Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eye Of The Beholder

Ever since entering Paraguay the ethnic composition of people on the street has changed dramatically. In Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil diversity is the name of the game, with a heady, heterogeneous mix of black, white and brown and every shade in between. Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru are predominantly indigenous or mestizo (mix of indigenous and white) with only the odd white face to be seen on the streets - usually in the classier upmarket districts of the bigger cities*. Perfectly normal given the more populous and advanced cultures that thrived in these regions before the arrival of the Europeans. Whatever the actual statistics, it's fair to say that white people are a minority.

"They all look the same to me..." You're not likely to see many Caucasian features in the Andes.

However, if you were to peruse the region's media, from TV, to magazines, to newspapers you be forgiven for thinking the opposite is true. Television is by far the most popular form of entertainment, and its telenovelas and garish variety shows the kings of prime-time ratings. Yet indigenous features are as rare as hen's teeth, and, in a Henry Ford any-colour-as-long-as-it's-black approach to casting, are only ever there as domestic servants or buffoonish clowns. Instead the rich, successful, beautiful people of Telenovelaland are all white as snow and chisel-chinned/blonde and big-breasted (depending on sex) American matinee idols. Newsreaders, pundits and general entertainers are, for the most part, white. Even the pretty dancing girls on the game shows are all white, which strikes at the heart of the matter. Despite almost 200 years since the overthrow of the colonialist yoke it's still there in the collective consciousness of society: white is best, brown is bad. Ideals of beauty amongst locals are stuck in this mindset that perversely discriminates against themselves. Fashion and style magazines are perhaps even more homogeneously Caucasian than they are in the West, where black and oriental models are becoming more common. Of course such views are not confined to Latin America: in sub-Saharan Africa, south and east Asia the lighter the better, and the market in skin-whitening creams and treatments is a well-recorded billion dollar industry. This conformity to an ideal of beauty always gets my hackles up. I have been to almost 100 countries and in not one did I not fail to spot some beautiful local women, each different and each wonderful in her own particular way.

The opium of the people. No matter where you are, you can be sure to find a TV there, even if it's a crappy little street kiosk.

Ex-colonies often accuse Western governments of maintaining colonial attitudes towards them and not respecting them, but it seems to me that it many respects it is they who are maintaining the trappings of colonialism (an example being that many ex-British colonies maintain a bureaucracy and judicial system copied entirely and unthinkingly with little adaptation to local situations).The shackles of oppression are still there, but are held in place by the shackled themselves. Even in China, which was never colonised, there is an enormous collective chip on the shoulder, with a constant comparison, by both the state media and individuals, of current and past Chinese achievements to the West, in an attempt to find justification (for pretty much anything). It leads to a strange, ambivalent attitude that is at once envious of, and desirous to emulate, the West, but at the same time scathing and disparaging of it. The amateur psychologist in me (and let's face it, there's one in every one of us) believes that this inferiority complex needs to be ditched to allow people and cultures to flourish to their full potential.

*For Peru and Paraguay, according to official figures, indigenous and mestizos make up around 80% of the population. The figures for Bolivia are not there because on the latest census, despite there being 40 different indigenous ethnic groups to choose from, mestizo was not an option. This was widely seen as being politically motivated because the incumbent president, Evo Morales, campaigns widely on a platform of indigenous rights. So if the majority of people were to mark mestizo it would have severely undermined his position. Anyway, from my (very unscientific) observations, I would say that at least 90% of Bolivians are either indigenous or mestizo.

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