The hidden racism in Latin America

Illustration by Connectas

This article was written by Carlos Gutiérrez for Connectas, and was edited and republished by Global Voices under a media agreement.

When Pedro Castillo was removed from the presidency of Peru, after attempting to dissolve the Congress, The New York Times revealed that, faced with popular protests, the security forces fired assault rifles and caused “the death of unarmed people who were hundreds of meters away.” Various organizations and the media described these acts as excessive.

But the issue went far beyond the use of force. Amnesty International, in its recent  Lethal Racism report based on 25 documented cases, states that “the deaths registered during the protests suggest a marked racist bias on the part of the Peruvian authorities” and that, of this group, at least 20 have the characteristics of an “extrajudicial execution,” all of them in the cities of Andahuaylas, Chincheros, Ayacucho, Juliaca, and Lima. The report refers to the fact that the vast majority of protesters came from the Indigenous areas of the country.

Racism is a significant issue in Peru. According to data from the Ministry of Culture of Peru, 57 percent of the population believe that the Indigenous or native population of the Amazon is discriminated against because of their way of speaking, their clothing and their physical features, while 60 percent of the population consider that Afro-Peruvians are discriminated against because of their skin color, physical features and because they are associated with crime.

Actually, this topic goes far beyond Peruvian borders. It is a harmful ideology present in all Latin American countries, where, according to the World Bank, one in four people identifies as Afro-descendant and is part of “the most invisible minority in Latin America.” This organization reports that 133 million people belong to this social group, the majority in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Ecuador.

It is a paradoxical situation as Latin Americans also suffer racist attacks in other parts of the world. Such an incident became known worldwide in mid-May, involving Brazilian footballer Vinícius Junior from Real Madrid. It happened during a match against Valencia at the Mestalla stadium when many spectators hurled racist insults against the star athlete; the scandal was huge. This was the tenth case of racial harassment of Vinícius.

Later, on social networks, the player stated that racism in football is frequent and both the Spanish League (La Liga) and Federation consider it normal. “The championship, which once belonged to Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cristiano and Messi, now belongs to the racists,” he wrote on Twitter. For its part, Real Madrid released a statement in which it reported that it had gone to the state attorney general's office to denounce “such attacks” as “a hate crime” that constitutes “a direct attack on the model of coexistence of our social and democratic State governed by the rule of law.”

Latin America and the Caribbean can tell their story through acts of discrimination and racism because they are “a constitutive part of the region's problems,” researchers Álvaro Bello and Marta Rangel write in CEPAL Review. They explain that this situation had consequences of “poverty, exclusion and inequality in the lives of millions of people,” especially in Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. They point out that Latin American states face an enormous challenge not only on the economic side but also in terms of democratic progress and state reforms.

Another highly publicized case is that of the vice president of Colombia, Francia Márquez, who has denounced racist attacks against her. One such attack took place during a protest in front of the Colombian Congress on September 22, 2022, when a 62-year-old protester had no problem exclaiming: “She is an ape … What education can a black person have, blacks steal, rob and kill.” The woman faced charges for “speech motivated by hate.”

Others, however, criticized the politician for using alleged racist attacks in order not to be held accountable, such as when faced with objections to an official trip to Africa with a large entourage, she replied, “With a mixed-race or white man, respect would be a given.”

Given these situations, the question arises as to what racism is. A statement from the Red Integra in Mexico—a network comprising more than 100 academics from 50 research and higher education institutions—points out that it is “a structural form of domination that makes groups and individuals inferior, which is expressed in ideas, institutional practices and in everyday life.” Social anthropologist Gabriela Iturralde agrees and emphasizes that “we are not part of races, but racism imagines it that way.” The biggest problem is that this set of beliefs is normalized and naturalized. “We have accepted it as an unquestionable truth,” says the researcher at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Former Senator María Celeste Sánchez (the first Afro-Mexican woman in the Senate of the Republic) suggests addressing “systemic racism” on her TikTok account, because people of African descent have experienced an “erasure” of history, and have not been represented in the laws for centuries. According to data from the World Bank, this population group in Latin America is 2.5 times more likely to live in chronic poverty than white or mestizo people. In addition, they have fewer years of schooling, higher unemployment rates, and “are still overrepresented among the poor and underrepresented in decision-making positions, both in the public and private sectors.”

This is significant because, according to the same study, at least one in four Latin Americans identifies as Afro-descendant. This implies that at least a quarter of the Latin American population suffers heavily from racial discrimination.

Sánchez explains:

There is greater poverty, because there is less education. It's not that African-American women can't learn to read or write, that is not the case. It is that access to these rights has been limited because we have been neglected and not included in the laws and public policies.

Why do Latin Americans, mostly mestizos, show racist behavior? According to Iturralde, this is because a model has been established “that imagines the mestizo [mixed person] as a race, so much so that many of them think of the fifth race, the bronze race.” Those outside of the mestizo model are excluded, as is the case with Indigenous and Afro-American groups. It is a discourse that imagines a homogeneous society, but not egalitarian or equitable.

Have you heard that “Racism does not exist in Latin America”?

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This is the origin of the “myth of racial democracy”—a narrative that has made us believe there is no discrimination because of centuries of miscegenation in Latin American countries, wrote journalist Ana María Ospina in the Spanish newspaper El País. Ospina talks about Colombia, but that situation is replicated throughout the continent:

The idea that we are a ‘mixed nation’ and that our culture (and physiognomy) is the happy result of a mix of African, Indigenous and white-European cultures prevents reflection on the conflicts and inequities generated by slavery and economic exploitation of ethnic communities.

The idea that we are all equal comes from the configuration of nationalisms in Latin America. But that belief erased cultural diversity. “It erased our contributions and everything for which we should feel proud and proud not only because of our phenotype,” stresses former Senator Sánchez.

Macarena Bonhomme, a professor with a doctorate in social sciences from the Autonomous University of Chile, explains that in Chile national identity is recognized “as being constituted exclusively of European and Indigenous descent, but excluding any African origin, despite the fact that the Afro-Chilean movement proves otherwise.” For her, this “construction of whiteness” makes it possible “to reject at the local level what the Chilean nation-state has historically sought to dissolve, which is Indigenous ancestry, that is part of this mestizo identity. This allows us to explain why plurinationality was one of the most controversial aspects in the debates during the Constitutional Convention.”

The Latin American states bear a lot of responsibility in this situation and should work to build greater equity. “I would like to be so idealistic as to say that the economic model must be changed. Of course, it must be done, to guarantee a better distribution of wealth and the exercise of all rights, without discriminating against anyone. More must be invested in education, human rights and respect for diversity,” Iturralde tells CONNECTAS.

Racism hinders the development of Latin American societies. “We will not be able to move forward as long as we do not make visible the diversity that exists in our countries,” says Sánchez. Governments should recognize that there are different social groups, and address their particular needs. “If we don't see this from an intercultural perspective, if we continue to see ourselves as a homogeneous group, in which we are all already Latinos, we will not be able to advance in any way in Latin America,” she emphasizes.

The myth of miscegenation and Mexican integrationist racism

Unlike American segregationist racism, here people were not separated by “racialization” but rather everything was conditioned on the fact of becoming mestizos (westernizing) to survive

Identity was erased

— Tenoch Huerta Mejía (@TenochHuerta) January 27, 2022

It is necessary to note that, although not enough, some steps have been taken. In the case of Vinícius, the Brazilian government responded strongly from the presidential podium, and symbolically, by turning off the lights of the Christ the Redeemer statue in protest. Sánchez points out that there has been a “considerable change” in Brazil because there are more and more Afro-descendant people in universities. There are also affirmative action policies in Brazil, akin to those in the United States.

Still, the road is long. For Ospina, it is necessary to propose public policies to eliminate “structural racism.” In November 2022, during the Foro Tendencias, a forum co-organized by El País in Madrid, in a conversation with the director of El País, Francia Márquez pointed out that the real challenge for states is in education, and anti-racist practices should be encouraged. “I experience this as Vice President, but children live it every day, and grow up with stereotypes,” she said.

In the end, racism is like alcoholism: you have to accept the disease and quit the denial in order to tackle it. It is urgent that we recognize ourselves as racist societies and that Latin American governments take real legal and educational actions to grant all groups the status of citizens with full rights, including having languages, phenotypes, traditions and customs different from the dominant ones. Only by recognizing and respecting diversity can we transcend our history of oppression and discrimination.

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