A Mexican student was set on fire and badly burned in a classroom – his “only crime” was that he spoke an indigenous language in a country that is fighting racial discrimination, according to his family.
Two classmates are accused of pouring alcohol on the seat of Juan Zamorano at a high school in the central state of Querétaro in June.
When the 14-year-old realized that his trousers were wet and got up, one of them set fire to Mr. Zamorano, his family said. He suffered second and third degree burns and was released from the hospital just this week.
According to his family’s lawyers, who have filed complaints against the alleged attackers and school officials, Mr. Zamorano has been bullied for weeks because of his Otomi roots.
With a population of approximately 350,000, the Otomi are one of dozens of indigenous groups in the Hispanic country. Otomi is Juan’s native language, “but he doesn’t really like to speak it because it causes ridicule, harassment and bullying,” Ernesto Franco, one of the family’s lawyers, told AFP.
The family claimed in the media that even Mr. Zamorano’s teacher harassed him because of his background. “She thinks we are not her class, we are not her race,” the father of Mr. Zamorano, who called the attack “an assassination attempt,” told El Universal newspaper.
Querétaro State Attorney’s Office announced an investigation into the attack, and the alleged perpetrators could be prosecuted.
President Andres Manuel López Obrador said that if necessary, the country’s Attorney General’s Office could take up the case.
“Mr Zamorano’s only crime was that he spoke Otomi,” Lopez Obrador’s spokesman Jesús Ramirez tweeted, who said it was everyone’s responsibility to eradicate racism.
Mexico’s National Institute of Indigenous Peoples called on the authorities to “punish minors and adults involved in harassment and repeated attacks on minors.” It states that urgent action is needed in schools to prevent further incidents of discrimination and racism.
According to the 2020 census, discrimination is prevalent in Mexico, a country of 126 million people where 23.2 million people identify themselves as indigenous and more than 7.3 million speak an indigenous language.
In March, an Otomi woman accused employees of a restaurant in Mexico City’s trendy district of preventing her from using the toilet, telling her that the toilet was for customers only.
About 40 percent of the indigenous population complained of discrimination in a survey published by the national statistics agency in 2018. Almost half believe that their rights are respected little or not at all.
The survey also revealed prejudice against the indigenous population. Three out of 10 respondents agreed with the statement: “The poverty of indigenous peoples is related to their culture.”
Cases like Mr. Zamorano’s are not isolated but part of systemic racism, said Alexandra Haas, head of international charity Oxfam in Mexico.
In 2019, an Oxfam study in Mexico found that speaking an indigenous language, being part of an indigenous, black, or mixed ethnicity community, or having a darker skin tone meant less chances for education and promotion.
Mexico has a law to prevent discrimination and has established institutions responsible for dealing with complaints.
However, Mr. Zamorano’s case is a prime example of “how far discrimination can go,” according to Haas, former president of the country’s National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination.
“We cannot say that it was impossible to predict. There were centuries of racial, indigenous and very structural discrimination,” she said.