Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In Mexico, racism hides in plain view

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 11:01 AM EST, Tue November 20, 2012
Ruben Navarrette says life in Mexico comes with more challenges for darker-skinned people.
Ruben Navarrette says life in Mexico comes with more challenges for darker-skinned people.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: In Mexico, the old and new are juxtaposed in everything
  • Navarrette: Issues break down into urban vs. rural, dark-skinned vs. light-skinned
  • Light-skinned Mexicans have the advantages, he says, but nobody talks about this bias
  • Many Mexicans can't achieve their potential, he says, and prejudice kills Mexico's progress

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- Mexico City, home to 20 million people, represents the paradox of the modern Mexico, the side-by-side juxtaposition -- in everything from politics to architecture -- of old and new.

Turn a corner, and you'll see a church that is 300 years old. Turn another, and you can get Wi-Fi in a Starbucks.

The Distrito Federal, also known as Mexico City, serves as a constant reminder that Mexicans are about maintaining tradition, except when they're sidestepping it. They're about moving forward, except when they are unable to let go of the past. They're about preserving memory, except when they have amnesia.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

For example, when it comes to forgiving the corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (also known by its initials, PRI), whose leaders brutalized the Mexican people and plundered the country for much of the 20th century, they have short memories; they recently returned the PRI to power by electing Enrique Pena Nieto to the presidency. He takes office December 1.

But when it comes to the aftermath of the U.S.-Mexican war, which lasted from 1846 to 1848 and resulted in the United States seizing half of Mexico's territory -- the modern-day U.S. Southwest -- Mexicans' memories are long, and forgiveness isn't easy to find. Even after all these years, in diplomatic circles, you still hear talk of the "sovereignty" issue -- which, loosely defined, means the constant effort by Mexico to keep the United States from meddling in its domestic affairs and the need for the U.S. to tread lightly.

News: In Mexico, Central American immigrants under fire

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I went to Mexico City recently as part of a delegation of Mexican-American and American Jewish leaders organized by the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee. For the global Jewish advocacy organization, the goal of the trip was to strengthen relations between Mexican-Americans and Jews in the United States.

Although my grandfather was born in Chihuahua and came to the United States with his family as a boy during the Mexican Revolution, I'm hopelessly American. This is my fourth trip to Mexico City in the past 15 years, and I still feel like a foreigner. With each visit, the place reinvents itself.

As becomes clear when one spends any length of time here, this beautiful city is also the place where taboos disappear -- except when they don't. A liberal island in this overwhelming Roman Catholic country, the city legalized early-term abortion in 2007 and gay marriage and single-sex adoption in 2010. Pena Nieto has even broached a topic that would have been heresy just to mention 20 years ago: amending the Mexican Constitution to allow foreign companies to enter into contracts with the Mexican government and drill for oil on land and in the Gulf of Mexico.

And yet, even with all the progress and openness in Mexico over the past few years, there is still one subject that no one talks about, one that is still off-limits: race.

Mariachi training goes formal
Diabetes a health crisis in Mexico

The enduring taboo subject is skin color, whether an individual's complexion betrays an allegiance to the Spanish who conquered the Aztec empire in 1521 or the Aztecs who were conquered. It's no exaggeration to say that, in this country and especially in this city, the best, highest-paying, most important jobs often seem to go to those who, in addition to having the best education and the strongest connections, have the lightest skin.

On television, in politics and in academia, you see light-skinned people. On construction sites, in police forces and in restaurant kitchens, you're more likely to find those who are dark-skinned. In the priciest neighborhoods, the homeowners have light skin, and the housekeepers are dark. Everyone knows this, and yet no one talks about it, at least not in elite circles.

Nor do Mexicans seem all that eager to discuss the larger dynamic that race feeds into: the fact that this is, and has always been, a country of deep divisions. In the 100 years since the Mexican Revolution, one part of Mexico has often been at war with another: urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor and, yes, dark-skinned vs. light-skinned.

It's one reason that institutions such as the economy, the political system and the social structure haven't matured as quickly as they should have, given Mexico's advantages.

This country of 120 million people has ports, highways, airports and skyscrapers. It takes in billions of dollars every year in revenues from oil and natural gas, and billions more from tourism and remittances from Mexican migrants living abroad. Mexico's economy is growing faster than the U.S. economy, and investments are flowing in from Asia and Europe. It's consistently within the top three of trading partners for the United States. But what good is all that when only a small number of the population can live up to their full potential? Prejudice kills progress.

The hour is late. It's time for Mexico to confront the color line and free itself of its past. Or it won't have much of a future.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT