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Mexico Honors Indians of the Past?
by Anthony DePalma
SHROUDED in mystery and Myth, the heroes of
Mexico's Aztec past are honoured in glorious
monuments all over the country.
But the living descendants of Montezuma are not
allowed to eat in some of Mexico City's best
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 further 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 limited to the
Maya Indians in the state of Chiapas, who took up
arms on the very day NAFTA took effect a year and a
half 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.
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.
When Henry McDonald, director Of the Cushman &
Wakefield Real Estate office in Mexico City, took
his family out for dinner last August, he didn't
think twice about inviting his housekeeper,
Gabriela Miranda, 45, 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 is needed to protect
patrons against people who "lack discretion" and
try to bring their servants.
He denied that the policy is 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 per cent of Indians
over 12 years of age 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. School children are drilled on the life of
Benito Juarez, a Zapotec 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
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 centuries of intermarriage mean that
nearly all Mexicans are considered part Indian.
Now it is the degree of Indianness, or the
darkness of skin, that determines status.
Mexicans living in cities rely on hair dyes or
skin lighteners to appear less Indian.
"Yes, Mexicans honour their Indian roots with
statues," said Miguele 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
Ernsto Zedillo, and only a handful are in the
congress, although 3 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 blacks
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 colour gives him the expertise to
recognize the right shade of toast. Aunt Jemima
pancake mix goes by the brand name "La Negrita"
About Racism as a Form of Power
by Javier Elorriaga
When we read that the Zapatista delegates present at the
negotiating table of San Andres complain about racism on the part
of the delegates from Gobernacion [Justice Department], we become
indignant, but we are not surprised. This same racist attitude is
known by land squatters when Pronasol [the government anti-
poverty program widely known as Solidarity as well] is imposed
upon them, university students know it when their assigned
resources are managed by the discretion of the president's
office, and the millions of unemployed know it when they are
unable to voice an opinion about the political economy, and
voters know it when the popular will is scammed.
And so it is that in the relationship between government and
governed in our country little changes as the centuries go by. If
the forms change, the content does not. For example, racism and
more specifically racism as a constant practice in the exercise
of power by the different "governments" throughout our history.
Kings, viceroys, lodges, dictators, emperors, scientists, party-
ists, partidazo [state-party, PRI], neo-liberals, what is the
difference between them besides their dress and their language?
The evil is the same, superiority over the governed has always
been considered an attribute of power. Sometimes the superiority
is justified by the divine, sometimes by social science, by
blood, by laws, or by diplomas written in languages other than
spanish, but superiority at the end, based on a racist conception
of power which goes beyond the simple racism which has to do with
the color of the skin. The racism of power is that which believes
that thanks to power itself, reason, history, and the future, are
naturally, on its side.
There, far back in time, thundered the voice of the monarch;
I am the power, because God wants it that way and my laws and
tribunals confirm it. I give the land, life, and the right to
have a soul if I am pressed, to all the inhabitants of my
kingdoms. More than 300 years passed in order for this concept to
age, at least on paper, but in practice new monarchs, boards,
lodges, dictatorships, empires and more dictatorships continue to
thunder: I am the power, and my laws, congresses, universal
reasons, foreign and domestic armies, confirm this.
In response, millions of people have traveled from one end
of the country to the other, on foot, by horse, mule, train,
fighting to reach a different era precisely for the majority. In
this way little by little, a national conscience was forged which
was unwilling to accept the supremacy of the government over the
governed for the sole reason that they occupy the seat of power.
Then the voices of the partidazo[state-party, PRI] thundered and
said: I am the power, because I embody the historic struggle of
the Mexican people and my laws and armies confirm this. Some
years later it would add; and my means of mass communication and
northern neighbors confirm this as well.
This goes on and until until it becomes completely
ridiculous, then the neo-liberals appear! With the arrogance and
insanity of absolute power, they ignore history, death and
everyone who is not a member of their corporation, which is the
majority of Mexicans, and they decree that the nation is more
free and sovereign if it depends on the foreigner and they serve
as the administrators of what remains of the "global" wealth, by
sending it beyond these borders. There were no longer any limits,
not to corruption, not to the shameless sacking of the Nation,
not to the violations of the laws and values, not to the pretense
and facade constructed with the support of the majority of mass
communications electronic media.
Similar to the extraordinary efforts to rob us of our past
and present, neoliberalism intends to steal our future as well.
But its racism, and its contempt for the majority betrays it.
The fresh air which blows from the Mexican southeast since
January of 1994 helped at the same time, among other things to
dissipate the fog which neoliberal propaganda had used to obscure
the national reality. The fresh air, at the same time, cleansed
our spirit and gave us the will to fight off the robbery of that
which we call "nation". There are no more excuses for inaction,
and threats, jails and assassinations cannot stop history. All
of our history of struggle, and the conscious effort to inherit
it, mark only one path: it is not possible, we cannot agree to
begin another century suffering from the ancestral racism of the
powerful over the governed. Even so, even if history is on our
side, it must be wooed, and similar to all love affairs, in this
courtship imagination, vigor, and sacrifice count a great deal.
But the reward is well worth it, the pride of calling ourselves
Mexicans in a country which is free, democratic and sovereign.
*Jorge Javier Elorriaga has been in Cerro Hueco prison in Tuxtla
Gutierrez since February 9th of 1995. He is accused of being a
member of the EZLN. His case, as well as those of the other 35 or
so prisoners accused of affiliation with the EZLN is plagued with
legal irregularities. He is married to Maria Gloria Benavidez,
who is also in prison. They are parents of a two year old son.
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