BY: ADAM THRUSH
With international media outlets constantly fixated on the public devolution of race relations in the United States it would be easy to think that the problems of racism and white privilege are inherently American. However, south of the border and throughout Latin America, these issues are ubiquitous yet disguised, sustaining racially discriminatory practices introduced during colonization and continuing to live on through subtle, eugenics-inspired views on societal progress. Despite differing histories, Latin American nations have undergone a convergent evolution that still supports and promotes white supremacy from the top of Baja California to the bottom of Tierra del Fuego.
The Roots: the Introduction of the Caste System
When European colonization (mainly Spanish) began on the continent in the late 1400s, a caste system supported by both the Crown and Catholic Church was implemented that determined how society would be organized and run. Historically, it flowed as follows (with Spanish terms being used):
Peninsular: a person born on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal). They oversaw the colonization of the continent; had essentially all the authority over governance and rule of law.
Criollo: a person with European ancestry (Spanish/Portuguese) but born on the American continent; owned the majority of the land and had lower-government positions.
Indio: an Indigenous person of the Americas who lived on the continent prior to European colonization; had very little to no rights.
Negro: an African slave (or descendant of) with no rights and likely owned by a Peninsular.
The Mexican Castes by Ignacio María Barreda,1777, depicting the Caste system from top-left to bottom-right
Nowadays, ‘criollo’ (or creole in English) simply refers to a white Latin American of European descent; the term ‘indio’ incorrectly labeled natives to the Americas as Indian (people from India), thus the term ‘indigena’ is now used to refer to an indigenous person in Latin America; while ‘negro’ is still used when referring to a person of African heritage in the same way that ‘black’ is used in English.
There were three big societal shifts that occurred post-colonization that impacted the hierarchy. The first is the creation of the ‘mestizo and mulatto’ class (mixed race individuals with European and Indigenous or African ancestries) starting in the 16th century, and now the majority racial groups on the continent. This is where the issue of race enters a ‘grey’ area. In the United States, the term ‘racism’ can be applied appropriately to issues regarding skin color-based discrimination, however in Latin America ‘colorism’ is, generally, more appropriate as discrimination isn’t confined to race but more so to skin tone (specifically amongst mestizos).
The second big shift was the introduction of Creole-led movements (most famously Simon Bolivar) in the early 19th century to assume power from the Peninsulares. This led to the independence of many Latin American countries through the mere abandonment of colonies by European empires who didn’t consider the fight worthy of the hefty resource investment. The Creoles believed that society and government on the American continent should be decided by those living on it and not from Europe. Ironically, they failed to utilize this same logic to ensure that Indigenous communities could do the same.
The third change occurred after 350 years of slavery, which saw 10 million Africans being shipped to the American continent and Caribbean between the early 1500s and mid-late 1800s. The abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade finally made black Latin Americans citizens of the countries they had been living in for generations.
The Stem: the Support System Continuing to Feed Colorism in Society
The caste system had falsely dictated that European ancestry equalled social and intellectual superiority over all. Porfirio Diaz’s 35 year regime (1876 to 1911) in Mexico repeated this mantra by stating that only white men possessed the ability to build a nation. This view continued through the 19th and 20th centuries, which saw the introduction of ‘blanqueamiento’ policies to whiten the population demographics through a combination of increased European immigration and the restriction (even prohibition) of immigration from non-white countries to many Latin American countries. Many of these immigrants came in (and continue to come) from Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, while a substantial amount of Eastern European Jews and Levantine Arabs (mainly Lebanese) crossed the Atlantic as well. Interestingly, various Latin American countries openly accepted Nazis fleeing prosecution during the aftermath of World War II (most notably Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil), demonstrating that even white war criminals were preferred over non-criminals of color.
The concept of ‘mejorar la raza’ is another colonial vestige that unfortunately persists and is prevalent in society today. Building upon ‘el blanqueamiento’, it is a deeply rooted social pressure to marry and reproduce with someone of a lighter skin tone in order to slowly “improve the race” through the whitening and Europeanization of offspring. To put it frankly, it is a modern day eugenics movement with common white European features such as blonde hair, blue eyes, light skin and a tall stature representing sought after (almost fetishized) physical traits. The nonchalant, harmless tone people use when promoting such an ideology today is proof of cultural conditioning towards European appearances. Due to this preference, the products of the movement are evident on whitewashed versions of printed advertisements, along with TV and the Internet; anything that is supposed to appeal to the general public is likely using white or light skinned individuals to represent the given brand.
This societal preference for European-leaning ancestries has also begun to impact traditional naming customs on the continent. Historically, those in Spanish and Portuguese Latin America would use two last names, the first belonging to the paternal side of the family and the second from the maternal. However, nowadays it is quite common for individuals with one European last name to highlight that name (on social media, job applications, in personal interactions etc.) by omitting the more traditionally Latin American one. Simply sticking with the paternal last name, as is common in Argentina and the majority of the western world, is becoming increasingly common as well.
The Foliage: Examples of Colorism in Modern Day Latin America
Despite the passing of centuries, white (and whitish) dominance in the region is evident to this day. Post-independence governments continued to carry the banner of racially determined social classes, while continuously failing to empower African and Indigenous communities on the continent. Although rarely spoken about openly, the caste system the Peninsulares installed 500 years ago (albeit blurred and diluted), continues to live on in Latin culture with the privileged class relatively unaware or in denial of the racial processes working in their favour on a daily basis. Presently, European ancestors on the continent are disproportionately holding positions of power in politics and business, even in deeply indigenous countries with white minorities.
As young children, color differentiation is one of the first methods we use to group and distinguish between objects. One does not need a master’s degree in Latin American race relations to observe a negative correlation between social class/income level and skin tone. Visit the most and least affluent neighbourhoods in Mexico City; notice the differences between those attending public and private schools in Santiago; or even those strolling through grocery stores of different price ranges in Managua. The correlation is apparent.
In Latin America’s largest country, black Brazilians earn 50 per cent less than their white counterparts on an average monthly basis. An Ethos Institute study found that only 5.3 per cent of big businesses in the country (105 surveyed) had black executives in 2010 despite Afro-Brazilians making up almost half of the general population. “Out of 300 people on my floor, three are black, including me and a cleaner,” said Vitor Andrade, an employee of a large company in Sao Paulo. In addition to a lack of representation, stereotypes connecting Afro-Brazilians with the lower class widen the divide. Recently a class action lawsuit was filed against Villa Mix, a club in Sao Paulo, for ordering hostesses to deny entry to guests that were obese, unattractive or black.
Similar trends regarding black and Indigenous communities can be found throughout other Latin American countries as well. United Nations reports have found that Afro-Colombians make up 75 per cent of Colombia’s poor despite only representing 26 per cent of the population, while 90 per cent of Panama’s indigenous population live under the poverty line. Language barriers can also impede the success of these communities. The Miskito regions of Nicaragua and Honduras, Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani speaking regions of Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay, Nahuatl communities in Mexico, along with an unknown plethora of languages in the Brazilian Amazon all representing regions where a lack of fluency in the country’s official language limits access to healthcare and other essential public services.
When it comes to education, a Vanderbilt University study looked at the relationship between years of education attained and skin tone in the Americas. It found that participants from almost every Latin American country with the lightest skin tone had the highest education attainment while the darkest participants had the lowest, showing an inverse correlation between education level and skin darkness. The countries with the strongest inverse correlations were, sadly, Bolivia and Guatemala, two heavily indigenous nations, demonstrating an especially high degree of inequality.
Furthermore, a University of Northern Colorado study on racial appearance and income in Mexico found that although private universities are much more expensive than those publicly funded, academic entry requirements to private universities are generally much lower while providing a “mediocre” quality of education. They also stated that whites and light skinned mestizos make up a majority of the wealthiest class while indigenous make up the poorest. Correlating the two conclusions shows that, despite potentially poor grades, the rich have an added advantage by being able to afford high tuition, low entry requirement education in order to obtain a degree and seek employment in the higher rungs of society, while the poor must be highly academically qualified for entry into low tuition, academically selective public universities in search of a better life.
Given the relationship between skin color and class, unsurprisingly, there is a significant impact on political allegiances as well. To briefly contrast the party divide (at risk of oversimplification), the political left generally caters to the poor mainly through promises of poverty reduction, while the right to the wealthy via promises of further economic prosperity. In 2005 Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism party became the first Indigenous President of Bolivia; conversely Brazilian President Michel Temer made headlines in 2016 by filling his cabinet almost exclusively with white men, reconfirming the right wing’s symbiotic relationship with the white and wealthy.
In 1996, former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, chose to take the eugenics-esque ideologies of “el blanqueamiento’ and ‘mejorar la raza’ a step further by launching a forced sterilization program against the poor. Under the disguise of ‘family planning’, 260,874 women officially underwent tubal ligation operations between 1996 and 2000. It is estimated that over 220,000 of these procedures were forced and done against the will of its indigenous, mainly Quechua speaking, victims.
As if a lack of opportunity in society and eugenics wasn’t enough, public racism is quite common in some areas as well. Valeria Herrera of Buenos Aires, Argentina says “there are so many nicknames society uses to degrade people of lower classes and different races (such as ‘bolita’ meaning little Bolivian), even mistreating them for the way they dress. To me this makes Argentina look like a country lacking in education, culture, and values”. Other more general terms such as ‘negrito’ or ‘indito’ are used across the continent in a demeaning manner when referring to Afro-descendants, indigenous people, or simply people with a darker skin complexion. One of many soccer related incidents saw Tinga, an Afro-Brazilian player of Brazil’s Cruzeiro, taunted with monkey chants every time he touched the ball by fans of Peruvian club, Real Garcilaso, in Peru.
Although the colorism and racism described is generally covert, with a possible majority of both perpetrators and victims not realizing its existence, the socio-economic impacts on these communities are real. Given the relatively low amount of published material on such a powerful societal pressure, white(ish) privilege in the region needs to be studied further, acknowledged by its beneficiaries, and protested by those unfairly restricted by it, while concepts such as ‘mejorar la raza’ need to be called out and condemned for the racist ideologies that they are.
Colombia and Brazil have recently introduced affirmative action initiatives to improve employment opportunities for Afro-descendants, while international initiatives such as the United Nations declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples supports the push for cultural preservation and social inclusion. With around 150 million black and 30 million indigenous people in the region, sustaining the movement towards equality, while deconstructing the vestiges of colonization will only work to unlock precious human resources that will strengthen marginalized populations and thus, the economies of Latin American nations, reconciling for the past in the process.