Spain’s “Slant-Eyed” Photo Controversy – Nothing New in Mexico City

So, apparently Spain’s men’s Olympic basketball team posed for a photo, as The New York Times describes, while “pulling on the skin behind their eyes to make it look as if they were Asian.”

To Americans, this may seem shocking or perhaps just really, really tacky.

But, oddly, this is something that happens not just in Spain. From what I’ve learned after living in Mexico City for almost 11 months, there’s a slight hostility toward Chinese people, for reasons not totally clear. (They also seem a bit mystified by the culture — here, if you find yourself perplexed about something, instead of saying it’s “like Greek to me” you say an expression that means “it’s like Chinese to me.”)

When I first moved here, I was flipping through Reforma, a popular-but-pretentious daily newspaper in Mexico City. A fun section to scan is “Club Joven,” where beautiful, overly coiffed-and-tanned young people pose for photos at parties. In the edition I was reading, one young man had thrown a China-themed party, and everyone in all 15 or so photos unashamedly posed while pulling their eyes back with their fingers. (At the time, as some you may remember, I chose to focus on the other shocking feature of Club Joven — all the exposed chest hair of Mexico City males.)

At the time, I was confused and perhaps a little offended by the party photos, which is perhaps why I didn’t mention it. I did ask my Spanish tutor about it, and she tried to politely explain that it was a “cultural difference.” (For details on these cultural differences as they apply to pale people like me, see “Hey White Girl, Wanna Buy a Sofa?”)

While some team members profess innocence and some of the players apologized (but not the coach), it’s still a bit creepy, no? Even one of the star players agrees:

“Some of us didn’t feel comfortable doing it,” player Pau Gasol said to the Times. “To me it was little clownish for our part to be doing that. The sponsor insisted and insisted. They pushed because they’re the people that pay the money. It was just a bad idea to do that. It was never intended to be offensive or racist against anybody.”

(For more on the complicated racial issues in Mexico, this old New York Times article is a good read: Racism? Mexico’s in Denial.)

15 thoughts on “Spain’s “Slant-Eyed” Photo Controversy – Nothing New in Mexico City

  1. Nancy says:

    Here in Mazatlan, the Chinese were early settlers of the city along with Germans (Pacifico Beer). Many of the Chinese came on ships bound for other places and decided to make Maz their home, and some came down after the California Gold Rush. Regardless, the melding of these groups and some others is totally blended today, and some say the beauty of the Mazatlecan women is because of their beautiful eyes. It’s commonplace to have names here like Manuel Chong Ramirez or Jose Lee Kelly. I haven’t heard a breath of discrimination. Interesting?

  2. Joy says:

    That is interesting, Nancy. And because of your story, I decided to add “city” to the end of my blog post headline — it’s more accurate to say that I’ve noticed these racial issues in Mexico City, and not Mexico as a whole, so thanks for reminding me!

  3. Xavier Aragonès says:

    No one paid attention to that ad in Spain until the British and American press described it as racist. The picture may be clownish (I agree with Gasol) and tacky, but I find very exxagerate to say that it’s racist towards the Chinese.

    I’m from Spain. Yes, from the place that many Hollywood movies still portray as some near-3rd world country where all men are bullfighters and all women are flamenco dancers. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the killing of all Native Americans and the Spanish Inquisition (well, at least it inspired one of the greatest sketches by Monty Python).

    If we got offended every time we see all these silly stereotypes in American movies and TV series I can tell you would get sick of us. But we don’t and we even make fun of the strange way many people see us abroad. All I can say is relax and try not to take things that seriously. It was just a dumb gesture, not a cruel joke on the Holocaust or the Apartheid.

  4. Luis says:

    Long time reader here… First time replying.

    Without trying to hurt anyone’s feeligs, I think there’s a difference between “political incorrectness” and being a racist. I believe there’s no harm in a little sillyness such as displayed by the team in question, as long as you don’t actually mean it as an aggression. Of course, some folks have very sensitive souls, but there’s a little story we’re told here in Mexico that I find fits perfectly:

    An old man is walking down the road with a child and a burro. The old man gets tired, so he hops on the burro and continues on his way. Along the way he overhears someone say something about him being an abusive old man, forcing the child walk while he comfortably sits on the burro, so he invites the child to hop on. A few moments later, someone else says something about the poor burro having to cope with such a large load, so he continues afoot while the burro only carries the child. Then, again, someone says something about the child being disrespectful of his elders, so they both choose to walk side by side with the burro. Finally, someone else sees them and starts mocking at how dumb they are for not seizing the opportunity to have the burro aid them get home more comfortably.

    The morale of the story is… You can’t always please everyone.

    So, unless it was meant as an insult to their hosts, I can’t find anything wrong with the picture. I do, however, find it a bit disheartening, that you insist on calling us mexicans racist, based mainly on cultural differences you haven’t yet come to terms with.

    PS. Great blog. Keep it up. I really enjoy the unique POV that your blog brings to understanding our image as a culture as seen through the eyes of an american inmigrant living here 🙂

  5. Luis says:

    Btw… I’m not saying there aren’t any racists here. There are LOTS! I’m just saying some of the political incorrect moments you’ve had here don’t sound to me like anyone was trying to be rude to you. Some people just have weird ways of “breaking the ice” with strangers.

  6. nearlynormalized says:

    Mexico City is like NYC, they think there is nothing beyond the city. It was such a childlike gesture that got worldly notice. My response is to all how many medals does Spain have in the Olympics compared to China, and what is the population of Spain? Numbers and waking up, this epiosode soon shall pass. The diversity of Mexico is that, the diversity.

  7. Joy says:

    Thanks everyone for your thought and opinions! Keep in mind that I never used the word “racist” in relation to the Spain basketball photo.

    Like I said, I do think it’s a “cultural difference” and for a newcomer to the culture, it’s a bit difficult to understand.

  8. BV says:

    At best, this photo moment by the Spanish athletes looks like something they should have left behind on their elementary school ground. Their sponsers are the real culprits here. They made an unwise decision for their athletes. All of the athletes (including the Spanish athletes) are trying to focus on doing their best in the athletic arena in a very competative, stressful environment. What really is important?? That these games have shown there are wonderful, outstanding, devoted athletes from every part of the world.

  9. Luis says:

    At worst, the photo is the equivalent of a sports team coming to Mexico and taking a picture of themselves dressed up as mariachi with paper costumes. I think it was meant to look as if the team was having fun and also reference their location. It’s not a great picture anyway.

  10. BV says:

    I guess the part I don’t like Luis, is that you can change a mariachi outfit, but not your eyes or the color or your skin or the nap of your hair.

  11. Luis says:

    Why would anyone want to change any of those things Betty?

    Maybe the problem is that when people get offended by PC mishaps such as this, it has more to do with their own insecurities surfacing rather than cruelty or racism. My point was to simply share my feelings about there being a line that divides racism and cruel jokes from harmless fun. It shouldn’t be that hard to notice the difference between someone really trying to hurt you with a “joke” and someone who doesn’t. I’ve seen my share of movies, SNL sketches, etc… where mexicans or latinos are being made fun of. Maybe I should have been offended, but I found most of them very amusing. I think it takes a special kind of bond between people/cultures/races to reach the point where you can point at eachothers differences and laugh together at the funny little details. A bit utopical for now, but maybe some day 🙂

  12. BBV says:

    Oh yes, Luis, we agree–no one should want to change any of those things. I have people (who know me) tease me all the time, which I enjoy. However, I woud not appreciate a stranger doing so.

  13. BV says:

    By the way, just read the New York Times article: Racism? Mexico’s in Denial. Thought it was really well written and informative– especially appreciated the first paragraph of the second page.

  14. Luis says:

    Yep, I read the article. I found it an interesting read, although a number of factors could have led to what happened at that restaurant. In any case, this rings true for basically any part of the planet. As a wealthier person, try bringing your gardener or pool boy (dressed as such of course) to the Country Club and see what happens. The poor cleaning lady in the article could’ve been improperly dressed, otherwise, how could the staff at the restaurant know she was the hired help?

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