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.  









9 comments:

  1. Using that analogy, the U.S. media should portray the typical Estadounidense as fat, arrogant, totin' a 64-oz. Slurpee in one hand and gun in the other? Mexico's not any more upside-down than anyplace else. India Maria isn't going to sell a lot of Lancome or luxury vehicles. That's just the way it is.

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  2. That is the way it is, I agree. Except being fat and arrogant is not quite the same as being born brown-skinned. One is acquired the other the way you were born. No?

    al

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  3. It's the same here in the U.S. thanks to Madison Ave. What's wrong with wearing white after Labor Day when it's still in the 80's here in Michigan? Some people, (I know I'm losing half your readers) especially women are brainwashed into following these silly edicts.
    Saludos,
    Francisco

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  4. I often ponder what you wrote about on this excellent post--but you expressed it so well. The discrimination against morenos permeates this culture at every level. Sadly so.

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  5. I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's a topic I've though about and observed over the years, but have not mentioned in my blog. It's touchy. Lots of indigenous Mexicans don't identify themselves as such because due to class prejudice and marketing, being so is seen as backward and not modern. People so badly want to be modern. It's a terrible shame.

    Plenty of otherwise liberal and intelligent "upper-class," light-skinned or white Mexicans have household employees, and the women are called "muchachas," girls, thought they may be grandmothers...reminds me of mature African American men being called "boys" in certain parts of the U. S. I've been told more than once by folks like these that they don't like indigenous people, that they are dirty, ugly, lazy, or stupid. I have seen instances when newspapers in some parts of the country (not Yucatan) report accidents and may say things like, "and two indigenous women were killed," as if no further information on the deceased was necessary.

    And yet many Mexicans have told me that there is no prejudice here. I am not criticizing, because there is plenty of the same, and worse, back in the U.S. Just observing that there seems still to be some lack of awareness about what stereotyping or prejudice is. I think that due to history and other circumstances, Mexico has still not dealt with some of this. There's been no broad-based civil rights movement here...yet.

    Of course marketing is about the same in the States, which is the model for marketing here. Impossibly slim, busty or buff models bear little resemblance to average people and retailers try to pander to the niche markets. Around here, flakey croissants and natural foods sell in the north Merida of gated communities and sparkling new malls, cheap, gummy white Bimbo bread in the hard-scrabble colonias of the south.

    Is it much different in Mexico? I am not convinced that it is.

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    1. I tried to reply to your comment Marc, and I think my words were lost in blogosphere. What I said was that racism and classism are unique to Mexico. The same thing was going on in the US not too long ago when blacks, Asians and Hispanics were almost completely invisible in advertising, TV and the movies. The genius of the U.S. though, is that Americans faced up to those deficiencies and to a large extent remedied them (even if such efforts are dismissed now as empty "political correctness." In Mexico I don't think folks even realize there is a problem.

      al

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  6. And this is where the myths of he Revolution run head-long into centuries of tribalism. That is why we learn to deal with the world that is. And then offer change one soul at a time.

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    Replies
    1. Steve: You'll have to elaborate on those thoughts...

      al

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  7. Sorry kind of off topic here; but your comment: " spokesmodel for the Norwegian Lutefisk Council." made me roar with laughter.
    I cannot stand the stuff, a white, gelatinous mass of YUCK. Too funny.
    Thanks for the laugh.
    Advertising in all countries is geared to what the average person "wishes" they were rather than the reality of what they "are or look like". Total fantasy.
    Yes, there is a lot of prejudice here in Mexico; but it is just a little more hidden but totally there in other countries also.

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