In its primary sense the word “discrimination” means to distinguish between two or more things. If I like salsa verde better than salsa roja, I have discriminated between the two. The word is also commonly used to indicate inferior treatment of people of different groups based on certain preferences. Thus, one can discriminate for racial, religious, sexual, or generational reasons or because of one’s national origin among other factors. This implies the superiority of one group over another: men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, nations and other entities.
Differences between individuals and groups have always existed and always will. The problem arises when these differences lead to preferential and unequal treatment in order in order to enslave, exploit and oppress a group or to see them as unworthy of belonging to the superior group and therefore underserving of equal station or treatment. Human history offers an ample portfolio of every sort of discrimination, which is often linked to an original forced domination that over time became normalized.
Even now, the development of democratic societies and the promotion of human rights and equality at an international level continues to face age-old roadblocks. There are countries and regions that have never achieved this goal and which, to a greater or lesser degree, remain faithful to discriminatory beliefs and customs of every sort. In Latin America, three centuries of European conquest and colonization have left enormous racial discrimination and social and economic inequalities that exist to this day.
In daily practice, despite laws and discourse supporting equality, the standard for racial superiority is to be, or appear to be, a white European. Colonization by Europeans left indigenous groups at the bottom of the social and economic ladder with whites at the top and various other groups somewhere in the middle. Today, in Mexico the prevailing standard of desirability is expressed on television and other media by presenters, actors or models on the news and elsewhere, who are predominantly white and preferably blonde, even though less than 10 percent of Mexicans have those characteristics. The non-blond actors get the parts of servants or villains and few starring roles. Comedians and humorists base their jokes on the inferiority and stupidity of indios, blacks and mestizos. The Mexican adjective “naco” (derived from náhuatl) is an insult that describes those who lack not only the “correct” skin color but also the style and sophistication exclusive to whites. The rest of the continent continues those stereotypes according to their circumstances.
The majority of those in charge of the economy, politics, financial or important institutions, including the Catholic Church tend to be white, as are the wealthiest groups and families. The rest congratulate themselves when someone in the family is “whiter” than others. Many women in cities lighten their complexions and dye their hair blonde or lighten it. In towns, neighborhoods and schools, the beauty queens are chosen following these patterns, with the winner being the whitest, blondest or having the lightest eyes.
The only antidote to this discrimination is money, honestly come by or not. Only those mestizos with economic and social success have access to the exclusive white group and can socialize with and marry into it; perhaps a woman might be so beautiful that she can break the barrier and join the ethnically dominant group as friend, girlfriend or wife.
These discriminatory patterns arrive here with Latino immigrants, and they flourish among them with help from Spanish language radio and television. Viewing Latinos as a homogeneous group, we tend not to be aware of this interior discrimination. For example: Jalostotitlán, origin of many of the Latinos in West Marin, is located in Altos de Jalisco, a region that is host to a large population of white Europeans who have not mixed with other ethnic groups as has happened in the rest of the country. Many of these white Latinos feel superior to other immigrants of color and discriminate against them both openly and more subtly.
It is no surprise that the relatively few Latino immigrants of middle and upper-class status, who are mostly white and from South American countries—although there are a few from Mexico and Central America—enjoy social and educative advantages here. They often adapt and learn English more rapidly, becoming communications links between gringos and the less-favored immigrants in schools, social service agencies or clinics. However, they also tend to follow ingrained discriminatory patterns and to use their power of communication to manipulate, or impose their will, or their superior circumstances to further themselves or diminish those whom they continue to consider inferior. For these and many other reasons it is important that we continue to educate ourselves on this subject.
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer and a native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to West Marin. The original Spanish language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.