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In Mexico, Times report on network's use of blackface renews racism debate

July 7, 2010 |  5:37 pm

Screen grab primero el mundial black face racism mexico televisa
The Mexican media conglomerate Televisa employs actors in blackface during a popular morning program on the World Cup, underscoring once more the conflicting attitudes held by Mexico and the United States about race and racism. Tracy Wilkinson writes in The Times:

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.

As proof, they point to the fact that slavery was ended in Mexico decades before it was abolished in the United States, and that Mexico never institutionalized racism the way the U.S. did with its segregationist laws that lasted into the 1960s.

Mexicans, it turns out, just don't see caricatures of Africans or black people as inherently racist, bringing to mind the flap in 2005 over a historic comic book character named Memin Pinguin, beloved by Mexicans but reviled in the U.S. for his exaggerated African features. Wilkinson adds:

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.

These terms are jarring when seen through the prism of U.S. sensibilities, but here they are usually used in a context of affection and friendship.

In online reader comments to an article in the El Universal newspaper on the Times report, many readers reacted with indignation to the suggestion that the Televisa skits are racist (link in Spanish). "Disgusting double standard for an imperialist and invading country," wrote one El Universal reader. "They should be ashamed criticizing a cartoon."

But another reader commented: "Showing people in black-face as primitive persons is the same as showing Mexicans as delinquents, and of course the latter doesn't strike us as a joke. Both acts are racist, but the difference is one makes us laugh and therefore it's approved."

Author David Lida, in a post on his blog, discussed the image used on a Mexican snack cake called "Negrito" as another instance of Mexico's blithe treatment of racial caricatures:

I've never met a Mexican who copped to being a racist. Some, particularly from the upper echelons, lament that their society is class-based, but argue that since nearly everyone is mestizo -- with a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood -- therefore how could they be racist?

Meanwhile, in an article on the Memin Pinguin controversy in the Boston Review, historian Claudio Lomnitz argues that the scandalized American responses to Mexican racial caricatures reflect a recent phenomenon of identity politics and "political correctness" that has no direct equivalent in Mexico or the rest of Latin America. It's a long article but worth reading:

There has been a sea change since the 1980s in the ways that Latin American race relations are understood by American academics and educators. Criticism of race relations and racism in Brazil, Mexico, the Andes, the Caribbean, and Central America has developed as a natural extension of multiculturalism and identity politics in the United States, and many studies describe persistent racial inequalities masked by the idea of racial democracy. This criticism and research has, in turn, fed discussions of race in Latin America, albeit in an attenuated manner: Brazil has had its own proponents of “black power,” and racism against Indians has become a theme in Mexican social movements. Because these challenges are difficult to reconcile with Mexico’s 80-year-old ideology of national integration, they are often downplayed in public debate — as if Mexican racism had long been taken care of, and as if whatever remains of it were somehow less harmful because things are worse in the United States.

So what's your take? Is racism in Mexico alive and well? Or is Mexico, with its long history of racial mixture, just racially liberated? The questions get to the core of one of the most complex aspects of Mexican identity. Mexico's Televisa can't be accused of tiptoeing around them.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

* Image: Screen grab from 'Primero el Mundial' on Televisa. Credit: Esmas.com

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