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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in Mexico)

16 August 2004

People from countries with an unhappy racist history (the U.S. and especially Germany) project their own preoccupations onto Mexico. Even the more “politically correct” guidebooks like “Lonely Planet” and “Rough Guide” speak of “blond Spaniards” supposedly controlling Mexico.

I’ve discussed this with my Mexican friends and students. Frankly, they are confused – while they are aware of ethnic differences between people, they honestly don’t recognize any sort of hierarchy among those differences, nor do those differences mean much beyond physical identification. It’s worth looking at “Missing Persons” or “Wanted” posters to understand what Mexicans consider identifying traits – build; eye, nose and mouth shape and size; skin tone; etc. It certainly isn’t ethnicity.

The guidebook – and others – confuse anyone with European features with the colonial Spanish rulers. Spaniards were expelled in 1829 (having the same disastrous economic effects that Uganda’s expulsion of East Indians had on that country). Most European immigration – French, Italian, Irish, German and “Spaniards” (mostly Basques or Cubans) – was in the later 19th century, the same as in most of the Americas. There were also sizable immigrant communities from the United States (especially Mormons) of mixed northern European ancestry.

The commentators on “race” point to the present cabinet’s “European” look as evidence that there is a “two-tiered” system (Europeans and everybody else). The “two-tiered” criticism is more applicable to Cuba (a black majority country with white rulers – ever take a look at their politburo?) than here. Mexicans find the comments incomprehensible. The President’s party was traditionally a Northern party (A lot of the 1910-24 Revolutionary leadership also came from this region). The North was relatively empty territory during the periods of European immigration, making it particularly attractive to immigrants. It’s natural that the Executive branch was heavily recruited from the region where it has the strongest roots and longest-serving activists.

The President’s party is a pro-business party. Non-party cabinet officials were recruited from the business elite. It’s only been two generations since Mexico, and Mexico City in particular, was flooded with a second wave of European immigrants – the refugees from Falangist Spain and the racist preoccupations of the Germans. These people often arrived with considerable technical or financial resources at a time when Mexico was rapidly industrializing. This accounts for part of the “European” character of Mexico’s industrial leadership.

Secondly, the Mexican Revolution was not “anti-foreign”, but did reject foreign economic control. “Spanish”, German, Italian, Irish and French manufacturers, workers and farmers generally sided with the Revolution, and those families who were wealthy before the Revolution generally preserved their position. Unfair as it may be, the only sure way to make a fortune anywhere is to inherit money. The only ethnic violence during the Revolution was Villa’s “pogrom” against Chinese railway workers (most fled either to the United States, or to Mexico City, where their descendants run the French bakeries). However, the Chinese workers were paid as U.S. skilled laborers under the pre-Revolutionary system: they were persecuted more for their special rights as foreign workers than for their ethnicity.

Our “soap opera blonds” (something that used to confuse me) have a simple explanation. Fantasy stories about the idle rich are popular in any culture. Soap operas are set in the wealthier neighborhoods of Mexico City, areas that do have a lot of descendants of Europeans. And, while Mexican governments have supported the arts, this is not a wealthy country – unless you’re got well-to-do relatives, you’re unlikely to take up an insecure profession like acting in the first place. I’d point out that I’ve seen blond, blue-eyed beggars and pelados, as well as ordinary working people – but no one writes TV shows about them.

“Anti-Indigenous” prejudice is another matter altogether. Traditionalists are, by definition, anti-modernists, and “Indio” is used in Mexico as a pejorative term for a “backwards” person. Historically, the “Indians” sided with reactionaries: the Conservatives against the Reforma, Maximilliano against the Republic and the Christeros against the Revolution. A classic example of traditionalism vs. modernity is the two leading “Indians” of the mid-19th century, Tomas Meija and Benito Juarez. Both were raised in traditional cultures, but learned Spanish, sought a broader education for themselves and were national figures. But where Meija, Maximilliano’s most loyal General, continued to identify himself as an “Indian Leader”, Juarez saw himself as a Mexican. His reputation as a nation-builder and modernizer rests on overcoming tradition. Juarez is, of course, THE National Hero; Meiji is a half-forgotten villain.

“Indian” is a lifestyle, not an ethnicity – a person speaking one of the 500 native languages, or who maintains cultural practices associated with these groups is probably “Indian” (even if his ancestry is more European than anything else – the” white Zapotecs” are descended from French deserters). The same person’s brother, who speaks Spanish, and/or follows modern cultural practices, may or may not be “Indian”. Contemporary movements and discussions of protecting (and fostering) “traditional values” – and those traditions are associated with certain ethnicities – has nothing to do with “race”. It’s useless to project the racial categories of Europe and the United States on Mexico. White, black, brown, yellow (or combinations thereof) are meaningless here.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 November 2012 3:45 pm

    I’m typically to blogging and i actually respect your content. The article has really peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and preserve checking for brand spanking new information.

  2. 1 April 2014 9:12 am

    Hey Rich, interesting post. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.


    Kim G
    Zacatecas, ZAC
    Where we’re loving everything we’re learning on this trip.


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