As with any embarrassingly disappointing opinion piece that gets my attention, I usually find out about it via Twitter. This weekend was no different, when @RachelDecoste tweeted this:
— Rachel Décoste (@RachelDecoste) July 12, 2014
After tapping my laptop to make sure it was working, I read Enrique Krauze’s opinion piece. Before I begin to explain why this post published by The New York Times (here we go again) contains critical factual errors as well as “Bizarro World” conclusions, you need to know that Krauze is a big deal. When he writes opinion pieces (even really poor ones like his latest one for the Times), people will notice. This time, however, a lot of people noticed the piece for all the wrong reasons.
For example, when first published online on July 10, Krauze’s Twitter profile wanted to let his 300K+ followers why Latin America is less racist than Europe:
Two days later, Krauze’s Twitter offered a slightly different message: “In Latin America [AL], there is racial discrimination, but no policies of extermination like Europe in the 20th century.”
En AL hay discriminación racial pero no políticas de exterminio como en Europa en el siglo XX. Mi texto en NYT: http://t.co/0qicrRYRVq
— Enrique Krauze (@EnriqueKrauze) July 12, 2014
Those are some rather bold statements, and quite honestly—they’re both dead wrong.
No Racism in Latin American Soccer?
At the beginning of the piece, Krauze starts with FIFA’s “Say No To Racism” campaign,”a message” that “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.” Just a few sentences later, Krauze is quick to let us know that such racism doesn’t occur in the Americas: “the stadiums of Latin America have for the most part been free of this phenomenon, despite the fervent nationalism and fanaticism of the fans.” I am guessing that neither Krauze nor his Times editor did some actual fact-checking because in just five minutes, I was able to locate several examples of racism in “Latin American stadiums:”
- Last year, Uruguay’s Danubio team was fined when supporters of the team hurled racist monkey chants at River Plate’s Flavio Cordoba.
- Just a few months before the Danubio fine, Argentine Maximiliano Urruti was accused of using a racist term (“a black piece of sh*t) against a Paraguayan player during the Copa Librertadores.
- Earlier this year, racist chants were heard at a Mexican League game as well. Monkey chants were directed at León players Eisner Loboa and Franco Arizala by supporters of Pumas.
In addition, it looks like Krauze or his Times editor never bothered to read an excellent piece by Mauricio Savarese published this February about the growing racism happening in “Latin American stadiums.” Titled “Racism in football racks up new victim: Latin America,” Savarese points out the following:
Football racism is a shocker today in Latin America, a region which exports players that are verbally abused all over Europe. However, it is a big part of the jogo bonito practiced there. In the early 1900s, blacks weren’t allowed to play the British game. As time went by, they were accepted under one condition: no touching the whites.
That’s one of the reasons the local dribbling culture got its impulse, experts say. Over time football helped make blacks a part of Latin American societies. Racists want to turn back the clocks by about 100 years. Will they be shown a red card? A good question!
Whitewashing of Latin American History?
After starting his piece with the soccer introduction, Krauze veers into a slippery slope: the history of race in Latin America. He writes:
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.
Let’s all pause for a second and kindly remind Krauze that “European-style racism” is what formed Latin America in the first place. A minor detail Krauze tends to overlook in his new retelling of a different Latin America only Krauze seems to think exists? Such an attitude (hey, Latin America is doing ok when it comes to race) reminds me of the classic excerpt in Howard Zinn’s first chapter of A People’s History of the United States:
Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else. Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multivolume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus’s route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.” That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. In the book’s last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus:
He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great-his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities-his seamanship.
One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.
But besides stating the obvious or the fact that Latin American history and society are all about systematic and engrained racism, here are some examples of “European-style racism” that occurred in modern Latin America which Krauze conveniently forgets to mention:
- Guatemala in the 1980s, when “Operation Sophia” led to the genocide among the Mayan population. There was even a trial about it last year.
- The infamous Figueiredo report, which chronicled a systematic attempt by the Brazilian government to wipe out indigenous peoples during the 20th century.
- More atrocities against indigenous and Afro-descendant populations occurred during the decades-long wars going on in Colombia. Read this. Or this.
Three modern examples that all occurred in the 20th century. When does the exception become the rule? There was never an exception—”European-style racism” in Latin America has been a rule since the very beginning, and it still continues to this day.
Are racist attitudes in Latin America “less pronounced?”
After Krauze reassures us that Latin American countries are not that bad when it comes to extreme forms of racial persecution, he then moves on to the case of racial discrimination, saying the following about how some countries have “racist attitudes and practices” that are “far less pronounced:”
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.
Ironically, Krauze is a media guy. In fact, he is a board member for Televisa, arguably one of Latin America’s top media companies. Televisa, to put it mildly, has a horrible record when it comes to media representation of Blacks and other other racial identities that are not White. And who could forget this viral video from 2011 (yes, an actual skit from Televisa):
That doesn’t look like “far less pronounced” to me. And if you want more, just read what VICE had to say about the racism in the current Brazilian TV coverage of the 2014 World Cup.
As I write this column, nonetheless, Krauze has now taken to Twitter three days after his opinion piece was published to declare that he is against all forms of racism. But it is all relative. Yes, Mexico is a bit racist, but it isn’t a racist country. (By the way, having grown up in the Caribbean, studied Latin American history and worked in Latin America, this is not just about Mexico and racism, but for the purposes of Krauze’s tweets, I will focus on just Mexico here.)
Odio el racismo más que nada en el mundo. Por lo tanto no acepto que México sea un país racista como lo fueron Alemania y Estados Unidos.
— Enrique Krauze (@EnriqueKrauze) July 13, 2014
“I hate racism more than anything else in this world. However I will not accept that Mexico is a racist country like Germany and the United States were.”
Guess he didn’t get the memo. Or the recent story of a new neo-Nazi group in Mexico. Racism is still racism, no matter how it is presented or practiced. To suggest in a global news outlet that things are better in Latin America in general and Mexico in particular is just not true.
As this piece, “Mexico’s Hidden Blacks,” states:
The notion of race in Mexico is frustratingly complex. This is a country where many are proud to claim African blood, yet discriminate against their darker countrymen. Black Mexicans complain that such bigotry makes it especially hard for them to find work. Still, I was surprised to feel like such an alien intruder in a town where I had hoped to feel something like familiarity. Afro-Mexicans are among the poorest in the nation. Many are shunted to remote shantytowns, well out of reach of basic public services, such as schools and hospitals. Activists for Afro-Mexicans face an uphill battle for government recognition and economic development. They have long petitioned to be counted in Mexico’s national census, alongside the country’s 56 other official ethnic groups, but to little avail. Unofficial records put their number at 1m. In response to activist pressure, Mexico’s government released a study at the end of 2008 that confirmed that Afro-Mexicans suffer from institutional racism. Employers are less likely to employ blacks, and some schools prohibit access based on skin colour. But little has been done to change this. Afro-Mexicans lack a powerful spokesperson, so they continue to go unnoticed by the country’s leadership. “What we want is recognition of our basic rights and respect of our dignity,” Rodolfo Prudente Dominguez, a top Afro-Mexican activist, said to me. “There should be sanctions against security and immigration agents who detain us, because they deny our existence on our own land.”
If you have not heard of Mexico’s native blacks, you are not alone. The story that has been passed down through generations is that their ancestors arrived on a slave boat filled with Cubans and Haitians, which sank off Mexico’s Pacific coast. The survivors hid away in fishing villages on the shore. The story is a myth: Spanish colonialists trafficked African slaves into ports on the opposite Gulf coast, and slaves were distributed further inland. The persistence of this story explains the reluctance of many black Mexicans to embrace the label “Afro”, and why many Mexicans assume black nationals hail from the Caribbean. Colonial records show that around 200,000 African slaves were imported into Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries to work in silver mines, sugar plantations and cattle ranches. But after Mexico won its independence from Spain, the needs of these black Mexicans were ignored. Some Afro-Mexican activists identify themselves as part of the African diaspora. Given their rejection from Mexican culture, this offers a more empowering cultural reference. But with no collective memory of slavery (it was officially abolished in Mexico in 1822), or of any time in Africa before then, Afro-Mexicans are considerably removed from their African roots.
Also, Krauze and his NYTimes editor could have done a bit more homework since here is a 1995 story (1995!) from the Times that would contradict Krauze pretty solidly:
Although all Mexicans are considered equal under the country’s Constitution, Mexican society remains deeply divided on racial lines. And as the richest and poorest of the 91 million Mexicans are driven farther apart by such sweeping changes as the North American Free Trade Agreement, many Mexicans are starting to discover the dangers of their own deeply ingrained — yet rarely acknowledged — brand of bigotry.
So is Latin America more welcoming?
After sending us through an alternate universe, Krauze ends his opinion piece with this concluding statement:
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.
Groups like Amnesty International and others would beg to differ. A 2010 report reveals more details and one release states the following: “The Mexican authorities must act to halt the continuing abuse of migrants who are preyed on by criminal gangs while public officials turn a blind eye or even play an active part in kidnappings, rapes and murders….”
But this is not “European-style racism?” Or is it?
When we as Latin Americans admit the truth and confront it head on, only then can real change occur. In the meantime, the literal whitewashing of Latin American history needs to be monitored and when it appears in mass media, we must all do our best to quickly call out this ignorant attitude. The only way to transform society is to ensure that we don’t allow certain opinions to become the standard. We can do better, and we will. One tweet at a time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, his personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, and The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.