Brilliant 2013 Text

I wrote this, forcing it out, and then could not continue. I can use pieces of it, though, to revise the current pieces, or in the manuscript of the book, or something. I could not continue because I tortured myself doing this. Or something, I wasn’t able to put writing in the center of life and myself in the center of it, which is what you have to do. But it’s very good, nonetheless.


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. 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. As José Piedra (1987) points out, 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. 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. Joshua Lund (2012) discusses mestizaje as a statist discourse that hardly moves beyond race, as it has been purported to do, but rather confirms racialization as a state project.

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.” 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 contrasted not only to a North American identity but to that of “el indio” and “el negro.” Indeed, when the banner of mestizaje was taken up in the nineteenth century it was done in the interest of national hegemony and not to challenge hierarchies of color and lineage. Bolívar called for mestizaje in the wake of the Haitian revolution, and as Julio César Pino reminds us, “promised abolition to the slaves of Nueva Granada only after the Spaniards had done so, and at the end of his life expressed fears that Venezuela would become a pardocracia.” (1998)

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 constitutive 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.

Set largely on slave plantations, all three novels are key works in their national canons. Like several other narratives from the Latin American nineteenth century, their plots feature romances that fail due to varying combinations of incest and miscegenation. In Cecilia Valdés most clearly, the patriarch Cándido Gamboa is the literal father of both lovers. Cecilia and Leonardo are separated too far by race and joined too closely by blood for marriage. Excesses of endogamy and of exogamy flow together, destabilizing the family edifice don Cándido has so carefully built and highlighting questions of patrimony and power. The Gamboa family’s breadth is a measure of its influence, but also a threat to its power if racial hierarchies cannot be maintained within it. In her effort to cross color lines, the miscegenated Cecilia nearly succeeds in confounding the social structure they uphold. The characters’, and the novel’s greatest efforts are directed towards avoiding this implosion of patriarchal power and loss of hegemony by the Spanish and criollo elites.

Sommer reads Cecilia Valdés’ exposure of the irrationality of the racial system as an argument for integration in the struggle for independence. This reading conforms with others popularized in the twentieth century, where, for example, Cecilia symbolizes a miscegenated Cuba oppressed by the colonizer Cándido Gamboa. Other analyses of the novel’s tangled politics and racial logic suggest that it actually advocates limiting mestizaje, so as to establish whiteness outside the framework of the madre patria (Luis 1990, Monteleone 2004, Nelsen 2011). From that perspective, this novel–like many other writings on race and the nation from this period–hardly signals a mestizo or post-racial nation to come. Rather, these writings trace struggles for racial hegemony in the formation of the post-Independence state.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s