Mestizaje: When the Shades Dissimulate Whiteness


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 La cena del capitalismo (The Dinner of Capitalism) and La orgía (The Orgy) depicting whiteness and mestizaje together. / Murals by Diego Rivera (1928) at the Ministry of Public Education in Mexico City.


Insisting on the many “shades of whiteness” always bears the risk of making whiteness as a racial project disappear. As such, this conversation with Mónica G. Moreno Figueroa about mestizaje (the ideology of racial mixture in so-called “Latin America”) became urgent. Our discussion focuses on how mestizaje came about historically, how it dissimulates the settler colonial conditions of Abya Yala, and how it constitutes a faulty national assimilationist project in Mexico and other states.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: In this issue, we’re trying to articulate the many shades of white(ness), which mostly means showing that whiteness is more complex than what it’s usually painted to be. But this also means that we should reveal whiteness in systems of racialization that have deliberately hidden it. This is the context for this conversation about mestizaje with you, Mónica. If we begin to consider whiteness in the way it’s conceptualized at a global scale, we are forced to recognize that we are strongly influenced with the knowledge production emanating from the settler colony we call “the United States of America” (not be confused with “the United States of Mexico,” which we’ll talk about in just a moment!). This has a strong consequence on the way racialization operates in Mesoamerica since the geographies situated south of the U.S. border and the people who come from them, indistinctly, are flattened into a single racial identity (whether it’s been colonially called “hispanidad” or “latinidad”).  Could you tell us whether this has an impact on the way Mesoamerican societies think about their systems of racialization?

MÓNICA G. MORENO FIGUEROA: I think that it is interesting that we start there, because it is the first myth we need to dispel in a way. It is the first idea that we need to make clear that discussions about race, as you rightly say, do not have to always have a reference to the United States and the way it’s discussed there. However, it would be false to say that there’s no influence and correlations and flows of information and impact of different ways in which racism works in different parts of the world. So in that sense, it is correct to say that there is some impact, some correlations, and flows. And of course, U.S. imperialism is not just a political thing, it also has to do with media flows, cultural flows, etc. 

The way I like to think about it to separate them, to clarify our influences, but also to see the particularities, is to think that every region, area, country… has a particular racial project, and that there are different racial projects around the world. This is the way in which racism gets organized differently in each place. And we can broadly say these racial projects are defined in terms of assimilation and segregation as a first distinctive way of understanding them. The United States of America, together with other places like South Africa, and maybe some similarities with Europe have to do with logics of segregation, where people are more physically separated. This, of course, is not the only thing going on in these places as there are also some strong assimilation logics, but that the defining idea is that people should not mix: they should be separated. Mixture is a big problem for places where segregation is a tendency that occupies most of the racist imagination. 

On the other hand, in places like Latin America, mixture is at the center of how the racial project is organized, and assimilation therefore, becomes a really important process by which societies are building themselves, creating nations and creating different communities.

This is important to understand, because it is quite different to think about whiteness in a context where mixture is valued, and where mixture is at the core of the national project, at the core of people’s imagination, at the core of who they are. To say, “We come from a mixed background, we are mixed, this is what defines us, and this is what makes us as great or as worse as we are…” is a strong distinction of Latin America from Europe or the U.S.. This thinking creates different systems of racialization, if we put it in the terms that you were mentioning, and gives us a different entrance to a discussion of how racism is experienced in different parts of the world.

LL: One thing mestizaje conveniently dissimulates as a white ideology, is the settler colonial conditions that structure all nation states in Abya Yala (the Americas). We are invited to believe that if there are no Indigenous people nor settlers, then settler colonialism is no longer a relevant framework to politically analyze these states. Could you take us through the way this concept of racialization (or rather the denial thereof) was formed?

MGMF: Well, it is obviously a very long history with many different complicated things. What I would say is a very summarized account and, surely, I’m leaving many details aside, but the way I like to explain mestizaje is that it is a multiple definition idea: it has a multiplicity of versions or of definitions, and none of them necessarily contradict each other, but they are built on top of each other. And sometimes you see one of these versions coming up and sometimes others. 

The first understanding that many people have, is that Mestizaje refers to the process of colonization, and of the building of the new colonial situation where you have Spanish and Portuguese people arriving and mixing biologically and culturally with the Indigenous people who were already there in the Americas. This is how they created these new peoples: the mestizos. So it has to do with peoples and cultures. Mestizaje is a historical moment in the history of mixture: cultural mixture and biological mixture. However, these have a lot of variants. For some, it’s simply a mixture of peoples. Basically, if a Spanish man and an Indigenous woman have a child, this child is a mestizo/a, i.e. a mixed person. 

During the colonial period, there was what we call a caste system: people of all kinds of mixtures, and of course, the forced arrival of African enslaved peoples, and also the arrival of people from Asia, and of course European peoples. The creation of these castes is done through all these different variations of possibilities of people who were recorded and registered. 

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Monumento al Mestizaje (1982) by Julián Martínez and M. Maldonado in the Jardín Xicoténcat in Mexico City. / Photo by Javier Delgado Rosas (April 2009).

There’s another process added to that, which has to do with the confirmation of nation states during the 19th century and early 20th century, which became a process of establishing this idea of mixture as the official ideology that would create the new states, the official kinds of people. How we got to that from having that initial mixture 300 years ago is a long historical process. It has to do with almost a rejection of scientific racism coming from Europe, or eugenic policies in the Americas, where Mestizaje then becomes this proposal of a project that wants to unite the population, but with a very clear task of whitening, through mixture. It proposes that we mix the population, but in a particular direction. This already tells you that it’s not just any mixture or that any mixture works. 

Additionally, there is a further understanding of mestizaje as an everyday logic of racist and racialized differentiation that organizes people’s everyday life.

Mestizaje logics are intersectional in nature, as most social relations, and it gives pointers to how people establish their social relations, their cultural tastes, their understanding of belonging and citizenship. It creates racialized cultural imaginaries, cultural products, as well as racialized material culture and geographies.

So all these different understandings of mestizaje, a mix of individuals, specifically Indigenous Spanish, where mixture operates towards a particular official goal, the logics of the caste system, the official national ideologies developed throughout the Americas and the everyday logics of racialisation, we can understand making mestizaje kind of quite complicated. 

LL: You use the instance of a Spanish man and an Indigenous woman, which probably could not be less of an innocent example. The gendered dimension of mestizaje is very important, isn’t it?

MGMF: Yes, and we can bring the gender component, the class component, and you can see that all these variations imply dominance, a lot of violence… If we go to the colonial experience of mestizaje, this is not a story where the Indigenous women were “hanging out” and wanted “to go out” with European men who came and flirted, and then got engaged. Mestizaje started as an alliance: some of the Indigenous peoples were offering their women to the colonizers as a way of establishing relationships of power for the new colonial state—I’m not a historian so I won’t be able to tell you the details with precision; there are people that can talk about that process (see for example the work of Fe Navarrete for Mexico). Generally what we see is that the colonizing process was a violent process, not unique to Mexico or Latin America and the Caribbean, but to that moment of European expansion throughout the world. 

Once you start seeing the development of the caste system, you see that the aim was this building towards whiteness, and the creation of a discourse that Indigenous blood could be redeemed. This means that you can dilute the Indigenous line through continuous violence over Indigenous women or Indigenous women descendants, mixing with European men. One of the examples of caste systems, which is essential to the notion of mestizaje, claims that if an Indigenous woman and a European man have a child, they become a mestizo/a. If a mestiza woman has a child with a European man, they become a castizo/a. And if a castiza woman has a child with a Spanish man, they become Spanish themselves. So in three generations with the appropriate mixing and with a continuous gender dominance, you can “improve the race.” This is not the case for Black people: Black women who mixed with white Europeans would produce a lineage that could never be fully redeemed.

This notion of “improving the race” is essential to understanding mestizaje as a whitening ideology.

What it wants is to say: “yes, we want to mix because we can accept that your blood can be cleaned, that it has some defects, but European blood is going to make it better.” Women’s bodies are a site of control for this process. This ideology is completely embedded in the ways of thinking in Latin America, in everyday practices nowadays: this is not just happening in the colonial paintings of the 18th century.

LL: In the case of “the United States of Mexico”—I purposely insist on the official name of the state to show its similarity with its settler colonial northern neighbor—mestizaje seems to even be a national project to flatten the differentiation (except perhaps cultural differentiation) of the various political communities that live under Mexican sovereignty. Could you tell us what is to be gained by the state through this national project? Is it the end of Indigeneity and its sovereignty claims?

MGMF: Mestizaje was a project of nation building that very much tried to impose these logics of mixture when facing the impossibility of killing and disappearing all the Indigenous population. It was obvious by the 17th century that Indigenous people were still there, that there were mixtures, and that this notion of purity was just not holding. So it was an ideological solution for building a nation that could compete with European nations and the United States that had a much more strict “one drop” notions of purity and whiteness. So that project, which had strong ties with the 1910 Mexican Revolution, or rather the aftermath of the Revolution, with the establishment of the first governments that really wanted to deal with the Indigenous problem and that denied the presence of African descendants, Black people, and other people. Everybody got deleted to become Mexican. 

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Lexicon of mestizaje in the Americas. “The vocabulary is taken mainly from the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (Real Academia Española) and the inscriptions upon the drawings of people called “retratos de castas,” from painters like Miguel Cabrera, or the c. 18th anonymous kept at the Museo Nacional del Virreinato.” / Photo by Daniel Riaño Rufilanchas (2018).

This was built around a lot of ambivalence, because it gives the impression of inclusion, something like: “Everybody can join in! You just need to stop being who you are. And then you can be this and when we can all be together.” However, this came to an explosion in 1994, showing that it didn’t work, that the promise of inclusion, of welcoming was built on top of a lot of historically developed colonial legacies and the 19th century development of capitalism in terms of who owns what, from the development of big haciendas to the development of industries… We started seeing a society divided, built on a Indigenous/mestiza/white pyramidal system. What happened in 1994, is the Zapatistas rebelling and declaring: “Your idea of us as being one didn’t work, it hasn’t worked, because we’re still in the worst situation we are, without the resources, without the promise of development, without anything.” Of course, I’m simplifying here, and there’s so much more to say about development in Latin American countries, and how it triggers poverty and violence.

What we can say is that Indigenous people got together, got organized, and started demanding change. It was so strong that we can say that the Zapatista movement has impacted and imprinted many other Indigenous mobilizations throughout the Americas and maybe in other places of the world. They envisioned an anti-capitalist and anti-racist world—well, anti-racism might not have been at the very center of their explicit discourse but it is very much part of it. This was definitely a statement on how mestizaje did not work, even in its multicultural aspect—a contradiction in the terms if you ask me. This multiculturalism constructs a situation where we have a certain allowance for Blackness, for Indigeneity, for even Asianness to appear, while these principles of improving the race, of whitening the population still continue. So you can say it is not the end. And on the contrary, you have now generations of Indigenous intellectuals and professionals who are claiming their nations and saying that it didn’t work and it’s not working… It’s a new moment.

LL: In the 1980s, French comedian Coluche was telling this joke—I have to warn you, it’s very French, quite bad taste, but telling too I think. It’s about a group of Black and white pupils fighting for seats on the school bus. The exasperated driver (who we can definitely assume to be white although of course it is not said) yells: “That’s enough! In my bus, there is no Black, there is no white, you are all blue!” And then:  “Okay so now dark blues you’re going to the back and light blues you’re coming to the front.” It feels that Mestizaje is the ideology of the “You are all blue!” while the racialized reality of it makes it clear that there’ll always be “dark blues” and “light blues.” Is what we came to call “colorism” an apt reading grid to understand it? Or is that accepting to debate Mestizaje on its own terms and taking the risk to dilute a bit further identifiable political groups and their specific histories: Indigenous people, Afro Mexicans whose ancestors were subjected to the transatlantic slave trade, refugees, and settlers? 

MGMF: In a way, it takes us to the first question. I mean, colorism is a very U.S. specific term that has to do with Black people having different skin color shades. And the idea that the lightest you are, the better. So I cannot say that it has nothing to do with it, but I would say that there’s other logics at play when you think about mestizaje. Skin color is very definitely important for the understanding of how racism is experienced in Mexico and in Latin America. But when we think of skin color, we’re not just saying literally just skin color, you know, we are saying skin color with facial features with the whole embodiment of how gender and class are also imprinted in bodies. It’s a complex phenomena, and maybe it’s reductive when we just want to put it in terms of justice in color, but it is a good way to start and to organize it. If you think about facial features, if you think about the physical body, in the embodiment, what the body does, what the body can do, then the thing gets a bit more complicated, but definitely what we can find is that the lighter someone is, the better the outcome. This has been now proven by many different surveys and studies and we can see that there’s no way out of the discussion where skin color is not relevant. 

However, the issue here is that one of the main differences that I found in my own work is that skin color in the Latin American context is relative and contextual.

What I mean is that one person could be light-skinned—light brown for instance—in one context, and then be considered as dark-skinned in another context, and that’s going to completely shift their experience. People are constantly shifting the way they are perceived, the way they’re treated, and the way they are going through life. This makes us all aware of how our embodiment impacts the place we are in, and the spaces that we interact with. So we have to think with the context. It also has to do with that particular understanding of what are the characteristics of Indigenous people, of Black people… People are very good at reading bodies, at reading their body, the body of others and constantly locating themselves in relation to those spaces. And that is what you’re trying to do in racialized societies, where your body is your capital. So there might be many similarities, but I just want to point out that in places where assimilation is at the center, and where mixture is prioritized, the question of how somebody looks like is very important and will determine your fate. You find that even within families. If I were to show you a picture of my own family: I have from the very blondest cousin, to me, the darkest cousin, but in another context, I might be the lightest dark skinned person. 

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Allegory of the Mestizo in Chetumal, Mexico. / Photo by Rafael Saldaña (December 2018).

I guess we didn’t quite talk about whiteness in Mexico or in Latin America, per se, but we talked about mestizaje as a whitening project. Perhaps, I could just finish by saying that we can also understand that mestizaje is a form of whiteness that is ambivalent, that is porous, that is always centering the whitest body: what I mean is not necessarily the “white body,” but the “whiter” or “whitest” body. I think that characteristic makes the experience of whiteness in Mexico a tricky one, very movable and shifty. There are new studies about white people, people that self identify as white, and there is this new term, “whitexican”: people who consider themselves to be white Mexicans. This is bringing interesting debates, and we need to be more able to understand the flows of different racial projects, and to see how they impact each other and we cannot think that nation borders actually stopped racial projects… But we just need to know how to contextualize them historically, and with the wider situation. It’s not just an input from the U.S. or from Europe to Mexico. So, yes, there is a lot to think about. ■