13 August 2007

Discrimination in Rosario

Unsurprising, but still terrible: more than half of the teenagers in Rosario felt discriminated at least once in their lives, and 84% say they witnessed others being discriminated. The preferred places for discrimination are everywhere, but the typical one is the entrance to the disco. The causes: overall physique, skin colour, being overweight, being (looking) poor or low-class... This is the result of a survey conducted in 15 schools.

Argentine society has become less and less egalitarian over the years. Class differences are more marked, and they're reinforced by physical stereotypes. In the large cities, being poor, having dark complexion, and speaking with an accent that is not mainstream Rioplatense, are often correlated. On the other hand, even though political correctness has made progress in our society, mocking other people because they're fat or effeminate or have aboriginal-looking features is still socially acceptable in many circles, as is oblivious talk of racial stereotypes as fact. The kids know this, and they're part of this — they both suffer from it and suffer it to continue.

I guess this is probably worse than in my time. I can't recall being discriminated, despite the fact that I have a complexion that is darker than average and (in my teenage years) carelessly adopted a look that makes me cringe whenever I revisit old photo albums. It was a phase.

Quite ridiculously, I did feel discriminated much more recently, once I went to a certain disco. They said I was too old — it was for people up to 25. Never mind this very same disco had refused to allow entrance (weeks before) to a couple of friends of mine who happened to be 24 at the time, because they were too young. I got the impression I was rejected because my shaggy general appearance diminished the disco's public status. Since I'd been more or less dragged to the place, I wasn't dressed for the occasion; but since I was going to pay a nice sum of $$$ to enter a dark room without proper security measures where I was to be trampled upon by hundreds of drunkards and subject to crappy music, only to get out a couple of hours afterward stinking of smoke of cigarettes I don't smoke, pushed by steroid-crazed pumped-up guards, I thought they were not treating me, the customer, as I deserved. I couldn't care less, really, but I got angry on principle.

Inevitably, one's environment changes one's ideas. I consciously try not to discriminate, but that's much easier when you don't feel your security threatened. Most of the "insecurity" broadcast by the media is pure sensationalistic crap; and of course, while a petty thief might take your wallet or your leather jacket, top government officials are moving around millions in illegal business and literally taking away your country and fortune... but the prey's acquired reflexes are difficult to suppress. I have avoided people in the street because of how they look, despite the fact they were most probably common folks who happened to be poor and understandably not happy about their condition. This is, sadly, what we've come to.


  1. I recently finished Zora Neal Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, and she describes an interesting episode when she worked as a manicurist in a barber shop in Washington DC to pay her way through Howard University, clients were white politicians and reporters, she and her colleagues were mostly black. One day a black guy came in and sat down and made a scene, saying "I have every right to be here too!" All the black workers forcibly rushed him out of the store as he accused them of being self-loathing Uncle Toms.

    Hurston didn't help run him out, but she took the side of her colleagues. Her argument, as I understand it, is that their actions weren't about race, but rather survival. Sure, they could have all make headlines for a day with a beautiful anti-segregation statement, but when the business failed because no more rich white clients came in, they would no longer be able to pay rent.

    The bouncer discriminated you, of course. But is it his fault? Would you be willing to house and feed him as he finds another job after all the clubbers realize that it's worthless dressing up and paying for expensive drinks when any old schmuck can walk in, and they choose to patronize another disco?

  2. I find myself gently trying to persuade my Porteño friends that certain comments they make I find unacceptable. For example, calling African American tourists (from the US) “monos”, or referring to all Asians as “chinos” even when they are Japanese or Korean for example. My standard retort is that Argentines, Bolivians, and Peruvians - well they’re all the same – let’s just call them “sudacas”. And Asian-Argentines, although having been born in Argentina are still regarded as being foreigners.

    But then of course there is the more disturbing notion that Argentines are different from other South Americans in that they are descended almost entirely from white Europeans. This idea is widely disseminated in many publications, and people will argue fervently about its veracity. I’ve seen figures purporting a 85-98% white European ancestry.

    Having traveled around Argentina I thought that about half the population seem to have some facial features or coloring that I would consider non-European (based on my travels in Europe). I could also compare the same Italian population that emigrated to Argentina to that which emigrated to the US, and formed enclaves in several US cities.

    Several years ago researchers at the Universidad de Buenos Aires did a study of Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplotypes in a large random sample of the Argentine population. Their research showed that 56% of Argentines have at least some indigenous ancestry – and 10% are purely indigenous. Only 44% are descended solely from Europeans.


    Tourists that visit Buenos Aires and confine themselves to the affluent neighborhoods where the population is predominantly “white”, and stay in hotels where the staff are picked from being young, and attractive (and “white” of course) surely get a distorted view of Argentina as a whole. Hence this European image of the country as a whole is maintained.

    Argentina is a very image conscious society – just look at the number of fashion/beauty periodicals that are published, and the billboard advertising for cosmetics. All the models seem to be “white”, and the same with Argentine television.

    Coupled with the median age (estimated to be ~30), there is a definite emphasis on youth and a youthful image (and hence the large number of plastic surgeons, at least in BsAs). There appears to be very strong peer pressure, particularly in young women, to conform to a certain arbitrary standard of “beauty”. So I guess Pablo you may feel old, in that half the population is younger than you. At least you don’t live in Paraguay or Bolivia, where the median age is about 22.

    I find it sad that there is certain fatalism in Argentina (and more so in some other South American countries), about the situation one is born into and the inevitability of one’s life. This is always one of the principal reasons that Hispanic immigrants (many of them illegal) cite about why they want to be in the US – the ability to work their way out of poverty and provide opportunities and an education for their children that would be impossible in their home countries. Often it only takes one generation to achieve these goals.

    I find it difficult to discuss discrimination in countries other than my own, but as a foreigner in Argentina, I see many instances of what would be discrimination in the US (in the legal sense), but generally regarded as acceptable in Argentina. (Please don’t interpret my post as pretending that there isn’t discrimination in the US).

    One is asking for photographs when soliciting job applications, and specifying age and gender restrictions. I saw one ad recently for cashiers and shelf stockers for a large supermarket chain that wanted only 18-25 year old applicants. Another is refusing to rent apartments to individuals based on the prejudices of the owner. Since these are both business activities (and thus enjoy certain privileges), not following the law would have serious consequences for such actions in the US.


  3. >>>referring to all Asians as “chinos”

    And what do you think the majority of people in Asian countries call South Americans?

    The US is the probably the most politically correct country in the world apart from Canada, perhaps. Still, it's just because of our history and our laws and, for those in the states lucky enough to go to decent schools, education. Apart from that, we're not much different from the rest of the world.

    >>>Please don’t interpret my post as pretending that there isn’t discrimination in the US

    Fair enough. And you make a good point that it's the LAW in the US which protects people from discrimination in many instances such as employment. There's less law in Latin America, and so discrimination happens more, legally (or at least it's less criminalized, who knows, there may be unenforced laws on the books). Culturally, the US seems to have a level of diversity that is higher than most parts of the world, at least much more than in Chile and Argentina, for example. So culturally, casual racism happens less....or does it? If you look around in the US, you'll see it happens all the time, it's just dressed up more. Talk to a Mexican bagger or produce guy at your local Whole Foods in, say, Los Angeles, CA. You won't believe the amount of shit those guys face, but in one anecdote I heard, the racism was packaged is POLITICALLY. Because there's such a huge anti-immigration push, rich white xenophobes in the US can accuse those guys of being ILLEGAL and that's fine, supposedly. Do you think the Mexican immigrant will complain? Hell no. And after all he could very well be "illegal" (similarly, the rich white xenophobe will be "illegal" when he drives his SUV over the speed limit on the way home). So that's damn casual racism, and that's in the US.

    That said, my impression is that in terms of job opportunities immigrants to the US have a much better go at it than those trying to break into Europe, for example.

  4. Chileno - I spend most of the time in Northern California, and have done so for the past 20 odd years. I’m not a US citizen, so I do have a perspective as an “outsider” (my wife is an American citizen).

    And what do you think the majority of people in Asian countries call South Americans?

    What has that got to do with disparaging comments I hear and read about Argentine-Asians in Argentina?

    I used to work in the Mission district of San Francisco, and lived close by for many years, so I do have an understanding of cultural and racial issues. The San Francisco Bay area is probably the most culturally/racially diverse place on the planet (it is so language-wise), so acceptance seems less of a problem here and there seems to be much less anti-immigrant rhetoric than in Southern California.

    In the latter case, many of the problems seem to be economic. Schools and hospitals are funded from state and local taxes, and there are continual complaints about the schools and ERs being overwhelmed by illegal immigrants without any federal assistance forthcoming (immigration policy of course being federal).

    Scapegoating is a common issue in countries with large numbers of immigrants, particularly during economic downturns. In the US the Irish were widely discriminated against, as well as Italians when they first arrived.

    The supermarket I shop at has a produce department almost entirely staffed by immigrants from Mexico and Central America, or first generation children. Many of these guys have worked for the store for many years, and I chat to them frequently (as do many of the customers). I don’t believe that they get treated any differently, and I’m sure the store’s management would not tolerate any abuse (especially since some of the managers are immigrants themselves).
    The baggers in this supermarket are all young and white.

    The SF Bay area is probably very tolerant because of the high number of immigrants, or first generation children who live here. I know that in San Francisco, whites (non Hispanic) make up only 44% of the population, Asian-Americans (mainly of Chinese extraction), about 33%, and Hispanics 14%.

    So my perspective is a little different than most. When I first came to the US and lived in rural Pennsylvania, I had to tolerate comments about how poorly-educated I must be since I came from a backwater country. If you check international rankings, New Zealand rates a lot higher than the US in many areas. Now I’m sometimes mistaken for a Californian, but they wonder which country my wife was born in (Chicago).


  5. >>>What has that got to do with disparaging comments I hear and read about Argentine-Asians in Argentina?

    My only point is that the US, or San Francisco, is very different from the rest of the world in terms of PC language and consciousness about diversity. And my pointing out that about the Mexican produce worker in LA is only to say that even in such an "enlightened" culture, it happens too. I'm delighted to hear about the grocery store you visit, would hope that more places were like that. I suspected you (SFO) were living in SF. I lived in the mission district for a year and I know SF is one of the most liberal, diverse places in the nation. Still, you should tune into, say, Michael Savage or KGO once in a while, and listen to what they say about immigration, for instance. My suspicion is that many of those who argue against immigration are just using a badly-formed law/policy to justify their own form of xenophobia, perhaps racism. See more of my thoughts at the discussion raging over at Marc Cooper's blog.


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