MexConnect
Business  |  See all articles tagged culture-customs doing-business finance-economics social-issues

Racism And Business In Mexico

Ilya Adler

Although denied officially and, personally by many Mexicans, racism in Mexico is so evident that most foreigners notice it right away. All you have to do is look at Mexican-produced television programs, especially the internationally-known genre of Mexican telenovelas (soap operas). There you will see many Caucasians playing leading roles, while the darker-complected people who make up the vast majority of the population are relegated to minor roles such as maids, chauffeurs, or criminals. Even when the story line is about a maid who falls in love with the rich kid of the house (a rather typical one, which by the way conveys the notion that the only way out of poverty in Mexico is through love), the actress who plays the role is usually white. And more often than not, in the end we discover that she is the illegitimate child of a rich man or woman - in other words, her biological roots are those of the "nice" people. It's even worse than that. In Mexico, a strange and probably morally depressing phenomenon has occurred in the last 20 to 30 years. Before that there was a concept of a Mexican beauty - usually dark hair, dark eyes, but Spanish-looking (not Indian). But these days blonde is in, so you would think that blond hair is common and natural for Mexicans. While in other countries such as the U.S., Canada, and England, models, actors and actresses have become "darker" (at least we see many more of them), in Mexico it is quite the opposite.

Racism is equally present in the world of business. Go to a gathering of business executives, and while you are starting to see some (but few) women, you do not see "dark" people. Read want ads, and often you will find the words " presentación impeccable" (impeccable looks), which is a coded phrase to mean white and good looking. In a recent study conducted by a some of my students, observation was made on popular, high- middle-class dancing places where, believe it or not, dissertational decisions are made about who gets in and who doesn't. According to this study, the most discriminated people were over-weight women who are darker, followed by dark people in general. Restaurants often make excuses not to allow people who might look "poor" (usually associated with racial features). And way too many businesses are targeting mostly that richer (and whiter) segment, which - while having the income to consume - represent only 10 to 15% of the population at most.

If you are a foreigner, you will be easily drawn to this Mexico. The people who speak English are probably richer and whiter, and they are equally more attracted to befriending a European, American or Canadian. Thus, without even trying, as a white foreigner you will be quickly surrounded by either other foreigners, or by Mexicans who seem comfortable with you, but who hold little interest in, knowledge of or a positive attitude toward the majority of his/her fellow-nationals.

If you decide to reside in a place like San Miguel de Allende, by now practically conquered by European, American and various other foreign groups that very much tend to be white, you might get a neighbor who is Mexican (white), and will probably have a maid who is native-looking. While you are physically in Mexico, culturally you are in an invented city.

The fact that business practices reinforce racist attitudes is often "explained" by the usual arguments that all business people use, which is to claim that business simply follows the tastes and preferences of their market. This is not only morally repugnant, but it's simply not true. Prejudice also blinds some so-called rational business people, and they themselves cannot but treat better someone who is white, regardless of their income level. This is another way of denying service to people who simply deviate from what is considered "nice" (usually white), and who - from a strictly business perspective - is obviously a lost opportunity. To put it another way: Racism is also bad business.

Much as was the case in the United States, many Mexican business-people believe poor people in Mexico are much too poor to buy much, other than the very essentials. So if you do not sell essentials, don't bother with them. Yet, while it is true that they may buy less of non-essentials on per capita basis, it does not mean that all they purchase are essentials. Poor people also vacation, also eat out, also go theatres, also buy decoration for their homes. Poor people are just like other people in their consumption behavior, but of course, price is a much bigger issue.

So what is a better business? To open a restaurant with the richer segment in mind, where a typical dinner might cost 70-100 dollars, or a restaurant that is more affordable, selling tacos, or sandwiches, or roasted chicken, to name some of the products that typically sell for less? The answer is neither easy nor obvious. Plenty of people in Mexico can and have made money selling to the poorer (and darker) population. The hugely successful store-chain Elektra is an example. I can only imagine a white European, American or Canadian setting up shop where people who look like the majority of Mexicans live, and being very successful. No doubt they would be so surprised that such a person would even think of setting up shop in their neighborhood, they would come to your business just out of curiosity.

And while doing this, you will discover something closer to the real Mexico, enriching your life as well as your wallet.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2005 by Ilya Adler © 2008
Contact Ilya Adler
All Tags