Skin whitening, stereotypes and brownface: The racist practices of Mexico’s film and TV industry

From a controversial interview with ‘The Little Mermaid’ star Halle Bailey to films and series released in recent months, complaints from civil organizations and on social networks continue to grow

Halle Bailey in a still from 'The Little Mermaid.'
Halle Bailey in a still from 'The Little Mermaid.'Disney (IMDB)
Andrés Rodríguez

“People are not aware that we are racist. Racism in Mexico is so embedded in our day-to-day practices that it is very difficult to see it, it’s very subtle. We are all racists in some way, to a lesser or greater extent,” says Mexican actress Vania Sisaí Rodsán. While the country may avert its eyes, racism has always been there, from the public sphere to the most private of spaces. It’s in the language — in phrases like “don’t spend too much time in the sun, you don’t want to go brown” or “oh good, your child came out guerrito (fair-skinned).” And it’s in actions. The context and the characters may change, but the racist incidents continue, be it the Sonora Grill restaurant accused of segregating customers according to the color of their skin or the way marketing stereotypes negatively represent Black people.

The most recent case concerns Mexican TV host Patricio Borghetti and his interview with U.S. actress Halle Bailey, who was in Mexico to promote the adaptation of the Disney classic The Little Mermaid. Disney’s decision to cast a Black actress in a role played by a young white woman with red hair in the 1988 animated film was met with widespread criticism, with the company accused of “forced inclusion.”

In reference to the backlash, Borghetti told Bailey: “This is not a question, it’s something that I want to share with you, I promise. None of us who were in that room yesterday were seeing the color of your skin, everyone, including my wife and my children, we were lost in your eyes, all of us.” Thousands of people jumped on the comment, accusing Borghetti of being “xenophobic.” While he claimed on Twitter that his “words of love” were meant as a “compliment,” for many, it was an act of “microaggression.”

Another case involves the Luis Estrada film ¡Que viva México! (Long Live Mexico!), which the director says is a satire of Mexican culture. But the film has been accused of being classist and racist. Renowned critic Alonso Díaz de la Vega, for example, wrote that Estrada made “a three-hour film whose story is almost as offensive for its esthetic poverty as for its racism, classism and transphobia.”

Un fotograma de la película del director mexicano Luis Estrada, '¡Qué viva México!' (2022)
A frame from the film by Mexican director Luis Estrada, '¡Qué viva México!' (2022).IMDB

Before the premiere of the movie — as if in readiness for the criticism — Estrada told EL PAÍS: “Political correctness, which in many cases, of course, has very fair claims, is going too far. Freedom of expression is being restricted so as to not hurt many sectors of society that should not be hurt, but they should not be left aside either because we need to understand that criticism and provocation are a tradition of the arts. We have to laugh at ourselves.”

For José Antonio Aguilar Contreras, director of the anti-racism organization RacismoMX, cultural expressions — such as cinema, theater and television — are just the tip of the iceberg of the problem: the real issue is who is in positions of power. “White people are normally placed in the highest socioeconomic levels, especially if they have a whiteness mentality. In this way, it hurts to recognize racism, because it means recognizing the privileges of these elites.”

Sisaí Rodsán, who is part of the anti-racism collective Poder Prieto, agrees: “Many people deny it and say ‘I’m not racist.’ Well, maybe that’s true when it comes to their actions. But not being racist is not enough. You have to be anti-racist. We must fight against the system because at the end of the day, we’re all a part of it.”

Another issue in Mexico is how digital retouching tools are used to whiten the skin of performers. On social media, for example, many users pointed out that Mexican actress Maya Zapata looked much whiter in the promotional photos for the Disney+ TV series Horario estelar (Prime Time) than she is in real life. Critics asked why no one had addressed the issue, even questioning Zapata, who is also a member of Poder Prieto. The actress responded to the criticism with a message on Twitter. “If you knew that was the first thing I told them when they took those photos of me: Don’t go and whiten me like in the Soy tu fan [I’m Your Fan] movie poster,” she wrote, in reference to how she had also been retouched to appear whiter in the campaign for that movie.

Aguilar Contreras says that he contacted Disney about the issue and despite Zapata’s request, the poster was put through post-production filters that made the actress look whiter. “We are looking at how to put certain controls on this type of practice and the company [Disney], in particular, has been very open to this type of change. The meeting about this issue was very satisfactory,” says the director of RacismoMX.

Sisaí Rodsán believes that addressing these issues should be a shared responsibility, arguing that while it is normally producers who make most of the important decisions, they “don’t show their face” when the movie or TV show comes out. “The industry should be held accountable when they make these mistakes. We are all learning. It’s not like we are going to wake up one day and say we know everything about racism. In other words, we are all learning,” adds the actress.

In addition to retouching performers to look whiter, brownface — when a light-skinned person tries to pass for someone with darker skin — is also a problem in the Mexican film and TV industry. This term is a derivative of blackface, a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by non-Black people to portray a caricature of a Black person.

The Amazon Prime show La cabeza de Joaquín Murrieta (The head of Joaquín Murrieta) for instance, was accused of brownface, with critics arguing that the show’s stars — Juan Manuel Bernal and Alejandro Speitzer — had been made to appear darker than they are in real life.

According to Aguilar Conteras, many Twitter users argued that the show’s attitude was: “Since I don’t want to hire dark-skinned actors, dark-haired actors, I’ll paint the ones I have brown.” He points out, however, that like Disney, Amazon was also willing to talk about the issue. In this case, the resistance came from the actors.

In response to the scandal, Speitzer spoke about the brownface accusations to journalists at a red carpet event. “Did you see the series? Neither did they [Poder Prieto]. I don’t know if they can have an opinion if they don’t know what the series is about. The characters are in 1850, covered in dirt, exposed to the sun… That’s the answer.”

Alejandro Speitzer
Alejandro Speitzer in the role of Carillo, in the series 'The head of Joaquín Murrieta' (2023).Amazon (IMDB)

“They are racist practices: painting the skin of an actor or changing their features. There are many things that are part of characterization, but the specific skin color is not one of them. That is exactly where the problem lies. If you need people who have a certain skin tone, then you hire someone who has that skin tone,” says Sisaí Rodsán.

Another problem, according to Aguilar Contreras, is people of color who say racism doesn’t exist because they have not experienced it, or who claim that those who call out racism do so because they “resentful” or “envious.” “Recognizing oneself as a racialized, brown, Black, indigenous, or Afro-descendant and accepting that this condition makes us experience violence, discrimination, causes pain. Considering that Mexico is mostly brown, there are still people who constantly deny racism,” he adds.

Although the film and TV industry in the United States appears to be welcoming diversity and casting more Latin American actors in leading roles, Sisaí Rodsán thinks there is still a long way to go. She argues that dark and brown-skinned actors continue to be play characters that are “poor, wild and dirty,” and that more inclusion is needed.

While anti-racism movements have been around for a long time, and the debate about the need for more inclusive stories has been going on for years, there still hasn’t been a change of mentality in Mexico, says Aguilar Contreras. “We hope that in the coming years, in the near future, we will begin to see that reversal, that change. We see very talented Afro-descendant, indigenous and brown-skinned actors and actresses, but they have not had the chance to be considered [for bigger roles],” he says. “And even if they are, they are not taken into account by producers either. If you have an unequal society, only a few will be able to get to the top and, once there, they argue that it is because they are talented, when in reality they are not.”

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