Mexico’s Response to Korea’s World Cup Victory: Gratitude, With a Dose of Racism

On June 27, South Korea scored a victory against the defending World Cup champions Germany. South Koreans were elated, but the real beneficiaries were Mexicans.

The unexpected outcome of the match put Mexico through to the Round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup currently ongoing in Russia, and videos and memes of all kinds flooded Twitter, most of them showing elated Mexicans hugging, lifting up, and prostrating themselves in front of South Koreans, be it on the street, outside South Korean embassies around the world, and even in the offices of South Korean automaker KIA Motors (KIA has a big plant in Pesqueria, Mexico). A catchy slogan—”Coreano, hermano, ya eres Mexicano!” (Korean brothers, you are now Mexican!)—spread widely.

But the outpouring of pro-Korean sentiment has masked a smaller, but much more controversial, number of moments, where racist gestures and signs towards South Koreans were used as a form of thank you.

The most controversial of them featured James Tahhan, a.k.a. Chef James. Tahhan is a TV personality on U.S.-owned Spanish language channel Telemundo and its flagship morning show, Un Nuevo Dia. The morning after South Korea’s victory, Un Nuevo Dia’s presenters were celebrating Mexico’s fortune when suddenly everyone broke out into laughter: It was Tahhan, pulling his eyes sideway and turning his head from side to side.

That moment was recorded and tweeted by a politically correct viewer who called out the show for being racist, and even though that post didn’t spread like the more light-hearted videos of happy Koreans and Mexicans mingling, it was retweeted enough times to force Telemundo to suspend Tahhan. To his credit, the chef was quick to release an official apology.

But racist attitudes towards Koreans don’t always get flagged like his was.

“In Mexico, making fun of Koreans and their eyes is very common,” observed Alvaro Martinez, a 22-year old Mexican student from Monterrey, the Mexican city with the largest Korean population, located in the province of Nueva Léon.

Martínez lives near the neighbourhood of Pesqueria, which has received thousands of South Korean workers since the construction of a KIA automotive plant began in August 2014, and is now often referred to by Mexicans as ‘Pescorea.’

Although the relationship between KIA and the Nueva Léon government wasn’t always smooth at first, especially after Jaime ‘El Bronco’ Rodriguéz became governor in June 2016, the two eventually signed a deal for KIA to pour $2.5 billion into job creation and Pesqueria’s infrastructure over a nine-year period, in exchange for a 95-percent cut on the annual payroll tax.

This love affair between Nueva Léon and KIA has been criticized by many. In November 2016, a Mexican newspaper described El Bronco’s hope that KIA would catalyze Monterrey’s economic development as an “illusion,” contrasting Pesquería’s pothole-filled roads to newly-built Korean restaurants that serve the newcomers. The article also pointed out the lack of effort to integrate on the part of South Korean immigrants, observing, “[The South Koreans] prefer to interact among themselves, and refuse to abandon their culinary habits.”

El Bronco ran for the presidency in the July 1 election, and anti-Korean sentiment resurfaced on social media, presumably among those opposed him. Only two weeks ago, one person tweeted: “If El Bronco doesn’t promise in his next campaign that [South Korea] will remove KIA from Mexico, I’m not voting for him.”

“In cities like Monterrey where people have been used to homogeneity for so long, seeing a Korean is still seen as unusual. During football games in Mexico, Asian fans get approached all the time with the ‘slanted-eye’ gesture, ” observed Jose Burnes, a 23-year-old Monterreyan student at Peking University in China.

He added, “[Mexican] players do it all the time, too.”

Indeed, there are plenty of precedents. Last November, during a friendly between Colombia and South Korea, Edwin Cardoza was caught on camera using this gesture during an altercation between the two teams. Only three weeks ago, Diego Maradona— an Argentinian—pulled his eyes sideway after being greeted by South Korean fans, showing that the problem isn’t limited to Mexico.

The prevalence of the gesture is probably why some people, like singer and songwriter Raul Peña, a.k.a. Aleks Syntek, don’t even realize what they are doing is wrong.

On the day of South Korea’s victory against Germany, Syntek tweeted a video of himself doing the same offensive ‘squinty-eye’ gesture and singing a bunch of meaningless syllables meant to imitate the Korean language. He wrote: “Todos somos Corea” (We are Korea).

Thousands of Mexicans stormed his account to denounce his actions, to which Syntek replied with this:

Adding fuel to the fire, Syntek justified his racist humor by sharing a 2002 video of his favorite Mexican comedian, Andrés Bustamante, who was in South Korea 16 years ago to host broadcasts of the World Cup taking place in South Korea and Japan.

In the video, Bustamante gets a Korean woman—most probably an employee of the TV studio from where he was broadcasting—to bring out some props for the show. He speaks to her in high-pitched gibberish meant to simulate Korean, taking advantage of the fact she doesn’t speak Spanish. After he gets her to repeat the Spanish phrase “buenas noches (goodnight),” he turns to the Mexican guest on his show and says, “We taught her well.”

Even after South Korea’s victory against Germany made many Mexicans happy, a meme appeared suggesting that El Bronco was going to allow the South Korean government to annex ‘Pescorea’ as a gift. It was clearly meant to be funny, but also expressed a degree of unease with the Koreans making inroads into Mexico.

“I think it’s a big problem. In Mexico, people don’t distinguish between Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese, they just call all of them chinos [Chinese],” said Burnes, who had South Korean roommates when studying in the United States.

“It’s a shame because both cultures [South Korean and Mexican] are very similar, we have an amazing drinking culture, and we’re both very proud of our local cuisine,” he continued.

But Martinez seemed hopeful South Korea’s victory would leave a lasting positive effect on the relations between the two countries.

“When South Korea beat Germany, Tecate [a famous Mexican beer company] brought hundreds of gallons of beer to the KIA offices in Pescorea,” recounted Martinez, who has many friends and family now working for South Koreans.

“Mexico is a very weird society, our political views and institutions are always changing, but our love for football never wavers so I think this will help reduce racism towards Koreans. Mexicans will not forget this,” he said.

Irrespective of whether this proves to be true or not, South Koreans around the world can at least take comfort in the video below, taken during the Mexico vs. South Korea match on June 23. After a Mexican fan yells “take that, South Korea!” in the face of a female South Korean fan, she responds with a killer one-liner:

“I speak Spanish, a**hole!”

 

Cover image: From Aleks Syntek’s Twitter account

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Eddie Park is currently pursuing an MA in China Studies at Peking University. His writings have been published in Bolivian Express and The Diplomat.