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Mexico Honors Indians of the Past?

by Anthony DePalma Friday, Jan. 20, 2006 at 9:17 AM

But the living descendants of Montezuma are not allowed to eat in some of Mexico City's best restaurants.

Mexico City

SHROUDED in mystery and Myth, the heroes of Mexico's Aztec past are honoured in glorious monuments all over the country.

But the living descendants of Montezuma are not allowed to eat in some of Mexico City's best restaurants.

Although all Mexicans are considered equal under the country's constitution, Mexican society remains deeply divided on racial lines.

And as the richest and poorest of the 91 million Mexicans are driven further apart by such sweeping changes as the North American free-trade agreement, many Mexicans are starting to discover the dangers of their own deeply ingrained, yet rarely acknowledged, brand of bigotry.

The racial inequities are not limited to the Maya Indians in the state of Chiapas, who took up arms on the very day NAFTA took effect a year and a half ago in what is slowly taking on shades of a national civil rights movement for Indians. Indigenous people all over Mexico -- and those with Indian features and dark skins, all feel a degree of the same kind of intolerance.

While Mexicans typically deny that discrimination exists, the not-so-subtle racial undertones of their society are apparent to foreigners who live and work here.

When Henry McDonald, director Of the Cushman & Wakefield Real Estate office in Mexico City, took his family out for dinner last August, he didn't think twice about inviting his housekeeper, Gabriela Miranda, 45, an Indian.

It was a Friday night, and they went to a popular Italian restaurant called Prego in the polanco section of Mexico City.

"We got there early by Mexican standards, around 7:45, and the place was empty," Mr. McDonald said. "But we stood there waiting and waiting until finally the maitre d' came along and told me, in English, that domestics are not served here." Mrs. Miranda was not wearing a uniform, Mr. McDonald said. The restaurant simply assumed that because she was an Indian, she was a maid.

The restaurant manager, Mario Padilla, acknowledged that it is policy at Prego and other top restaurants to prohibit servants and drivers, many of whom are Indians.

"The type of people who usually come to restaurants of this class all have servants, but they usually leave them at home, " Mr. Padilla said. He said the restriction is needed to protect patrons against people who "lack discretion" and try to bring their servants.

He denied that the policy is discriminatory. "We're not racists," he said. "We're just trying to protect the image of the restaurant."

Now that Mexico is struggling to overcome an economic crisis caused by the peso's devaluation last December, there is concern that racial tensions will flare.

More than half a million Mexicans have been thrown out of work in the last six months, and the struggle to survive is likely to be decided on the basis of education access to money and cultural connections, all of which are based in large part on racial identity.

"There is going to be a sharp increase in social tensions," said Sergio Aguayo, a human- rights activist in Mexico City, "and some of it is going to be racially inspired."

Bias against Indians has long been more economic than personal. Sixty per cent of Indians over 12 years of age are already unemployed, and of those who work, most earn less than the minimum wage of about .50 a day.

But most Mexicans say bigotry does not exist here. School children are drilled on the life of Benito Juarez, a Zapotec who was president of Mexico in the 19th century, and told that his election proves all Mexicans are equal.

Mexico has no affirmative-action laws. The National Commission of Human Rights has never received a discrimination complaint and does not have a process to handle one.

Complicating questions of race is the mixed lineage of most Mexicans. From the Spanish founding of Mexico, social class has been determined by racial purity, with those born in Spain at the top and full-blooded Indians on the bottom. But centuries of intermarriage mean that nearly all Mexicans are considered part Indian.

Now it is the degree of Indianness, or the darkness of skin, that determines status.

Mexicans living in cities rely on hair dyes or skin lighteners to appear less Indian.

"Yes, Mexicans honour their Indian roots with statues," said Miguele Acosta, an investigator at the Mexican Academy of Human Rights at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, but historic roots are not at all useful when it comes to eating or just living today.

Mexico City has the highest concentration of Indians in the country, yet most times they are nearly invisible, showing up only in knots of beggars at busy intersections and among the feathered dancers who perform for tourists.

No Indians serve in the cabinet of President Ernsto Zedillo, and only a handful are in the congress, although 3 in 10 Mexicans is considered Indian. The racial insensitivity extends to blacks, although few live in Mexico. A recent commercial on national television featured a dark-skinned man in a white tuxedo telling viewers that at Comex, a Mexican paint company, "they're working like blacks to offer you a white sale."

There were no complaints about the ad "because we don't have a racism problem -- that's the key to it all," said Marisela Vergada, an account executive at Alazraki Agency, the large Mexican advertising firm that produced the 20-second spot. "It is simply an expression that everyone uses."

Such expressions pop up in a commercial for packaged toast that features a black baker boasting that his skin colour gives him the expertise to recognize the right shade of toast. Aunt Jemima pancake mix goes by the brand name "La Negrita" here.



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