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Discrimination due to skin color, physical features and one’s way of speaking and dressing is a fact of daily life in Mexican society, as it is in many other parts of the world. The terms that accompany this discrimination – indio patarrajada, naco, chaca and many others – show how these physical and cultural characteristics are assigned a set of values; that is, it is thought that white skin is better than dark skin, narrow noses better than broad noses and Spanish better than Nahuatl or Maya.

Let’s Talk About Racism, 2016, Video Installation. Idea and text by César Carrillo Trueba. Produced by La Maga Films

 

Of the many forms of discrimination that are typical of the contemporary world, racism is distinguished by its basis in the differences between different human groups, whose features – such as skin color or hair shape – have been defined as constituting a race and are then converted into signs of inferiority or superiority. A clear example of this can be seen in the history of the United States, where slavery was based on the idea of the black inferiority, an idea that persisted after its abolition in 1864 with the passage of laws that prevented them from using public spaces, enrolling in college and, up until a few decades ago, requiring them to cede their seat on the bus to whites. The repeal of these laws did not end racism, whose institutional expressions became more subtle, but it nevertheless remains intense in its social manifestations.

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The word “race” began to be widely used in classifications of human beings starting in the second half of the 19th Century, contemporary to the rise of European expansionism and the founding of powerful empires. The attributes conferred upon each race speak to the system of relationships established at that time, in which Europeans defined themselves as the most civilized, the most highly evolved, those residing in the most favorable part of the world: in sum, the most perfect race, “the most beautiful and best-made men,” as the celebrated French naturalist Buffon said.

2.7.4Hipólito Salazar. Allegories of the Four Continents, 1866. Lithograph. INBA/MUNAL Archives.
Hipólito Salazar Alegorías de Europa 1866 LitografíaHipólito Salazar. Allegories of the Four Continents, 1866. Lithograph. INBA/MUNAL Archives.

 

2.7.2Hipólito Salazar Alegorías de los 4 continentes, 1866 Litografía Acervo INBA/MUNAL
2.7.3Hipólito Salazar Alegorías de los 4 continentes, 1866 Litografía Acervo INBA/MUNAL

How do you determine which features define a race? By measuring, quantifying, making statistical generalizations, separating and grouping populations to give greater weight to one characteristic or another, such as skin color or hair shape. In this desire to provide a scientific basis, racial studies began to utilize special methods, instruments and instructions, giving rise to enormous inventories of nose shapes, eye colors, head sizes and brain sizes, but also of behaviors, nutritional patterns, moral and political systems and many other cultural and social traits.

 

3.2Luis González Palma. The Critical Gaze, 1999, Hand-Colored Silver on Gelatin, La Penca Producciones Transdiciplinarias A.C. Collection.

 

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The division of humanity by skin color is the most common and widespread classification, but also the most arbitrary, as it’s difficult to argue that Africans are truly black, Asians truly yellow, Europeans truly white – and even more so, to establish where one skin tone begins and another ends, as it’s a physical trait that exists on a continuum, and can even vary in a single person due to light conditions and exposure to the sun, among other factors. If to this we add the value attributed to this trait – the supremacy of white skin above all others – the description and judgements of the skin of others and the perception of one’s own appear in all their complexity.

 

5.5Unknown Artist, Castes, 18th Century, Oil on Canvas, Archives of the National History Museum, Chapultepec Castle, INAH.

The concept of race took on such importance at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th that the interpretation of history and society and their evolution was based around it. The way in which the foundational myth of the newborn nation was written following the Mexican Revolution of 1910 forms part of this line of thinking. As in many other parts of the world, two visions contrasted and complemented each other: one praised racial purity and considered miscegenation to have disastrous effects (which led Germany to Nazism), and the other saw miscegenation as the ideal way to elevate a race by mixing it with another that was considered to be more advanced – thus “improving the race,” as was the case in Mexico.

6.1Humberto Limón, Crucible of Races, 1975, Oil on Canvas, Soumaya Museum Collection.


8.2I. Conquest and Genocide, 2016, Charcoal on Newsprint on Wood, La Penca Producciones Transdiciplinarias A.C. Collection.
 
Racism – like any form of discrimination – implies a mental order and a spatial order. In the eyes of the Spaniards who explored America, indigenous people constituted an enigma: they asked themselves if they were human. Many doubted it, believing them to be closer to beasts than men. The Dominican friar Tomás Ortiz wrote that “they are incapable of learning [...] God has never created a race full of more vices [...] Indians are stupider than donkeys and they reject all progress.”

9.13César Rangel, Civilizing Triptych II: The Genocide of the Yaqui People, 2016, Charcoal on Newsprint on Wood, La Penca Producciones Transdiciplinarias A.C. Collection.
In 1821, the Plan of Iguala stipulated that “all inhabitants of New Spain, whether they be Europeans, Africans or Indians, are citizens of this monarchy with the same opportunities for employment, depending on their merits and virtues,” thus laying the groundwork for equality in the newborn Mexican nation. Nevertheless, difficulties soon arose in making this a reality, as the idea of imposing a European way of life, of being, was to clash with a majority-indigenous population – what was called the “Indian problem,” an obstacle to so-called progress.

10.20César Rangel, Civilizing Triptych III: Contemporary Racism, 2016, Charcoal on Newsprint on Wood, La Penca Producciones Transdiciplinarias A.C. Collection.The ideal of miscegenation promoted by the revolutionary government saw the city as the perfect laboratory for this experiment: a raceless place where there would be neither whites nor indigenous people, allowing everyone to be a mestizo citizen enjoying equal rights. As if responding to this call to assimilate, to leave behind their culture, their language and their way of life, many did go, spurred on by the poor conditions in the countryside and seeking out jobs and a new way of life.

Indigenous people tend to be represented in very specific ways, varying between the picturesque, paternalism, folklore and clearly unfavorable representations. Non-indigenous people are portrayed using different criteria. What happens when people from both groups are portrayed the same way? Barriers disappear and it becomes difficult to know who’s what; there’s a distancing effect, and we don’t recognize those whom we see in our everyday surroundings. Our perception is freed from the references that fetter it and equality emerges in all its diversity. By breaking with established clichés, the gaze of the artist dignifies everyone. There’s no longer a place for discrimination. It’s the beginning of the abolition of racism.

10.32Margot Sputo, Indigenous/Non-Indigenous, 2015-2016, Photography, La Penca Producciones Transdiciplinarias A.C. Collection.

Project and Curatorship: César Carrillo Trueba (La Penca Producciones Transdiciplinarias A.C).

Coordination: Natalia Gabayet and Delphine Kachadourian

Administration: Daniela Cruz Benhumea, Delphine Kachadourian and Elena Coll

Special Assistance: Josué Ramírez

Research and Texts: César Carrillo Trueba

Archival Research: Itzel Ávila and Elizabeth Balladares

Reprography: Agustín Estrada

Photo Printing: Agustín Estrada, Jorge López, Imágenes Vanguardista


logo la penca La Penca Producciones Transdiciplinarias A.C.