Racism in Latin America

This weekend I saw expressed again an idea that pops up on occasion: that race doesn’t matter in Latin America.

It’s contrary to what I’ve witnessed and, frankly, to common sense. Race, in Latin America, is not an explicit and ever-present identifier in the same way that it is in the US. However, racism exists, and therefore, race matters. It may be that in some places, the distinction between white and mestizo is not as marked as in the US, hence the misunderstanding about the importance of race in general. But even there, inequality of representation in political and media spheres does indicate that whiteness matters.

Indigenous people are largely disenfranchised; Black people are often spoken about in ways deemed grossly politically incorrect in the US. Latin America is a huge and diverse region so I’ll just briefly speak about the place that I’ve started exploring for my research on food: Chiapas.

In San Cristobal, indigenous people were not permitted to walk on the sidewalk until as recently as the 1970s. They had to walk on the road instead. In Las Doñas de Chiapas, a collection of interviews of Chiapanecan women, patriarchy is a powerful current that creates a unifying narrative of the lives of all the women. However, there are also stark differences. Indigenous women speak of the difficulties of accessing sufficient food while one of the white women recounts traveling on the back of an “Indio Chamula”* in her childhood. This was the common method of transportation for her class and generation. Most of these women are still alive; this is very recent history.

The marginalization and poverty of indigenous people in Mexico is the framework of much of the country’s social assistance. It must be visible if one is to have any functioning understanding of the dietary and cultural effects of food aid. Likewise, exploring common representations of indigenous people, their food, and their bodies, is central to understanding the transformation of their food culture through milk distribution.

In San Cristobal, I spoke to many non-indigenous Mexicans about what indigenous people ate, and why. Their answers were overwhelmingly negative and one-dimensional. Portraying indigenous diets as inherently deficient, and pinning this more on culture than on economy, has profound ramifications. The government’s decision to promote milk as a nutritional panacea instead of implementing policies that would encourage consumption of native foods is, of course, primarily about profit. However, policies, assistance programs and public health discourse do not happen in a social vacuum. And the social context in which these are formed is fraught with racism. I will discuss this in upcoming posts as I analyze the relationship between social representations of foods, social identity, and the transformation of food culture.

*Indigenous man from the municipality of Chamula.