Saturday, August 27, 2005

Racism in Venezuela

Negro Primero

Chavez has played the race card, trying to portray his "fight" as one of the Venezuelan light-skinned minority against the dark-skinned majority. Given the US race perception and tabus, a wise political move that has eased a lot of leftists into his "support structure." Needless to say most Venezuelans disagree (even Chavistas, which the propaganda would portray as: "many generations of brain washing leaves its toll"), many of us find the manipulation disgusting, and we see it as just yet another ploy to add to the rich vs. poor, U.S. vs. Latin America, powerful vs. oppressed, Meritocratic vs. Uneducated (yes, I am not kidding), Bourgeois vs. Proletarians discourse of his "pretty revolution." I have read many of the arguments from the left, some of them rational, some of them not, and following Descartes teachings I have tried to do some deep introspection on the matter, but try as I might, I find extremely hard to accept this point of view, and to contain the rage that this perception inspires in me.

I guess that at this point I have to show my cards, so let me start with my race, I am, and look, latino, which to you might just be a label, but to me means mostly "mixed." I have an immigrant caucasian grandfather and a black grandmother on my father side, and a "mestizo" (American Indian/caucasian) grandfather and grandmother on my mother side. Most of the people I know would classify that as the typical Venezuelan. My mother's nickname has always been "la negra" (the black one) or the diminutive "negrita," as she is the darkest of her siblings (suggesting that there is probably more "black blood" from that side of the family), and that, together with "chino" (chinese), "catire" (literally blonde, but mostly used for white), and "indio" (indian), are relatively common nicknames. Most traditional Venezuelan families have a wide color gamut among siblings.

Black people in Venezuela, as in the rest of the Americas, descend from a population that has its origin from slave trade. But, as opposed to the US, some of the slaves all the way back to colonial times, became named "national heroes," and we are exposed to our heroes from our nursing songs. One of Simon Bolívar's nannies La Negra Matea (Matea Bolívar), herself a slave, went to Bolívar's funeral by the arm of the Venezuelan president of the time. La Negra Hipólita (Hipólita Bolívar) being his other slave Nanny, was the one that nursed him as a baby, and Bolívar loved, and treated, as a mother. Both Hipólita and Matéa are burried in the Bolívar family crypt. Negro Primero (liutenant Pedro Camejo), a freed slave reputed as one of the bravest soldiers of the Bolívar armies, earned his quote in history by returning to his commanding officer in the middle of a battle and exclaiming: "My General, I come to say goodbye, because I am dead" dropping on the spot. Now, compare that to the only ones I can think of from US culture Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima (remember, I am talking colonial times here).

Of course, there has been a lot of immigration into Venezuela, mainly "white" at that, and combined with disparities since colonial times, and traditional immigrant work habits (1), the richer strata of the population is lighter skinned, on average, while the poorer strata is darker skinned, on average. The more educated segments of the population are lighter skined, on average, while the less educated, are darker skinned on average. So yes if you derive some measure of color of skin vs. wealth or education you would see a larger accumulation on the lighter side of the scale. But to jump from that to racism is a long stretch, don't confuse correlation with causation. It's at this point in the conversation where the tag "racism" morphs to mean when a class discriminates against other and it's not really related to skin color. Then call it "discrimination" as it has absolutely nothing to do with race, you idiots!!!. The use of the "racism" label has the sole purpose of putting the wrong image in the right people's mind, and that is my problem with labels. I might cover the discrimination (or rather the "inequality" as I do not agree with that label either) topic at another time, or chose not to as it has been covered before, but now I am talking about racism.

To be fair, let me point to some parts of our culture that can be perceived as a race connotation. When somebody sees a darker friend going out with a lighter 'significant other candidate', a joking shout of "improving the race, eh..." would probably follow, in an American frame of mind that is as un-PC as it can be, but we don't see that much into it. I have heard the phrase "shitty negro" being used disparagingly, jokingly, or as a friendly call, but a phrase like "shitty catire" is not that uncommon. The disparaging part is the 'shitty' adjective, not the "negro" or "catire" part. "Mono" (monkey) can also be used as a disparaging tag or just a nickname, but it has no race connotation (the only "mono" I know is actually a very white individual), disparagingly it would be closer to 'gang member', 'petty thief', 'ill-mannered', 'misbehaved', 'thug', it has more to do with attitude (I hope you now see why it has been used for Chavez and Chavistas) (2). My grandmother was a bigot, she would have no qualms disparaging some of my darker friends to their face (I still remember some of her racist poems), at least one of them told me not to worry, as his father was the same way!! (and to tell you the truth these are the only two bigots I can think of). But then we take bigots by what they are, ignorant people, we don't make them the center of our life.

I hope that now you can see that race is not a problem for us, it comes up in conversations or in the media, the same way that you could hear a mature sex conversation in daytime radio or TV (before the gag law that is), oh, sorry, you don't have that in the States either. You can shout "negro" on the streets if you want to call your buddies attention, as my mother gets shouted at sometimes. She has also been told "you sing like a negro!" a very good praise indeed (some of the genes which I proudly inherited, I might say). You can draw a caricature of a negro, with all the african stereotypical qualities, and it would be a caricature, not a racist drawing (though it can be as offensive as many caricatures are). So this takes me to Danny Glover. (unfortunately I cannot locate the caricature that I wanted to insert, if you know where it is, please drop me a note)

When a delegation of Americans from the TransAfrica Forum visited Venezuela, Danny Glover included, with all the American racist background on their backs, they were faced by this libertine attitude towards race, and being the latests of Chavez's useful fools, they were rightfully mocked and ridiculed by the media, and this was one of the bases they used to declare Venezuela as a racist country!!!. Yet another example of "understand the situation before you make any assertions" you fools. So let me finish by quoting Gustavo Coronel:

Bringing racial conflict into Venezuela, as an artificial political strategy, is a crime only equivalent to the bringing of smallpox to the Indians of the New World. The difference is that the smallpox came to us unwittingly but the racial issue is coming to us as part of a deadly, conscious, political strategy.
I couldn't agree more.
After posting this, I realized that Francisco had covered TransAfrica's original visit here, and here, and The Chavez Propaganda Machine™ response can be found here (I said that I have a problem with labels, not that I don't use them!!). So ask yourselves, really, WWMLKD?. Another thing I chose Negro Primero, La Negra Matéa, and La Negra Hipólita, not because these are the only ones, but because these are the only ones I can remember as being negroes, precisely because there is a 'Negro' in their nicknames. Did I mention that we don't care that much about race?
  1. Don't read too much into this, but consider the current immigrant population into the US. Immigrants, by their sole condition as immigrants, have to be harder working that the established population (on average of course). In Venezuela it's this last generations of immigrants that own most of the very small neighborhood (city block) shops and markets and, through work, some of them got to own bigger shops and markets (just in case, my immigrant grandfather was a poor miner, not a rich shop owner, so drop the bias card!). These is the, mostly white, people that has been targeted in our "racial uprisings."
  2. Monkey can also be used to mean 'cute,' one of the nice things of the multiple facets of spanish slangs, but that requires some language subtleties and mostly uses the second spanish meaning of the verb "to be". 'To be monkey', would be 'to look cute', 'to be a monkey' would be the disparaging connotation.
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