President Vicente Fox reversed course Monday night and apologized for saying that Mexicans in the United States do the work that blacks won’t.
Fox repeatedly refused to back away from his Friday comment, saying his remark had been misinterpreted. But later, in telephone conversations with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the president said he “regretted” the statement.
“The president regretted any hurt feelings his statements may have caused,” the Foreign Relations Department said in a press statement. “He expressed the great respect he and his administration has for the African-American community in the United States.”
Fox had earlier refused to apologize for the comment, widely viewed as acceptable in a country where blackface comedy is still considered funny and nicknames often reflect skin color.
Earlier, Fox’s spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, said Mexican and foreign news media misinterpreted the remark as a racial slur. He said the president was speaking in defense of Mexican migrants as they come under attack by new U.S. immigration measures that include a wall along the U.S.-California border.
Stung by the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants, many Mexicans — including Mexico City’s archbishop — said Fox was just stating a fact.
“The president was just telling the truth,” said Celedonio Gonzalez, a 35-year-old carpenter who worked illegally in Dallas for six months in 2001. “Mexicans go to the United States because they have to. Blacks want to earn better wages, and the Mexican — because he is illegal — takes what they pay him.”
Jackson: ‘Inciting, divisive’ Jackson said Fox should apologize before he did so Monday.
“His statement had the impact of being inciting and divisive,” Jackson said Monday, noting that in many U.S. cities tensions are already high between blacks and Latinos because they compete for scarce jobs and often have children crowded into underfunded schools.
Sharpton said the comment was especially disturbing because Fox was educated in the United States and “he is not unaware of the racial sensitivities here.”
Fox made the comment Friday during a public appearance in Puerto Vallarta, saying: “There’s no doubt that Mexican men and women — full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work — are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States.”
Responding to criticism
Responding to the criticism during his daily news conference Monday, Aguilar read a statement expressing Fox’s “enormous respect for minorities, whatever their racial, ethnic or religious origin.”
“The purpose (of the comment) was none other than to show the importance Mexican workers have today in the development and progress of U.S. society,” Aguilar said, repeating a statement released Saturday.
He refused to comment further, saying only that Fox would “intensify his diplomatic efforts to protect the integrity of the Mexicans living in that country.”
The dispute reflects Fox’s growing frustration with U.S. immigration policy and deteriorating relations between the two nations.
Protest expected over licenses
The Mexican government was expected to send a diplomatic letter to the United States on Monday protesting recent measures that include requiring states to verify that people who apply for a driver’s license are in the country legally, making it harder for migrants to gain amnesty, and overriding environmental laws to build a barrier along the California border with Mexico.
The measures have been widely criticized in Mexico, where residents increasingly see the United States as adopting anti-migrant policies.
Even Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the archbishop of Mexico City, criticized the U.S. policy as ridiculous and defended Fox’s comments, saying: “The declaration had nothing to do with racism. It is a reality in the United States that anyone can prove.”
While Mexico has a few, isolated black communities, the population is dominated by descendants of the country’s Spanish colonizers and its native Indians. Comments that would generally be considered openly racist in the United States generate little attention here.
One afternoon television program regularly features a comedian in blackface chasing actresses in skimpy outfits, while an advertisement for a small, chocolate pastry called the negrito — the little black man — shows a white boy sprouting an afro as he eats the sweet. Many people hand out nicknames based on skin color.
Victor Hugo Flores, a 30-year-old bond salesman, cringed when asked what he thought of Fox’s comment, but said it isn’t too different from popular sayings celebrating what Mexicans see as a strong work ethic among blacks.
“It was bad, but it really isn’t racist,” he said. “Maybe the president shouldn’t have said it. But here we say things like, ‘He works like a black person,’ and it’s normal.”