Yes, I am a slow writer … but I will be faster

The darker side of mestizaje

When before the Congress of Angostura Bolívar proposes to shape nations by mixing the “diverse blood” of the new citizens (1819), he makes a double gesture. The new nations are conceived in racial terms and at the same time situate themselves, at least at the level of public discourse, beyond race and racialization. The mestizaje that would become a primordial sign of Latin American identity is neither a mixture that dissolves differences nor a transgression against hierarchies, but a hyperracial strategy for social control or in other words, a mechanism which keeps racial hierarchies in place while also disabling criticism of them. At stake in this and other key texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is not only the formation of national cultures, but also that of the modern racial state.

Latin American theories of mestizo identity also have origins and analogies in Spain, where racial models of Hispanic identity have been proposed from the Renaissance forward (Piedra 1987, Branche 2006). These models took on a new layer with the scientific racism of the nineteenth century. Faced with the Spanish defeat of 1898 eugenicist doctors cited insufficient mestizaje as the cause of the Spanish soldier’s lack of resistance to tropical disease; the Francoist state also offered a culturalist definition of the “Hispanic” race (Goode 2009). The inclusivist model bases national identity on attributes such as language, religion, and “character” and is thus able to embrace a diverse palette of colors and origins. Mixture is not merely tolerated, but is almost required as a strategy for the building of empire and later, the nation. Language and faith were key elements in the imperial “Hispanic” identity from the fifteenth century forward, conferring authority and cultural strength upon Spain and offering syncretic assimilation to its conquered subjects. Piedra writes,

The final result was an “impure,” but unified empire. . . . The fact that the “impurity” of the system was not officially accepted only served to strengthen imperial hold. Furthermore, it would offer outsiders a false sense of accessibility and a similarly false hope of equality within Spain’s implicit, unofficial heterogeneity. (304)

The concept of raza is thus not a merely a particular system of classification, but a racial order in which culture and cultural identity have an important role and the meaning of color varies. It is nonetheless administered by the state as racial, and despite its flexibility as a category, it remains inflected with questions of color and descent. Piedra’s discussion of the Hispanic self as a text into which Otherness is woven in a “tactical compromise” shows why mestizaje as state policy has not meant racial tolerance but “literary whiteness,” or subjugation to the colonial letter (307). The estatutos de limpieza de sangre, created in 1449 to identify descendants of converted Jews, persisted through much of the nineteenth century. In the Americas, they were used to exclude people of African and indigenous descent from access to education and from some government posts. Latin America’s fabled valorization of mixture, furthermore, coexists with racial hierarchies in which European descent is highly valued (Portocarrero 2007).

The idealization of mixture reconsititutes originary or essentialist identities, reinforcing the bases for racism (Wade 2004). As Nicola Miller notes, ideologies of mestizaje were “based on racialized state structures and official national iconographies” and excluded darker or less Europeanized people (2006: 304). Joshua Lund discusses mestizaje as a statist discourse that hardly moves beyond race, as it purports to do, but rather confirms racialization as a state project (2012).

This is to say that inclusivity does not resolve the problem of racial difference but functions to mask or render unspeakable the mechanisms of exclusion and hierarchization which still persist. The elasticity of the category Hispanic does stand in contrast to the less flexible categories that have operated in the United States or South Africa, enabling José Martí to posit in 1891 the existence of a specifically Latin American cuture where “[n]o hay odio de razas, porque no hay razas” and “El alma emana, igual y eterna, de los cuerpos diversos en forma y en color” (38-39). Yet inclusion in the raza hispana does not confer recognition as blanco, as Martí’s own text suggests by positing a Latin American “we” that is identifiably criollo (Ramos 1989). Bolívar’s earlier call for mestizaje had come in the wake of the challenge to elite classes that the Haitian revolution represented, and he expressed concern toward the end of his life that Venezuela would become a pardocracia” (Helg 2003).

If mestizaje in the colonial period was a strategy supporting hispanization and European hegemony, the nineteenth century nation-states harnessed it to marginalize blackness and indigeneity yet more thoroughly than the colony had done (Mariátegui 1928, Lund). The mestizo as idealized citizen-subject supported, and did not contest elite hegemony; mestizo alliances were with the lighter, not the darker classes. These were also the eugenicist years, when the new republics sought to “whiten” by encouraging European immigration. At the same time the Amerindian as symbol and mestizaje as trope affirmed Latin American originality, authenticity, and difference from the United States and Europe (Martínez-Echazábal 1998). It is in the twentieth century that this racialized discourse becomes cultural, and mestizaje becomes a trope for the nation.

Beginning in the 1920s, Latin American writers like José Vasconcelos, Fernando Ortiz, Nicolás Guillén, Gilberto Freyre, and Oswald de Andrade began to formulate new theories of cultural identity, based on earlier models but with a reversed emphasis: in their festive and exuberant representations, the mestizo became superior rather than degraded. The result was a seemingly more inclusive mestizo nation. Post-colonial critics and scholars of race and ethnicity have welcomed these theories as counter-hegemonic. Mestizaje in the national mold is still one of the prevailing models for those wanting to overcome racism and racial difference. Critics of mestizo theories, however, have pointed out that despite their mixed origins, they are as essentialized and monocultural as are other, ‘purer’ racial and national categories. Positing a unified culture and a national race, they work toward homogeneity, dissolving otherness or engulfing racial others.

The image of the mestizo nation cultivated during this period of “cultural readjustment” (Osorio 1982) is still highly influential; Doris Sommer (1991) is not the only one to have read earlier discussions of mestizaje through this interpretation. In Sommer’s nineteenth century, mestizaje is “the way of redemption in Latin America, a way of annihilating difference and constructing a deeply horizontal, fraternal dream of national identity” (39). The difficulty is not only that this dream of national identity is to some extent illusory, but also that its prior history and textual precursors are more conflictive and conflicted than Sommer and other critics suggest. A rereading of some key texts, less filtered by the mestizo strategies of the early and mid-twentieth centuries, may be revealing, since the shift in racialist discourse that took place in the 1920s and 1930s was sharper than is always remembered now. Nineteenth and early twentieth century discourse and social policy did create images of mestizo nations and forge loyalty to these, but their larger project was to form modern racial states.

This paper considers nineteenth century discourse in light of current theoretical work on race, modernity and the state. Novels like Jorge Isaacs’ María, Aluízio de Azevedo’s O Mulato, or Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés, among others, have been read as stories through which the national community is “imagined,” with the miscegenated subject as a figure of union for the new nations. Their tragic endings do not entirely support the romanticized readings they have sometimes elicited. In fact, these texts may not so much project future harmony as trace interlocking conflicts around race and identity, paternity and patrimony, legitimacy and exile; at stake is not only the formation of the mestizo nation but also that of the racial state that lies behind it.

If race is consitutive of the modern state, as scholars including David Theo Goldberg (2002) hold, or of modernity itself, as Denise Ferreira da Silva argues (2007), the liberal assumption that inequality can be addressed within the framework of the modern nation may misrecognize the situation it addresses. A look at theoretical and historical work on race and the state, as opposed to mestizaje and the nation, may help understand some of the ambiguities in these texts and their dominant readings.

[Continuation: what is the relation of race to the new nation-states? In US it was to be “overcome” as the dream of the próceres is fulfilled, and in LatAm it is superseded as the national colors are consolidated (Guillén’s “color cubano”); now in US it was to be overcome again in the 1990s through “postethnicity” (Hollinger) and now through mestizaje; now in LatAm through multiculturalism and multinationalism … but what is striking is how it comes up again and again, as a rhizome. Also: the LatAm discussion often veers to questions of how it is defined, almost as though it were a problem that could be put to by the discovery of adequate categorizations. But beyond these differences, its contours as a global problem are remarkably uniform and I want to look at this: race as global issue and issue in modernity.]


4 thoughts on “Yes, I am a slow writer … but I will be faster

  1. O good — that’s inspiring, then, thanks! (See your prose hiding in there? There is some.) And: are you in Catalunya by now?

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