As my mother’s 50th birthday was approaching, I was scrambling around the house to find photos of her from various points in her life.
My goal was to get photos of her from her youth in Mexicali all the way to where she is now and to put it into a slideshow.
While completing my search, I was shuffling through a million 3”x5” photos when I came across something rather disturbing.
It was a photo my mother had taken of my sister and I nearly seven years ago when we spent Winter Break with my father’s extended family in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato.
The picture was taken in the state’s gorgeous capital city in front of its many churches. This photo was taken days before Christmas 2012 so the entire city was adorned in holiday season motifs and Nativity tributes.
In this photograph, my sister and I are posed smiling along with three local actors dressed up as the biblical “Three Wise Men.” Descriptions of the three men often described as the “magi” differ among Judeo-Christian texts but the general consensus is that one is from Europe, one is from the Middle East and the other is from Africa.
The issue is that all three actors were Mexican. Mexico is a diverse nation with people that can pass for literally any other ethnicity, yet these actors took an approach that, while it may be acceptable in the “motherland,” such an action would start a riot here in the Bay Area.
The actor playing the African king wore blackface.
The actor may not have sprung for the exaggerated red lips, but he had essentially just painted his face in solid black paint and he even had the audacity to wear black gloves on his hands.
The situation completely flew over my head at first and a lot of that is probably because Mexicans such as myself have become ignorant of the blatant Eurocentrism that continues to plague our people and culture to this day.
My great-grandfather defected from Germany during World War I after getting drafted by the German imperial army. He sought political asylum in Mexico, got it, and was never allowed back in Germany for his desertion.
As a Mexican-American with 1/8th German ancestry, my sister, many of my cousins, and I ended up fairly light skinned. This has granted us privileges in both the United States and Mexico. These privileges were unfairly granted to us because of an outdated and racist system that has been an integral part of the Mexican and Latin American identity for centuries.
Since the initial conquest of Mexico at the hands of the Spaniards since the 16th century, there has been a hierarchy system in place in which the more European ancestry one possesses, the better they are treated by society in general.
Period. Disturbingly, I might add.
But it wasn’t always this way. In 1810, the Mexican struggle for independence was the culmination of an alliance made between indigenous leaders such as Vicente Guerrero partnering up with Mexicans retained most of their Spanish ancestry and identity such as Ignacio Allende.
Allende was ultimately executed for treason against the Spanish crown but Guerrero would go on to serve as Mexico’s second president since gaining independence in 1821.
Guerrero symbolized what the ultimate “mestizo” should have meant for the Mexican people. While accounts vary, the general consensus is that Guerrero contained a mixture of indigenous, European and African ancestry.
Yet as centuries progressed, Europeans found a new means of colonization via generations of legal immigration and colonization, throughout Mexico and the rest of Latin America. The best jobs, the best educations, and the best opportunities went to the “Mexicans” with surnames such as “Ferrara,” “Lieberman” and “Van Ness.”
These mostly-European Mexicans became industrialists, business owners, military leaders and politicians.
As for those whose ancestry was more indigenous, more African and those who just had more melanin in general, their lives were riddled with institutionalized oppression, denial of equal rights and a denial of equal opportunity.
“It’s definitely harder for people in Latin American countries to be black, brown and just darker in general,” said Newark, CA resident Susana Real.
An Afrolatina of Ecuadorian descent, Real has struggled with the lasting effects of Eurocentrism in her native Ecuador her whole life.
“There’s real shift because in the Bay Area, people pride themselves on being people of color or being ambiguously ethnic. In Ecuador, Argentina, Peru, people want to be as white as possible—both literally and culturally. Latinos have a bit of an ‘Uncle Tom’ complex when it comes to stuff like this,” she concluded.
Indeed, Real has a point. Despite over two centuries of supposed “independence” from the long arms of the Spanish crown, nations such as Mexico and Ecuador continue to feel the effects of the longstanding colonial legacy.
While the actors in Guanajuato may not have contained malignant intent, their use of blackface is reprehensible and an insult to Afro-Latinos such as Guerrero that devoted their lives to Mexican sovereignty.
But there is hope. The 2018 Mexican film “La Negrada” was the first film of its kind to star a leading cast of all Afro-Mexican actors. The film takes an introspective look at Mexican society through the eyes of its most oppressed minority and holds a mirror to the changes Mexico needs to make as a country.
Similarly and more commonly known, director Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix film Roma is the penultimate example of an increasingly self-aware Mexico finally owning up to and combating its own Eurocentrism.
The academy-award winning film focuses on indigenous Mexican relations as seen through the eyes of actress Yalitza Aparicio’s housemaid character in 1970s Mexico.
The more representation that Mexico’s indigenous population gains through mediums such as film and television, the more that Mexico can be pressured into reexamining its antiquated and obsolete hierarchy—one that is based solely off the amount of melanin that one person possesses.
The Mexico I love and call my motherland, is a collage of indigenous, European, African, Asian and mixed people of every heritage imaginable.
Mexico, like every other country in this world, is better because of its diversity and not in spite of it.
Mexico is better than resorting to blackface and stronger than the hatred that divides it.