 2022

Mexico’s New Racial Reckoning: A Movement Protests Colorism and White Privilege

Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2022

A few months ago, several employees of an upscale Mexico City steakhouse came forward with a damning allegation: The restaurant had a policy of segregation in which the best tables were reserved for the customers with the lightest skin.

The notion of whiter Mexicans getting preferential treatment was not surprising in a country where darker-skinned people have long earned less money, received less schooling and been all but invisible in the media. But the ensuing public outrage was.

Within days, activists mounted a boycott and the city launched an investigation into the restaurant, Sonora Grill Prime, which denied the accusations. Multiple public figures highlighted the scandal as evidence of pervasive bigotry. “Racism is real,” Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum told reporters, using a word long regarded as taboo. “We have to accept that it exists and fight it.”

For the vast stretch of Mexico’s modern history, many denied that racism existed here at all.

They embraced the nation’s foundational myth that its people are mestizos, a single blended race of indigenous and Spanish blood, insisting that there could be no prejudice if all Mexicans were the same.

But a growing social movement is challenging that thinking, thrusting discussions of discrimination based on skin color to the fore.

Activists have pushed for more diversity in the film and television industry and have launched campaigns to end profiling by police.

Using Twitter and TikTok, they’ve called out companies and celebrities for discrimination and have popularized a new term — whitexican, a mix of the words white and Mexican — to refer to the nation’s wealthy, light-skinned elite.

The movement has found a powerful ally in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a tan-faced leftist from the poor state of Tabasco whose family has been subjected to racial smears, and who has highlighted the issue of racism like no other leader in Mexico’s history.


Mexico’s new racial reckoning has met resistance from parts of society, with some of the country’s top media personalities accusing activists of importing radical ideologies from the United States and seeking to divide the nation along racial lines.

“They’re just looking to tear us apart,” a light-skinned anchor with the news channel ADN 40 said this week during a roundtable about diversity in the media.

“How can they talk about not discriminating when that’s what they’re doing?” a guest responded. “There are redheaded Mexicans. There are whites. Now they won’t let them be in movies because they don’t represent Mexico? To me, that’s discrimination.”

Much of the work for activists has been focused on a basic first step: getting their compatriots to recognize that Mexico is a country with racial differences — even if it lacks the more rigid racial categories of a place like the United States.


If slavery was the original sin of the United States, colonialism was Latin America’s.

The Spanish conquest of the New World five centuries ago established a caste system in which social standing was largely determined by a person’s racial mix. At the top of the ladder were people of European descent, followed by those of mixed colonial and Indigenous heritage. At the bottom were Indigenous people, followed by Black slaves.

After the Mexican Revolution, a bloody seven-year struggle that ended in 1917, the leaders of the new republic pushed an ideology that they hoped would unify a fractured nation.

At its core was the figure of the mestizo — a concept that would be embraced across Latin America.

Jose Vasconcelos, who championed the concept as Mexico’s first education minister, described it in 1925 as a “cosmic race” of the future, with all the “virtues of Indians and Europeans” alike.

Mexicans were taught that they lived in a post-racial society. In 1994, the country’s representative to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination acknowledged that classism and sexism were prevalent but insisted that “the phenomenon of racial discrimination” did not exist in Mexico.

So ingrained was this belief that the country generally doesn’t ask detailed questions about race in census surveys, making it difficult to study the relationship between skin color and socioeconomics.

One rough measure of race is language, with an estimated 6% of the population speaking at least one of the dozens of Indigenous languages that exist here. {snip}

In recent years, academics developed a new research method. Before asking about a person’s life, they categorize the respondent’s skin tone on an 11-point color scale that ranges from darkest to lightest.


A 2017 study published by the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University found that people with the whitest skin had completed 11 years of schooling on average compared with five years for those with browner skin.

Wealth also correlated to skin color, with dark-skinned people earning 52% less than their whiter compatriots.

Not that any of this was much of a surprise in a country where the word “Indian” is routinely used to describe someone who is lazy and where grandparents cajole young people to find a light-skinned partner “to improve the race.”


Mexico’s anti-racist social movement has antecedents.

The 1994 Zapatista uprising was billed as a revolution against neoliberalism, but also protested the marginalization of Indigenous communities.

Afro-Mexicans, who claimed their very existence had been erased by mestizo ideology, pushed the Mexican government to include a Black ancestry question on the national census for the first time in two centuries in 2020. It found that about 2.5 million of Mexico’s 127 million people identify as Black.