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Another face of racism

Racism in modern-day Latin America is a topic that has not provoked a lot of discourse, either popular or academic. Changing this situation is one of my goals, since acknowledging that a problem exists is one of the first steps to change. My one piece of creative writing ever focused on tensions between educated mestizo Mexicans and indigenous peoples. In a culture in which the word “indio” is synonymous with “stupid” or “simple-minded,” racism so saturates society that it becomes, in effect, invisible. It seems natural to the people oppressing others that things should be so, and to the average tourist, they “all look the same.” Sure, some indigenous people are more picturesque, but they’re all Mexicans.

That is simply not true. The indigenous people of Mexico have been systematically and horrifically oppressed. Deprived of their land, forced to resettle in arid areas where they cannot farm, their children forbidden to speak their indigenous languages in schools, denied access to health care, discriminated against, and in the case of the indigenous groups who have revolted in southern Mexico, reviled as a danger and a threat to stability, they have a long tale of suffering that is only beginning to be told.

I spent two years arguing with a close friend from Monterey, Mexico over the conditions of the indigenous peoples. She claimed it was a misconception, that Mexico was no longer that way, and that Americans clung to ideas of poverty and injustice in Mexico because they didn’t want to accept that Mexico is becoming modern. In many ways, Mexico has had significant economic growth. On that count, she is correct. But even as capital becomes more available, the poor grow poorer. Why? Many reasons. As the wage market changes, there is less demand for unskilled workers. More efficient farming methods mean fewer agricultural workers are needed. American companies attempt to Walmartize prices on their imports, with the result that small businesses suffer. After all that time arguing, she came to me and told me that I was right after all. But, what a time commitment to help one person see!

I make no pretense to emotional distance from the plight of the poor in Mexico. I grew up with hungry and in some cases starving people. I had friends die because they had no access to healthcare. I watched people in the city dump fight over our garbage, hoping there’d be something edible. I watched the men in our village leave every year to follow the crops in the US in hopes of earning enough money to feed their families through another year. Bodies floated down the canal by our house, killed, it was said, by off-duty policemen. I also watched these people who suffered more every day than most Americans will suffer in their lives as they sacrificed for their families, laughed, loved, sang, and made the most of what they had.

People in my classes are undoubtedly tired of hearing me talk about migrant workers. I would have never expected to come into contact with the people I lived among in Mexico here in Oregon, but here they are. I hate that the conditions are so bad where they come from that their only choice is to come illegally to the US, be treated like animals in many cases, and greeted with hatred from Americans whose great emblem, the Statue of Liberty, has some no-longer relevant drivel about giving us the tired, the poor, and all those other non-valuable groups.

I also hate that they come here and face racism from fellow Latin Americans who aren’t indigenous. These, in many cases, have their papers, are politically active, educated, and integrated into American society. You’d think that they would see the suffering of their fellow Latin Americans and act, but reality is that racism cuts much deeper than that.

I’ve seen indigenous patients receive worse treatment at the hands of the mestizo employees hired for their Spanish abilities than from white Americans. That made me ill to see. It’s this very mentality that has allowed the suffering of indigenous peoples in Latin America to reach such heights–or perhaps depths would be the more apt term. The indigenous peoples’ concerns do not make it onto national agendas enough, and the people in power have no impetus to change, the US being famously unconcerned with the plight of the poor in Latin America unless it causes governments to be threatened.

Tonight, I attended a lecture sponsored by my school; the speaker was a tiny indigenous girl from Colombia, in her early 20s at best, who is one of the directors of a human rights advocacy group. She took over when the former leader of the group was imprisoned as a dissident. The Colombian government is carrying out incredible acts of oppression upon farmers and indigenous people, taking their lands, poisoning enormous tracts of agricultural areas with long-acting pesticides, massacring, imprisoning, torturing, collaborating with “paramilitary” forces, training children in militarism, allowing multinationals to plunder the natural resources and exploit the people.

The US government supports the Colombian government. Here we all say…what is wrong with them?

Sonia, the girl, talked about immense suffering, far beyond what I’ve seen.

Guess who the two people in the audience were who questioned whether she was telling the truth or whether her fact were right during the Q&A session? Two Latin American exchange students. One of them is a friend of mine. It tore my heart out that so many people have closed their eyes to what’s right in front of them, and that the racial prejudices that blame the “inditos” for what happens to them allow all responsibility to shift away from the people who are complicit in their poverty.

We all do it, though. Even if we don’t share the exact same racist pattern of thinking, we participate in a world system that lets us live in luxury while others die in want.

Sometimes it’s hard to live with myself because I could do more. I could always do more.

UNICEF statistics on Colombia Note especially how the wealth of the country is distributed and the disparity between urban and rural populations.
Plight of the indigenous peoples in Colombia
Human Rights Watch report on US funding despite HR violations Note: groups classified as terrorists by the Colombian government are often social advocacy groups who are in fact asking for an end to the violence.
Use of children by paramilitary In addition, the speaker indicated that the regular army is beginning to employ various tactics which the people fear will lead to involuntary service.
Poverty Statistics The IMF may not be good for a lot of things, but they at least generate some interesting statistics. Note the increase in poverty since 1995. Pesticides and indigenous agriculture

Comments

Comment from J.M. Shiveley
Time: April 6, 2005, 1:31 pm

Great stuff, I couldn’t agree more! And the reacism at least in Mexico wasn’t just for the indios it was towards anyone of darker skin despite geographical origins or facial features. This piece is great, shop it out!

Comment from jennerally obnoxious
Time: April 9, 2005, 3:17 pm

What the bloody hell, indeed. :-(
I love reading your writing, my dear.