Thursday, February 15, 2018

Beware the swarthy hordes

A bitter twist in the campaign for Mexico’s next president was the work of Enrique Ochoa, the party president of the incumbent Institutional Revolution Party who last week decided to speak about the growing number of party members bolting to the opposition. Why he would want to call attention to this internal woe is anybody’s guess. Maybe it was just an excuse to make a play on words. 

Superficially, what Ochoa said was that the defectors were party members who are no longer sticking. But instead of using the usual word for a member of his party  — priísta (PRI being the party’s acronym, pronounced “pree”) — he substituted prieto. He did it twice, in fact, to bring the joke home.

Prieto means “dark.” California’s Loma Prieta quake in 1989 was epicentered at Dark Mountain. Ochoa’s racial connotation could not have been accidental. He was calling the deserters “darkies.” And he was associating that racial slur, not very well disguised as humor, with the party to which they were deserting. That party is Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena, which stands for National Renovation Movement. (It can also mean, not coincidentally, “brown.”)

The finishing flourish of ya no aprietan, with the same pree sound in the second syllable of the final word, was no more innocent. I used “sticking” earlier to make sense, but the usual meaning is “squeezing,” “clutching,” “constricting.”  Given the tone of the talk, it’s not far-fetched to read this as implying that a certain body part of these wussy traitors has loosened from overuse. Racism on a plate, with a side of misogyny.

As puns go, Ochoa’s efforts may be fair to middling, but as political drollery they’re abhorrent. Skin tone, as an invented indicator of social status and political legitimacy, still lurks close enough to the surface in Mexico that it doesn’t take much to expose it to the open air. The leader of the PRI, a party that still tries to sell itself as synonymous with the nation’s one true government, has now done that. 

It’s hardly unprecedented. Zapata and Villa were targets. In the disruptive 1988 presidential election, Manuel Clouthier was described as foreign, Carlos Salinas as criollo and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as mestizo. Only the last was accurate, but the labeling had its effect. Benito Juárez is a national hero partly because he beat the prejudice. 

Was Ochoa’s introduction of skin tone into the campaign unintentional? If so, it unintentionally played right into the party strategy of bringing down front-running Morena by branding the movement as irresponsible, as rabble-rousing, as untrustworthy, as lawless. As prietos que no aprietan. 

Keep in mind too that Mikel Arriola, PRI candidate for Mexico City mayor, the second most-important election happening on July 1, is running against two women. 

It’s all pretty ugly. Reaction to the remarks was swift and fierce. His own presidential candidate, José Antonio Meade, criticized it. Ochoa apologized and removed the offending video and tweet from the net, which of course can’t be done. PRI lawmakers hinted at having him ousted, although it turned out that what they were upset about had nothing to do with the prieto remarks and everything to do with being left off the list of congressional candidates. 

Social media went crazy. #Yosoyprieto is all over the place. You see doctored images of Ochoa with alabaster skin, blue eyes and golden hair (above). Others have him with a blond mop-top, Boris Johnson style. It’s all very entertaining, and disturbing.

Will this help or hurt Meade, whose campaign is approaching total tank mode? We’d like to think that it's a losing strategy to try to convince voters that their true enemies are the swarthy hordes. But somehow it sounds familiar. 

Or the issue could just go away, a bad joke fading from memory as somebody's new gaffe takes its place. It will probably linger though; "prietos que no aprietan" is too easy to remember, and the issue itself hits home. Maybe we should be thankful it's been exposed for all to see. 

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