Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In Mexico, racism hides in plain view

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
November 20, 2012 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
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
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT