Understanding the racism of Luis Suarez


The FA was right to take a tough line against the repeatedly racial abuse Liverpool’s Luis Suarez threw at Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.

Suarez’s only defence was, in effect, that 'in our country – Uruguay - to call someone ‘El Negro’ is OK'. The story has become national news in his country where Suarez is a national hero.

‘This ban leaves a bad feeling,’ said Ernesto Irureta, the national director of sport. ‘What is happening in Europe is a product of their problems, not of what happens between players – and one of those is racism. That reflects a lack of values in society. We have a country with [racial] differences but it is a long way from those in the Old Continent [Europe]. Suarez may act with words or gestures in certain moments but this ban is exaggerated, absurd and out of place.’

The national outrage at Suarez’s punishment belies a deep sense of denial that plagues the whole of Latin America, particularly the most southern nations such as Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. The European conquest of Latin America’s indigenous people in the 16th Century firmly places in the minds of latino's with European blood, that they are  ‘superior’ to the indigenous and Africans.

Subsequent waves of European migration including Italians to Argentina, Germans to Uruguay and Paraguay, consolidated the European hegemony.

Throughout all of this, Africans have been part of the Latin American makeup and history; first through slavery and then through the industrial revolution particularly the construction of railways, to assist the transport of products such as  bananas. For example waves of people from the Caribbean migrated to countries such as Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. The racial hierarchy therefore was cemented placing  new-wave wealthy Europeans first, other Latin American Europeans second, and African, Caribbean and indigenous Indians clumped together as an inferior class to be used and abused.

Unlike here in the UK or North America, acknowledging the racial divide much less tackling it has been painfully slow in Latin America.

I was fortunate to live there for nearly two years, first in Costa Rica in 1990 and then in Colombia in 1992. In Costa Rica, the divide is truly shocking. Most Black Costa Ricans live on the Atlantic coast side of the country. Having arrived there more than a century ago from the Caribbean, their role was to build the railways to aid the export of bananas, which was up until very recently, the national export product. And like the story of many migrant workers around the world, many decided to stay. State racism insisted they were not allowed to leave their region, and particularly banned from entering the capital San Jose. In 1948, a civil war broke out, and Black Costa Ricans fought with the ‘progressives’ under commander José Figueres, who had great support in the region of Black Costa Ricans. Their efforts were rewarded with Citizenship rights and freedom to travel. However, when I was there in 1990, the country was still deeply divided. Interestingly, those indigenous people who had not been wiped out by escaping in the remote Costa Rican jungle literally found soul mates with those Caribbean’s who escaped oppression from life working the railways or banana plantations.

My second year was in one of the most dangerous places in the world at that time, Cali, Colombia. It was the time of the drug Lord Pablo Escobar. I was there to read Latin American literature. In many ways being Black helped me not to stand out for any unwanted attention. Until they heard my poor Spanish, many assumed I was Colombian. In this ethnically mixed country, I was acutely aware of the racial pecking order. At University,-La Universidad de Valle- I was initially ignored by the Latinos - white Colombians - who by and large looked down at their Black countrymen. That was until they found out I was British, then in one unseemly moment my status in their minds went above theirs.

Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was born in a continent where even the socialist country of Cuba had failed to deal with racism. The fact that he is the nation’s hero might start a debate in Uruguay about what is and what is not racially acceptable. Sadly, I doubt it.

At least here we have sent out a marker that states football players who comes to ply their trade from the four corners of the globe will be expected to behave to a standard that does not racially insult or sees any human being as somehow inferior.

Britain has many challenges to close the racial inequality gap, particularly during this economic downturn, but the punishment delivered by those in charge of our national game with its truly international reach sent out a very clear message. Crude racism is not accepted on this island of nations.

Simon Woolley

Archived Comments

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Call someone ‘El Negro’ is

Call someone ‘El Negro’ is OK, because it means black without pejorative sense. Perhaps you can't understand it, because you are English a you have negro in your englich dictionary with different meaning. It has nothing to do with racial divide in South America. Uruguayan heroes are called El Negro Andrade and El Negro Jefe and it offends no one.

Miguel !

You know as well as I do that in hispanic language you can use the term as an offense and on other occasions as a term of endearment for example, 'El negrito', loosely translated to my little black friend. In the FA's report Suarez used the term in a most insulting fashion, including stating, ' I don't talk to Negros', and Que pasa Negro ? You tell me if you were black would you be offended?