Enrique Krauze: Latin America’s Talent for Tolerance
Enrique Krauze: Latin America’s Talent for Tolerance
Before every World Cup match in Brazil, the players lined up in front of a banner that read, “Say No to Racism.” The message was particularly directed toward the soccer stadiums of Europe, where there have been many instances of racial taunting and physical aggression by hostile fans against African and other black players.
Though one Latin American star (the psychologically troubled Uruguayan Luis Suárez) unleashed a notable racial rant in 2011 while playing for an English club, the stadiums of Latin America have for the most part been free of this phenomenon, despite the fervent nationalism and fanaticism of the fans.
Of course, Latin America has had its share of violent racism through the years: The Argentines virtually exterminated their Indians, and even in Brazil, our most racially integrated country (which didn’t abolish slavery until 1888), the black population still faces prejudice and hurdles to power. But European-style racism — which not only mistreats and discriminates but also persecutes and, in the very worst cases, tries to exterminate others because of their ethnicity — has been the exception and not the rule in modern Latin America.
The issue of racism varies from country to country. In places where the mixing of ethnicities (mestizaje) and cultures prevailed under the Spanish and Portuguese empires — countries like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil — racist attitudes and practices have been far less pronounced. Where Indian populations remained physically and culturally separate from the Spaniards — in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala and northern Chile — racial discrimination against Indians has been stronger and in some cases persists today. In a country like Venezuela, with a small Indian population, a huge mixture of formerly enslaved Africans and a minority of creoles (criollos, of unmixed Spanish descent), derogatory language based on skin color is common. One of the achievements of Hugo Chávez (the late Venezuelan president was of mixed ethnicity) was to affirm the claims for just treatment of the majority, dark-skinned population, even to the point of inventing an Afro-American lineage for the Creole liberator of much of Latin America, Simón Bolívar.
The American author John Reed, who rode with Pancho Villa in 1913, noted that Mexicans seemed little concerned with skin color (in great contrast to racism in the United States). Reed obviously experienced Mexico at war and the camaraderie of revolutionary soldiers; subtler features of the culture (such as the higher incidence of racist feeling among some creole families) were outside his experience. Still, Mexican history supports his general observations about race.
Benito Juárez, perhaps Mexico’s greatest president, who presided over a country at war and at peace from 1858 to 1872, was a Zapotec Indian. Elsewhere in Latin America, the only other Indian ever elected to the highest office of a country is the current president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. But in Mexico, since the Juárez era, only three presidents have been creoles, while all the rest were mestizos of mixed ancestry.
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There is indeed an element of racial tolerance at the very base of Mexico’s culture. It stems from a current within the Catholic Church, exemplified by the great apostle to the Indians, Bartolomé de las Casas, who persuaded the king of Spain that Indians had souls and should not be formally enslaved. While this position was not universally supported and honored by the Spanish colonial masters, it was a strong deterrent to further degradation of the Indian population of New Spain, already decimated by diseases imported from Europe. Unfortunately, Las Casas did not argue for the worth (or perhaps the existence) of African souls and urged that Indians enslaved in the most grueling labor (sugar plantations and mines) could be replaced by African slaves. It was a view he would later regret and reject.
An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 enslaved Africans were brought to New Spain. But thanks in part to an undercurrent of equality among different ethnicities, African slavery in New Spain was somewhat less degrading in practice than it was in the United States. It was first outlawed in 1810 by Father Miguel Hidalgo, who led a short-lived insurrection against the colonial rulers, and then formally abolished in 1821 after the hard-fought victory in the struggle for Mexican independence, which had two part-African mestizos, José María Morelos and Vicente Guerrero, among its most prominent leaders. The equality and liberty of all Mexicans was then enshrined in the country’s earliest constitutions and the last slaves were freed by 1829.
Before emancipation, African slaves arguably enjoyed greater privileges than indigenous Indians. They could buy their freedom and circulate throughout New Spain with some ease. While certain occupations were closed to them, many were not, and they often prospered in various trades and professions. In these ways, they contributed to the racial inclusiveness of mestizaje.
Mexico’s enduring problem is one of acute class differences — “classism” rather than racism — though it would be wrong to deny that racism toward Indians remains a factor in some parts of the country. Mexico is a complicated place, but its regional, cultural and ethnic identities are not all in conflict with each other. Since the days of the Spanish Conquest, our society has always favored mixing and syncretism. No one uses the word mestizo in ordinary speech, for the simple reason that almost the entire population is of mixed origin — Spanish, Indian and African. It is the cultural inclusiveness present in our religiosity, our art, our food, and even in the names of our streets and towns that determines and fortifies the way in which we face the modern world.
There is one atrocious stain on Mexico’s modern history: the persecution and killing of Chinese immigrants in northern Mexico during the early decades of the 20th century. But, generally speaking, Latin America has received and sheltered many nationalities fleeing hunger or persecution — and Mexico has been at the forefront of this receptiveness and openness. It is a national trait that Americans should recognize and value when passing judgment on the current surge of immigrants arriving from Mexico and Central America.