Whitexicans: Race & Color Issues in Mexico
Illustration Credit: Sana Kewalramani
When I introduce myself to others as Mexican, a common response is to question whether my national background is true.
“You are Mexican? You don’t look like one,” people tend to say.
I am always put off by these comments, and I wonder, how is a Mexican supposed to look like according to American standards?
I think the overall notion of “Mexicanness” is one that ties into race. Stereotypically, Americans’ idea of someone from back home is of a person who has more Native-American characteristics; our skin color should be tan, our hair color should be dark, and we should not really be that tall. If a Mexican strays away from these attributes, people doubt his or her background. It has happened to my parents and to some of my friends who live in the U.S. Yet, the reality is that Mexico is a multiracial country that has been witness to the blend of peoples for centuries. As a result, today my nation is a place where you will find all types of skin colors and physical features, though not necessarily living in harmony.
Mexico is also a country that has constantly struggled against race and class issues. While there are many of them to discuss, I believe that one that constantly goes unnoticed is the case of Whitexicans — Mexicans who have more European characteristics and are therefore “whiter” than others from back home.
Back when the Spaniards arrived in modern-day Mexico, they mixed with the native populations. As they colonized other regions of the world, Africans and Asians also started to migrate to Mexico. Since then, this interracial blend of people has resulted in a series of identities that are outside the norm. Europeans ended up looking “darker,” some Natives ended up looking “whiter”, and some Africans ended up looking more “Asian” among countless other possibilities.
While I think this mixture is beautiful, history proves that it has created divisions among Mexicans. The Spanish royal legal system, acknowledging the empire’s diverse composition, classified each person according to their racial background (although in practice it was impossible to distinguish ancestry). Yet, when Mexico became independent in 1821 everyone became Mexican.
This notion of nationality assumed that everyone was on the same page, but the reality was different. Each group had its own problems and interests, and throughout Mexican history it has been difficult to meet everyone’s needs and wants.
The most successful group throughout history has been composed of Mexicans that have predominantly European ancestry, the so-called “Whitexicans.”
Using a skin color category A to K ( A being the darkest and K being the lightest), a 2016 report by the Mexican National Institute of Geography and Statistics (INEGI), found that people falling in the G to K category were more likely to finish college while people under A to F only finished elementary school. That report also showed that more people F to K declare having professional or executive jobs while more people C to G declare to be laborers or working in the service industry.
These statistics show that people of a more European background have opportunities to thrive in Mexico. While INEGI did not survey financial statistics, my experience going to high school back home reveals an even more contrasting reality.
When my family and I returned to Mexico after years of living in the United States, I was shocked to find a society often divided along racial lines. I come from a more humble neighborhood, and I grew up along people who, like me, had darker skin color and similar cultures. Yet, the high school I went to was a private one, so not everyone could afford paying for that education.
Here, the students had more money, and that often came with lighter skin and a different culture; my classmates spoke more snobbishly, they wore better clothes, and they had bigger and nicer houses than those of my neighbors. Their parents were executives or business owners and they had the means to afford international vacations, something people in my neighborhood could only dream of. My classmates’ social media posts were more flashy and many times bilingual. The fact that many of them had always studied at a private institution made them speak better English than the average Mexican. His skill often makes privately-schooled more competitive to pursue higher education and better jobs.
It is because of these trends that people back home often admit jokingly, “I want to marry a person whiter than me. People of European background seem to have more opportunities!”
Unfortunately, no one has conducted enough research to reveal the real reason behind this racial divide. Different groups have different theories. Some argue that Mexican people are racists, prefering to be white, and that this racism has become institutionalized. Others say different groups have different cultures and that is why some people have less opportunity to overcome their situation.
I have my own theory based on my experiences at home, and I argue that Mexican people discriminate more by economic background. In 2014, an editorial by the Mexican newspaper Milenio points out that various historical processes that support this interpretation. Above all, Milenio describes that since there has been so much racial mixture in Mexico, people’s race has become irrelevant, but wealth continues to be a sought-after, almost enviable, commodity. I know a person who is of darker skin in my neighborhood who is wealthy. He lives a comfortable lifestyle and people do not make any comments about his complexion. In fact, people treat him as someone of more prestige. I also have a family member who has lighter skin than most of us, but he is as humble as many of the people in my neighborhood. He has told me that people judge him because he does not have classy clothes or the latest technology.
As a result, I think that people discriminate more by economic status than by racial characteristics, although there are assumptions based on skin color. Historically, whiter people are more affluent and darker people have less financial means, so Mexicans possibly have put the two together and they expect whiter people to be more refined, although that may not always be the case.
Of course, all of these hypotheses need further research. The reality is that Mexico has always experienced a connection between race and economic backgrounds that creates sharp distinctions among various groups. Many Mexicans like me are tired of living in such a contrasting society. I am thankful for all of the Whitexicans that acknowledge their privilege and are fighting to make Mexico a more equitable society.
Likewise, many people who have darker skin are coming together to counter centuries of injustice. This fight against racism, colorism, and classism has become so prominent that President Obrador took advantage of it in his 2018 campaign, selling the idea that he would put an end to the divide.
The only way Mexico can change is for its citizens to forget our assumptions on race and class, and start working together to achieve a better future. Racial mixture is great because it creates diversity and the opportunity for people from different backgrounds to interact. Thanks to this openness to love and have children with someone different from your background, I exist since my dad has more Native American and Asian ancestry and my mom European. I grew up with two different perspectives on life and I have come to appreciate and criticize the two. Perhaps people in the United States and abroad should learn from Mexico that the blending of peoples is possible, although it also comes with some issues, as shown with Whitexicans and the color dilemma back home.