Today’s multicultural Mexican society was forged through the blending of the indigenous and Spanish cultures during a 300-year colonization period and the influence from cultures that came afterwards through successive migrations. Or invasions (I am looking at you both, France and USA).
Despite its rich heritage, one of the first things to understand about Mexico is that this is still a heavily class-conscious society, and more often than not, this stratification is bound toF skin tone…
Formally, all Mexicans are equal under the current Constitution of 1917, made long after the armed uprising that lead to the independence of the then called Virreinato de Nueva España and the creation of a Mexican State, and later with the Revolution of 1910, which intended to abolish any remnants of discrimination among Mexicans. But despite all the attempts made to dismantle any kind of colonialist attitudes, still nowadays there’s a substantial tendency to racialize socio-cultural traits: white people with European factions are associated with an upper economic class with certain privileges and attributes, while dark toned people are addressed with derogatory qualities believed to be inherent to their mestizo or Amerind condition, such as being lazy, dumb and weak because they can’t do any better, only able to get certain kind of simple jobs, and way more (and worse), depending on how native the appereance.
The question is how this can be happening in a society as diverse as that of the Mexicans?
It dates all the way back to 1535 with the establishment of a casta system in the newly discovered American territories during the colonization of the continent by the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. Just like the castes in India, but based on racial ascendancy and skin colour.
This system was used by the Castilians to keep a grip on power, and it meant the stratification of the new American society according to racial purity and blood cleanliness, i.e., the degree of affiliation by blood from la raza, understood as being of a Castilian Roman Catholic heritage, a concept kind of being WASP for a Protestant English. Under this system, Spaniards were at the top as victors and conquerors, Amerinds at the bottom, and in between, mestizos in several degrees depending on their whiteness.
This system had an ‘incentive‘: Amerinds and non-Spaniards could ascend and reach the social recognition, rights and power reserved for the governing white, but after generations of blanqueamiento (whitening) through miscegenation, marrying light-skinned people and whitening the skin of the progeny, who would eventually scale upwards in this system; in the same way, they could also ‘devolve’ in the casta, diluting their white ascendancy by marrying a non-white. Thus, the son or daughter would be born a step below in this social system.
This way, the genetic proximity to the ruling white raza classified everybody in one of these social levels, determining everybody’s importance in their society, as well as the legal and social framework to be applied to each: the jobs you could get, the taxes you would pay, the courts that would hear your demands, the possessions you could have, the politic participation or the lack of it, and a long list of practical consequences.
As wealthy and high government officials had a Castilian background, African or people with indigenous ancestry (or even just dark-skinned) correlated with inferiority, limiting their access to good jobs (reserved for the elite), political participation, and ditching them into poverty and discrimination in general.
Therefore, the whiter the heritage a person could claim, the higher status they could reach; and the other way around, darker features meant fewer opportunities, less money, more discrimination and so on. If you could not prove your ascendancy, it was just a question of appearances: the whiter, the better.
Being or having white ascendancy became key to success, so all non-Spaniards tried their best to be white, not only marrying white-skinned people to give their kids a better future, but also assimilating the dominant white culture and behaviour, learning their language, adopting their dress codes, despising the Amerinds as the Spaniards did, and in general, helping to keep up the perception of a white European as something better and to be praised.
This system was far from being scientific or logic as the Spaniards thought it to be (this is a blatant case of scientific racism), but it was quickly assimilated, taught in schools, spread and applied through generations to the point that it got deeply engraved in the society and culture all across the colonies, reaching even the status of national policy in many Latin American countries… as far as the 20th century!
Here below is an example from that time, a ‘cuadro de castas‘, a painting showing one of the many classifications made of the racial stratification through marriage. Also note the colouration given to each casta, getting darker as it goes down, as well as the general appearance and clothing:
Here below, the translation and some explanation of the names given. Note the abusive language used, either animal metaphors or derived from physical and mental handicaps:
|Parent a||Parent b||Casta result||Notes|
|Español/a||Indio/an (Amerind)||Mestizo/a||Mix of European and Amerind|
|Castizo/a||Almost white: three-quarters European and one-quarter Amerindian|
|Castizo||Español/a||Criollo/a||A Spaniard born in the Americas, which regained the ‘purity of blood’ as a white|
|Mulato/a||Originally, this word named the offspring of a horse and a donkey|
|Indio/a||Mulato/a||Cholo/a||Originally meaning a dog of uncertain origin, not purebred.|
|Morisco/a||Español/a||Chino/a||Shortening for the Spanish word cochino: pig, dirty|
|Chino/a||Indio/a||Salta atrás||Literally ‘jump back’, as race got diluted and regressed a step back|
|Salta atrás||Mulato/a||Lobo/a||For savage, untamed, predatory animal|
|Jíbaro/a||Mulato/a||Albarazado/a||The colour resulting from mixing red and black|
|Albarazado/a||Negro/a||Cambujo/a||Originally, this word defines a bird with black skin and feathers|
|Cambujo/a||Indio/a||Zambaigo/a||Word for a bow-legged person|
|Calpamulato/a||Cambuja||Tente en el aire||Literally meaning ‘floating in the air’; metaphorically: having no identity|
|Tente en el aire||Mulato/a||Noteendiendo||‘I don’t understand you’, literally|
|Noteentiendo||Indio/a||Tornaatrás||‘Throwback’ meaning the child is darker than the parents, thus it is a ‘step back’ towards whitening|
As there was no standardization of these terms above, meanings and classifications varied across the territories of New Spain, and by the end of the colonial era in America, there were hundreds of classifications and subtypes, but the bottom line was still the same: the supremacy of a ruling white casta.
The Independence of Mexico by itself was not an egalitarian movement, as the Mexican army was sent to crush Amerindian uprisings all over the country afterwards. Notwithstanding being formally wiped, the casta system was kept in use as it served the economic and political elites to stay in power, reaching its peak during the Porfiriato, where despite being a moment of great economic power for Mexico (1 peso was equivalent to 3 US dollars!), the ethnic discrimination was (still) linked to the wealth distribution in the country.
After the Revolution of 1910, the new government tried to homogenize the society… through miscegenation. This was intended to create a new homogeneous national identity based on European descents and get rid of the racial gap in the country, but it backfired horribly, deepening racial profiling in Mexico: in the end, mestizaje is a racial ideology too. The communities of native Amerinds were kept seen as a ‘problem’ by successive governments, and marginalized for not willing to assimilate and dissolve their identities.
Fast forward to nowadays, the current social fabric of Mexico is made of mestizos, European descents, Amerindians, and other large groups like Arabs, Chinese and African descendants, and despite the large majority of Mexicans can be considered mestizos, they still locked in racial profiling. There is no
There is no casta system anymore, but a heavy ethnic division ensues, deeply ingrained from years of social assimilation, creating divisions among Mexicans according on their European or Amerind appearance, and associating them with certain sociocultural connotations, from being powerful, smarter or plain better, to lazy, not trustworthy, useless… and yes, I’m talking about the 21th century Mexico.
Many companies are known for keeping all-white European-descendant staff. People here in Culiacán loves to boast about being ‘Greek descendant’ or anything European, even if they are the 8th generation born and raised in Mexico. On construction sites, basic police ranks and housekeeping jobs, you will see dark-skinned people. In the fanciest privadas, the residents will have a light skin. White or light-skinned people are seen as prettier and a beauty model: no dark-skinned people is a famous singer, actress or news anchor. And the examples could be endless.
Even the telenovelas, the Mexican soap operas, present a biased profiling of Mexico’s society where everybody who’s white is rich, the main characters are handsomely white, and the maids are white if they are the main character; in politics, you almost only see light-skinned people, from the President of the Republic to the Governors of states with a significant Amerind population (58% in Oaxaca, Chiapas with a 32%, Yucatan with a 68% or Quintana Roo with a 33%): all of them they seem imported straight from Russia.
There’s still a veiled, subconscious perception and attitude for which light-skinned people are somehow above the rest, have access to more opportunities and better treatment. Upward social mobility is still assimilated with whitening,: if a person with indigenous traits or Amerind roots rises to positions of power, they tend to be perceived as ‘white’, as if they left the ‘behaviour’ attributed to the Amerinds (as seen before) behind and adopted a ‘white’, better behaviour. Again, the differentiation between mestizos (dark skin) and ‘güeros‘ is based on sociocultural myths and not actual biological boundaries…
Here people will typically deny that this kind of discrimination exists, as it is not seen as racism or classism based on the perceived race, but rather as ‘cultural expression’ (just like homophobic slurs, huh?), something that ‘everybody knows it is true’… But Mexicans are not only racist against themselves: Guatemalans and other Central Americans take the heat too, as they point them as ‘indios‘ and thus, as inferiors. In fact, what many Guatemalans and other South American migrants fear is not the USA border, but going trough Mexico, where they are treated worse than animals.
And for those who might think I’m exaggerating or being mislead, here’s a powerful study made by 11-11, a Mexican association under the sponsorship of the CONAPRED on the subject.
As you can see, racism among Mexicans is alive and well.
- La Jornada (newspaper) article on Mexico’s segregation. Spanish and English.
- Doing business in Mexico series.
Books on colonization heritage:
- Ethnicity Counts, by William Petersen
- Exits from the Labyrinth: Culture and Ideology in the Mexican National Space, by Claudio Lomnitz-Adler
- Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century, by Francisco Bethencourt