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By a nose… or, You are so beautiful to me…

1 April 2014


El Gringo Suelto is a few light-years above the usual “what I’m doing on my trip to Mexico” sites.   In good part this is because Kim G is not only a good writer and observer, but because the El Gringo Suelto is as much about being a gringo in Mexico as it is about trying to overcome his “suelto” status.

Although, like other “My life in Mexico” sites, and as I’ve done on occasion,  El Gringo Suelto sometimes tries to  “explain” Mexican culture based on a convergence of personal experiences.  And, as I’ve found when I’ve tried it myself, for an honest writer, it raises more questions than it answers.

Kim G’s most recent post, “Moreno y Güero in Zacatecas — Some Thoughts on Mexican Concepts of Beauty” muses an observation many of us have, usually sooner than later.  Two incidents.  First, he sees a clown entertaining children,  As part of the act, the clown asks a little girl what kind of boyfriend she’d like when she grows up … tall or short?  blond or dark haired?

Tall, güero, handsome. These words all belong together here. Ugly, short, moreno. These words too, sadly, go together in Mexico. The really weird thing? The crowd eats it up, laughing and applauding. But they are almost universally moreno themselves.

The clown act converges nicely with a more personal event:

Yesterday, I got a chance to get a bit of a deeper view into this whole moreno inferiority complex […] As I move about the plaza taking photos from different angles, his eyes follow me, and I keep looking back. After about fifteen minutes of this, it’s clear he’s gay and seemingly just as interested in me as I am in him. I dally for awhile on a bench and smile at him. He smiles back.

… We start to chat … Up close he is nothing short of stunning — jet black hair, deep deep brown eyes that I could lose myself in, and a beautiful face with a square jaw, a very perfect, straight European nose, and eyes that reflect his mixed heritage. His skin tone is definitely moreno, but closer to moreno claro than dark moreno.

Ten years ago, I wrote on the concepts of “race” myself. What I said in “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in Mexico)” I still hold is true, but my thoughts were more based on general observations and theory than on any specific event.

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.

While getting acquainted, the youngster brings two things he’d change about himself:

I’m planning to get a nose job in few months,” he says casually. I am literally stunned. Enrique has the kind of nose most people getting surgery hope for, but few achieve. It’s about as perfect a nose as I’ve seen, perfectly straight, smallish without being girly, and perfectly formed.

“Are you completely nuts?” I say. “Your nose is perfect in every way. It would be a locura for you to get a nose job.”

[…] for the love of God, don’t get a nose job.” For emphasis, I add, “Please,” with a pleading look in my eye. He starts to look as if what I said might have penetrated just a smidgen. I start to feel hopeful.

“I want to have my skin lightened too,” he adds, sort of changing the topic. I look at him again skeptically. “I also want botox.”

If there is some sort of “moreno inferiority complex” there’s also a “Aztec nose inferiority complex” at work here as well. And botox? The fellow claimed to be all of 19 years old.

I suggested to Kim that the young fellow may have just been trying to please his “audience”, he misreading what might be considered defects by El Gringo Suelto, and El Gringo Suelto missing what the fellow is actually saying…. “I will be whatever you want”.

I don’t mean that to sound cynical, but Kim seems closer to my age than to the fellow in Zacatecas’… and while I see nothing wrong in age differences between friends (or closer acquaintances), and for all I know, Kim is the hottest and most charming guy on the planet, but am also perfectly aware that differences in perceived social class and standing do make for arrangements that have less to do with physical attraction or the meeting of minds than more mundane concerns like security and financial need.


18th century “casta” painting

Back when I wrote my essay, I was acquainted with a bunch of foreign gay men — other English teachers — who’d meet for coffee on calle Genova in the heart of the Zona Rosa. They were long-time residents of Mexico, and I thought they knew something about Mexico (which some did), but I found their  frame of reference was rather limited… local bars and rent boys.  I moved on quickly, but not before catching how… VERY LOUDLY they were casually racist… in both the Mexican and U.S. way. I’d always been puzzled by gay racism, and some of these guys presumably moved to Mexico in part because they found Mexican men sexually attractive, but the  bi-racism was something new to me.

In discussing the merits of various youngsters who in reality probably wanted nothing to do with these guys, even if they paid well, what struck me at the time wasn’t that this or that “prospect” was rejected as too dark, but that the lad was unsuitable because “he has an Aztec nose”.  Seriously!

Being marked as Indigenous is a social handicap, and I don’t dismiss it… but if there are physical markers, it is less the skin tone than the facial features. In other words, if the youngster in Zacatecas was self-conscious about anything, it was that he looked “too Indian”, the skin tone being only a part of it. It might be added that Zacatecas is the least indigenous place in all Mexico*.

Kim himself is the one who seems concerned about “skin tone”:

Why do they look back at me? Is it the intensity of my own looks at them? Are they curious to see someone so white? (Believe me, I’m on the lighter end of Caucasian, what with green eyes and Danish parents, and I’d better not tarry too long in this intense Mexican sun, or I’ll be a deep shade of red.) Certainly there are very few Gringo tourists here, at least if my last visit and this visit are anything to go by, so I’m a bit of a rare bird hereabouts.

I hate to use a word that will date me here, but the young Zacatecan may just have picked up Kim’s “vibes”… Kim’s own self-awareness of his “whiteness” and his privileged status as a tourist, a gringo.

Many years ago, I read an essay (by Joaquin Herrera) in which he used the phrase “the white lens” to describe how guys like Kim and myself (and several of the commentators on his post) view the world… though our own obsessions as “white guys”. Seeing the world through a “white lens” we assess others in terms of our own whiteness… and, as gringos, through our “gringo lens”. Color is a hangup for us, whether we like it or not. Mexicans, using “the Mexican lens” can pick out a Mexican-American at 100 paces, even though to those of us with a “white lens” we see no difference.

I don’t mean to say that Mexicans DON’T discriminate on the basis of color. Of course they do… I’ve done my research (Shades of color are often included in personal ads and “craigslist”/”” type sites, where people enumerate their best physical attributes — or the ones that they seek in a partner). And other things. Anti-indigenous sentiment is a reality. My lawyer was turned down for even secretarial jobs by several firms because she looks indigenous (and is female). But the reaction of the discriminated person, or the one perceived to be lower on the social scale is not, as we think, “inferiority” so much as self-protection.

Octavio Paz’ Labrynth of Solitude was written in 1945, and I don’t see a sixty year old work as the last word on any culture, especially one that has changed as much as Mexico in the last sixty years. Still, his metaphor of masks is useful. What we see as “inferiority” masks self-respect. When I first moved to Mexico, I was disconcerted to find that I’d go to clubs and find myself either ignored (something that having been better looking and younger at the time had not been true in the U.S.) … A Mexican visiting from his new home in the U.S. sort of took pity on me, and explained that for many Mexicans, indifference was preferable to “losing face” or appearing subordinate. That is, I was perceived to be a rich gringo (I was barely getting by on free-lance teaching) and to would be admirers or admired, it was better to be ignoring and ignored than shown up as short of the mark.

While I suppose one could call the various strategies by which a person protects themselves from disrespect as an “inferiority complex”, but it is much more complex than we, with our own racial assumptions and obsessions, might think.


* Anecdote is not evidence, but ever since I saw a blonde, blue-eyed Mexican drunk berated as an “indio sucio” by several dark-skinned (and “Aztec” featured) fellows for being a pig (he’d shat himself on the Metro) , I’ve sensed that the “anti-indigenous” attitudes have more to do with (perceived) cultural stereotypes than ethnic ones.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 April 2014 9:06 am

    Hola Rich. Thanks for the kind words. I have a couple of observations to add. First, nothing beyond conversation and a shared meal happened between Enrique and myself. In fact, I’ve been kind of wondering what he wanted from me, but it does not appear to be sex. Second, do you really think his nose looks indigenous? I don’t, which is why I was so emphatic about the ridiculousness of having it “done.”

    As you correctly note in your comment on my piece, this is indeed a complex and nuanced topic. Thanks for your post; it was quite fascinating.


    Kim G
    Zacatecas, ZAC
    Where we remain firmly enchanted by the place and its people.

  2. Bebe permalink
    3 April 2014 12:09 am

    In a veiled way (“security and financial needs”), you touched on what was my first thought as I read about the man’s cosmetic surgery plans- ah, he wants some money, and perhaps this old gringo will pay. Viewing the pic on Kim’s blog, I merely thought how young and nerdy he looks. And that thought, after all, was the whole point of your and Kim’s posts- beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.

    My own born-in-Mexico but self-labeled Spanish-American antepasados were proud of their never intermarrying with the “Indios, Negritos, y mas” (as they used to say with a slight throw-away hand gesture) in their centuries of residing in that country. If they didn’t marry Anglo-Saxons, their spouses were moreno only because of French or Italian heritage, which can be dark indeed from Mozarabic influence. Indeed, concern about tainted blood from Arabic sources was not as distressing as Jewish sources. I wonder what my relatives would say of Spain’s recent decision to extend citizenship to relatives of those Jews/Conversos expelled in the Inquisition.

  3. 8 June 2014 2:29 pm

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