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Miss USA, Memín, Speedy and José Vasconcelos

2 June 2007

The defense of Miss U.S.A., Rachel Smith, have been coming mostly from the “usual suspects,” trying to spin some anti-immigrant message into her tribulations (Smith’s costume — an homage to Elvis — and a pratfall on stage made her a joke to the Mexican press, and she was loudly booed during the event). Smith’s defenders have used the incident to justify their own anti-Mexican prejudices (“see, the folks who paid money to attend some silly event — broadcast mostly in English — and who didn’t like this particular contestant, or, like most of the planet, doesn’t care for the U.S. administration, were rude. Therefore it follows that Latin Americans are a lesser breed”… or some such nonsense).

Hardy Brown, the publisher of Black Voice News On-Line (Riverside, California), picked up a deeper, more serious, undercurrent to the dissing of Ms. Smith, one I never really thought about until I read his excellent editorial on the event.

This booing of Miss Universe has not sit well with many Blacks who have called and voiced outrage against the booing as well as the illegal immigration issue currently before congress. Some have expressed opinions like if that is the way some feel then we should finish the “Berlin Wall” on the Mexico border. Some have said if they feel this way about Black people now what do you think they will feel once they become a citizen. Some expressed reservations that many Black have expressed in the past and that is many Mexicans want to vote and only for their own. Some voiced concerns over the fact that many of the Black elected officials have remained silent on this issue and believe Blacks will suffer greatly from this legalization of between 12 and 20 million illegal citizens.

Brown is the dean of black newspaper publishers, and knows a hell of a lot more American race issues than I do, so I’ve got to give his words serious consideration. I didn’t pay much attention to the contest anyway, other than noticing that the out-going (abdicating?) Miss Universe rode a bike with Mexico City’s mayor one morning to publicize the city’s alternative transportation campaign.

Until I read his Brown’s editorial, it never crossed my mind that the Panamanian born Ms. Smith was presented as a black contestant. Nor am I certain that the Mexican audience saw her as one. The Miss Universe on a bike, Zuleika Rivera is Puerto Rican. It’s a given folks from the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America are at least of some African ancestry, and no one really thinks much about it. An African-American teacher working in Merida once told me she was more often taken for Brazilian, or assumed to be from Veracruz (until they heard her gringo accent).

Mexicans don’t seem particularly bothered by African ancestry, and I’ve written before on some Afro-Mexican heroes: Morelos, Alvarez and Vicente Guerrero. The “go to guy” on Afro-Mexicans, Ted Vincent, has written extensively on others, including Lazaro Cardenas, whose grandson, Lazaro Cardenas Batel — the present governor of Michoacán — is married to Mayra Coffigny, an Afro-Cuban.

When Cardenas Batel was a candidate for Governor in 2002, his PAN opponent tried to make an issue of Coffingy, who took an unusually activist role in her spouse’s campaign. Not because she is black (though the New York Times reported it as “racism”) but because she had been a member of the Cuban Communist Party and — the PANista appealing to the conservative Catholic vote — because Cubans have strange and unMexican religious practices. He may very well have been ham-handedly trying to use a code phrase for “black”, but it didn’t play out very well, and only the U.S. press saw it that way. In the Mexican press, the guy was a joke. And lost overwhelmingly — running against a Cardenas in Michoacán is like running against a Kennedy in Massachusetts.

An Ecuadorian I knew — being an extremely handsome guy — was used to receiving a lot of attention from foreigners in the gay friendly Zona Rosa cafe where he worked. He found it highly amusing that a would be gringo admirer tried wooing him with tales of his love of … and admiration for … Haitian! By color he was “negro,” though his face was Indigenous and his build the classic Greco-Roman European ideal… but to some silly gringo, all black, non-English speakers must be Haitians. To himself, and to his clients, his “raza” was Ecudoriano (and, if it matters, his sexual orientation was “straight”).

Our English-speaking, Protestant culture makes racial distinctions that are unnatural to “la raza” (which I dearly wish right-wing commentators would look up in a decent Spanish dictionary. It means “peoples,” and not “race.”). Mexican-American racism is an unfortunate by-product of assimilating to OUR ways and attitudes, at least partially.

None of which means that Mexicans — or Latin Americans in general — are totally and blissfully unawares of “race”, just that its not seen the same way it is in English-speaking countries.

Certainly, in places where there is a clear color difference, like Venezuela, or Cuba, race matters, though it’s only a part of class consciousness. The darker people tend to be the poorer people, and — according to the bigots, the deservedly poorer. Opposition propaganda in Venezuela makes no bones about suggesting Hugo Chavez — because he is black — is subhuman. And I’ve criticized the Cuban government for having a nearly all-white leadership. But, then again, the folks who were on top tend to stay on top, and it’s still a huge deal in this country when a non-white person — Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, Condaleeza Rice — reaches a responsible leadership position.

In Mexico, for historical reasons, there are very few identifiably “black” Mexicans. Some, like in Veracruz or Tabasco State are blacker than others, but outside of a small community in Guerrero State, and more recent immigrants from the Caribbean or Brazil (or Africa… I’ll come to that in a minute), nobody you can say is black in our understanding of the term. The Guerrero Afro-Mexicans do claim discrimination, and do make a good case, but the discrimination is based more on their being an isolated, rural, under-served community with the same complaints of similar isolated pockets of rural indigenous communities (which the Mexican statistician consider the Guerrero community… who are said to be descended from runaway slaves during the War of Independence).

Of course, I can’t say that persons of African descent are immune to discrimination. I lived in a Mexico City neighborhood that has always attracted foreign immigrants. Spanish refugees from Franco, Jews fleeing Hitler, Argentines and Chileans during the 70s and now, Brazilians, Jamaicans, Cubans, Russians (!), Congolese, Kenyans and even a few Ethiopians. One of my neighbors made a few remarks to me about the “bad Negroes” in the area, but to this day I’m not sure if he was talking about the Jamaicans who rented my apartment before I did, or blacks in general. He’d had a problem with the Jamaicans who apparently were unkind to his little dogs, and got a bad reputation in the neighborhood for hanging out on the street smoking marijuana and drinking beer (respectable Mexicans smoke marijuana inside or at the park!). His dislike did extend to the Congolese guy who ran the Internet cafe down the street, but if I heard anything about the Africans, it had to do with their relative exoticism.

When Mexicans are using racist language, you’re more likely to hear references to Indians than anything. I’ve told the story many times of hearing a very European looking drunk called “indio sucio” by very Aztec looking people expressing disgust not with his “race”, but with his filthy, low-class ways (Basically, the term was used the way people in the U.S. use “white trash”… declasse, in-bred, stupid people).

I once tried following up the story of a British doctor who claimed she was pulled off a bus in the Yucatan because she is black. She very well could have been pulled off a bus, but it may have been that she was taken for Belizian or Honduran, and suspected of being either a smuggler or an illegal alien. And, I had serious doubts about the doctor when she started making claims about the same treatment in Atlanta and California. They could be true, but I had nothing to go on.

Black foreigners working in Mexico have told me they thought they were more likely to be questioned by immigration than I was, but those of us with mostly European features just don’t stand out from the crowd the way an Ethiopian or Kenyan does.

But, Hardy is responding to not Latin American, but North American concerns. His readers raises serious, and important concerns about African-Americans and Mexican-Americans.

Race certainly matters in the United States. Though writing about his more common “Indian” heritage than multi-racialism, Californian Richard Rodriguez catches the essential difference between Mexican and U.S. concepts of race when he writes in Days of Obligation (1992, Penguin):

In New England the European and the Indian drew apart to regard each other with suspicion over centuries. Miscegenation was a sin against Protestant individualism. In Mexico the European and Indian consorted. The ravishment of fabulous Tenochtitlán ended in a marriage of blood — a “cosmic race,” the Mexico philosopher José Vasconcelos has called it.

I always feel obliged add a “footnote” about Vasconcelos. He ended his career as an apologist for Hitler and was a thoroughgoing anti-Semite. In Raza cosmica, though, Vasconcelos was speaking of the spiritual value of Latin American “race mixing” in general, and not just the majority Euro-Indigenous Mex-Mix.

Our culture… and the Black Voice News readers… values racial identity. When Hardy reports that his readers worry that “many Mexicans want to vote and only for their own,” I’m wondering if this is any different than ethnic politics as it’s been played out in American elections forever.

And certainly, our sense of racial identity is used to divide people who otherwise share class interests… keeping poor blacks and poor whites from voting for their common interests in the former Confederacy for example.

I speculated elsewhere (privately) that African-American fears of Mexican immigrants (and Mexican fears of African-Americans) are manipulated for economic reasons. The infamous Memín Pinguín incident was more than a little convenient for the Bush Administration, seeking to head off a possible “black-brown” opposition.

T here’s no getting around the fact that Memín is offensive to African-Americans. The NAACP was understandably outraged when it a Mexican domestic postage stamp featured the popular cartoon character (a Cuban boy with the exaggerated features common in 1930s African-American cartoon characters) was brought to their attention.

The Mexican Ambassador at the time couldn’t understand the issue, pointing out that Speedy Gonzales is thoroughly enjoyed by Mexicans. Mexican-Americans may find him an offensive stereotype, but Mexicans love el raton rapido. I was on a long bus ride where the driver was asked to replace the video he’d popped in (a really awful low-budget cop movie, with a lot of gore and sex) because there were children on the bus. He replaced the video with one of old cartoons… everybody likes Bugs Bunny and Pepe le Pew, but the whole bus started cheering and applauding when Speedy came on.

The upshot of the Memín affair was that Jesse Jackson DEMANDED a meeting with President Fox — and got one. Jackson is no fool, but I think he was used. To the U.S., it was presented as a righteous response to racism. To Mexicans, it played as another gringo interfering in Mexican affairs, and — perhaps worse — another in a long line of meddling puritanical northerners. Not standing up to demands from a private citizen of the U.S. was the start of Fox’s skid in Mexican opinion polls.

For the Bush administration, it was an easy victory: Under assault for its own racial and class insensitivities — and faced with the very real prospect of an organized push by civil rights organizations and labor unions to organize multi-racial class-based actions, presidential press comments to the press, and demands for a response from the Mexican government, and expressed outrage from a U.S. Ambassador who’d never shown any interest in his career in African-American issues is disinguenous.

The irony is that the people who booed Rachel Smith were wealthy, well-educated people, unlikely to emigrate. They have probably read Vasconcelos, but still treat their dark-skinned maid as a lesser being. It’s the dark-skinned maids relations, who probably read Mimín who leave.

The tragedy is that they go to a country where race matters very much, and where sophisticated, thoughtful people feel a need to react to the symptoms and not the disease — racism, inequality and poverty. And puritanism.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. sergio permalink
    2 June 2007 5:17 pm

    I truly liked your commentary on this subject. I do see an increase in anti-Mexican prejudice in this country and anything may be used to feed that prejudice.

  2. el_longhorn permalink
    4 June 2007 11:56 am

    Thourough and thoughtful, as always.

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  1. Memin and the Party of Joy « The Mex Files

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