In a meeting held in 2001 between George W. Bush and Fernando Henrique Cordoso, who was then Brazil's president, President Bush, according to some reports, put his foot in mouth by saying, "Do you have blacks, too?"
Apocryphal or not, you almost couldn't blame him for thinking there are no blacks in Brazil. From the images the Latin American media exports to the rest of the world, it's as if all Latin Americans were of European descent, if not of Northern European descent.
Take Brazil's blond, blue-eyed, sexpot Xuxa of the early '90s, who sang and danced in front of white carbon copies of herself. Even in the audience there were no black children. The Latin American media shamelessly hides the Latin continent's black and Indian presence. It keeps the "aguelita" in the kitchen (like all dark secrets), where no one can see her. The megastars of Latin America who are about to "cross over," heartthrobs such as Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and Eduardo Verastegui of "Chasing Papi," look like Anglo actors that Aaron Spelling dug up for his next teen show, "90201: The Next Generation." Mexican soap stars such as Paulina Rubio and Ana Claudia Talancon sport looks that are more in line with white Vogue models than they are with the indigenous population that makes up the majority of Mexico.
I would love to see one, just one, of these Latin American megastars speak out against the lack of black people in Spanish TV and movies. Do a Chris Rock and really say it. Latin Americans love to talk about racism in the United States, "those Yankees," but do we acknowledge our own prejudice? As racist as the United States media can be, the Latin American media doesn't lag too far behind. There are few, if any, Latin American celebrities who look like a Rosie Perez. One has to wonder if Latino-American stars such as Rosario Dawson, Gina Torres and Lauren Velez, all of whom have dark features, would be the stars they are today if they had started their careers in Latin America. Because while U.S. television is crowded with black shows, there isn't one on the three Spanish networks, Telemundo, Univision and TeleFutura. Even commercials lack black people, as if only white Latin Americans bought necessities such as toothpaste, toilet paper and soap. The same can be said for Latin American nightly newscasts, which are full of Anglo-looking anchors; if you switched on the mute on your remote, it would seem no different than watching the news in English. But the programs where the absence of color is most telling are the novelas, Spanish soap operas, the most popular programs in Latin America. These soaps are a hotbed of blond and blue-eyed couples. Has there ever been an on-screen interracial kiss on any of these soaps? Has a Spanish soap ever produced a Halle Berry? It is actually an embarrassment that soaps on the American networks have more starring roles for people of color than the novelas of Spanish networks. Even the racist Yankees have found out the beauty of dark skin. What about us? Our version of Oprah is the white, blond, blue-eyed Cristina.
Because the Spanish media bombards its screens with white images, Latin Americans of color find it difficult to increase their self-esteem and value. The "ideal look," meaning white, is never attainable. Those white Latin Americans who own the ideal look don't want to "impure" their families by keeping company with darker people. This twisted philosophy of Blanquesismo, or "whitening" is nothing new. It has plagued Latin America for centuries. The denial of black blood that runs through our veins can be traced back to Spain. When the Spaniards conquered the New World, they weren't as white-bread as they made themselves out to be. They had been invaded by the Moors, centuries back. The Spaniards were a mixed race; they, too, had dark blood. This self-hate was passed down to our Latin American countries. In fact it is a common saying around Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile, "In my country there are no blacks." They say it with pride and of course they are wrong, but what makes it even more ignorant is that all of those countries were safe heavens for fleeing Nazis.
Now in the new millennium, due to the lack of discrimination laws in Latin America, the Spanish media continues to hide black people by crowding the screens with as many white images as they can. They'll try to cover up their racism by throwing a black Latin American actor a bone. They'll have one dark-skinned anchorman give us the weather. One dark- skinned actress in a supporting role in a soap. They'll say what about Ronaldo? He's black. He's our Michael Jordan. We love our black heritage, as the saying goes "to call someone negrito is to call him love." But what we are really witnessing is Media Apartheid. Because over all, it's the few Latin American whites who are throwing those bit parts, those bones to the Latin American blacks. Bones even dogs won't chew.