Race, skin color, and identity in Mexico

by Kathy Russo

It’s a nice hot day; you’re minding your own business sipping on a cool drink and enjoying having some ‘me time’ while wandering around the city or campus.

“¡Perdone!”

Suddenly someone comes up to you and asks for a moment of your time to inquire a few questions for their studies. After a few of the basics that near to all interviews contain—name, age, city—the more detailed questions emerge, those specific to the study in particular.

“What is your race? What do you classify yourself as racially?”

Would you be able to answer these questions without hesitation, after a brief moment to pause and think it over, or would you attempt to swerve the question all together?

“What is your skin colour?”

What about now? Would you have the same reaction as to the previous question?

In México, and many other Latin American nations, the individual and collective response would be positive to the latter question, with little-to-no hesitation; while the former would cause for the questioned to become greatly uncomfortable and unnerved. The notion of race, and the open discussion of the matter, has a negative connotation in México for it is almost always robotically associated directly with racism itself. While colour on the other hand, is a positive conception that expression social and economic status, as well as the forthcoming of one’s future generations.

Even in today’s society and modern world, the notion that “white is right” prevails. Numerous individuals in México are seeking out methods of identifying themselves as Moreno clara or blanca, from staying indoors, to taking on cosmetics to whiten one’s skin tone. People take this step a whole new level as well, by seeking out partners for sexual encounters and marriages that are on the lighter end of the skin palate in order to try to safeguard their future generations’ success—by means of a light skin colour.

One may try to argue that the notion for this mind set, in which white skin leads to automatic success, is rooted deep in the nation’s historical origins of colonialisation by the Spaniards and Whites of Europe. While this may ring true for the shaping of the society, many individuals nowadays, especially those in the younger generations, would ardently refute this claim by saying that they are simply fonder of the skin colour and body features. The argument would continue on to lay claim that the ideal of being whiter is more attractive, which ultimately leads to success in the society, in addition to the better treatment of people while growing up, which is why they wish for their children to be whiter than they themselves may be.

Race, however, hold the negative notion that if someone were to openly comment on it, they would be seen by others as ignorant or racist, according to research conducted by Christina Sue. Many argue that the subject matter is far too sensitive for some and that they would rather not take the risk to offend someone. Others claim that race has nothing to do with how society functions and thus should not be discussed in ultimatum.

On the other side of the issue at hand, what is not discussed in Sue’s research findings is that racism is very prominent in Latin American nations like México, not simply by terms of colour but actual race. It is harder to come by when being discussed openly, especially by an outsider for a study, for one does not wish to be coined a racist in actuality, but if observed from a distance or over years of assimilation one will come to notice that the topic of race and where one originates from plays a large part in daily life. From my own findings while in México over the years, I have come to see and hear many speak poorly of people for being from a certain part of the country, for each area has its “own people/kind”, or a different country, such as the USA and Puerto Rico. From “güero” to “chino” to “gringo” to “gabacho” to “chilango” to “cabecita negra,” there are endless racial slurs and insults that one will hear while simply walking down the market but would never be discussed and heavily denied if one were confronted about.

One must try to consider why such a discrepancy occurs in the first place. Why is the discussion of skin colour perfectly acceptable and advocated for, while the mention of race and ethnicity in a public setting is pure taboo? The concept of conscious “race-blindness” and skin colour being the ideal basis for success and power is still going on strong in that Latin American nation of México.

Reference

Sue, C. A. (2009). The Dynamics of Color. Mestizaje, Racism, and Blackness in Veracruz, Mexico. In Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, edited by E.N. Glenn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.