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Blacks, Mestizos, and Mestizaje: The Complex Backstory

from the Jan. 19, 2022 Bulletin

race and racism Mexican history

Mónica Moreno Figueroa, a Black-mestiza sociologist at the UK’s University of Cambridge and a social sciences fellow at the University’s Downing College, has focused her research on the intersectional lived experience of "race” and racism in México and Latin America. Her research also centers on antiracism and academic activism, feminist theory, and the interconnections between beauty, emotions, and racism. An award-winning teacher, Moreno Figueroa has been a pioneering advocate of education as a vehicle for social change. Since 2010 she’s helped lead the Collective for the Elimination of Racism in Mexico, COPERA, a group dedicated to making racism a higher-profile public issue. This coming march, the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish her latest book, Against Racism: Organizing for Social Change in Latin America.

Unlike the English settlers in North America anxious about their racial purity, Spanish colonialists married and mixed both freely and violently with the indigenous population beginning all the way back to the first conquistador. What does mestizo signify?

 

Monica Moreno Figueroa: Under Spanish rule, mestizo meant someone of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. New Spain also had enslaved African people, categorized as Black, who also mixed with Indigenous and whites. These mixed-race children did not carry the mestizo label — mulatto would be more common — and they entered into an intricate caste system that placed people into a hierarchy based on their proportion of Spanish blood, with Spanish at the top and Black at the bottom.

 

Mixing aimed to achieve whiteness. Here’s how it worked: The mixture between a white Spaniard and an Indigenous woman produced a mestizo offspring. The offspring of a mestizo and a white Spaniard created a castizo. A castizo and a white Spaniard would produce a white Spaniard. That is, in three generations, an Indigenous line could become fully Spanish and white and receive what was called the “certificate of blood purity” — certificado de limpieza de sangre — and secure some sense of social mobility and inclusion in the colonial order.

Did the definition of mestizo change after the Mexican Revolution?

México experienced centuries of mixing before colonial rule ended. With the abolition of slavery in 1829, the caste system ended too. All castes became one big mestizo group. And after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, mestizo was adopted as the national identity and became a building block of the new nation, to supposedly create unity without racial distinctions. The mestizo became the Mexican.

De mulato y mestiza, produce mulato, es torna atrás (Juan Rodriguez Juárez, ca. 1715)

So when we talk about mestizos and the process of mixture, mestizaje, we refer not just to a historical moment of conquest, violent colonial rule, and racial and cultural mixture, but also to a conscious ideological and political project of national formation in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After México abolished slavery, did Blacks fully integrate into Mexican society?

Black people made up a small percentage of the population, and they became dispersed throughout society. In some places, they played a middle role between Spanish and Indigenous peoples and engaged in a wide variety of service roles. In others, they formed independent freed communities in isolated parts of the country. The impossibility of having Black republics, like the repúblicas de indios, the whitening logic of mestizaje, and anti-Black sentiment left many Black people choosing to accept mixture as a way of securing their livelihoods.

But besides having those historical meanings, mestizaje has also been a racial project that continues to organize how racism works. Mestizaje, in its simplest form, makes for an assimilation project that encourages mixture as a way of becoming included in the nation. Mestizaje promotes whitening and cultural homogenizing while, at the same time, excluding the complex reality of the Indigenous and Black nations and peoples that ended up in what is now México.

Do people today recognize that racism and discrimination based on notions of race and skin color exist in México?

The Zapatista rebellion in 1994 awakened Indigenous peoples’ anger, and their uprising kicked off a Black mobilization as well. In that moment, all of México could clearly see that racial and cultural differences matter. For the first time, darker peoples realized that the promise of an integrated, meritocratic, and inclusive nation came at a huge cost to their own identities, languages, and cultures. The mestizaje project included “whitening your mindset,” and that became no longer acceptable.

 

Since 1994 the Zapatistas have led the way for seriously questioning the capitalist and meritocratic assumptions of the mestizaje national project. And since then community activists, public intellectuals, and academics have raised their voices, expanded their studies, and sharpened public awareness of our deeply unequal Mexican society and its racist underpinnings.

The second part of this interview with Mónica Moreno Figueroa will appear next week.

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