Mexico’s Color Line and the Cultural Imperialism of Light-Skin Preference

The color of the people of Mexico is one of the things that had a most profound effect on my psyche when I first visited the place of my birth in 1976 at the age of 22. The people came in all colors, though primarily different shades of red-brown, owing to the nation’s Indigenous roots.

Having grown up in a white-dominant society, it was an affirmation of my own brown skin color, in sharp contrast with the artificial color of official Mexico. I was used to seeing government bureaucrats and those that graced the nation’s television screens with light skin, bleached blond hair and artificial blue or green eyes.

The truth is, more than 40 years later, the nation’s color line has seemingly not changed much at all. When I first noticed this preference for light skin in Mexico, it was present at every turn and every corner. It wasn’t just a case of difference, but also disdain. Apparently, all things that were light were “good” and all things dark were “bad.” This was especially true of television. White or light skin was preferred for virtually every role, except the ones for the subservient, demeaning and outlaw roles.

This was most pronounced in advertising. Virtually all commercials used the same obscenely blond baby or the same blond couple to sell or promote anything and everything.

This had a shocking effect on me as I had been part of the Chicano movement and had just graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles. The movement was political, fighting for our human rights, but it was also an explosive time of cultural pride; it is what birthed the slogans: “Brown Power,” “Brown is Beautiful” and “Brown Pride.” No longer would we accept subservience, nor would we ever again be ashamed of our color or our Indigenous roots.

I thought the Mexican reality would have been opposite of the United States’. Bewildered, when I inquired, even the Mexican revolutionaries explained that racism was a US problem: a product of its history, not Mexico’s. Rather, Mexico was afflicted with a deep-seated classism, not racism, they said.

Still, I saw and felt the effects of white supremacy everywhere. In the United States, my brown skin could not be hidden, especially in a society that seemed to abhor all things Mexican, including the language. Here, even light-skinned Mexicans were treated like trash. Though, unquestionably, the preference for light skin was still well-entrenched within the Mexican community. 

When I left for Mexico, I thought all would be different, and hoped I would be accepted and treated better. And truly, that is how I was treated by my very large, extended family. But on the streets, I did still notice the color of the people on the ground, begging. I also noticed outrageous behavior against Brown-Indigenous peoples, something I too experienced, but not until my second visit.

In Mexico City, my girlfriend, a light-skinned Chicana, was able to easily get a room at the same fancy hotel that minutes before had denied me a room. After this, I began to see things differently. On that same trip, a light-skinned woman screamed at me because I did not move fast enough for her on an extremely overcrowded bus. She then told my girlfriend that she was beautiful and could not see how she could be with someone “as dark” as me. A few years later, on a bus there, I saw another light-skinned woman yell at her child, imploring him to get up and “not be an Indian.” No one said a word.

I still remember in the early 1990s when I observed the same phenomenon, I remarked to a leftist scholar that Mexico needs a Chicano movement. He thought my remark pompous. Within a few months though, the Zapatistas rose up and Mexico has never been the same. Except Mexico’s color line remains.

On a trip a decade ago that took me to a conference at a resort in Cancun, I was checked for ID every time I went to eat in their dining room. My wife noticed that I was the only person that was being continually checked. I was the only dark Brown person there. On leaving the resort, we noticed that all the Mayan workers were being wanded by a metal detector before boarding the bus back to their communities.

On my sabbatical this past year, I decided to live in Mexico to work on several projects without the distraction of US politics. One of them, the Smiling Brown Project, examines color and color consciousness within the United States — a society that seems to view everything in black and white. Living in Mexico permitted me to observe this phenomenon there, where color is very much a part of the tourism industry. By its very nature, the tourism industry is designed to attract dollars and euros, creating an apartheid feel, with some places more obscene than others.

While studying the Mayan language and philosophy this past year in the Yucatan Peninsula as part of my research on maíz culture, I had to travel to some of the same places that tourists flock to, including ancient ceremonial sites. I was able to witness the summer solstice at Chichen Itza, but was greatly disappointed when the great majority of the visitors were Europeans or Euro-Americans.

There are thousands of ancient pyramids scattered throughout Mexico, yet today, they function more as tourist attractions as opposed to places of education. The narratives are usually all about human sacrifice, cannibalism and mysterious “disappearances,” particularly that of the Mayans. But millions of Mayans still live in the Yucatan Peninsula, Chiapas, Belize and Guatemala to this day, and many millions continue to speak their native languages. Many have even migrated to the United States.

Yet stories of “disappeared peoples” apparently attract more tourists. The actual Native peoples today, at best, are unconnected to their ancestors, and remain to serve tourists, perform, spin yarns, sell trinkets and function as backdrops for selfies. In this manner, Native peoples are remanded to the folkloric past, never the modern present. And not incidentally, many of the churches there sit atop ancient pyramids.

But light-skin preference is more a worldwide phenomenon, or perhaps more precisely, it is an affliction exported worldwide through the process of colonization and cultural imperialism. The Smiling Brown Project seeks to understand this phenomenon not strictly as an issue of color, but within the context of de-Indigenization in Mexico, the United States and the Americas.

The stories and testimonies I have gathered thus far tell me that this preference may in fact be due to the result of what can be termed “cultural genocide.” This idea possibly also opens it up to hundreds of years of religious indoctrination — meaning issues of “good” and “evil” that are being reinforced daily by the news media, television and Hollywood. Perhaps further stories will get us to the root of this phenomenon, which I now recognize is what the late Mexican scholar Guillermo Bonfil Batalla referred to in his classic: Mexico Profundo. Below the surface, Mexico indeed remains Indigenous.