What’s at Stake? Racial Common Sense and Securing a Mexican National Identity
What’s at Stake? Racial Common Sense and Securing a Mexican National Identity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter addresses a major question provoked by the book’s findings: Why do individuals expend such effort to defend and protect a government-sponsored ideology that conflicts with their own lived experiences, particularly when it is seemingly contrary to their best interest? It rejects a false-consciousness interpretation of this conundrum, arguing that it is essential to recognize the deeply-intertwined relationship between Mexican racial ideology and nation-building efforts. Put simply, it proposes that the reason why Mexicans reproduce racial ideology may be because it solidifies their national identities.
ON JUNE 25, 2004, while engaged in my habitual reading of El Dictamen, a local Veracruz newspaper, an editorial caught my eye. It was titled “The Next Benito Juárez Will Not be President of Mexico…but of the United States.”1 The article seemed destined to strike the chords of deep-seated nationalist sentiment. In it, Mexican journalist César Fernando Zapata not only asserted that racism is rampant in Mexico but also suggested that the Mexican strain of racism is worse than that which exists in the United States. In making this claim, Zapata challenged the national ideology of nonracism, delegitimized Mexico’s claim of racial superiority vis-à-vis the United States, and broke the silence on race.
Following his proclamation that the future Benito Juárez is more likely to be from the United States than from Mexico, Zapata asked rhetorically: “Why gringo and not Mexican?” “Isn’t Mexico the country that exalts the indigenous figure?” Zapata responded to these questions by suggesting that if one looks at the “facts,” one will conclude that a Mexican American of indigenous descent has more opportunities to climb the social ladder than an indigenous Mexican. He argued that Mexican Americans are less marginalized than indigenous Mexicans and that they have the opportunity to compete in a country where “minority politicians continue gaining ground.” In Mexico, in contrast, Zapata observes that politicians are getting “whiter and whiter.” Elaborating on the theme of Mexico’s privileging of whiteness, Zapata explained that in Mexico:
The whiter one is the better. You obtain the best jobs, are the most photogenic. It doesn’t matter if you do not know how to do anything, just by smiling (p.178) and showing your Aryan face, is enough of a credential. Surely, if you are white, you are already assured a promissory future as a model, actor, or singer. If not, at least on the street, people respect you more if you are white and have blue eyes than if you have dark skin….
Zapata also expressed concern that, in a country where 90 percent of the inhabitants are mestizos or indians, the governing class is white. In this context, he sees the country as running the “risk of falling into suspicions of racism.” Adding insult to injury, Zapata locates these racist tendencies in the Mexican citizenry-at-large.
In his article, Zapata bluntly draws attention to the ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies that surround Mexican national ideology and the everyday realities of Mexican society. In doing so, he trespasses on a host of social norms and he does so at a cost. His critical stance represents a major offense for a Mexican national. By challenging Mexico’s official ideology, he places his own patriotism in question. More damning still is the fact that, although Zapata was born in Mexico, as an adult he moved to Texas to work as an editor of a Spanish-language newspaper.
Zapata’s stance regarding racism in Mexico garnered an impassioned response from the Mexican community. Through personal email communication, Zapata shared with me the reactions he received from some of his readers. He characterized the feedback as representing the “extremes”—he was either congratulated for his sincerity and for being “right on the mark” or he was insulted for being pro-Yankee, anti-Mexican, and a sell-out. In our correspondence, Zapata expressed sadness regarding the negative responses but tried to remain empathetic, explaining: “They have been filling us with revolutionary dogmas and patriotisms for so long that we have believed the story.” The varied reactions to Zapata’s article are telling and largely encapsulate the complications and ironies surrounding Veracruz racial common sense that I have addressed throughout the book. The “right on the mark” flavor of response suggests there is a latent, unspoken truth about the existence of racism in Mexico—a truth known to Mexicans but seldom discussed. Supporting this interpretation is the fact that, although Zapata’s critics attacked the symbolism of his words—words privileging the United States and challenging Mexican national ideology—they did not dispute his substantive claims of racism within Mexico. In other words, it was his patriotism, not his assessment of the situation, which came under attack.
Like some of my more outspoken Veracruz respondents, Zapata disrupted the silence surrounding critical discussions of race in Mexico. (p.179) Reactions to such disruptions expose the strength of the taboo against discussing racism in Mexico, a taboo that not only operates in the popular sphere but also extends into the academic realm. As Zerubavel (2007) reminds us, “What we ignore socially is also ignored academically, and conspiracies of silence are therefore still an under-theorized as well as understudied phenomenon” (p. 182). It is not surprising then that the topic of Mexican racial common sense has not been sufficiently explored. In examining race and color in Veracruz, I have ventured to speak of the unspoken, expose that which has been buried, and theorize the undertheorized. Ultimately, I have attempted to demystify the process surrounding the everyday reproduction of racial ideology.
Navigating Contradictions through Ideological Work
Interrogating the relationship between common sense and national ideology is not an easy task. Although ethnography is well suited to detecting and understanding the pulse of a community, establishing a direct link between popular thought and elite ideology is a tricky endeavor. It is particularly difficult when dealing with topics such as racial inequality, which “may rarely be overtly expressed, and, indeed, may be deliberately disguised or disingenuously denied” (Knight 1990, p. 71). While I certainly appreciate the challenges associated with this task, I also recognize the importance of understanding how elite ideas interact with and manifest in popular consciousness.
To understand the relationship between elite ideology and common sense, or the process of ideological reproduction, we need to identify the mechanisms through which individuals socially reproduce ideology. As I have consistently demonstrated, ideology does not simply “legitimize itself” through some mystical process; there are clear and identifiable actors and mechanisms driving the process of ideological reproduction. “Regular” people continuously create and remake a common sense, which, when strategically deployed, serves to legitimize and reproduce dominant ideology. Through an investigation of the inner workings of Veracruzanos’ racial common sense, I was able to identify popular-level discourses related to the mestizaje, nonracism, and nonblackness pillars of Mexican national ideology. I presented countless examples of how “ordinary” Veracruzanos make elite ideas their own in a way that is meaningful to them and how they use national ideology to make sense of the world around them. This sense making is complicated, however, especially given that Mexican (p.180) ideology is wrought with disorganization and contradiction. Therefore, Veracruzanos must develop and continually recreate a common sense that accounts for contradictions embedded in the elite ideology as well as the incongruities that surface between their lived realities and this national ideology. In this book I demonstrated how these ideological struggles play out in Veracruzanos’ everyday discourses, attitudes, and behaviors.
Among other things, my examination of Veracruzanos’ racial common sense reveals the problems inherent in treating the relationship between elite ideology and common sense in a dichotomous fashion; rarely do they neatly align or wholly conflict. Instead, individuals’ responses to hegemonic ideologies are oftentimes varied and nuanced. Swidler (2001) has encouraged scholars to identify and understand the multiple manifestations of culture, including its partial, ambivalent, or incomplete uses and forms. We saw how mixed-race Veracruzanos, in the process of constructing their identities, use the mestizaje pillar in a partial sense, relying on it as a tool to inform their identities under certain conditions. Additionally, the discussion of Veracruzanos’ attitudes on race mixture revealed an incomplete adoption of the mestizaje ideal—individuals did not embrace race mixture in and of itself but instead embraced it insofar as it helped them achieve their goal of whitening the next generation. On the topic of blackness, Veracruzanos of African descent displayed unstable black identities, thus not fully accepting or completely challenging the nonblackness ideological pillar. Finally, Veracruzanos overwhelmingly embraced the ideology of nonracism despite the existence of the race-color hierarchy and widespread practices of racism. Taken as a whole, these different slices of Veracruz racial common sense reveal the vast and variegated manifestations of the interconnection between common sense and elite ideology.
Beyond False Consciousness
Despite the complex and non-dichotomous nature of the relationship between common sense and national ideology, much of Veracruzanos’ racial common sense fuels the social reproduction of inequality, an unfavorable outcome for the vast majority of the population. One then wonders why non-elites actively work to construct and maintain a racial common sense that protects and reinstates the national ideology, when it is seemingly not in their best interest to do so. A superficial perusal of the data presented in this book could lead one to conclude that Veracruzanos are blind to the realities surrounding inequality and that they simply regurgitate messages (p.181) promulgated by their leaders; in other words, one could perceive them as being “falsely conscious” and participating in their own exploitation.
The concept of false consciousness has received heavy criticism as of late and has fallen out of favor for epistemological and political reasons.2 Hanchard’s (1994) sardonic summary of a false consciousness perspective lends insight into its overly simplistic, and thus problematic, nature: “The dominant class simply hurls an ideological pellet upon the stage of civil society. An impenetrable mist arises, enshrouds the dominant class, and obscures its movements before a captive audience (the masses), who reel back in their collective seats, transfixed, spellbound” (p. 22). Criticizing the theory of false consciousness by addressing its politically distasteful nature, Eagleton (1991) explains: “The belief that a minority of theorists monopolize a scientifically grounded knowledge of how society is, while the rest of us blunder around in some fog of false consciousness, does not particularly endear itself to the democratic sensibility” (p. 11). Aside from being politically and epistemologically objectionable, false consciousness perspectives are also unequipped to explain many social realities.
The theory of false consciousness cannot account for the complex dynamics I witnessed in Veracruz; it is particularly inefficient on two fronts. First, a false consciousness perspective assumes non-elites are blind to particular social realities. As such, we would expect falsely conscious individuals to be oblivious to mechanisms such as racial discrimination that sustain the racial hierarchy. However, Veracruzanos are far from blind to such realities. They recognize contradictions with the national ideology, including societal objections to marrying someone darker, the existence of racial discrimination, and a black presence in Mexico, but they choose to manage these inconsistencies in a way that protects the ideology. Thus, it would be far more accurate to say that Veracruzanos turn a blind eye to realities that threaten the status quo. Because of their awareness, they engage in active attempts to minimize or render such realities invisible or unimportant, which brings me to my second point regarding the inability of a false consciousness perspective to explain Veracruz race dynamics.
Classic treatments of false consciousness imply a passive acceptance of elite ideology by the populace. It is assumed that the “masses” “reel back in their collective seats” because it is easier for them to do so then to challenge the established order. However, the empirical realities of the Veracruz case paint a different picture. Veracruzanos go to great lengths to actively engage in sophisticated conceptual work, to silence, minimize, reframe, and naturalize realities that conflict with the national ideology. This is not, I would argue, an empirical demonstration of false consciousness. (p.182) Veracruzanos are not duped or deceived by elite ideology. They do not passively accept the dominant ideology, completely dismissing all that they see and know. Instead, they demonstrate high levels of situational creativity in developing, recreating, and articulating a racial common sense that allows them to manage the host of ideological contradictions that they confront on a daily basis. Through this process of ideological management, they craft a series of discourses that carefully finesse contradictions in a way that maintains a truth both to the ideology and to their identities and lived experiences. Therefore, the reach of elite ideology is ultimately determined by the way that non-elites actively incorporate this ideology into their worldviews and allow it to influence their thoughts, discourses, and behaviors.
If we reject a false consciousness framing, we are still left with the puzzle of why non-elites work to reproduce elite ideology even when it is seemingly not in their best interest to do so. Addressing a similar conundrum presented by the Brazilian case, Sheriff (2001) posits that the racial democracy myth supplies a powerful vision of hopes and dreams of what Brazil could be. She argues that Brazilians accept the myth of racial democracy not because they believe it represents reality but because of the potential reality that it portrays. Whereas this dynamic may also be at work in Mexico, I believe that two additional factors help explain the paradox of Veracruz racial common sense: (1) the “shreds of truth” embedded in Mexican ideology; and (2) the importance of nationalism.
Shreds of Truth in Ideological Myths
In order to be truly effective, ideologies must make at least some minimal sense of people’s experience, must conform to some degree with what they know of social reality from their practical interaction with it….In short, successful ideologies must be more than imposed illusions, and for all their inconsistencies they must communicate to their subjects a version of social reality which is real and recognizable enough to not be simply rejected out of hand.
— TERRY EAGLETON (1991, pp. 14–15)
Dominant ideologies that are successfully incorporated into popular thought need to resonate, at some level, with individuals’ sense of reality.3 In the case of Mexico, the country does possess certain elements of racial inclusiveness that dovetail with the ideologies of nonracism and mestizaje, (p.183) especially when juxtaposed against the U.S. racial situation. Although Mexico has experimented with racial segregation,4 these practices are not comparable to Jim Crow segregation laws that existed in the United States. Furthermore, Mexico has a history of openness to race mixture, which starkly contrasts with the U.S. situation, where anti-miscegenation laws were in effect in some states until 1967.
At the political level, Mexico has a powerful racially progressive claim to fame—the mid-nineteenth-century ascendancy of Benito Juárez, an impoverished indigenous Mexican, to the presidency. When in Veracruz, I had the privilege of listening to the ten-year-old nephew of my informant Laura, narrate Juárez’s personal history in rehearsal for a school event. Adrián, the jewel of the family, is loquacious, articulate, and wise beyond his years. His short stature belies his powerful voice. As I sat on a couch alongside Laura and her sister, Ana, I took note of Adrián’s dark-brown skin and indigenous features, especially in the context of his pending speech about Mexico’s brown-skinned indigenous president. Adrián stood, facing us, poised and ready. He paused, in dramatic fashion, and then began: “I am going to talk to you about a great man…Mr. Benito Juárez García, who was born in a little town in the state of Oaxaca, on March 21, 1806.” In biographical form, Adrián proceeded to introduce Juárez’s parents, emphasizing their impoverished status as indians. He spoke of their death and Juárez’s new life with his uncle. Adrián then led us through Juárez’s educational trajectory, beginning when a local man took Juárez under his wing, teaching him to read and write and ending with his formal training as a lawyer. In 1858 he became the president of Mexico. Adrián concluded by reciting Juárez’s famous motto: “The respect of others’ rights is peace.” The story of Benito Juárez was retold to me by many Veracruzanos and was repeatedly evoked as a testament to the inclusive and nonracist character of the Mexican nation. This narrative, coupled with other symbols of racial openness, facilitates the palatability of the national ideology, which contends that the country is free of racism.
The Relationship Between Mexican Nationalism and Racial Ideology
Recognizing the powerful sway of Mexican nationalism can further elucidate the conceptual conundrums that surround Veracruzanos’ racial common sense. More specifically, understanding the role of nationalist sentiment in Mexico can help demystify the enigmatic nature of non-elites’ (p.184) participation in the reproduction of the country’s racial ideology. Mexico has long been preoccupied with defining what it means to be Mexican and developing its own national narrative about race, especially when faced with negative European racial stereotypes regarding Latin America.5 As explained previously, racialization in twentieth-century Mexico was deeply intertwined with the process of building and defining the nation. As a result, being Mexican implies being mestizo (descending from Spanish and indigenous populations) and living in a nation where racism does not exist. Illustrating this is Rodrigo, the thirty-seven-year-old fisherman with dark-brown skin. When I asked him what it means to be Mexican, he simply stated: “Here, racism does not exist.” Illustrating how nationalist sentiment is tied to understandings of race and nation is José, the sixty-three-year-old taco vendor with dark-brown skin who shared, “It is a great pride to be Mexican because here there is no distinguishing between race and color. We are all the same.” Many other Veracruzanos echoed these sentiments during our conversations.
Racial ideology, ideas of nation, and nationalist sentiment are so intertwined in Mexico that, in reproducing the substantive basis of official racial ideology, Mexicans secure their national identities as Mexican. On the flip side, engaging in critical discussions of racism and thus challenging the national ideology, could be easily construed as antinationalistic, as we saw in the reactions to Zapata’s article. Therefore, in defending and reproducing national ideology, Mexicans potentially fulfill something much more immediate than a dream or a hope—they achieve a sense of belonging to the national community. National community membership is far from insignificant in Veracruz. Although Veracruzanos’ identity as Mexican was not a focal point of my research, I discovered that it was among the most salient of all identities.
Viewed through the lens of nationalism, there is ample motivation for Mexicans to reproduce the mestizaje, nonracism, and nonblackness pillars of Mexican national ideology, despite the numerous complications that arise in the process. When Mexicans exalt the practice of race mixture, negate racism in the country, and displace blackness, they fortify their national identities. Or, viewed differently, in the process of asserting their Mexicanness, individuals articulate a racial common sense that reproduces elite ideology on race. Because of the interconnection between racial ideology and state formation in Mexico, the social reproduction of national ideology reinforces the meaning of Mexicanness and vice versa. Consequently, Mexicans’ engagement with state-sponsored ideologies is not merely a negotiation with elite beliefs about race but also (p.185) what it means to be Mexican. Finally, it is also possible that Veracruzanos, especially those with a brown phenotype, use national ideology as a tool to protect and manage their psychological and emotional integrity in the face of the “everyday wounds of color” (Burdick 1998).6 In other words, by embracing the vision of a mixed race nation free of racism they are able to avoid directly confronting and acknowledging their experiences with discrimination. Certainly, the “shreds of truth,” nationalism, and psychological protection explanations are not mutually exclusive elements; it is likely that they all play a role in explaining the paradox of Veracruz racial common sense presented in this book.
Implications for Race Studies
Throughout the book, I addressed themes that are of central concern for race scholars, including boundary dynamics, identities, attitudes, discrimination, and inequality. Interrogating these themes in the Mexican context allows us to broaden our understanding of race. For example, I have argued that we cannot fully understand Mexican racial dynamics without looking at color and that any theorizing that addresses the topic of race in Mexico should address the color dynamics that exist within the mestizo boundary. More broadly, I have encouraged all race scholars to interrogate the potential role that color plays within the boundaries of racial categories or groups. Although research on color is increasing, scholars have only begun to scratch the surface of this issue. The limited research that does exist in the U.S. context, for example, has revealed the relevancy of color to racial dynamics.7 Some race theorists argue that color is becoming increasingly salient in the United States,8 which would make a focus on color even more pressing.
My findings forward the standing literature on race in additional ways. In the book I engaged methodological and substantive debates related to race-color terminology and the race versus color distinction. My empirical approach to these issues allowed me to build upon existing understandings of race-color schema and systems of classification in Latin America. Furthermore, I demonstrated how folk understandings of race and color diverge; Veracruzanos prefer color over racial identities as they associate color with descriptive characteristics and race with hierarchy and inequality. Additionally, I illustrated that, although Veracruzanos’ race-color identities are not determined by ancestry to the degree seen in the United States, ancestry still matters; individuals evoke and ignore particular ancestral (p.186) lineages to achieve various identity goals such as wedding oneself to a Mexican identity or establishing a connection to whiteness.
My discussion of individuals’ attitudes and behaviors regarding interracial relationships and multiracial families also contributes to scholarly knowledge on race. I challenged the thesis embedded in both the Latin American and U.S. literatures that the intimate crossing of race-color boundaries signals that race and color are of minimal importance. I further suggested that scholars of interracial marriage pay attention to the race-color of family units when studying dating and marriage market dynamics; in Veracruz, the race-color background of family members appears to influence partner choice. I also examined the processes of race-color identity formation and group construction in a context where blackness is minimized. Based on my findings, I argued that we need to go beyond the boundaries of the nation-state to fully understand racialization processes. I further demonstrated how race-color categories are both fixed and fluid in Veracruz and proposed that we reevaluate the standing generalization that Latin American systems of race are always fluid and ambiguous. Finally, I used my findings regarding Veracruzanos’ discourses on racism to critique U.S.-based theories on racial attitudes, arguing that an individual’s position within the race-color hierarchy does not necessarily determine racial attitudes in the way that current theories suggest.
The findings presented in this book also speak to current debates regarding the future of U.S. race relations.9 In particular, they inform the recent theory proposed by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2004), and espoused by others,10 that the U.S. racial terrain is reconfiguring to resemble that of Latin America. Bonilla-Silva sees the United States as moving away from a binary black–white model toward a tri-racial model comprised of three tiers: whites; honorary whites; and a collective black. Furthermore, he predicts that color will play an increasing role in U.S. racial dynamics. However, it seems premature to propose a Latin Americanization thesis if we do not yet have a clear understanding of race-color dynamics throughout Latin America, especially given the heavy emphasis on Afro-Latin America.11 This bias is particularly problematic since most countries in Latin America are not part of Afro-Latin America but instead are part of mestizo America. Recent research suggests that race functions somewhat differently across Latin American nations. For example, while the rate of black-brown/white interracial marriage is high in Brazil,12 in Guatemala Ladino/indigenous interracial marriages are exceedingly rare.13 To provide another contrast, similar to my findings involving Veracruzanos, (p.187) Ecuadorians do not perceive racism in their country14; however, the same cannot be said for Afro-Cubans15 or for Afro-Brazilians.16
Even traditional claims about how race operates in Latin America are being revisited. For example, the generalizability of the idea that “money whitens” has recently been scrutinized.17 In Veracruz, the “money whitens” effect is weak at best, suggesting this dynamic may not be present (or only mildly so) in Mexico or at least not in some regions of the country. Furthermore, the long-standing notion that race is fluid and continuous (as opposed to fixed and bi-polar) across Latin America has recently been challenged.18 Although race is generally fluid in Veracruz, it can also be fixed.
At any rate, the verdict is still out regarding the degree to which particular race-color dynamics are similar or different across Latin America. Increasingly, however, scholars are highlighting important national distinctions.19 In this book I addressed the case of Mexico, the largest country in mestizo America. My findings certainly do not resolve the issue in any definitive way, but they do supply additional pieces to the puzzle. As I noted throughout the book, there is much overlap between my findings and those from Afro-Latin American countries. However, it is premature to assess whether this signifies a similarity between mestizo and Afro-Latin American countries or whether the similarities are a result of the fact that race-color dynamics in Veracruz contain an African element. Either way, additional research within and across a variety of Latin American countries is necessary to assess whether the “Latin American racial system” is a productive unit of analysis.
Finally, my research informs recent debate over how immigrants and their descendants are altering the U.S. racial terrain.20 Mexico sends more immigrants to the United States than any other country. In 2010, Mexicans accounted for 30 percent of all U.S. immigrants.21 In order to assess how Mexican immigrants are fitting into and shaping U.S. racial dynamics, it is imperative to understand the racial identities and conceptualizations of race that Mexicans hold in their own country,22 especially since racial frameworks are not immediately shed after migration and may even be transmitted across generations.23 That being said, the racial common sense of Mexicans is not a static variable, impermeable to change. As Mexican migrants leave their home country, they take with them the understandings of race that they developed during their time in Mexico. These notions of race then interact with those they encounter in the United States; this process results in the creation of a new, hybrid racial common sense.
(p.188) However, while this transformation among the U.S. Mexican immigrant population is occurring, the racial ideologies of Mexico and the racial common sense of those who stayed behind are also subject to change. Although Mexican national ideology related to race has remained fairly stable since the Mexican Revolution, the smell of ideological change is in the air.24 Because elite racial discourse may in fact be shifting, it is not clear what the future holds in terms of the meanings and manifestations of race in Mexico. What is clear, however, is that, although the racial ideology promulgated by Mexico’s post-revolutionary leaders has, in many respects, been successfully incorporated into mainstream popular thought, the vision and hope of Mexican revolutionaries—that they could obliterate race—has failed; over a century later, race still matters in Mexico, and significantly so. Therefore, the pressing question is not if but how race matters and, more importantly, how it will matter in the future. In looking forward it is imperative to acknowledge the power that the Mexican citizenry wields in determining the future of race in Mexican society. If the ideological current indeed shifts course, non-elite Mexicans will undoubtedly develop new management skills and strategies to construct a racial common sense that adapts to and incorporates these changes. The resulting racial common sense will then hold the potential to fuel or undermine any new national ideological stance. Although current and future leaders of Mexico will undoubtedly shape racial ideology, the nation’s racial future will ultimately be determined by the Mexican populace in their land of the cosmic race.