Monday, August 6, 2012

Not easy being brown

Breakfast in Mexico brings the first of many disconnects from reality. A slinky model, her belly taut as a snare drum, stares at you seductively from the box of Lala skim milk, her skin and other features so fine--so Caucasian--she could be the spokesmodel for the Norwegian Lutefisk Council.

Sorry, you have to buy a carton
of Lala milk to see the rest of
the model. 
At a rack by the checkout lane of the local supermarket, faces on the covers of soap opera and celebrity magazines clamor for attention, usually through a display of implausibly voluptuous white women, their  hair in more hues of blond and light brown than Miss Clairol ever imagined.

Yet the cashiers, baggers and particularly the flaneros--those hapless scrappers out in the parking lot who want to wash, wax or watch your car, offload your groceries or at least guide you out of your parking spot, all for a tip of ten or fifteen cents--don't look anything like magazine-cover Mexicans. 

On television, one of the most respected news anchors is Univision's Jorge Ramos who may be a clone of CNN's Anderson Cooper. They both have earnest clear eyes (Cooper's blue, Ramos' greenish), white skin, gray hair and feather-weight builds. 

Ramos is a top-shelf journalist. Yet when the end of the world comes on December 21, as predicted by the Maya calendar, I'd prefer a wide-eyed, brown-skinned indigenous-looking  newsreader with beads around his neck to lead me to the Final Countdown.  But I bet we will be watching Ramos instead. 

Mexicans come in all complexions and features, from tall, Western European types to short, cinnamon-skinned folk, whose everyday language may not be Spanish but one of some 20 indigenous tongues spoken in Mexico. 

In its constitution Mexico proclaims itself to be a "pluricultural" enterprise and indeed Benito Juárez, a national hero--Mexico City's airport is named after him--was a full-blooded Zapotec from Oaxaca. 

According to the government, indigenous folk make up only ten to twelve percent of the population. But venture into the streets of San Miguel, Mexico City or any place in the country for that matter, and you will see a much higher percentage of brown faces and only a sprinkling of Lala models, Jorge Ramos look-alikes or blonde soap opera starlets. 

Judging from my travels through Mexico, Mexicans tends to be short, round-faced and broad-nosed,  with slightly elongated eyes, brown skin and stubbornly straight, jet-black hair. 

That last indigenous trait is no doubt what propels sales of two-liter jugs of gel to young Mexican guys, some brands with the holding power of Liquid Nails, as they battle to coax their locks into swirls, mini-Mohawks and a myriad other confections--anything but lie flat like it naturally wants to do. 

Yet advertisers and retailers bring us a world that is exactly the opposite of reality, and they segment the market accordingly. 

In Mexico, Walmart has two distinctly different supermarket lines. Superama, a Whole Foods wannabe, has hand-scripted signs explaining the virtues and provenance of their upscale produce and a fancy bakery, all better to attract clients armed with iPhones and aviator sunglasses who then take their groceries to a parking lot jammed with BMWs, Chevy Suburbans and other fancy wheels. 

At the other end is Walmart's Bodega Aurrera, a distinctly down-market operation. The customers tend to be brown-faced, women load their double-wrapped babies on the carts along with the groceries and they arrive in muddy pickups or on foot. The bakers spend their days flinging tortillas and bolillos, the ubiquitous Mexican rolls, rather than flaky croissants or Italian pastries.

As a further reminder this is not Superama, San Miguel's Bodega Aurrera abuts a wide channel, wishfully called an "arroyo" or "creek" which in reality serves as a giant sewage ditch carrying who-knows-what from the city to God-knows-where out in the countryside. 

Don't ever accuse the Waltons of not understanding the nuances of the Mexican market. 

In a perfect Mexico, brown faces would rule magazine covers, advertising and packaging, and celebrate the look of most Mexicans.

But the realities of "aspirational" marketing dictate just the opposite.

Buyers are thought to want to look and live like the lithe young woman on the Lala milk carton or the bouncy yuppies on the movie house spots for Telmex, the telephone company. Brown means to be poor or backward, and no one wants to be that.

No matter how unfair, perverse or removed from the real world, that upside-down formula seems to be what sells, or at least what governs advertising in Mexico.  

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