Mestizaje in Latin America: Definition and History

A Nationalist Project Based on Racial Mixture

Painting on theme of miscegenation, 18th century Mexico
Mixed race Chinese man, mixed race woman and mixed race child, painting on the theme of miscegenation, Mexico, 18th century.

De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images 

Mestizaje is a Latin American term referring to racial mixture. It has been the foundation of many Latin American and Caribbean nationalist discourses since the 19th century. Countries as distinct as Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad all define themselves as nations made up primarily of mixed-race people. Most Latin Americans also identify strongly with mestizaje, which, beyond referring to racial makeup, is reflected in the uniquely hybrid culture of the region.

Key Takeaways: Mestizaje in Latin America

  • Mestizaje is a Latin American term referring to racial and cultural mixture.
  • The notion of mestizaje emerged in the 19th century and became dominant with the nation-building projects of the early 20th century.
  • Many countries in Latin America, including Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad, define themselves as made up of mixed-race people, either mestizos (a mixture of European and indigenous descent) or mulatos (a mixture of European and African descent).
  • Despite the dominance of the rhetoric of mestizaje in Latin America, many governments also undertook campaigns of blanqueamiento (whitening) in order to "dilute" the African and indigenous ancestry of their populations.

Mestizaje Definition and Roots

The promotion of mestizaje, racial mixture, has a long history in Latin America, dating back to the 19th century. It's a product of the region's history of colonization and the uniquely hybrid makeup of its population as a result of the cohabitation of Europeans, indigenous groups, Africans, and (later) Asians. Related notions of national hybridity can also be found in the Francophone Caribbean with the concept of antillanité and in the Anglophone Caribbean with the notion of creole or callaloo.

Each country’s version on mestizaje varies according to its specific racial makeup. The most significant distinction is between the countries that retained large indigenous population—like Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala—and those located in the Caribbean, where native populations were decimated within one century of the arrival of the Spanish. In the former group, mestizos (people mixed with indigenous and Spanish blood) are held up as the national ideal, while in the latter—as well as Brazil, the destination for the greatest number of slaves brought to the Americas—it is mulatos (people mixed with African and Spanish blood).

As discussed by Lourdes Martínez-Echazábal, "During the nineteenth century, mestizaje was a recurrent trope indissolubly linked to the search for lo americano (that which constitutes an authentic [Latin] American identity in the face of European and/or Anglo-American values." Newly independent Latin American nations (most of which gained independence between 1810 and 1825) wanted to distance themselves from former colonizers by claiming a new, hybrid identity.

Simon Bolivar during Latin American wars of independence
Simon Bolivar honoring the flag after the Battle of Carabobo, June 24, 1821, by Arturo Michelena (1863-1898),1883. Detail. Spanish-American wars of independence, Venezuela, 19th century. DEA / M. Seemuller / Getty Images 

Many Latin American thinkers, influenced by social Darwinism, saw mixed-race people as inherently inferior, a degeneration of "pure" races (particularly whites), and a threat to national progress. However, there were others, like Cuban José Antonio Saco, who argued for more miscegenation in order to "dilute" the African blood of successive generations, as well as greater European immigration. Both philosophies shared a common ideology: the superiority of European blood over African and indigenous ancestry.

In his writings during the late 19th century, Cuban national hero Jose Martí was the first to proclaim mestizaje as a symbol of pride for all nations of the Americas, and to argue for "transcending race," which would a century later become a dominant ideology in the U.S. and throughout the world: color-blindness. Martí was primarily writing about Cuba, which was in the midst of a 30-year independence struggle: he knew that racially unifying rhetoric would motivate black and white Cubans to fight together against Spanish domination. Nevertheless, his writings had an outsized influence on other Latin American nations' conceptions of their identity.

Cuban rebels in the War of Independence
Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) against Spain. Command post in Santa Clara. Insurgents led by Maximo Gomez. Ipsumpix / Getty Images

Mestizaje and Nation-Building: Specific Examples

By the early 20th century, mestizaje had become a foundational principle around which Latin American nations conceived of their present and future. However, it didn't take hold everywhere, and each country put its own spin on the promotion of mestizaje. Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico were particularly influenced by the ideology of mestizaje, while it was less applicable to nations with a higher proportion of people of exclusively European descent, like Argentina and Uruguay.

In Mexico, it was José Vasconcelos's work, "The Cosmic Race" (published in 1925), that set the tone for the nation's embrace of racial hybridity, and offered an example to other Latin American nations. Advocating for a "fifth universal race" made up of diverse ethnic groups, Vasconcelos argued that "the mestizo was superior to purebloods, and that Mexico was free of racist beliefs and practices," and "portrayed the Indians as a glorious part of Mexico’s past and held that they would be successfully incorporated as mestizos, just as mestizos would be Indianized." Nonetheless, Mexico's version of mestizaje didn't recognize the presence or contribution of African-derived people, even though at least 200,000 enslaved people had arrived in Mexico in the 19th century.

Jose Vasconcelos, 1929
Jose Vasconcelos is shown taking oath as the presidential candidate under the banner of the National Re-Electionist political party. Bettmann / Getty Images

Brazil's version of mestizaje is referred to as "racial democracy," a concept introduced by Gilberto Freyre in the 1930s that "created a founding narrative that claimed that Brazil was unique among Western societies for its smooth blending of African, indigenous, and European peoples and cultures." He also popularized the "benign slavery" narrative arguing that slavery in Latin America was less harsh than in the British colonies, and that this was why there was more intermarriage and miscegenation between European colonizers and non-white (indigenous or black) colonized or enslaved subjects.

Andean countries, particularly Peru and Bolivia, didn't subscribe as strongly to mestizaje, but it was a major ideological force in Colombia (which had a much more noticeable African-derived population). Nonetheless, as in Mexico, these countries generally ignored black populations, focusing on mestizos (European-indigenous mixture). In fact, "most [Latin American] countries...tend to privilege past indigenous contributions to the nation over those of Africans in their nation-building narratives." Cuba and Brazil are the main exceptions.

In the Spanish Caribbean, mestizaje is generally thought of as mixture between African- and European-derived people, due to the small number of indigenous people who survived the Spanish conquest. Nonetheless, in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the nationalist discourse recognizes three roots: Spanish, indigenous, and African. Dominican nationalism "took on a distinct anti-Haitian and anti-black flavor as Dominican elites lauded the country’s Hispanic and indigenous heritage." One of the results of this history is that many Dominicans who might be categorized by others as black refer to themselves as indio (Indian). In contrast, Cuban national history generally discounts indigenous influence completely, reinforcing the (incorrect) idea that no Indians survived the conquest.

Blanqueamiento or "Whitening" Campaigns

Paradoxically, at the same time that Latin American elites were advocating for mestizaje and often proclaiming the victory of racial harmony, governments in Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, and elsewhere were simultaneously pursuing policies of blanqueamiento (whitening) by encouraging European immigration to their countries. Telles and Garcia state, "Under whitening, elites held concerns that their countries’ large black, indigenous, and mixed-race populations would impede national development; in response, several countries encouraged European immigration and further race mixture to whiten the population."

Blanqueamiento began in Colombia as early as the 1820s, immediately after independence, although it became a more systemized campaign in the 20th century. Peter Wade states, “Behind this democratic discourse of mestizo-ness, which submerges difference, lies the hierarchical discourse of blanqueamiento, which points up racial and cultural difference, valorizing whiteness and disparaging blackness and indianness."

Brazil carried out a particularly large whitening campaign. As Tanya Katerí Hernández states, "The Brazilian branqueamento immigration project was so successful that in less than a century of subsidized European immigration, Brazil imported more free White laborers than Black slaves imported in three centuries of the slave trade (4,793,981 immigrants arrived from 1851 to 1937 compared to the 3.6 million slaves forcibly imported)." At the same time, Afro-Brazilians were encouraged to return to Africa and black immigration to Brazil was banned. Thus, many scholars have pointed out that elite Brazilians embraced miscegenation not because they believed in racial equality, but because it promised to dilute the black Brazilian population and produce lighter generations. Robin Sheriff found, based on research with Afro-Brazilians, that miscegenation also holds much appeal for them, as a way to “improve the race."

Afro Latin family
Afro Latin Family Portrait at Home.  FG Trade / Getty Images

This concept is also common in Cuba, where it's referred to in Spanish as “adelantar la raza”; it's often heard from non-white Cubans in response to the question of why they prefer lighter-skinned partners. And, like Brazil, Cuba saw a huge wave of European in-migration—hundreds of thousands of Spanish immigrants—in the first decades of the 20th century. While the concept of "improving the race" certainly suggests an internalization of anti-Black racism across Latin America, it's also true that many people see marrying partners with lighter skin as a strategic decision to gain economic and social privilege in a racist society. There's a famous saying in Brazil to this effect: "money whitens."

Critiques of Mestizaje

Many scholars have argued that the promotion of mestizaje as a national ideal has not led to full racial equality in Latin America. Instead, it has often made it harder to admit and address the ongoing presence of racism, both within institutions and individual attitudes across the region.

David Theo Goldberg notes that mestizaje tends to promote a rhetoric of homogeneity, paradoxically through asserting that “we are a country of mixed race people.” What this means is that anyone who identifies in mono-racial terms—i.e., white, black, or indigenous—cannot be recognized as part of the hybrid national population. Specifically, this tends to erase the presence of black and indigenous people.

There has been ample research demonstrating that while on the surface, Latin American nations celebrate mixed-race heritage, in practice they actually maintain Eurocentric ideologies by denying the role of racial difference in access to political power, economic resources, and land ownership. In both Brazil and Cuba, black people are still underrepresented in positions of power, and suffer from disproportionate poverty, racial profiling, and high incarceration rates.

In addition, Latin American elites have used mestizaje to proclaim the triumph of racial equality, stating that racism is impossible in a country full of mixed-race people. Thus, governments have tended to remain silent on the issue of race and sometimes penalized marginalized groups for speaking about it. For example, Fidel Castro's claims to have eradicated racism and other forms of discrimination shut down public debate on issues of race in Cuba. As noted by Carlos Moore, asserting a black Cuban identity in a “raceless” society was interpreted by the government as counterrevolutionary (and thus, subject to punishment); he was detained in the early 1960s when he attempted to highlight continuing racism under the Revolution. On this point, the late Cuba scholar Mark Sawyer stated, “Rather than eliminate racial hierarchy, miscegenation has only created more steps on the staircase of racial hierarchy.”

Similarly, despite Brazil’s celebratory nationalist discourse of "racial democracy," Afro-Brazilians are just as bad off as blacks in South Africa and the U.S. where racial segregation was legalized. Anthony Marx also debunks the myth of mulatto mobility in Brazil, claiming that there's no significant difference in socioeconomic status between mulattoes and blacks when compared with that of whites. Marx argues that Brazil’s nationalist project was perhaps the most successful of all the formerly colonized countries, as it maintained national unity and preserved white privilege without any bloody civil conflicts. He also finds that, while legalized racial discrimination had tremendously negative economic, social, and psychological effects in the U.S. and South Africa, these institutions also helped produce racial consciousness and solidarity among blacks, and became a concrete enemy against which they could mobilize. In contrast, Afro-Brazilians have faced a nationalist elite that denies the existence of racism and continues to proclaim the victory of racial equality.

Recent Developments

In the past two decades, Latin American nations have begun to recognize racial differences within the population and to pass laws recognizing the rights of minority groups, like indigenous or (less commonly) Afro-descendant people. Brazil and Colombia have even instituted affirmative action, suggesting that they understand the limits of the rhetoric of mestizaje.

According to Telles and Garcia, Latin America's two biggest countries present contrasting portraits: "Brazil has pursued the most aggressive ethnoracial promotion policies, particularly affirmative action in higher education, and Brazilian society has a relatively high level of popular awareness and discussion of minority disadvantage...In contrast, Mexican policies in support of minorities are relatively weak, and public discussion of ethnoracial discrimination is incipient."

The Dominican Republic is the farthest behind on the issue of racial consciousness, as it doesn't officially recognize multiculturalism, nor does it ask any race/ethnicity questions on its national census. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the island nation's long history of anti-Haitian and anti-black policies—which include the recent stripping of citizenship rights in 2013 to Dominican descendants of Haitian immigrants, retroactive to 1929. Sadly, skin bleaching, hair straightening, and other anti-black beauty standards are also particularly pervasive in the Dominican Republic, a country that is around 84% non-white.

Dominican teenage baseball players
Teenage boy (11-17) baseball players on ramp, Dominican Republic. Hans Neleman / Getty Images

Sources

  • Goldberg, David Theo. The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
  • Martínez-Echizábal, Lourdes. "Mestizaje and the Discourse of National/Cultural Identity in Latin America, 1845-1959." Latin American Perspectives, vol. 25, no. 3, 1998, pp. 21-42.
  • Marx, Anthony. Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of South Africa, the United States, and Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Moore, Carlos. Castro, the Blacks, and Africa. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 1988.
  • Pérez Sarduy, Pedro, and Jean Stubbs, editors. AfroCuba: An Anthology of Cuban Writing on Race, Politics and Culture. Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1993
  • Sawyer, Mark. Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Sheriff, Robin. Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
  • Telles, Edward and Denia Garcia. "Mestizaje and Public Opinion in Latin America. Latin American Research Review, vol. 48, no. 3, 2013, pp. 130-152.
  • Wade, Peter. Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.