Episode 1: Myth of Racial Mixture in Latinx Communities

“It is important to recognize the existence of Blackness in Latin America. Latin American narratives have been falsely constructed upon ideals of heritage made of only Spaniards and Indians.” - Evelynne Laurent-Perrault

Summary

This episode discusses the consequences of the rhetoric of racial mixture in Latin America and how this relates to the problematic principles of racial colorblindness. We present a live discussion that centers the voices of Latinx Philadelphians regarding perceptions of race. Drawing upon our course readings on AfroLatinx language and identity, our discussion additionally puts the cultural legacy of early 20th century Mexican politician and philosopher José Vasconcelos into conversation with contemporary understandings of colorblind ideologies. To this effect, we share what we learned from our seminar conversation with guest lecturer Marzia Milazzo (Professor of Literature, Vanderbilt University). Through our commentary, we challenge the productiveness of colorblind attitudes and mestizaje, a political and social ideology recognizing only the racial mixture between indio (indigenous) and blanco (white) in Latin American countries and communities. Thus, in foregrounding how mestizaje was built on the colonial assumption and belief of Spanish/white supremacy and Black inferiority, we discuss the ways in which colorblind rhetoric erases the Black presence in Latin America and perpetuates a cycle of racism.

Questions to Keep in Mind

How does mestizaje inform a “Latinx identity”? How is it productive/harmful? Is mestizaje anti-black? Why does race matter when it comes to identity?”

Who do you imagine as a speaker of Spanish? How does skin color factor into our ideas of who counts as Latino, Latina, or Latinx? And how does the racialization process deviate according to different spaces and contexts?

Places to See

Inside Rosa's Store

Mural in El Bloque de Oro of different Latin American flags strewn together

Mural in El Centro de Oro

Further Context

Richly evident in the language of Latin America is a historical legacy of social prestige imparted through the empowerment of preferred phenotypes. Historian Frank Guridy notes the word mejoramiento is used to indicate racial improvement through intermarriage (Guridy 2010, p. 9). Similarly, many Latin American cultures subscribe to the notion of mestizaje, a mythology that proclaims purely Spanish and indigenous culture and ancestry . Paul Joseph López Oro, a scholar of Latin American and African American studies, affirms that the concept of mestizaje, which is falsely cited as erasing a still real racial hierarchy, is “inherently and explicitly about whitening through race mixture” (López Oro, p. 66).

There exists a top-down, social justification for continued racial inequality in Latin America. As from an institution level in Mexico, the normalized privilege and favorability of Whiteness pervades foundational conceptions of Mexico as a nation. In state-sponsored education and the ‘cultural phase’ of the Mexican Revolution, José Vasconcelos and his contemporaries defined Mexico “as a product of Indian and Spanish intermarriage, a ‘mestizo nation’ in which the African component was obfuscated” (Githiora: 2008, p. 9). In specifically describing a narrow racial mix of Spaniards and Indigenous people, the term ‘Mestizo’ indexes a dichotomy that hinges upon Whiteness as an outsider, colonial entity, and Indigeneity as an endemic entity. Still today, the institutional construct of Mestizo identity is used to describe some Mexicans as legitimate participants in the national identity. However, this same national identity purposely excludes Africans from nationhood, and obliterates some five centuries (at least) of African and Black contributions to Mexico’s history. The institutional denial of Black legitimacy influences the citizen’s conception of Blackness as undesirable for upward mobility and unworthy of respect, which over time and through generations, has resulted in internalized conceptions of Blackness as inferior, while Whiteness, stemming from the colonial encounter, gathers superiority.

Language Bank

Latinidad: This is a term to refer to a sense of Latinx identity , ones Latin-ness.

Mestizaje: “racial mixture”; a political ideology that recognizes the racial mixture between indio and blanco in Latin American countries. Built off on the colonial assumption of Spanish/white supremacy and black inferiority, claims of colorblindness and racial equality obscure the presence of racism and racial discrimination.

La Raza Cósmica: a term coined by Jose Vasconcelos in his 1920s philosophical treatise on the superiority of a new race comprised of a mixture of his conceptions of the five established races

Colorblindness: The idea that one doesn’t “see color” or that race isn’t an important factor when interacting with someone. Colorblind rhetoric can evoke the sense that you are treating someone with humanity despite someone’s race.

Liminality: The state/position of being in between two fixed and standard identities

Spanish language race terms : blanco, pardo, mestizo, indio, güera, criollo, negrita, negro , moreno, mulatto, rubia

Racialization: process of imposing racial identities/stereotypes on a person based on their perceived phenotypical race.

Blanqueamiento & mejoramiento: Translated directly as “whitening” and “improvement”, in a social and political Latin American context these terms mean whitening phenotypes through racial intermarriage and consequently achieving higher social status within the family lineage

Latinegra: identity term encompassing Latinidad, Blackness, Womxnhood, and Spanish-speaking

Arturo A. Schomburg Symposium: Premiering in 1996, an annual conference hosted at Taller Puertorriqueño is devoted to the discussion of African presence in Latinx cultural histories.

Raciolinguistics: an approach to understanding language and race as intertwined, and contributing to social behaviors. Beliefs of race manifest in language, and language is used to construct ideas of race.