VIDEO LINK to my latest piece for Univision (Sorry, geo-blocked to Mexico viewers)

By Greg Brosnan

In most parts of the world, models bare little resemblance to real people, but in Mexico, the image of the tall, porcelain-skinned woman in the latest shampoo ad is even further removed from what most Mexican women look like.

From early on, Mexican girls are taught that pasty-white is pretty. It’s a Western ideal that perpetuates an often subtle racism engrained into society here.

But a beauty pageant with a twist is turning that aesthetic on its head.

The competition La Flor Más Bella del Ejido (The Prettiest Flower in the Land), in Xochimilco, south of Mexico City, celebrates “mestizo” or mixed race looks, and the girls taking part, between 17 and 23 years old, are very proud to “look Mexican.”
Racism against Mexico’s indigenous population shows in lack of access to basic services in places like Chiapas on the southern border. But in a country where people nickname darker-skinned friends “Negro” without anyone getting too bothered, racism against the mestizo majority is subtler, and harder to put your finger on.

At this beauty contest, however, brown is definitely beautiful. At the same time, it celebrates indigenous culture, with contestants wearing traditional costumes full of flowers and learning folk dances. Judged as much for their brains as for their beauty, they have to give mini-seminars on local culture, the environment and social issues. All of this means the contest attracts the type of girls who would normally never dream of entering a pageant.

“When I found out about this contest the first time, I didn’t want to take part, I said I don’t have a body for modeling swimsuits!” says Graciela Alarcón, last year’s winner, now 23 and a medical student. “We’re not just girls who are going to smile for the cameras. We’re going to tell you what’s on our minds, what we feel strongly about and how we see society.”

Regarding attitudes towards race, these girls may be at the vanguard of a sea change in Mexico. All of a sudden, at least in Mexico City, there seem be more brown faces in television commercials, and on posters, especially those targeting younger, hipper consumers.

As increasing social mobility melts racial boundaries, at least in larger Mexican cities, perhaps advertisers realize potential consumers might be more tempted by models and actors that don’t actually look like they are from another world.