President Vicente Fox last Friday got himself into some hot water over a comment that some have decried as racist. Instead of apologizing, however, the president and some of his buddies (Foreign Minister Derbez, Cardinal Norberto Rivera) have rationalized and even defended the comment (addendum: on Monday night, Fox finally issued a private apology after a phone conversation with Jesse Jackson).
Just last week, a conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington featuring Mexican scholars discussed the problems that confront this country's Afro-Mexican population. The consensus was that Afro-Mexicans are largely marginalized and ignored by the govenment and subjected to widespread discrimination by Mexican society as a whole.
You certainly do run into a lot of very cringeworthy expressions of what would certainly be deemed racism in the United States. For example, from an AP story: "One afternoon television program, Vida TV, regularly features a comedian in blackface chasing light-skinned actresses in skimpy outfits, while an advertisement for a small, chocolate pastry called the "negrito" - the little blackie - shows a white boy sprouting an afro as he eats the sweet." Even the world-reknowned Ballet Folklorico de Mexico relies regularly on a giant Sambo figurine in its performances.
Part of the issue is that Mexicans are just a lot more open when it comes to talking about skin color. I'm constantly being called "guero," or "whitey," and dark-skinned people get called "moreno," or "dark," with no malicious intent nor hurt feelings. But that still doesn't mean that there's no line that can't be crossed.
Sometimes it seems that there's only one form of racism that matters here in Mexico: racism against Mexicans by Americans. And certainly, racism against Mexicans in the U.S. exists in many, very ugly, forms. But man, the treatment of indigenous people here in Mexico, not to mention Afro-Mexicans and the Central American migrants who cross over the Guatemalan border, is pretty appalling in its own right.
So when Fox tries to decry racism in the U.S. by making a borderline racist remark of his own, he and his argument seem absurd. The government here really flipped out recently when an annual U.S. State Department human rights report criticized Mexico's record. "What hypocracy!" they shouted, and certainly with good reason. But maybe Mexico needs to do a bit of reflecting on its own attitudes towards race as it continues to contest discrimination in the United States.