Every morning during television coverage of the World Cup, on the Mexican equivalent of the “Today” show, co-hosts chat, trade barbs and yuck it up. Behind them, actors in blackface makeup, dressed in fake animal skins and wild “Afro” wigs, gyrate, wave spears and pretend to represent a cartoonish version of South Africa.
Yes, in the 21st century, blackface characters on a major television network.
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.
It is true that Mexico was even seen as a refuge for some American blacks. Poet Langston Hughes did some of his earliest writing while living briefly with his father in Mexico, where the older man had gone to escape discrimination.
But the full truth is that racism is alive and well in Mexico. It is primarily directed at indigenous communities who account for as many as 11.3 million people, or roughly 10% of the national population. The indigenous remain disproportionately mired in poverty and denied work, political access, education and other rights.
And there is a smaller community of black Mexicans, Afro Mexicanos, many descendants of slaves first brought to the region by Spanish conquerors in the 16th century.
Often referred to by academics as the “third race” and concentrated in the coastal states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Guerrero, they have been fighting for years for recognition as a distinct ethnic group, to be included in history books and to be given opportunities to transcend poverty.
“Racism in Mexico is covered up,” said Ricardo Bucio, head of the National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination, which has protested the blackface TV caricatures. “There is a lot of denial about it.”
Or, as columnist Katia D’Artigues once put it: “Although subtle, discrimination has become something invisible in our society. We no longer see it, or we consider it normal!”
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.
The issue of racism in Mexico exploded a few years back when then-President Vicente Fox, in what was meant to be a defense of Mexican immigration to the United States, told a U.S. audience that Mexican immigrants were necessary because they performed the jobs that “not even blacks” wanted to do.
He had to apologize and receive a visit from Jesse Jackson to atone. As the furor died down, another popped up when Mexico printed postage stamps that commemorated a well-known comic-book character from the 1950s, Memin Pinguin. The character is a black boy drawn with exaggerated features. It was seen as racist by many in the U.S. who demanded Mexico withdraw the stamps; many in Mexico, including several leftist intellectuals, defended Memin Pinguin as a beloved part of Mexican culture. (Withdrawing the stamps became a moot point when they sold out within hours of going on market.)
The people at Televisa, Mexico’s preeminent broadcasting company, say they mean absolutely no harm with the blackface characters on their morning chat show. It’s just a spoof, they say, a humorous segment when the news is over but the day’s World Cup match hasn’t yet started, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. After all, one of the co-hosts is a green-haired clown. More “Saturday Night Live” than “Good Morning America.”
The ratings, by the way, are through the roof, Televisa adds.
For Friday’s game between Holland and Brazil, viewers in Mexico, minutes after the morning dose of blackface, saw the two teams read a pledge against discrimination and parade with a huge banner that said: “No to racism.”