1995 NY Times article: "Maya Indians in the state of Chiapas who took up arms on the very day Nafta took effect."
6/11/1995, "Racism? Mexico's in Denial." NY Times, Anthony DePalma, Mexico City
"Shrouded in mystery and myth, the heroes of Mexico's Aztec past are honored in glorious monuments all over the country. But the living descendants of Moctezuma are not allowed to eat in some of Mexico City's best restaurants.
Although all Mexicans are considered equal under the country's Constitution, Mexican society remains deeply divided on racial lines. And as the richest and poorest of the 91 million Mexicans are driven farther apart by such sweeping changes as the North American Free Trade Agreement, many Mexicans are starting to discover the dangers of their own deeply ingrained -- yet rarely acknowledged -- brand of bigotry.
The racial inequities are not just limited to the Maya Indians in the state of Chiapas who took up arms on the very day Nafta took effect more than a year ago, in what is slowly taking on shades of a national civil rights movement for Indians. Indigenous people all over Mexico, and those with Indian features -- and dark skins -- all feel a degree of the same kind of intolerance.
Bigotry? What Bigotry?
While Mexicans typically deny that discrimination exists, the not-so-subtle racial undertones of their society are apparent to foreigners who live and work here since Nafta was passed. When Henry B. McDonald, director of the Cushman and Wakefield Real Estate office in Mexico City took his family out for dinner last November, he didn't think twice about inviting his 45-year-old housekeeper, Gabriela Miranda, an Indian. It was a Friday night and they went to a popular Italian restaurant called Prego in the Polanco section of Mexico City.
"We got there early by Mexican standards, around 7:45, and the place was empty," Mr. McDonald said. "But we stood there waiting and waiting until finally the maitre'd came along and told me, in English, that domestics are not served here." Mrs. Miranda was not wearing a uniform, Mr. McDonald said. The restaurant simply assumed that because she was an Indian she was a maid.
The restaurant manager, Mario Padilla, acknowledged that it is policy at Prego and other top restaurants to prohibit servants and drivers, many of whom are Indians. "The type of people who usually come to restaurants of this class all have servants, but they usually leave them at home," Mr. Padilla said. He said the restriction was needed to protect patrons against people who "lack discretion" and try to bring their servants. He denied the policy was discriminatory. "We're not racists," he said. "We're just trying to protect the image of the restaurant."
Now that Mexico is struggling to overcome an economic crisis caused by the peso's devaluation last December, there is concern that racial tensions will flare. More than half a million Mexicans have been thrown out of work in the last six months, and the struggle to survive is likely to be decided on the basis of education, access to money and cultural connections, all of which are based in large part on racial identity.
"There is going to be a sharp increase in social tensions," said Sergio Aguayo, a human rights activist in Mexico City, "and some of it is going to be racially inspired."
Bias against Indians has long been more economic than personal. Sixty percent of Indians over 12 are already unemployed and of those who work most earn less than the minimum wage of about $2.50 a day.
But most Mexicans say bigotry does not exist here. Schoolchildren are drilled on the life of Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian who was President of Mexico in the 19th century, and told that his election proves all Mexicans are equal. Mexico has no affirmative action laws. The National Commission of Human Rights has never received a discrimination complaint and does not even have a process to handle one.
Complicating questions of race is the mixed lineage of most Mexicans. From the Spanish founding of Mexico, social class has been determined by racial purity, with those born in Spain at the top, and full-blooded Indians on the bottom. But over centuries of intermarriage, nearly all Mexicans are considered part Indian.
Now it is the degree of Indianness, or the darkness of brown skin, that determines status. Many Mexicans living in the cities rely on hair dyes, skin lighteners and blue or green contact lenses to appear more white or European and less Indian.
"Yes, Mexicans honor their Indian roots with statues," said Miguel Acosta, an investigator at the Mexican Academy of Human Rights at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, "but historic roots are not at all useful when it comes to eating or just living today."
Mexico City has the highest concentration of Indians in the country, yet most times they are nearly invisible, showing up only in knots of beggars at busy intersections and among the feathered dancers who perform for tourists. No Indians serve in the Cabinet of President Ernesto Zedillo and only a handful are in the Congress, although 1 in 10 Mexicans is considered Indian.
The racial insensitivity extends to blacks, although few live in Mexico. A recent commercial on national television featured a dark-skinned man in a white tuxedo telling viewers that at Comex, a Mexican paint company, "they're working like niggers to offer you a white sale."
There were no complaints about the ad "because we don't have a racism problem -- that's the key to it all," said Marisela Vergada, an account executive at Alazraki Agency, the large Mexican advertising firm that produced the 20-second spot. "It is simply an expression that everyone uses."
Such "expressions" pop up in a commercial for packaged toast that features a black baker boasting that his skin color gives him the expertise to recognize the right shade of toast. Aunt Jemima pancake mix goes by the brand name "La Negrita" here.
The few blacks who live in Mexico are either immigrants or the descendants of about 200,000 African slaves brought here before slavery was abolished in 1829. While researching a book about African slaves in Mexico, Colin A. Palmer, a history professor at the graduate center of the City University of New York, said he quickly noticed that beneath an initial friendliness "a racial hierarchy existed in Mexico."
"It is based on skin color, with white the higher value as opposed to those who are brown and those, God forbid, who are black," Professor Palmer said.
Mexican society's denial that discrimination exists makes it more difficult to combat. "In that regard it is worse than in the United States, where it is recognized and a lot of people of good will are trying to change it," Professor Palmer said. "By and large in Mexico it is unrecognized and unaddressed, which leads to a perpetuation of the status quo and a continuing assault on people of African or Indian descent."
Visiting Americans sometimes get a taste of the same bigotry. Michael Waller, president of Cleveland Telecomunications Corp., of Solon, Ohio, accompanied United States Commerce Secretary Ron Brown on a Nafta-related business trip to Mexico a year ago. He said Mexicans were eager to talk to an American businessman on the telephone. But that changed when he arrived.
"It was obvious from the moment I came into the airport and people reacted as if I had been beamed down from the Enterprise," Mr. Waller, who is black, said. "I guess what they expected was what they saw on TV, the Crips and the Bloods, you know, that kind of thing."
He said that when he did not receive a single follow-up letter, he decided to focus on multiracial Brazil, where he now has several deals pending."