Assertions of superiority by one human group with respect to another based on differing ethnic or racial characteristics appear to be part of humanity since time immemorial. Throughout our known history, we can see innumerable examples on every continent, many of which persist today.
Racism and discrimination almost always happen when one group dominates another, usually of a different race, because of conquest or invasion or for economic, social and religious reasons. They can take the form of slavery and human trafficking, when groups of people are taken from their homes against their will to be exploited. The effects can be long-lasting, as is true here with African Americans and immigrants, especially Latinos and indigenous Americans.
Thanks to the recent events in Charlottesville and the unfortunate declarations of President Trump, it is clear that racism in this country is more alive than it previously appeared to be. White supremacists and nationalists, neo-Nazis, fascists, the extreme right and Ku Klux Klan had a discreet presence before they were seemingly endorsed by the President, who, with his anti-immigrant comments, has watered the seeds of hatred and discrimination that characterize these groups.
In reality, discrimination is widespread, extending to other less well-known places, like Latin America. The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas resulted in centuries of racial and social discrimination. This originally involved the local Indians and African-Latin Americans, and continued against their direct or indirect descendants: those born of Spanish men and women of these groups and those of other racial mixtures. The result is what we have today—at least four groups that are vertically discriminated against in this order: whites, mestizos, blacks and Indians.
The obvious economic, ideological and social domination by the privileged white minority of the other racial groups in Latin-American countries exists across the social spectrum and daily life. It is expressed in serious and banal chats and commentary, jokes and sayings, attitudes and common sense. You can see it in every kind of advertising, in film and, above all, on television, which tell us that there is no place here for colored faces because even the actors that play them in subservient roles in the telenovelas are made-up white actors or only slightly dark-skinned actors. Newscasters and presenters of other prominent programs, especially female ones, are always white.
Thus most women want to lighten their faces and dye their hair blonde or light colors. Like some black women in this country, black Latinas often straighten their hair to eliminate its original curl. Everyone wants to pretend they have some white blood in order to claim a better physical appearance or social status, even as whites represent less than 10 percent of the population in most of Latin America. Yet this occurs so automatically and unconsciously that there are those who claim that racial discrimination doesn’t exist there.
In the Los Altos region of the state of Jalisco, Mexico, unlike in the rest of the country, there existed a custom among the Spaniards who arrived after the conquest of avoiding marriage to Indians, Jews and non-Catholics, thereby maintaining “racial purity.” This endured for over almost 250 years, reducing slightly after Mexican independence in 1821 and the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The result is immediately obvious to any visitor. The white and blond population in Jalisco greatly exceeds the national average of 10 percent and ranges through the whole social spectrum.
In a country that venerates the superiority of whites of European descent, the people of Los Altos take pride in their color and origin and consider their women to be the most beautiful in Mexico. The region also has a long tradition of emigration to the United States and its migrants tend to wind up in areas where white Mexicans are in the majority, such as here in West Marin. An influx of immigrants from in and around Jalostitlán, located in the Los Altos region, many of whom have light complexion and eyes, began toward the end of the 1960s.
Racial discrimination in Mexico and Latin America, based on supposed white superiority, is far from disappearing, and continues here among the immigrants, adding to that which they suffer as a result of being foreigners. I have seen and heard it here in West Marin among the young descendants of Jalostitlán immigrants directed against others, whose dark-skinned parents came from other regions of Mexico. I have seen it in other places, too, like San Rafael, among lighter-skinned Central Americans against Mexicans of darker skin. It may not be intuitive, but we need to inform these people about the negative effects of racial discrimination, just we inform and defend them as immigrants.
Victor Reyes is a translator and writer who lives in Cotati. A native of Puebla, Mexico, he has decades-long ties to the Light.