What do you picture when you hear the words “Mexican beggar child”? Is the child blond? Green-eyed? Does she have light skin?
A Mexican family was recently at the centre of a national controversy over such questions. A young Mexican girl begging for money was photographed by a driver. Child beggars are sadly not an uncommon sight in Mexico – except that in this case, the girl was blond, green-eyed and very light-skinned. Feeling something was “not right” about that particular child, the photographer posted the picture to his Facebook timeline, telling his followers to “spread this photo around”. He argued that something was clearly wrong because the girl’s parents “were brown”.
For those who reposted the picture (and there were many – so much so that officials soon interceded) it is indeed apparently an aberration for brown people to give birth to light-skinned kids, rather than a fairly frequent situation in a country with a long history of cultural acceptance of interracial relationships. It’s also apparently not normal to see a blond beggar in a country where poverty is defined by “brownness”. So it was only a sign of good community responsibility that thousands of people were willing to use social media to publicise this oddity. Or so we are to believe.
As a result, the five-year-old child was put in an orphanage, and her mother was detained for two days (she was later released, and a birth certificate for the girl was handed over). Unsurprisingly, many Mexican activists have pointed to the racism running through this chain of events. None of the concern over the child’s plight would be happening if the child had a different skin colour, they argue. The mother also would not have had her child removed so quickly if she was not native. The truth behind these statements have caused an uproar in the country and kickstarted a national debate – if Mexicans have long accepted and even found an honoured position for mixed-race relationships and people in their country, how on earth can they be racists?
As the debate carried on in Mexico, many bloggers and social media users in the US have also jumped into the conversation. While we’ve rightfully condemned the latent racism that set a fertile ground for the situation to happen, it’s also been far too easy to ignore the role the US currently plays in helping to normalise systemic criminalisation of mothers of colour generally – and Mexican mothers specifically – in both countries.
The increase of anti-immigrant sentiment following 9/11 has created a hypervisibility of South American women’s bodies, and their presumed ability to give birth. In the eyes of many, they are the brown-skinned, illegal, poverty-stricken ones who “sneak” over the border to “drop anchors” so they can get a “free ride” through life. This hypervisibility extends to their parenting as well: Mexican mothers who are on welfare are considered culpable of draining the system of limited resources. Those who fight for their right to remain with their US-born children are considered to be “exploiting” the child. Mothers who don’t speak English are considered such bad parents, they lose custody of their children.
In that regard, the US is not that different from Mexico. What would have happened if a Spanish-speaking, dark-skinned woman was driving to her job in Arizona with her blond light-skinned child in the back seat, and just so happened to be observed by somebody with a camera? Would the reaction of government authorities (emboldened by SB 1070, deemed the strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent US history) or thousands of social media users be any different in the US than it was in Mexico? My bet is that it wouldn’t.
Mexico has incredible problems with racism, and this story has helped to expose them, albeit at the expense of a young child and her family. But Mexico does not exist as a separate unrelated entity from the US. To truly understand those dynamics, we should scrutinise how the racism at play in the US interacts with the racism taking place in Mexico, and question our own understandings of “race” within the context of our own communities. This work begins with interrogating the image that springs to mind when you hear “Mexican beggar child”.