Honduran Foreign Minister Resigns Over 'Negrito' Slur

Last week, Enrique Ortez, the acting Foreign Minister of Honduras, referred to President Obama as "negrito," or little black guy. Following an uproar, Ortez resigned. In the dispute over the Honduran presidency, both sides have appealed for good relations with the U.S. Mark Sawyer, a professor of African American History at UCLA, and an expert on Afro-Latino identity, explains the dustup.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

In the dispute over the Honduran presidency, both sides have appealed to and sought good relations with the U.S., but allies of interim President Roberto Micheletti suffered a setback last week when Enrique Ortez, the acting Foreign Minister of Honduras, referred to President Obama as negrito or the little black guy.

Mr. ENRIQUE ORTEZ (Acting Foreign Minister, Honduras): (Through Translator) In the first place the President of the Republic, who I respect, the little black guy doesn't know where Tegucigalpa is.

MARTIN: Tegucigalpa, of course, is the capital. But Ortez later apologized. He stepped down as foreign minister. He was transferred to the Ministry of the Interior, but that followed an uproar by many Americans, including the Ambassador to Honduras, who called the comments disrespectful and racially insensitive. But we wanted to ask, what would motivate this kind of comment? So we've called on Mark Sawyer. He is an expert on Afro-Latino identity. He's an associate professor of African-American studies and political science at UCLA. Mark, thank you for joining us.

Professor MARK SAWYER (African-American Studies and Political Science, UCLA): Thank you.

MARTIN: What did you think when you heard these comments? I know that a lot of Americans are surprised that somebody in that kind of a position would make a comment like this publicly. This was not a private conversation, this was an interview. So what was your reaction?

Prof. SAWYER: My reaction was, is that it's fairly typical about the way in which race gets talked about in Latin America and people will frequently make comments like that or use the term negrito both in sort of - as a term of endearment, as he sort of tries to do, but he brackets it with the criticism. When you have a place where officially there is no racism, where racism is so denied, you don't have the kind of dialogue where there's a kind of policing of this kind of language.

MARTIN: Well, first, is Honduras unique in this respect? Is there something unique about racial relations?

Prof. SAWYER: It's a common phenomenon across Latin America, if we think back to the comments of the Mexican President Vicente Fox about, you know, Mexicans will do work even blacks won't do. And then also the use of the Mexican stamp of men in penguin that used the sort of Sambo character, and the sort of Mexican public not being able to sort of understand what was racist about it.

MARTIN: And talk me little bit more about the word, negrito, if you would. Is there a - first, it's a diminutive, right? So even if it's - if you call a child that, calling a grown man that, particularly the president of the United States, clearly it's meant to be disrespectful. But what I'm curious about, is there a white corollary? Would someone, if for example, he were referring to President Bush might, is there a term that's racial that would be used to a white person?

Prof. SAWYER: (Foreign language spoken).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah.

Prof. SAWYER: That means, literally, whitey.

MARTIN: Is that ever, you know…

Prof. SAWYER: No, it's not really used. And, in fact, if you watch sort of Latin American soap operas, one sometimes will refer to someone, even if the person is not black but you're showing that you feel close to them, that you have care for them as either mi negro or mi negrito. So…

MARTIN: Well, we do that here though in the U.S. It's a term - but it's a term used intra-racially…

Prof. SAWYER: Right.

MARTIN: …it's not a term when one would use in diplomatic circles or in public discourse but…

Prof. SAWYER: Right, certainly you would never have two white people sitting across from one other using that term. Or maybe you do, I don't know but…

MARTIN: But, why would you use it - I don't understand, what's the connection between using a racial term to describe intimacy? What is that, what's that?

Prof. SAWYER: Yeah, it's part of the problematic representations of blackness, right? So, blackness is represented by closeness, by intimacy, by being friendly and nice, though blackness is never represented by being smart, intelligent, et cetera. And certainly the term should not be used when it's not someone that you have, that you know very closely. So even in the Latin American context his use of it was quite improper. But the point is, is that the lines are very fuzzy because this kind of language is used all the time. And is - one of the things that's being challenged by black activists who are trying to reveal the kind of casual and unthinking racism that underlies using terms like negrito, a black diminutive, to describe black people, or to describe relationships of intimacy.

MARTIN: So, finally Mr. Ortez apologized for the gap, he was removed as foreign minister. But he was given another position in the government, he has moved, as we said, to the ministry of the interior. Do you think there is any lasting repercussions from this, this public discussion of this?

Prof. SAWYER: Yeah, I think it's an important moment for black activists across Latin America, but certainly there is a substantial community of black activists in Honduras. Everyone saw the Honduran national team playing the USA very recently in Chicago, you saw that most of the players are black. It provides a space for them to challenge that kind of language and to say that it has consequences and point out what's wrong with it. And previously these kinds of things happened without sanction in countries - in Latin America, people could say this kind of thing and no one would respond.

MARTIN: Mark Sawyer is an associate professor of African-American studies and political science at UCLA. He was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. Professor Sawyer, thank you so much.

Prof. SAWYER: Thank you.

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