After a scolding from north of the border, President Vicente Fox said he regretted any hurt feelings over a comment he made about blacks in the United States. But many Mexicans insist Americans overreacted.
In a speech Friday, Fox praised the dedication of Mexicans working in the United States, saying they're willing to take jobs that "even blacks" won't do.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the remark "very insensitive and inappropriate" and said the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City had raised the issue with the Mexican government.
African American leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, called on Fox to apologize.
At first the Mexican president refused, saying his remark had been misinterpreted. But on Monday, after a weekend of mounting criticism, he seemed eager to make amends.
In telephone conversations with Jackson and Sharpton, Fox said he "regretted any hurt feelings" and has great respect "for the African-American community in the United States," according to a statement from his administration.
He also invited the two leaders to Mexico for talks aimed at improving the sometimes tense relationship between blacks and Hispanics in the United States.
No date was set, but the president's office said the visit would be as soon as possible.
Still, many of Fox's countrymen, including the leader of his own party, said the United States had overreacted. They suggested the dispute was a case of overzealous political correctness.
"This is an exaggeration," said Manuel Espino, leader of the conservative National Action Party. "There have been a lot harsher comments that come from north of the border, and we don't scream and shout about it."
Mexicans are frequently themselves the victims of discrimination in the United States and are still smarting over the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants, including a border wall in California and limits on drivers' licenses for undocumented migrants.
The fact is many Mexicans didn't see the remark as offensive. Blackface comedy, while demeaning to many Americans, is still considered funny here and many people hand out nicknames based on skin color.
Even Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the archbishop of Mexico City, criticized U.S. immigration policy as ridiculous and defended Fox's comments, saying: "The declaration had nothing to do with racism. It is a reality in the United States that anyone can prove."
In his phone calls, "the president stressed that the African-American community had led a series of movements against discrimination and in favor of the civil and human rights of minorities," the statement said. Fox "recognized that those movements also benefited Hispanics and Mexicans in the United States."
Jackson said he was sure the president had no racist intent, according to presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar. Earlier Jackson had called Fox's comment "inciting and divisive."
Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said the Mexican government was expected to send a diplomatic letter to the United States on Monday protesting laws requiring driver's license applicants to prove they are in the country legally, and the construction of a border barrier wall.
Derbez also criticized U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza, who has angered the Mexican government in part by warning tourists about ongoing violence here.
"What we have to make clear is that it would be best if (Garza's) opinions, which I understand are his own and not those of his government, are not expressed in a public manner," Derbez said.
While Mexico has a few, isolated black communities, the population is dominated by descendants of Mexico's Spanish colonizers and its native Indians. Comments that would generally be considered openly racist in the United States generate little attention here.
MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press Writer