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MEXICO: More on "brown" and "moreno"

Esteban Guerrero writes: "I'm sure you know that some of the questions you raise inevitably push hot buttons on some of us Mexicans, so please bear with us when at first some of our answers may appear rushed and thoughtless; I'm sure most of them have in fact lots of depth and history to them. In any case, I've been enjoying your questions, because they give me the opportunity to learn more about three things:

  1. The American perspective. I'd agree with Alex and Jose Carlos that being "moreno" or being called that is not a bad thing per se. It is interesting, though, that in an American context being called anything is always cause for argument. This difference in perception may be founded on the very past that the US has; being discriminated on the basis of color is a fact, thus identifying people by their color has become common practice --and some may defend this practice while some may fight it. So, like Alex and Jose Carlos, I don't think I ever thought that being called "moreno" was a bad thing, nd I've always thought that being Mexican was just a question of national identity, not color code.

    But when someone says "brown" because a good word for "moreno" does not exist in English, it doesn't sound as good; at least in an American context, I guess. I don't find President Bush's comment offensive; I don't find it clever either, but I understand why he may have said it. I think that the Democrats' reaction was uncalled for, but within an American context is also understandable. In other words, neither is right, from my perspective, to have tagged the condition of having a nice morena skin either with good or bad attributes.

    Given the values and the history of the US, there has always been this pervasive rejection-acceptance cycle: how much can I embrace the culture of the country that accepts me as a new citizen and how much can I let go of the culture of the country I was born to. The truth is that most Americans, although somewhat proud of their heritage, have been completely engulfed by the new culture, but still find it somewhat necessary to resort to that heritage to ascertain their individuality. I chuckle every time I hear people here in the States talk about their "heritage pie chart": "I'm 25% French, 40% Irish and 35% Italian." Yeah, right; most Americans have assimilated the culture and the language to an extent where they simply have to admit that they don't know a lot more about their "countries of origin" than do any long-generation white Americans. I don't laugh at their heritage; I simply think that the software (culture, education) bears much more weight in our behavior than the hardware (our genes) do. So, to assume that we Mexicans look on ourselves as brown or not-brown is not so relevant in Mexico. Mexican-Americans may differ, though, for the same reasons explained here.

  2. The blindness of cultures to self-evaluate. Maybe because I've always been in touch with different cultures and because I've lived in other countries, I have learned to reflect about what it is to be Mexican and which traits should be enhanced and which subdued. Thus, the more I learn about other cultures, the more "universal" I become, but at the same time the "less Mexican." Some of the questions you raise have been explored by several people, among who we find Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, to name a couple. Whether we Mexicans openly admit to it, we tend to discriminate against other Mexicans on the basis of social and economic class, and we use cues of color, accent, clothing, and domicile to try to assess a fellow citizen's belonging and the way we're socially allowed to treat him or her. This color-coded evaluation can be confirmed in places like Mexico City or Monterrey, where you'll find that the more expensive the neighborhood, the larger the proportion of fair-skin to darker-skin people you will find. This system kind of break downs in certain towns, or the farther north in the country you go. For instance, places like Aguascalientes or Guanajuato, perhaps underwent very little "mestizaje", so entire generations of Mexicans remained "white."

    In other words, although the initial response of some of us is "being moreno is not a bad thing," the truth is there's more to this apparent tolerance of ethnic background. The Chiapas conflict did certainly open this Pandora box for Mexican society: what do we think of the native people? where do we stand in accepting that our past is BOTH Spanish and indigenous? what is our position on "modernization," human rights, and the like? I'm sad to say that by listening to some of my relatives' and friends' answers, I got to know that their view of the world was not as ample as one would like but indeed very narrow, superficial and prejudiced. But even when the mother of a friend of mine says of his new girlfriend "she's cute, but a little dark, don't you think?" you can tell that there's an underlying sense of discrimination, even if very subtle and seemingly harmless.

    I must ask, however, that my comments be judged from the perspective of my background and experiences. Those of us who have access to WAIS certainly do not accurately represent the majority of Mexicans. So, although I do like brown skin color and I am moreno myself, I can't either feel proud or ashamed: I simply have to accept it and appreciate it; but I also have to accept that others may feel strong about it and may in fact feel very proud or belittled by any reference to the subject. When this priest talks that way to the people in his community, he may be doing so as a way to empathize with them, and that may be OK. The remark I want to make though is that I thought souls didn't have any color and that therefore he should praise his people's effort and values, not the color of their skin.

  3. We're fighting the wrong battles. I think it's interesting that we go about the world studying the traits and phenomena of human life, in order to gain understanding. I wonder, however, whether we should be having an "integrating" dialogue, not a "disintegrating" one. And I'm not talking about the particular questions raised in this forum but about the questions in general that businesses, world leaders and media should raise. I guess it is only human nature to fall back on our comfort values and beliefs when we have to face the rest of the world. Curiosity and fear are opposing forces that have always driven the human spirit. But in this age of technical competence, I think it is time we learn to control our fears, let go of those things that make us "proud and different" and explore more those that bring us closer. We devote so many resources to reinforcing the walls that keep us apart... perhaps we would have solved already so many problems had we concentrated our efforts on achieving the common goals.

I'd be glad to hear people who disagree. In the meantime, thanks for keeping the dialogue open. Esteban.

RH: We have discussed the "brown" problem. Much more serious is the black problem, especially in the Caribbean area. The Dominican Republic hates and fears Haiti partly for historical reasons and partly because the Haitians are mostly black. A Dominican black is sometimes called "un blanco de la tierra"-- a country white. I knew one mulatto woman from the area who said "Mi padre era muy indio"--my father was very Indian--i.e. black. As Aldo da Rosa said, the problem is much less acute in Brazil, but even there it exists. In the US we have gone to the other extreme because of affirmative action. Some blacks have been appointed because of their color, not their competency.

Ronald Hilton - 10/5/02