Race And Sex In Latin America

This is an oft touched on subject, particularly with those who spend more than just a weeks holiday in Mexico. The subject of race, and racism in particular. I remember one of my earliest conversations, with a student. I mentioned that I hadn’t in the months I’d been in the city, once felt that my skin colour had been a disadvantage. She looked up, and with no look of surprise on her face, simply stated that ‘there is no racism’ in Mexico.

Actually there is, and I’ve mentioned it before, more than once. I am often discriminated against because of my skin colour. All the time. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for millions of Mexicans, it is usually a form of positive discrimination. Although there are occasions, in touristy areas, where the opposite is true, and a street vendor will think he can charge me more than the going rate for a cigarro suelto or whatever.

You need only look at the political hierarchy of Mexico. The top echelons of businesses in Mexico. Even when I walk into a blue chip firm to give classes I am confronted by them. White faces. Sometimes, exclusively. Particularly with females I’ve noticed. So it’s easy to declare, without fear of contradiction, that racism is at play. In its near two hundred years of existence, there has only once been an indigenous looking president. The next one won’t be the second. The likely suspects are in the image at the bottom of the post.

And yet. And yet. White Mexicans look down on light brown Mexicans. Light brown Mexicans look down on dark brown Mexicans. But US Mexicans of all shades look down on all Mexico Mexicans. These are generalisations, I know, but it occurs often enough to have some validity. How does it all work? Go figure. Perhaps all this has more to do with being percieved as being as ‘non Mexican’ as possible, which is not dependent on skin colour, but can obviously be influenced by what skin colour ‘represents’.

I could be here another five years and still not really have a full grasp on the Mexican psyche. But anyway. Here’s another point of view or three. A segment of a BBC Thinking Aloud podcast, which deals with the subject, with main focus on Mexico and Brazil.


19 thoughts on “Race And Sex In Latin America

  1. Ay Gary, I am sure this post will push a few botones. So very true about the racism amongst Mexicans. In Mexico and in the States. I’ve just never understood it. I won’t go in to a whole diatribe about it but just mention as an aside that I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and oh yes, it was/is always alive and well.
    My husband and I were in Puerto Vallarta last November; my husband struck up a conversation with a local well dressed business man in the lobby of our hotel while he waited for me. The gentleman asked my husband where he was from and was surprised that my husband is from the States. My husband made some mention that the dark brown color of his skin let him blend in with the locals in Mexico. The gentleman told my husband that his color wasn’t brown, but “menos blanco”. A cautionary piece of advice I guess.


    • It’s just life. Mexicans are a very complex bunch, and I don’t think anyone would dispute that. I did remove a paragraph of ‘thoughts’, regards how I see Mexicans viewing themselves, from the post before publishing – no need to be making controversial statements for the sake of being controversial. Although that wasn’t my intention, but…well, you know.


  2. Nez says:

    Oh Boy. Where do I even begin? Any close family member of mine can tell you that this issue is not to be brought up with me, unless you wish to spend the rest of your day hearing me rant on about it. I will try to be a bit more brief here though.

    Racism amongst Mexicans has always been EXTREMELY obvious to me. Funnily enough, its not something my family notices or even acknowledges. I Love my family. I don’t consider them all blatantly racist, nor hateful people. Yet they do possess SOME level of racism in their way of viewing people and our own family members. I don’t know to what extent my blood is mixed, but that there’s some kind of mixture is of no doubt. It’s also never been a doubt in my mind which of my family members are most fawned over and admired. We have a few family members in both sides of my family that every few generations are born with very clear European features. My blond, green eyed and pale freckled nephews (by way of my cousin) are certainly fawned over far more than my other “prieto…paisa…” nephews. My blue eyed, pale and tall nephew? Adored. My auborn headed, freckled nephew? Cute as a button. My beautifully tanned nieces and nephews with jet black hair and skin the color of chocolate? Eh. They don’t really receive much commentary. They’re just “dark and paisa”. Some of them “se componen” if their skin tone lightens up with time. Of course my family thinks I’m crazy and that I MUST be the one obsessed with race, since I’m always the one talking about it.

    It. Gets. To. You.

    The lighter skinned family members or people we know are always admired far more. Seen as more desirable. Described as “refined”…”nacio muy fino.” Delicate. The list goes on. One thing is the Mexican perception of beauty, which Ok…fine…to each their own, but its obvious that it extends far beyond people’s personal taste in beauty. White is Right for a great number of Mexicans. It equals attractiveness, intelligence and superiority. You need only see our line of Presidents, or simply flip on to a Mexican tv channel and watch one of our soap opera’s. I was used to Mexican’s (Mexican-American’s like myself) being underrepresented in American television, but does it make sense that I feel as equally, if not MORE, underrepresented by Mexican television? The only one’s that look like me are either used for comic relief, or are one of the uneducated and docile servants to the European looking Mexicans. Nothing against them, because they’re still Mexican, but if you were to watch one of our programs you’d almost think Mexico was 99% European. It’s exceedingly rare to find a brown person on Mexican television, that is respected. Politics? Oh boy. I could write a whole book on that.

    There’s a sector of my family that even refuses to acknowledge our being related to them, because they’ve declared that our family name only ever belonged to White Mexican’s and suddenly we started appearing…thus we must of stolen the name (seriously, those are their words). Another family member who hoped that with my grandmother marrying a fairer Mexican the “indian” would be “washed” out of us. If you could see me…you’d see that her wishes have remained unfulfilled. I have very clear indigenous features and thankfully am proud of them. I’m also planning to involve myself in the Mexican Genealogy Project…and would LOVE to find out if I have any Asian, or African blood in me (also open to European, but I’m already certain that’s in there, so its not as much of a mystery). Something that many mexican’s would be less than pleased to find unfortunately. Seeing the variety of ethnic features that my family has come to possess (various get confused for Asian, some of us for 100% Native American and others for full on Europeans) its made me very fascinated by our background and our story. Sadly, I don’t think most of my family members would be interested in finding out beyond the European mixture. The more European…the better for many.

    Ok. I could say so much more and go into some more serious not as superficial aspects of Mexican racism, but I’d never finish. Actually, its all rather superficial. Classism. Everything is connected….to skin pigmentation. Skin. Pigmentation.

    Rant. Over.


    • Nez says:

      P.S- Sorry for my rant, as it wasn’t brief! And two..as a Mexican American, I certainly do NOT look down on Mexican’s that were not born or raised here. Unfortunately there are others who do, but as always..we cannot generalize. If anything, I find myself slightly more disliked for my Mexican Americanness. Never Mexican enough. Never American enough.

      Sigh. Let me stop here before you tell me I have a chip on my shoulder!


  3. Daniel Sosa Tellez says:

    I think Nez makes a lot of sense. I am disappointed that Gary deleted that controversial paragraph about how Mexican see issues of race. Why Gary? That would not have been unnecessarily controversial, because I am interested in your perception of race relations in Mexico.

    Growing up in Mexico, I learned from an early age that a person’s socio-economic status could be more or less inferred from the color of his skin. In my school -a private school in the south of the city, supposedly left-wing and inspired on the socialist principles of Spanish emigres who fled Francisco Franco’s right-wing dictatorship- there was much racism. Calling someone “indio” was an insult. “Naco” was also an insult, normally aimed at poor or lower middle class folk of brownish skin. People always said nice things about my hair -light brown at the time- and my eyes -green- so I learned to think that having such hair and such color of eyes was better than the run-of-the-mill Mexican standard of dark hair and dark eyes. Anyway, my parents almost issue a complaint against my soccer coach when they learned that he was using “indio” as a derogative term. It wasn’t until I was about 15 or 16 that I realized the extent to which I had internalized the racist ideology of Mexico -or of the Mexican middle class- and I am appalled to see that it remains the norm. Expressions like “Que naco”, “pinche indio”, “te viste indio”, etc. are heard all the time.

    So yes, Mexico is a racist country, and Mexicans by and large don’t like to talk about race because our History textbooks tell us that we dealt with those issues during the Revolucion -and ever since we’ve lived in the peace with our mestizo heritage… as they say in the BBC podcast, that is a little shaky. The correlation between a person’s percentage of European DNA, and his or her socio-economic level, is very high.

    But bring the subject to a conversation, and your average Mexican will say that it is you, in fact, who is racist, because of your country’s history of slavery/colonialism/etc. They say that Westerners have no right to complain about Mexican racism because they are “much more racist” and will be quick to point out at the beating up of Ecuadorian migrants in Madrid or whatever. In short, they get all defensive and it’s hard to convince them to critically assess race relations in Mexico. It’s annoying.


    • In one of the above comments, someone mentions that it is wrong to generalize. Actually, I disagree…you can’t comment on groups/sections/communities etc etc without generalising, and you can’t comment on every individual. But…generalising can be a little dangerous. It is important to make clear, in my opinion, that a claim is a generalisation, and to what extent it applies.

      My deleted paragraph explored some spur of the moment idea that really Mexicans hate Mexicans with some frankly outrageous generalisations which I couldn’t, in hindsight, justify.

      I will say, that whilst there is an obvious degree of racism in Mexico (and whilst no racism is acceptable) in Mexico it seems, at least to me, to not be based on the out and out hatred that you get in the UK or US. This opinion also cast doubt on my previous, now deleted, thoughts!


  4. Joe says:

    I am a black girl living in Mexico for the past almost 3 years. I do agree that there is some level of racism, and to date, I have experience it in a good and not so good way. Let me explain.
    The good racism: In my view, the Mexicans that I interact with, see my skin colour as an indication of exotic-ness (to coin a word). They seem to like the fact that I look different and as such they treat me differently, more like a visitor who you want to make a good impression on. I sometimes like this, but other times, I would really like to be treated like one of the “locals”.

    Following on from this, the not so good way that I experience racism; based on my perception (and actual conversations that I have had), apparently it is the fantasy of many Mexican men to “experience” an exotic woman. This inhibits my wanting to get too close to any Mexican man, as I believe that after the fantasy is over, that is it. There is no hope of becoming an actual part of the family, it’s just not the done thing. Ouch.


    • I think a lot of blonde Europeans would share your sentiments too, from what you’ve described. If it ain’t Mexican, it’s exotic, and that attracts a fair amount of people.

      Good to hear your point of view…I come across very few black people in Mexico. Now and again I see a black face in the crowd, and I have wondered how Mexico is for them.


  5. Kim G says:

    When I pointed out to him that I thought Mexico was racist, F was astonished and chided me. But when I pointed out that everyone on TV, in ads, and in magazines was very European-looking, he began to get my drift.

    As a very white European-American, I get treated very nicely in Mexico.

    While I enjoy it, it doesn’t seem quite fair.

    Interesting topic.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where, despite a rather “liberal” tradition, racism is alive and well, and where, in the 1970’s there were violent protests against busing


    • That’s pretty much the same reaction as I get from Mexicans. They just don’t seem to associate it with racism, although to be fair I have alluded to a suspicion that it is just a bit more complex than the type of racism I’m familiar with in the UK.


  6. Hey Gary,

    Just a thought: wasn’ t Porfirio Díaz indigenous as well? The guy had a zapotec mother. And even though it doesn´t show directly in pictures, I did read some papers on him that stated that people referred to his ´indigenous´ looks.


    • When I read about Juarez, the words ‘full blooded’ indigenous are usually used. I suspect there may have been a few presidents with some indigenous blood in them….surely? I don’t know for sure. Diaz is one. there must be others? Anyone know?


  7. HUH? Porfirio Diaz was part Mixtec, and it certainly showed. Victoriano Huerta is always described as “Indian” by not just Edith O’Shaughnessy, but by every news article during his Presidency; Plutarco Elías Calles — while norteño — was described as part black by at least one U.S. consular writer; Lazaro Cardenas del Rio was Huastaca and Afro-Mexico and quite proud of it; and in no way could Gustavo Ordaz Diaz be called “white”.

    In the 19th century, there were two Afro-Mexican Presidents, but outside of some small rural backwaters, the Afro-Mexicans more or less assimilated into the majority in the latter 19th century (though, there was a recent Afro-Mexican governor of Yucatan State, and in areas where African ancestry is common, like Veracruz and Tabasco, much of the local elite is obviously black).

    Non-white tourists tell me they are also given the “gringo pass” (for good and ill) the same as “white” ones, so one can’t say it’s the skin color that marks them. As to the political and economic elites, certainly, the heirs to the people that were wealthy in the past tend to be wealthy today, but tell me a country where that isn’t true.

    In Mexico, right now, with PAN being the ruling party, and being a norteño party at its roots, is going to have a more European-descended leadership than otherwise. And, as it is, most of the Revolutionary leadership (whose heirs are still largely in charge of PRI and PRD) were also mostly norteño. One also has to figure in that a lot of the “new” wealth (post 1940) in this country was in the hands of 20th century immigrants, like the Slims (assuming Arabs are considered “white”) who arrived in Mexico as it was recovering from the Revolution and needed foreign capital and capitalists.

    I’ve written at length on “race” and “raza” elsewhere. Foreign teachers — who are only dealing with the “old boys” who are going to be working with the “old boys” in English-speaking countries all eventually make this same statement about “race.” I usually suggest that before writing on it, they at least look up the meaning of “raza” in the RAE. “Race” — as used in English — is NOT the same as “raza” which means something closer to nationality.


    • Rich, you´ve done little more to repeat many of the points I originally made, alluded to there being substantially more to this issue than skin colour, which is also what I´ve been suggesting, both in the post and in the comments….and then you tell me I don´t know what I´m talking about?

      I suggest before commenting on my posts, you first read them.

      Incidentally, I give classes to all sorts. Approx 40% of them are indigenous Oaxacans from non monied familes who have got on the bottom rung of the capitalist ladder through hard work. Good signs, no?

      And, if you really want a country where the wealthy of the past are not wealthy today….Zimbabwe. You did ask…. 🙂


  8. Oh, thanks. Porfirio was Zapotec, not Mixtec. Victoriano Huerta was Huichol.

    Nez hits on another issue, one that is overlooked. Mexican-AMERICANS do find themselves at a disadvantage — and denigrated as “pochos” (bleached), being “infected” by Mexicans who hold this prejudice with the decadence and arrogance of the “barbarians from the North”. However, when my brother was working in Kenya, African-American coworkers reported the same kind of prejudice… being dismissed as insufficiently authentic Africans.


  9. Michael Wolf says:

    So much barely hidden self-righteousness about skin color and facial features, yet three posts ago you had no compunctions saying what you did about people with red hair.

    One of the few advantages of Mexico’s insularity is that discrimination against redheads does not occur here. Everyone treats me as though my hair color were a rare variant of blond, or something. They don’t know that to people on the outside, I’m part of the only group left that supposedly decent people are still allowed and half expected to look down upon.


    • Michael, if you didn´t get the dripping sarcasm, humour and piss taking of all and sundry in my Foreign Election post, and took it to be a genuinely anti red haired tirade, then I can`t help you!

      If it is any consolation, red heads aren´t the last people against whom it is acceptable to level jokes at. Those cheese eating surrender monkeys from France get it much worse. And don`t even get me started on the Hun!


  10. Vato Loco says:

    Its not as much about race or skin color as it is about beauty.

    White people are generally “softer to they eye”, and prettier than mestizos or indigenas. At least, that’s the general feeling in mexico.


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