Jul 24 2013
* This article is cross-posted with the blog ¿Opio del pueblo?
During the Mexico-Trinidad/Tobago Gold Cup quarterfinal the other night, I was part of an engaging twitter discussion about racism in CONCACAF soccer that centered around these posts:
— Laurent Dubois (@Soccerpolitics) July 20, 2013
Conversation with @jhnadel makes me ponder why racism in Latin American football is discussed/addressed less than in Europe. Or am I wrong?
— Laurent Dubois (@Soccerpolitics) July 20, 2013
In the United States we hear a lot about racism in soccer, but it is always in the context of events in Europe. Most people who follow the sport know about the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand affair, for which Terry was stripped of the England captaincy. And many are familiar with the more recent cases involving fans making monkey sounds at Kevin Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli. Even when a Latin American player is involved–such as in the Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra incident–the question of whether or not something qualifies as racism is interpreted through a European (not to mention a U.S.) lens.
As the above tweets suggest, however, issues of race are very much alive in Latin American soccer. Yet very few anglophone soccer fans in the United States are aware of racism in the Latin American game. This is in part because the European game is so much more visible in this country–ESPN shows highlights of the EPL and the Serie A, but not the Liga MX or the Argentine Primera División. But it is also because in much of Latin America questions of race have been consciously obscured. As a result, for most people in the United States race and racism in Latin America are almost completely invisible.
Racism has existed in Latin American soccer since the arrival of the sport. Chile famously protested its loss against Uruguay in the 1916 South American Championship due to the presence of two “Africans” in the Uruguayan squad. In Brazil, after the 1924 season, Rio’s major teams (Flamengo, Fluminense, and Botafogo, among others) formed a breakaway league rather than play against the mixed race Vasco da Gama (in Portuguese, scroll to 1923). Racism is, in fact, embedded in the definition of Brazil’s futebol arte, but that is a post for another day. Today, I’d just like to call attention to some recent cases of racism–and fights against racism–going on in Honduran soccer, and look at some of the historical context behind questions of race in Honduras.
Before looking at all of that, I want to point out the parallel racial/ethnic dynamics in Honduras and some European nations. France is roughly 85 percent European, with a mixture of North African, Caribbean, West African, and Asian making up the rest of its population. In Italy, nearly 95 percent of the population is white, while England’s white population stands at around 85 percent. Honduras is ostensibly a mestizo nation: according to official statistics approximately 90 percent of the population is a mixture of indigenous and European. Afro-Hondurans officially make up about 2 percent of the population, and indigenous peoples comprise the rest.  Given the similar ethnic profiles of Honduras and European nations–and the propensity of racism in European soccer–perhaps racism in Honduran soccer should not come as a surprise.
If you look at the Honduran national team, however, you could be forgiven for not thinking that Honduras was predominantly mestizo: roughly 50 percent of the players are of African descent. Of course, sports teams often do not accurately reflect the ethnic or racial make-up of a nation, as socio-economic realities of minority populations–in many places around the world–make sports seem like one of the only viable avenues out of poverty.
The Johnny Palacios Affair
In October 2011, a couple of weeks before the Suárez and Terry incidents, Johnny Palacios made a stir in Honduras after receiving a red card in league match for talking back to the referee. Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and played for the Honduran national team from 2009-2011 (and whose brothers Jerry and Wilson still play on the national squad), accused the referee of racial abuse. Asserting that the referee, Mario Moncada, had used racial epithets in the past, Palacios explained that he had grown tired of the taunts and was defending himself. According to Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and the Honduran national team, the referee called him a “black homosexual (negro culero).” Moncada denied the charges, claiming that since he had a black grandchild he could not be racist and certainly would not use racist language. True or not, the allegations opened up a nagging question for Honduran soccer and Honduras in general. Palacios, by the way, received a three-game suspension for his red card.
Wilson Nuñez, et al.
Palacios was not the first player to complain of racial abuse in Honduras. Milton “Tyson” Nuñez, a leading player on Honduran national teams from the mid-1990s until 2008, complained in 2009 of racial taunts that he suffered as a soccer player. Nuñez recounted that in stadiums and on the street people hurled racial slurs at him. Rodolfo Richardson Smith also remembered hearing racist chants during games in the Honduran professional league. More surprising, he said, was that even when playing for the national team, Hondurans insulted him based on his race. Smith noted that when he played well he had no problems, but if made a mistake on the field fans used racial epithets and threw rocks at his house. In 2013, while playing in professionally in Guatemala, Nuñez took off his shirt and shorts and walked off the field in the face of racist chants from opposing fans.
In May 2011 Osman Chávez, central defender for the national squad and captain for the 2013 Gold Cup, began discussions with other Afro-Honduran players. They had grown tired of hearing racist taunts during games and seeing comments to articles posted on the Web that denigrated them based on their race. As a result, the players–Chávez, David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Hendry Thomas, and Wilson Palacios–along with non-black members of the national team agreed to boycott national media until the Honduran newspapers’ online versions filtered out Web comments that disparaged their race. While the long-term effects of the campaign remain unknown, it generated a good deal of immediate interest. All of the Honduran newspapers picked up the story and one, Deportivo Diez, created an antiracism Facebook page. Chávez has begun to speak out whenever he can against racism.
Institutional Soccer Racism?
Fans and referees are not the only ones accused of racism. In the past coaches and team directors discussed the “problems” of having “too many blacks” on the national team. Indeed, many coaches refuse to play black players in midfield, which is considered to be one of the more cerebral positions on the field. Instead, they prefer to play them in more “athletic” roles in defense, as strikers, or as wingers. One Honduran politician suggested that black players “are not intelligent” and bring down the play of the squad.Others think that racism does not exist in Honduran soccer and accuse black players of imagining the problem. Former national team psychologist Mauro Rosales suggested that Chávez and his colleagues overreacted to racist comments, claiming that “blacks, by nature, have low self-esteem and therefore look for ways to call attention to themselves.” Still others affiliated with Honduran soccer dismiss charges of racism entirely. In an interview with the newspaper Proceso Digital, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, the president of the Honduran Soccer Federation and ex-president of the country, not only denied claims of racism in Honduran soccer but suggested that the word “racism” be “completely erased from the language” because Hondurans were not racist people.
Context (because I’m a historian)
In fact, there is a long history of racism in Honduras, which is visible in the Honduran narrative about how Afro-Hondurans got to the country. According to the dominant history of the country, there are three Afro-Honduran groups, all of whom arrive well after colonization: the Miskito (a mixture of runaway slaves and indigenous), the Garifuna (deported to Roatán from St. Vincent by the British in 1797), and the negros ingleses (free blacks who left British Caribbean in the early- to mid- 1800s and settled in the Bay Islands, augmented by people brought to work on banana plantations in the late 1800s and early 1900s). Late arrivals, these populations never fully integrated with the rest of Honduras, and stayed segregated on the north coast and on the Bay Islands. Or so the story goes.
In fact, the Afro-Honduran population was much more integrated in Honduran society than many would have liked. African slaves were a major part of Honduran society from its colonial beginnings. Though Honduran mines never contributed more than 5 percent to Spanish coffers, they still produced a good amount of ore and required slaves. By 1540 more than 2000 enslaved Africans worked in Honduras. Comayagua, a town in the center of the country near Tegucigalpa and a major mining center throughout the colonial period, had at least four hundred enslaved Africans working in the mines. In the 1600s population statistics for people of African descent get spotty. Still, entire towns were populated by people of African heritage. In 1801, according to Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, the 7,910 people who lived in the towns of Yoro and Olanchito were “all mulattos.” In other words, when we scratch at the surface of race in Honduras, it becomes clear that the dominant narrative obscures more about race in Honduras than it shows.
In the early twentieth century, nationalist elites further obfuscated the question of race by consciously crafting a mestizo history for the country. This was happening in much of the region, as the indigenous past became a powerful tool for uniting people behind the idea of the modern nation. This drive had its most famous proponent in the Mexican José Vasconcelos. He wrote about a cosmic race, born of racial mixing in Latin America, which would lead the way to a greater human existence. Vasconcelos nevertheless retained a highly eurocentric view of supposed racial characteristics. To form the cosmic race, European rationality mixed with African passion and Native American simplicity and honor.
In Honduras intellectuals and government officials such as Alfonso Guillén Zelaya, Jesus Aguilar Paz, and Gregorio Ferrera followed Vasconcelos’ lead. They began searching for indigenous heroes to add to the Honduran pantheon and to confirm the country’s status as a mestizo nation. In the process they minimized the country’s “primitive” African past by crafting historical narratives that excluded or vilified blacks. In the mid-1920s Honduran officials found their national hero: Lempira. A warrior from the Lenca indigenous group, Lempira valiantly led the fight against Spanish invaders in the 1530s until his death at the hands of the conquistadors. Although no images of the indigenous leader existed, the Honduran government produced one (which can still be seen today on the Honduran currency that bears his name). He fit the bill: he represented the racialized ideal of the indigenous man as noble, strong, and honorable. In embracing Lempira, Honduran nationalists of the early twentieth century consciously chose to create an image of the nation built on European and indigenous bases, thereby ignoring–and erasing from national history to the extent possible–the black population. In other words, it was only in the early twentieth century that Honduras invented itself as a biracial nation. This bi-raciality was reinforced throughout the twentieth century in the Honduran education system and the census, which failed to recognize any category that allowed for African heritage.
So these are some of the historical roots of racism in Honduras. What does it mean in soccer? On one hand, perhaps, little: since the first Honduran national soccer team took the field against Guatemala in 1921, Afro-Hondurans have been included on the team. On the other hand, national sporting icons who are black still suffer racist treatment at the hands of their compatriots. There are no black coaches or referees in the Honduran first division. After generations of being invisible in the national narrative, Afro-Hondurans are still not considered fully Honduran. They remain outside of “normal” Honduran identity due to their skin color, and present a challenge to the dominant narrative that says to be Honduran is to be mestizo.
And what of our perception in the United States? We could say that U.S. lack of understanding of racism in Honduran (and Latin American) soccer results from a double invisibility: it exists due to the historical invisibility of people of African descent in the region and is exacerbated by the overweening focus in the United States on the European game.
**Note: Some of the foregoing is material adapted from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, being published by the University of Florida Press.
 República de Honduras. Características generales de las Garífunas conforme a los resultados del XI censo nacional y de vivienda, año 2001, (Tegucigalpa: INE, 2001).
 Some sources report the slur as being “negro de mierda” (fucking black).
Luz María Martínez Montiel, ed, Presencia Africana en Centroamérica (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 9; and Rafael Leiva Vivas, “Presencia negra en Honduras,” in Presencia Africana en Centroamérica, edited by Luz María Martínez Montiel (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 123. Gold peaked in production prior to 1565, after which it declined. But between 1540 and 1542, more than 200,000 pesos worth of gold came from Honduran mines. See Linda Newson, “Labor in the Colonial Mining Industry of Honduras,” Americas 39, no. 2 (October 1982), 186, 193. See also William L. Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Colonial Central America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972). Sherman notes that black slaves were “more desirable” than indigenous people, and cost more–between 100 and 200 pesos in 1550. See ibid., 232-33 and note 387; and Robinson A. Herrera, “‘Por que no sabemos firmar’: Black Slaves in Early Guatemala,” Americas 57, no. 2 (October 2000), 247 note. See also Robinson A. Herrera, Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Sixteenth-Century Santiago de Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, La Intendencia de Comayagua (Tegucigalpa: Litografía López, 2004), 12.
 Dario Euraque, Estado, poder, nacionalidad y raza en la historia de Honduras (Choluteca: Ediciones Subirana, 1996), 79-81; and Breny Mendoza, “La desmitologización del mestizaje en Honduras,” Mesoamérica 42 (December 2001): 266-68.
 The Honduran census of 2001 included African descended ethnicities for the first time since the early 1900s.