There’s a follow-up to the recent unpleasantness inflicted by the head of Mexico's ruling party when he called ex-PRI AMLO supporters “PRIetos” — darkies. (Scroll down one post if you missed it.) The sequel is slightly comical, but it says something about how certain topics are handled these days, and a lot about what we’ll be dealing with as we watch this Mexican election unfold.
PRI leader Enrique Ochoa’s bad joke was universally condemned, including by Ochoa himself. Two prominent columnists chose to add context to their condemnation, with predictable results. Nuance is not appreciated when a moral issue is burning hot. Ask Matt Damon.
León Krauze wrote this: "The last thing Mexico needs is to throw more fuel on the fire of racial, ethnic and class tension. There’s no place for that discourse, nor for that of “fresas,” “fifí” or “pirruris.” Those three words in quotes are the issue.
Denise Dresser said much the same thing. Both writers were called out quickly and brutally. The charge: False equivalence.
To understand the dispute, you need to know what the words mean and who said them.
Briefly, “pirruris” is a pejorative term for an upper class snoot. “Fresa” is the opposite of hip, describing a (usually young) social conservative with conventional taste, which is to say no taste. “Fifí” refers to somebody who poses as a social superior.
The three words are linked for two reasons. One is that they imply whiteness, a shade that at once affords privilege and invites ridicule. The other is that they've been used frequently and recently by Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
That’s why his supporters were so ticked off that Krauze and Dresser injected them into the conversation. And that’s why AMLO called the two “conservatives disguised as liberals.”
As is often the case, the law professor John Ackerman, one of AMLO’s most articulate and excitable supporters, took the lead: “Instead of straightforwardly condemning Ochoa’s reprehensible expressions for inciting hatred and violence, the writers preferred to blur the situation by making a spurious comparison to the words of López Obrador.”
While it’s true that AMLO used the words to describe his major opponents for the presidency — the PRI’s José Antonio Meade and Ricardo Anaya of the left-right PAN-PRD coalition — his defenders point out that he was using them to make the point that Meade and Anaya, especially the former, have a reputation for not getting out much among the common folk.
Here’s an example of what he has said: “They don’t want me to call them pirruris, fresas of the mafia of power, because they're not rising up, the people don’t know them. They have to get going and tour the pueblos.”
“Fifí” is a word he reportedly pulls out for journalists who appear to lean toward Anaya or Meade. He also used it jokingly about himself, in reference to criticism that he’s been inviting right-leaning pols into his campaign while proposing a new “moral constitution”: “It’s like the world is backwards. For some I’m still sectarian, a danger to Mexico. For others, I’ve become fresa, almost fifí.”
Part of the defense of AMLO's vocabulary goes like this: He said that Meade and Anaya are pale pirruris for lack of sun because they don’t go out to tour the pueblos. Sure that’s confrontational, even annoying, but it doesn’t compare to racism. The two should never have been conflated, and the only reason they were was to take a shot at AMLO.
Dresser, who’s been a prolific liberal commentator for decades and voted for AMLO in 2006, would have none of that. “Racism and discrimination based on social class are not comparable behaviors,” she allowed. “But both assignations (“pirruris” and “prietos”) are harmful to democratic coexistence and both should be criticized.”
She also tweeted, referring to the pirruris label: “Maybe it’s not racist, but it does make a differentiation/disqualification based on skin color or social status or . . . social class. It is unnecessary, worrisome and polarizing, no matter where it comes from — AMLO, the PRI. It’s unjustifiable, in all cases.”
As a spectator in the cheap seats, I’m going to wuss out here and rule that they both have a point.
Dresser and Krauze are clearly right that any degree of prejudice-baiting is poisonous, especially during an electoral campaign. As proof, the trolls attacking Dresser haven’t been shy about referring to her light complexion. The columnists’ apparent argument that censuring Ochoa was necessary but not enough is reasonable. What they appear to be suggesting is "Let’s everybody drop all of this right now."
But even context has a context. To AMLO’s people, pivoting immediately — nay, simultaneously — to criticism of their candidate while responding to the PRI leader’s racism smacked of an opportunistic change of subject. They had to be thinking, "The PRI calls our supporters the equivalent of “darkies” and all of the sudden we're the bad guys for saying 'fifí'? Get real."
From that point of view, Dresser and Krauze (and many others, by the way) exploited the moment to get a political dig in.
Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. Timing aside, though, their point was well taken. The lesson here is that it's the journalists, not the campaigns, who will have to keep this skin-tone stuff from getting out of hand.