The Nation and the Racial Order
By O. Hugo Benavides
The game was set: the national Ecuadoran soccer team against Switzerland in the initial round robin of the 2014 World Cup. And because of the transcendence of the match, the Ecuadoran embassy in Mexico City had opened its doors to all who wanted to watch the game. However, I remember the score less than the dirty shout of one young angry viewer at one of the Afro-Ecuadoran players at the end of the match, “negro de mierda.” And equally troublesome was that he seemed unaware that his racial epithet could be problematic. Even at a soccer game, this Ecuadoran conflation of race, social expectation and bodily ideals reveals itself.
Ecuador, like most American nation-states, suffers from a long colonial tradition of racism and discrimination. However, what's interesting about Ecuadoran ideals of beauty are a couple of elements that at first might seem contradictory. The first is how the national soccer team in the last couple of decades has become in its majority composed of Afro-Ecuadoran players. And since 1995, three Afro-Ecuadoran women have garnered the title of Miss Ecuador, and represented the country at the Miss Universe pageant and at other international events.
To be sure, some voices were quick to protest that Afro-Ecuadoran men and women would be representing the nation beyond its national borders. And as one caller to a radio station put it, “If they see this team they will believe that Ecuador is a black country!” And of course it was already implied in her tone that this was not a good thing.
Even though Afro-Ecuadoran beauty is being recognized, these rare acknowledgements are not evidence of a denial of a pervasive and engrained national racism but quite the contrary. These instances of recognition are part of a larger process of racial ambivalence that serves to consolidate Ecuador’s hegemonic national identity.
It's not sufficient to accuse Ecuador of racist attitudes. Rather, we must better understand how race, gender and sexuality, are used to create and normalize colonial legacies and reify a “new old” (Hall 1997) racial order/other. It's quite difficult to understand the ambiguous underpinnings of a national identity that both denies and also celebrates an ostracized identity, particularly an Afro-Ecuadoran one.
This social paradox was highlighted with the election of Afro-Ecuadoran women three times as Miss Ecuador: Mónica Chalá in 1995, Soraya Hogonaga in 1997 and Lady Mina in 2010 (the first black Miss Colombia, in contrast, was not chosen until 2001). In the first two instances, the audience and the population at large reacted negatively to the judges’ choice to represent beauty and the nation through an Afro-Ecuadoran woman.
In 1995, the choice of Mónica Chalá caused a stupor among the general population, symbolized by an embarrassing moment of silence in the theater after her name was announced before a round of polite applause ensued; the announcement in 1997 of another black Miss Ecuador was no less problematic.
To some degree, Chalá’s selection in 1995 could be rationalized as a fluke, a one-time deal. Many people claimed that the decision made sense because the Miss Universe Pageant was to be held in South Africa, so a black Miss Ecuador would have a better chance of winning (as it happened, the 1996 Miss Universe pageant was moved to Las Vegas). The choice of Soraya Hogonaga in 1997 and Lady Mina in 2010 could not be argued away with such simplistic explanations, however.
These choices clearly mark, not necessarily a trend, but what I would call a “fault line” on which the Ecuadoran nation has ambiguously secured its national identity. What was merely visible in 1995 became more apparent in 1997 and 2010: that blackness was far from invisible or only otherized, but at times became an essential element of the country’s national identity.
A racial anxiety is readily apparent in the descriptions of the women on Ecuadoran websites:
“[Elected] Miss Ecuador for 1996, born in Quito, [Mónica Chalá] was the first black woman to be elected as National Beauty Queen [Reina Nacional de Belleza]. Criticized by many, when she was 22 years old [sic]. Admired for her courage, loved by her race, Mónica gave a courageous lesson of what it means to be human without judging her race, ethnicity, identity or social class” (Nuestra Belleza 2000; official pageant website).
Soraya Hogonaga is described in similar terms: "[Elected] Miss Ecuador for 1998, she is I.78 m. tall, an innate elegance, spectacular silhouette, sexy and exotic, in her you have the marvelous mixing of a Latin and African race that make this proud mulatta woman a symbol of Ecuador’s plurinational and multiethnic country” (Nuestra Belleza 2000; official pageant website).
Also, “Lady Mina Lastra is a beauty pageant title holder who won the Miss Ecuador 2010 title and is also the third Afro-Ecuadoran woman to be crowned as such. She is from Guayaquil, was a student of Journalism in the University of Guayaquil during the time of the competition. Although others were favorite to win the crown during the event Mina received high scores from the judges in the swimsuit and evening gown competition. Mina won because of the final question" (celebs101.com).
The presence of blackness in the nation’s psyche had already been recognized, if not by the selection of a black Miss Ecuador, then by the discussion their selection generated. For many, however, blackness did not capture the true emotional sense of what the Ecuadoran nation embodies.
The discussion about the appropriateness of black women representing the national social body was tempered by concern for the perceived current dictates of race, gender, class and nationhood, which were never exclusively localized but emphasized Ecuador’s position in the larger global economic and cultural market.
The range of discussion, reaction and analysis (including this one) exemplifies the nation’s ambiguous self-image as a nonblack Western entity. Thus, both the selection of the black women as Miss Ecuador and the ensuing debate express the dynamic, complex and fragile construction of Ecuador’s hegemonic national identity.
This argument of the appropriateness or not, and/or the authenticity of having Afro-Ecuadoran bodies represent the nation is also prime on the list when it comes to the national soccer team. However, as with the Miss Ecuador pageant, it never seems to be a problem to have black soccer players represent the nation if they have a winning record. It is also not lost on anybody that only with the arrival of a greater number of Afro-Ecuadoran players on the national team did Ecuador consistently make it to the World Cup.
Of course, even in Ecuador this brings up very problematic global prejudices about the supposedly innate athleticism of the black body (Morales 2014). However, these long-standing stereotypes are immediately abandoned, as the racial epithet in the Ecuadoran embassy in Mexico City indicates, if the team loses; because then the black players become exclusively responsible for the loss. In this fashion, Afro-Ecuadorans are doomed if they do or if they do not, being hailed as naturally superior if they win an athletic event or pageant, or claimed as naturally inferior and stupid if they are not victorious.
In a similar manner, one of the arguments made for the election of black Miss Ecuador winners was that the racial constitution as a minority is by itself no reason to deny them a chance at serving as a national representative. Rather, allowing its minorities a place in the national sphere was a necessary condition, almost a precondition, of Ecuador’s inclusion in the field of modern national and contemporary stage. Many Ecuadorans were well aware of global struggles for civil rights in places like the United States and South Africa. But like all global events, these struggles took on a localized meaning that was clearly expressed in the debates over a black Miss Ecuador.
The international struggles over equal right for minority groups, especially oppressed black populations, were taken to signify the changing dynamics of the global nature of nation-states. Therefore, it was passé to discredit people because of race or, even worse, to deny them a chance at the spotlight in a global event celebrating beauty, friendship and international solidarity (at least in theory).
This particular chance to be modern, to align the nation with what is perceived to be modernity as experienced abroad (a postcolonial syndrome if ever there was one), was not to be lost, and worst of all, to the traditional conservative groups that have historically held the political power.
As social theorist Jean Muteba Rahier (1998) rightly points out, the fact that the leading “democratic empire” in the world presents gyrating black bodies on music videos as the norm and seems to cherish them at least in sport and entertainment should lead to different ways to renegotiate blackness at the local, supra-regional and global levels.
The selection of the black Misses Ecuador and talented Afro-Ecuadoran footballers sparked a national debate on the appropriate racial representation of the nation, but not about individual qualifications. The merits of the beauty queens (and soccer players) are denied, belittled, or reified, but never taken into account. Nowhere has the argument been presented that these women, or that the men on the soccer pitch for that matter, might be the best candidates for the position.
This blindness or denial, perhaps much more painfully, defines the difficulty and impossibility of claiming hegemonic national identities when they are clearly based on the exclusion of the human attributes of all those involved. As some would argue, the denial of human experience as nonexistent or irrelevant without a racial discourse to accompany it is one of the most serious limitations on Ecuador’s (or any nation-state’s) postcolonial existence in the world.
In both the soccer realm and these three instances of an Afro-Miss Ecuador, the black body is not only accepted into the national fold but used to represent the nation to itself and to the foreign others. These instances mark a pervasive racial structure that at times discriminates against blackness but in other instances uses it to constitute the nation. Thus blackness has served not only as a form of distinguishing the other that allows one to see oneself as different but also as a means of self-identification that is not very far removed from the repressed colonial desire of the fetishized dark bodies.
It pleases the nation that half-dressed Afro-Ecuadoran men and women parade themselves in local and faraway stadiums and theatres. In other words, the Afro-Ecuadoran body is being used to imply a racial knowledge that is of ultimate relevance to the nation. And at times discriminated and repressed, while at others celebrated and recognized, an Afro-Ecuadoran identity expresses a dynamic reconfiguration of racial discourses that has multiple significations, some being more difficult to categorize than others.
O. Hugo Benavides is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Sociology/Anthropology Department at Fordham University. He has written three books and more than forty articles on Latin American cultural politics, and lives in Brooklyn with his partner and four beautiful cats.