MEXICO CITY – President Vicente Fox (search) refused to apologize Monday for saying Mexicans in the United States do the work that blacks won't — a comment widely viewed as acceptable in a country where blackface comedy is still considered funny and nicknames often reflect skin color.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher (search) said the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City had raised the issue with the Mexican government. "That's a very insensitive and inappropriate way to phrase this and we would hope that [the Mexicans] would clarify the remarks if they have a chance," Boucher said.
Fox's spokesman, Ruben Aguilar (search), said the remark has been misinterpreted as a racial slur. He said the president was speaking in defense of Mexican migrants as they come under attack by the new U.S. immigration measures that include a wall along the Mexico-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."
Later Monday, Aguilar said the president had a telephone conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson, assuring him he "had no racist intention" in the Friday remarks. Fox had also invited Jackson to meet with him to discuss joint strategies between blacks and immigrant groups in the United States, Aguilar said.
Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, both U.S. civil rights activists, said Fox should apologize. "His statement had the impact of being inciting and divisive," Jackson said earlier in the day.
Lisa Catanzarite, a sociologist at Washington State University, disputed Fox's assertion. She said there is intense competition for lucrative working class jobs like construction and that employers usually prefer to hire immigrants who don't know their rights.
"What Vicente Fox called a willingness to work ... translates into extreme exploitability," she said.
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 the criticism 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.
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."
Gilberto Rincon, president of the National Council to Prevent Discrimination, said the statement was "unfortunate." But, speaking after releasing a report on racism in Mexico, he said it reflected outdated language more than a racist attitude.
Fox has championed the rights of minorities and the disabled and has led a successful campaign to amend the constitution to make discrimination a crime.
George Grayson, a Mexican expert with the College of William & Mary in Virginia, said the dispute will hurt Fox's campaign to liberalize immigration laws, adding that it shows "once again how tone deaf Mexico's president is with respect to the United States."
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."