“Mexico is a racist country,” Federico Navarrete proclaims at the beginning of his recently published Spanish-language book, México Racista: Una Denuncia (Racist Mexico: A Denunciation).
Navarrete, a prominent historian at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known as UNAM, cites some of Mexico’s most cherished ideals as the source of the nation’s racism. Navarrete’s provocative book has generated much discussion in Mexico.
For more than a century, Mexico has prided itself on being a mestizo nation, one where the mixing of Spanish men and indigenous women during the Spanish Conquest produced a blended offspring. This is the story that all Mexican children learn in school.
Navarrete argues that this declaration is not accurate — it is a fable that has been recited for generations.
Navarrete argues that the myth was created as Mexico sought to whiten its population away from its indigenous countenance. There was great pressure on indigenous people to shed their language, culture, dress and lifestyles — to become mestizo. Many, of course, did not do so. Mexicans of African descent were also omitted from the mestizo club as Mexico, like many other Latin American countries, denies its African roots.
Navarrete identifies the numerous venues — family and home, adages, jokes, commercials and the mass media — where racism is propagated on a daily basis. For example, there is a preference for lighter skin within the bosom of the family, and indigenous and dark-skinned people are often the butt of jokes. He argues that when people are accused of being racist, they tend to deny or minimize their racism. People frequently downplay their racist statements or thoughts because they occur in private or are done in jest — no one is hurt.
Particularly noteworthy, according to Navarrete, is that Mexicans claim they cannot be racist because everyone in the country belongs to the same mestizo race. People criticized for their racism also tend to draw attention away from themselves by accusing others of being racist because they are the ones calling attention to race.
Navarrete argues forcefully that racism in Mexico is not merely idle talk. Rather, it is pernicious and noxious. The result of racist talk, actions and behavior among Mexicans is the social exclusion and devaluation of indigenous people and persons of African origin who are seen as not really part of Mexican society — they are the “other,” people who do not count.
Navarrete advances the concept of “necropolitics of inequality,” reflecting great disparity in the probability of death with impunity:
The ease and impunity in which so many Mexicans are murdered, disappeared, tortured and kidnapped signify that the right to life and other fundamental human rights are not distributed in an equal manner among Mexican citizens.
Put simply, the lives of some people are more valuable than those of others. Navarrete lists sectors of Mexican society that are most vulnerable to such death and violence:
marginalized youth, women, persons with nontraditional sexual identities, journalists, peasants whose territories contain valuable natural resources.
A recent study of the 35 countries forming the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, found that Mexico had the second highest level of inequality in 2014. Racism and inequality intersect to marginalize the lives of many Mexicans.
Navarrete asserts that some of the most heinous murders over the last couple of decades in Mexico show the minimization of the lives of Mexicans who live on the margins of society. He draws attention to the impunity and the Mexican government’s lack of concern for the disappearance and murder of the 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in September 2014; the killings of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s and 2000s; the mass murder of 200 Central and South American migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010 and 2011; and the mass murder of 22 individuals assumed to be narcotraffickers at the hands of Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya on June 30, 2014. Navarrete asserts that the indigenous roots, the darker skin and the low socioeconomic standing of these victims made their lives invisible and expendable. He avers that there would be an uproar in the government and mass media, and among the elite if the victims were “beautiful” people from privileged classes.
In the case of the 22 people killed by soldiers in Tlatlaya, Navarrete points out that the Spanish newspaper El País aptly described how much the Mexican government valued the lives of the victims in its headline “Only 12 Words for Each Dead Person,” referring to the government’s terse 273-word announcement of the incident.
This book is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship calling attention to racism in Mexico. The book aims to provoke dialogue in the country to make the invisible visible, and to ultimately better the social, economic and political position of the marginalized.
We can also draw on Navarrete’s book to understand the similarities of racism in Mexico and the United States. They are numerous. In both countries we see the link between the value of one’s life, and the color of one’s skin and one’s socioeconomic standing. In Mexico, people of indigenous and African origins are the poorest, least educated, most marginalized and most invisible in the country; in the U.S., Native Americans, African-Americans and Latinos hold this unfortunate distinction. Over the last several years in the U.S., there has been a surge in the killing with impunity of unarmed African-Americans by police officers. Activists have needed to remind us that “Black lives matter.”
In addition, the racial inequalities found in both countries are long-standing, going back for centuries. In both countries the mainstream vehemently denies the existence of racism. Mexico denies it along the lines of its own brand of colorblindness — “We are all mestizos,” therefore we cannot be racists. The U.S. disavows the existence of racism through its own form of colorblindness — “We do not see color differences in people” — and proclamation of reaching postracial status, where race is no longer important in the lives of people; after all, “we have elected a black president.”
In the end, it is this denial of the role that race plays in long-standing racial inequality that helps perpetuate racial inequality. Society is inculcated with the fables of race and racism that Mexico and the United States exalt. The “normal” and “what we all see” set the stage for people to wear blinders concerning racial matters and racism — namely, that race has nothing to do with one’s societal position. Naysayers who insist that racism exists are discounted as the real racists, with the dialogue coming to a halt. It is important to recognize that racism is not just about individuals but a system — in our institutions, laws, customs and attitudes — that perpetuates racial inequality.
In the U.S. legal system, even with statistical evidence, racial disparities — associated, say, with voting rights, redistricting and the death penalty — are substantiated only when there is a visible smoking gun bearing actual intent to commit racial discrimination. Such conditions regenerate racial inequality.
Rogelio Sáenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy and the Mark G. Yudof Endowed Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the co-author of the book Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change.
This essay was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News (November 19, 2016).