A “Brownface” Incident Exposes Racism in Mexico

The portrayal of blackface — theatrical makeup used typically by white people to display insulting and degrading caricatures of African Americans — peaked in the years following the Civil War when racial hostility flared as recently emancipated people demanded greater civil rights. Today, the legacy of blackface endures, showing up during Halloween, or at frat parties, or when old photos surface of white elected officials dolled up in greasepaint and fake afros.

But a recent controversy in Mexico shows that punching down on people of color thrives south of the border, too, where Native people and Afro-Mexicans struggle with racism that chokes off their economic, educational, and professional advancement. Amid the success of Mexican film Roma at the 91st Academy Awards last month, Mexican television personality Yeka Rosales posted photos and videos of herself in brownface makeup and wearing a prosthetic nose in a parody of the film’s star, Yalitza Aparicio, who is a Native Mexican from the rural southern state of Oaxaca, home to the country’s largest indigenous population. The stunt was part of the publicity campaign for La Parodia, a comedy show on the Televisa network that features skits and celebrity impersonations.

In the visually stunning black-and-white film, Aparicio convincingly plays Cleo, a maid of indigenous origin who works for an upper middle class white family in Mexico City in the early ’70s. The film subtly addresses issues of race, ethnicity and class amid a tumultuous time in the country’s recent history, making Rosales’ impersonation more egregious.

Televisa actress Yeka Rosales goes brownface to parody Yalitza Aparicio because... Televisa https://t.co/6hfgBfnOJk pic.twitter.com/oEzu7dXqQg

— Laura Martínez ®️ (@miblogestublog) March 3, 2019

“I was first shocked to see this, but then I was like ‘actually, I’m not surprised’,” Mónica Moreno Figueroa, a Mexico-born senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Cambridge and co-founder of Colectivo COPERA, told The North Star. “It makes sense that [Rosales] doesn’t see that this is a problem. We don’t have a lot of historical experience in terms of blackface in Mexico as in US and the UK. But in Mexico, there’s a long history of impersonating indigenous Mexicans.”

Rosales defended herself by claiming her impersonation of Aparicio was just one of many she and other Mexican comics have done depicting people of various races. She doubled down on Twitter by sharing an image of African-American comedic actor Marlon Wayans from the 2004 film White Chicks with the caption: “By your logic, Marlon Wayans is also a racist!” In the film, Marlon and his brother Shawn play FBI agents who go undercover as white women in a comic subversion of the blackface genre.

Other celebrities in Mexico piled on, including retired telenovela actress Laura Zapata who attributed Aparicio’s Best Actress Oscar nomination to “la suerte de las feas,” or “the luck of the uglies.”

“I don’t’ think people [in the U.S.] realize how different it is over there,” Marcela García, a Mexican-born editorial writer for the Boston Globe, told The North Star. “There really are no taboos. Anything goes. That’s how bad it is over there. We ourselves aren’t even aware of how damaging this is.”

García, who recently wrote an informative piece about the reactions in Mexico to Aparicio's Oscar nomination, said she was flummoxed by Rosales’ defense of her brownface parody and how it reflects a prevailing cultural cluelessness about how indigenous people are depicted in the Mexican media.

“Her go-to defense was to cite all the previous instances where she had done brownface and blackface,” García said, laughing. “How in the world did she possibly believe that was an acceptable answer?”

Televisa spokesman Alejandro Olmos told the Associated Press in an email earlier this month that the network condemns any form of racism and discrimination, but added: “We do not believe that the production of La Parodia engages in this type of practice.” Nevertheless, the network removed a tweet showing the video of Rosales in her brownface makeup.

Reynaldo López, a producer of La Parodia, also defended Rosales, tweeting “we have our own rules, customs, sense of humor and culture. We’re the [sic] mostly mestizos. We don’t have to follow American customs.” Mestizo is the term used to describe Mexicans of mixed European and Native descent and it forms the foundation of what many in the country view as what it means to be quintessentially Mexican. According to official government statistics, nearly one in four Mexicans self-identify as indigenous, while most Mexicans consider themselves mestizo. Mexico's census has traditionally only asked people whether they self-identify as indigenous, and lacks more granular racial categories.

Defining “Mexican-ness” through this mestizo lens has led to a different way of perceiving racial preferences and privilege compared to the United States, where the line between white and non-white is more clearly delineated.

“Different regions and countries have what we call in sociology and anthropology ‘racial projects’,” Moreno Figueroa said. “So in the U.S. the racial project is based on the ‘one drop rule,’ this idea that if you have one drop of Black blood or any other blood that’s not white, you’re going to be that, you’re going to be Black, or you’re going to be Latina; it’s either white people or people of color.”

But in Mexico, racism manifests differently. Despite their mestizo background, many Mexicans aspired to “whiteness” that can influence decisions about whom they choose to mingle, marry, hire, elect, educate, or promote. Less than 10 percent of the population is white in Mexico, yet the mestizaje lean toward embracing whiteness even as they celebrate their mixed-race background.

The Mexican media, where light-skinned actors and presenters are the norm, constantly re-enforces this desired whiteness. People with darker skin and indigenous features are typically seen only in news items, or in state-funded advertisements about combating poverty, or as secondary characters—typically as servants, plot devices, or comedic foils. This aggrandization of Mexican whiteness spilled over last year onto Netflix, which raised eyebrows with its “Made in Mexico” reality show that spotlighted the lives of wealthy white Mexicans.

A common defense heard in Mexico on the topic of racism and depictions of indigenous and dark-skinned people is that Mexico has its own sensibility about humor, and because most Mexicans have at least some Native roots they argue that these caricatures amount to harmless self-parody.

“In Mexico, it’s seen as possible that you can ‘whiten’ your population, whereas in the U.S. [because of the ‘one drop rule’] it’s a bit harder,” Moreno Figueroa said. But as Roma director Alfonso Cuarón points out, many Mexicans ignore the issue of racism by claiming the country’s stark economic inequality is a matter of class, or a product of the rural-urban divide, or anything but racism.

“People like to talk about these issues of inequality and discrimination by using the term ‘classism’ — as if that would make it better,” Cuarón told the Hollywood Reporter in January. “But let's call it for what it is. It's racism.” And, just as it is in the US, Mexican racism disproportionately harms people on the receiving end of discrimination. Mexico bears the highest level of inequality among the 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, the Paris-based intergovernmental organization of developed nations. And data show that Mexico’s darker-skinned people are disproportionately impacted by this economic disparity.

A 2017 study by the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University found that Mexican people with darker skin are strongly associated with increased poverty and lower levels of educational attainment. Furthermore, the study found that even by the Latin American standards, Mexico ranks near the bottom in terms of how darker skin is connected to lack of economic mobility.

“The negative toll of skin color on material wealth in Mexico is among the three most extensive in the region, trailing only Trinidad and Tobago and Ecuador,” the report said. One example of how discrimination is codified in Mexico is through the job market. As in other parts of the world, it’s common for employers to expect résumés to include photos of the applicants, which makes it easier to mask hiring discrimination. Job seekers also often openly request that applicants be of a certain gender or age range, reflecting a normalization of discrimination based on physical characteristics and gender that would favor lighter-skinned mestizo or white men.

In 2013, Aeromexico airline hired an ad agency that specifically told “dark-skinned” models need not apply, and it wasn’t until Tamara de Anda, a popular Mexican feminist who tweets from @plaqueta, shared the job post that the airline issued a retraction and apology. Mexico has laws against workplace discrimination, but critics say the country needs better enforcement. “Currently, the State does not have any mechanism in place to successfully detect –and thus punish– indirect discrimination in the workplace,” said a 2018 report from the Mexico City-based Center for Economic Research and Teaching, which focused on employment discrimination against women in Mexico.

For many, Rosales’ brownface was similar to American blackface in that it symbolizes centuries of racial subjugation. Mexico’s treatment of its sizeable Native population (as well as its smaller Afro-Mexican population) boils down to this: The lighter your skin and the more “European” your features, the more likely you are to succeed and be welcomed to opportunity in Mexico.

“When you put it all together, it’s astounding that we haven’t come to terms with how pervasive racism is in Mexico’s society,” García told The North Star. “We are years behind in realizing how systemic it is.”

About the Author

Angelo Young is a NYC-based reporter, editor, and writing coach who enjoys pondering world events and idle chatter on the subway. He has more than a decade of news editing experience with bylines in Newsweek, International Business Times, Salon, Arab News, The Daily Star (of Lebanon), Mexico Business magazine, The News (of Mexico City) and The Oklahoma Daily.