Border Jumper: Mexico’s Color Wars

Introducing “Border Jumper,” a new series from contributor Brandon Brewer, an expat schoolteacher in Acapulco, Mexico. Over the coming weeks, Brandon’s dispatches on being gay south of the border will show another side of a nation far too many Americans know only for drunken frat rats and cheap margaritas.

129327-dibujo02lc4A few months ago, I went to Pie de la Cuesta with a small group of students from the university where I teach English. About a half hour north of Acapulco is a somewhat secluded beach known for its rough waves and swampy lagoons, which coincidentally served as the setting for Rambo II. We chose a spot at one of the small, cabana-style restaurants, complete with palm-frond roof, and settled in. Applying sunscreen in anticipation of taking on the rough waters, I asked one of the girls to join me in the ocean. She told me that she preferred the shade, adding, “I don’t want to get dark.”

There’s no doubt that one of the most important issues facing Mexico today is the drug war. However,there’s an entirely different subject that’s been, at least in my opinion, completely absent in the national discourse: the very conspicuous exclusion of dark-skinned Mexicans in everything from telenovelas and commercials to all kinds of other advertising. I hesitate to use the word racism only because I risk conflating the two very different racial systems that exist between the U.S. and Mexico. Colorism is a more apt term—rampant colorism.

It’s something that, especially as a person of color, has frustrated me since I first moved to Mexico in 2006. One immediately notices that the models on billboards, in store windows and on bus stops have surprisingly white complexions in comparison with the actual passersby.

In fact, if you were exposed to this imagery and never stepped foot in the country, you would probably think that Mexico had no mulatto, mestizo or indigenous population at all. Go ahead, turn on Univisión or Telemundo, which often run Mexican-produced telenovelas, and you will see exactly to what I’m referring: Actors like Christopher Uckermann of Rebelde fame, or William Levy Gutierrez (actually a U.S. nationalized citizen born in Cuba) from Cuidado con el Ángel , who, although they may indeed be fine thespians and ridiculously good-looking, also seem to have passed the Mexican equivalent of the brown paper bag test. In their case, it’s more like the white milk carton test.

After the soap operas, stick around for the commercials if you want to witness even more “whitewashing.” This commercial for a new shopping plaza in Guadalajara called Plaza de Hierro is a perfect example:

Just to add insult to injury, as Alejandro Fernandez’s love ballad swoons for that girl from Guadalajara with beautiful “ojos negros,” we’re treated to a slow motion close-up of two green and blue-eyed models passing by.

Now I know that some people may be thinking, “What are you trying to say, that all Mexicans are brown-skinned?” This is, in fact, a common response from certain Mexicans when I bring the topic up to them. Of course that’s not my point. But even if the Mexican population were, say, 50 percent “light-skinned” and 50 percent “dark-skinned,” there should at least be a somewhat similar representation in the media, right? Well, currently, that ratio seems to sit at about 99 percent “very light-skinned,” far from a faithful representation of the country’s actual population.

When I try to bring up colorism to people, the usual response is to point out that the U.S. is a lot more racist than Mexico

It’s not my intent to belittle any voices who are indeed speaking out against this injustice, but where’s the outrage and criticism? One study estimates that 40 percent of the population acknowledges that this problem exists. But there is a difference between acknowledgment and public protest. Furthermore, when I try to bring up colorism to people, the usual response is to point out that the U.S. is a lot more racist than Mexico. That may or may not be true, and colorism is indeed alive and well in the north of the border, but having a racism contest between the two nations is besides the point.

If you’re still not convinced colorism is a problem, consider that, like my student who declared her fear of becoming darker, the preference for white is chillingly echoed in everyday conversation, something attested to in this ethnographic study on skin color in Veracruz, Mexico. The research references a common, bluntly stated ideal in Mexico (although it’s also present in other Latin American countries): mejorar la raza, or “bettering the race.” How does one “better” la raza? By marrying a white person into a dark family. The hope is that the next generation will be lighter. Better.

Brandon Brewer is a Fulbright scholar living in Mexico. Read more about his travels down south here, at his blog.