Race and ethnicity in Latin America

The Three Races or Equality before the Law, ca. 1859, Francisco Laso
De español é india. produce mestizo "from Spanish man and Indian woman comes Mestizo." (Pintura de castas, ca. 1780), Unknown author
De negro é india sale lobo "from black man and Indian woman comes 'wolf' (Zambo)." (Pintura de castas, ca. 1780), Unknown author

There is no single system of races or ethnicities that covers all modern Latin America, and usage of labels may vary substantially.

In Mexico, for example, the category mestizo[1] is not defined or applied the same as the corresponding category of mestiço in Brazil.

In spite of these differences, the construction of race in Latin America can be contrasted with concepts of race and ethnicity in the United States. The ethno-racial composition of modern-day Latin American nations combines diverse Amerindian populations, with influence from Iberian and other European colonizers, and equally diverse African groups brought to the Americas as slave labor, and also recent immigrant groups from all over the world.

Racial categories in Latin America are often linked to both continental ancestry or mixture as inferred from phenotypical traits, but also to socio-economic status. Ethnicity is often constructed either as an amalgam national identity or as something reserved for the indigenous groups so that ethnic identity is something that members of indigenous groups have in addition to their national identity.

Racial and ethnic discrimination is common in Latin America where socio-economic status generally correlates with perceived whiteness, and indigenous status and perceived African ancestry is generally correlated with poverty, and lack of opportunity and social status.

Concepts of race and ethnicity

In Latin American concepts of race, physiological traits are often combined with social traits such as socio-economic status, so that a person is categorized not only according to physical phenotype but also social standing.[2][3] Ethnicity on the other hand is a system that classifies groups of people according to cultural, linguistic and historic criteria. An ethnic group is normally defined by having a degree of cultural and linguistic similarity and often an ideology of shared roots. Another difference between race and ethnicity is that race is usually conceptualized as a system of categorization where membership is limited to one category and is externally ascribed by other who are not members of that category without regards to the individuals own feeling of membership. Whereas ethnicity is often seen as a system of social organization where membership is established through mutual identification between a group and its members.

The construction of race in Latin America is different from, for example, the model found in the United States, possibly because race mixing has been a common practice since the early colonial period, whereas in the United States it has generally been avoided or severely sanctioned.[4]


A Redenção de Cam (Redemption of Ham), Modesto Brocos, 1895, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. The painting depicts a black grandmother, mulatta mother, white father and their quadroon child, hence three generations of racial hypergamy through whitening.

Blanqueamiento, or whitening, is a social, political, and economic practice used to "improve" the race (mejorar la raza) towards whiteness.[5] The term blanqueamiento is rooted in Latin America and is used more or less synonymous with racial whitening. However, blanqueamiento can be considered in both the symbolic and biological sense [6] Symbolically, blanqueamiento represents an ideology that emerged from legacies of European colonialism, described by Anibal Quijano's theory of coloniality of power, which caters to white dominance in social hierarchies [7] Biologically, blanqueamiento is the process of whitening by marrying a lighter skinned individual in order to produce lighter-skinned offspring.[7]

Blanqueamiento was enacted in national policies of many Latin American countries, particularly Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba, at the turn of the 20th century.[8][9][10] In most cases, these policies promoted European immigration as a means to whiten the population.[11]


An important phenomenon described for some parts of Latin America such as Brazil and Mexico is "Whitening" or "Mestizaje" describing the policy of planned racial mixing with the purpose of minimizing the non-white part of the population.[12][13] This practice was possible as in these countries one is classified as white even with very few white phenotypical traits and it has meant that the percentages of people identifying as fully black or indigenous has increased over the course of the twentieth century as the mixed class expanded.[14][15] It has also meant that the racial categories have been fluid.[16][17][18][19] Unlike the United States where ancestry is used to define race, Latin American scholars came to agree by the 1970s that race in Latin America could not be understood as the “genetic composition of individuals” but instead “based upon a combination of cultural, social, and somatic considerations. In Latin America, a person's ancestry is quite irrelevant to racial classification. For example, full-blooded siblings can often be classified by different races (Harris 1964).[20][21]


Very generally speaking ethno-racial relations can be arranged on an axis between the two extremes of European and Amerindian cultural and biological heritage, this is a remnant of the colonial Spanish caste system which categorized individuals according to their perceived level of biological mixture between the two groups. Additionally the presence of considerable portions of the population with partly African and Asian heritage further complicates the situation. Even though it still arranges persons along the line between indigenous and European, in practice the classificatory system is no longer biologically based, but rather mixes socio-cultural traits with phenotypical traits, and classification is largely fluid, allowing individuals to move between categories and define their ethnic and racial identities situationally.[22][23]

Generally, it can be said that in scholarship, as well as popular discourse, there has been a tendency of talking about indigenous peoples in terms of ethnicity, about Afro-minorities and white socio-economic privilege in terms of race, and about mestizos in tems of national identity. It is now however becoming recognized that processes of identity formation and social stratification in regards to all population groups in Mexico can be analyzed both in terms of race and of ethnicity.


The large majority of Mexicans classify themselves as "Mestizos", meaning that they neither identify fully with any indigenous culture or with a particular non-Mexican heritage, but rather identify as having cultural traits and heritage that is mixed by elements from indigenous and European traditions. By the deliberate efforts of post-revolutionary governments the "Mestizo identity" was constructed as the base of the modern Mexican national identity, through a process of cultural synthesis referred to as mestizaje. Mexican politicians and reformers such as José Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio were instrumental in building a Mexican national identity on the concept of mestizaje (see the section below).[24][25]

The term "Mestizo" is not in wide use in Mexican society today and has been dropped as a category in population censuses, it is however still used in social and cultural studies when referring to the non-indigenous part of the Mexican population. The word has somewhat pejorative connotations and most of the Mexican citizens who would be defined as mestizos in the sociological literature would probably self-identify primarily as Mexicans. In the Yucatán peninsula, the word Mestizo is even used about Maya speaking populations living in traditional communities, because during the Caste War of the late 19th century those Maya who did not join the rebellion were classified as mestizos.[26] In Chiapas the word "Ladino" is used instead of mestizo.[27]

Sometimes, particularly outside of Mexico, the word "mestizo" is used with the meaning of a person with mixed indigenous and European blood. This usage does not conform to the Mexican social reality where, like in Brazil, a person of mostly indigenous genetic heritage would be considered Mestizo either by rejecting his indigenous culture or by not speaking an indigenous language,[26] and a person with a very low percentage of indigenous genetic heritage would be considered fully indigenous either by speaking an indigenous language or by identifying with a particular indigenous cultural heritage.[28] Additionally the categories carry additional meanings having to do with social class so that the term indigena or the more pejorative "indio" (Indian) is connected with ideas of low social class, poverty, rural background, superstition, being dominated by traditional values as opposed to reason. Commonly, instead of the term Mestizo, which also has a somewhat pejorative usage, the term "gente de razón" ("people of reason") is used and contrasted with "gente de costumbre" ("people of tradition"), cementing the status of indigeneity being connected to superstition and backwardness. For example, it has been observed that upwards social mobility is generally correlated with "whitening", if persons with indigenous biological and cultural roots rise to positions of power and prestige they tend to be viewed as more "white" than if they belonged to a lower social class.[28]

Indigenous groups

Prior to contact with Europeans the indigenous peoples of Mexico had not had any kind of shared identity.[29] Indigenous identity was constructed by the dominant Euro-Mestizo majority and imposed upon the indigenous people as a negatively defined identity, characterized by the lack of assimilation into modern Mexico. Indian identity therefore became socially stigmatizing.[30] Cultural policies in early post-revolutionary Mexico were paternalistic towards the indigenous people, with efforts designed to "help" indigenous peoples achieve the same level of progress as the rest of society, eventually assimilating indigenous peoples completely to Mestizo Mexican culture, working toward the goal of eventually solving the "indian problem" by transforming indigenous communities into mestizo communities .[31]

The category of "indígena" (indigenous) is a modern term in Spanish America for those termed Indios ("Indians") in the colonial era. They can be defined narrowly according to linguistic criteria including only persons that speak one of Mexico's 62 indigenous languages, this is the categorization used by the National Mexican Institute of Statistics. It can also be defined broadly to include all persons who self-identify as having an indigenous cultural background, whether or not they speak the language of the indigenous group they identify with. This means that the percentage of the Mexican population defined as "indigenous" varies according to the definition applied, cultural activists have referred to the usage of the narrow definition of the term for census purposes as "statistical genocide".[32][33]


In Mexico in the post-revolutionary period, Mestizaje was a racial ideology that combined elements of the Euro-American ideologies of the racial superiority of the "white race" with the social reality of a postcolonial, multiracial setting. It promoted the use of planned miscegenation as a eugenic strategy designed (in their conception) to improve the overall quality of the population by multiplying white genetic material to the entire population. This ideology was very different from the way the eugenics debate was carried out in Europe and North America, where racial "purity" and anti-miscegenation legislation was the eugenic strategy of choice. The ideology of Mestizaje came from the long tradition of tolerance of racial mixing that existed in the Spanish colonies.[12]

The ideology was also a part of the strategy of forging a national identity to serve as the basis of a modern nation state, and for this reason mestizaje also became a way of fusing disparate cultural identities into a single national ethnicity.[34][35]

The ideology was influently worded by José Vasconcelos who in his La Raza Cósmica formulated a vision of how a "race of the future" would be created by mixing the mongoloid, negroid, and caucasian races. As the place where this mixing was already well underway, Mexico, and Latin America in general, was the center of the creation of this new and improved species of human beings, the mestizo.

See also


  1. ^ Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.) (2008). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Sage. pp. 898–902. ISBN 978-1-4129-2694-2. In sum, most people in Mexico consider themselves to be mestizos, or peoples of mixed cultural and biological descent.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.) (2008). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Sage. p. 1096. ISBN 978-1-4129-2694-2. For example, in many parts of Latin America, racial groupings are based less on the biological physical features and more on an intersection between physical features and social features such as economic class, dress, education, and context. Thus, a more fluid treatment allows for the construction of race as an achieved status rather than an ascribed status as is the case in the United States.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Nutini, Hugo; Barry Isaac (2009). Social Stratification in central Mexico 1500–2000. University of Texas Press. p. 55. There are basically four operational categories that may be termed ethnic or even racial in Mexico today: (1) güero or blanco (white), denoting European and Near East extraction; (2) criollo (creole), meaning light mestizo in this context but actually of varying complexion; (3) mestizo, an imprecise category that includes many phenotypic variations; and (4) indio, also an imprecise category. These are nominal categories, and neither güero/blanco nor criollo is a widely used term (see Nutini 1997: 230). Nevertheless, there is a popular consensus in Mexico today that these four categories represent major sectors of the nation and that they can be arranged into a rough hierarchy: whites and creoles at the top, a vast population of mestizos in the middle, and Indians (perceived as both a racial and an ethnic component) at the bottom. This popular hierarchy does not constitute a stratificational system or even a set of social classes, however, because its categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. While very light skin is indeed characteristic of the country's elite, there is no "white" (güero) class. Rather, the superordinate stratum is divided into four real classes—aristocracy, plutocracy, political class, and the crème of the upper-middle class—or, for some purposes, into ruling, political, and prestige classes (see Chap. 4). Nor is there a mestizo class, as phenotypical mestizos are found in all classes, though only rarely among the aristocracy and very frequently in the middle and lower classes. Finally, the bottom rungs are not constituted mainly of Indians, except in some localized areas, such as the Sierra Norte de Puebla
  4. ^ Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.) (2008). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Sage. p. 1096. ISBN 978-1-4129-2694-2. The variation of racial groupings between nations is at least partially explained by an unstable coupling between historical patterns of colonization and miscegenation. First, divergent patterns of colonization may account for differences in the construction of racial groupings, as evidenced in Latin America, which was colonized primarily by the Spanish. The Spanish colonials had a longer history of tolerance of non-White racial groupings through their interactions with the Moors and North African social groups, as well as a different understanding of the rights of colonized subjects and a different pattern of economic development.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Rahier, J.M. “Body politics in black and white: Senoras, Mujeres, Blanqueamiento and Miss Esmeraldes 1997-1998, Ecuador.” Ecuador, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 11.1 (1999): 103-120. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/07407709908571317
  6. ^ Sawyer, M.Q., and T.S. Paschel. “‘We didn’t cross the color line, the color line crossed us’ Blackness and Immigration in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the United States.” Du Bois Review 4.2 (2007): 303-315. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=1917568&jid=DBR&volumeId=4&issueId=02&aid=1917560&bodyId=&membershipNumber=&societyETOCSession=
  7. ^ a b Montalvo, F. F., and G. E. Codina. "Skin Color and Latinos in the United States." Ethnicities 1.3 (2001): 321-41. Print.http://www.cedla.uva.nl/50_publications/pdf/revista/80RevistaEuropea/80Chaves&Zambrano-ISSN-0924-0608.pdf
  8. ^ Agier, M. “Racism, Culture, and Black Identity in Brazil.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 14.3 (1995): 245-264. Print.
  9. ^ Telles, E.E. Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton, NJ/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006. 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-12792-7 (pbk)
  10. ^ Cuba: The next revolution [Web series episode]. (2011). In Black in Latin America. Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved from http://video.pbs.org/video/1898347038/.
  11. ^ Andrews, G.R. Afro-Latin America 1800-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  12. ^ a b Stern, Alexandra Minna (2003). "From Mestizophilia to Biotypology: Racialization and Science in Mexico, 1920–1960". In Nancy P. Appelbaum (ed.). Race and Nation in Modern Latin America. University of North Carolina Press.
  13. ^ Wade, Peter (2003). "Race and Nation in Latin America: An Anthropological view". In Nancy P. Appelbaum (ed.). Race and Nation in Modern Latin American. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 263–283. Homogeneity and diversity exist in tension with each other in discourses and practices of mestizaje. I highlight this in an attempt to nuance the opposition between, on the one hand, the nationalist glorification of mestizaje as a democratic process leading to and symbolic of racial harmony and, on the other, mestizaje as a rhetorical flourish that hides racist and even ethnocidal practices of whitening.
  14. ^ Skidmore, Thomas E. (1999). Brazil: Five centuries of Change. Oxford University Press. pp. 77–80, 102, 209.
  15. ^ Skidmore, Thomas E.; Smith, Peter (2005). Modern Latin America (6th ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 152.
  16. ^ Skidmore, Thomas E.; Smith, Peter (2005). Modern Latin America (6th ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 454.
  17. ^ Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.) (2008). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Sage. p. 900. ISBN 978-1-4129-2694-2. In New Spain, there was no strict idea of race (something that continued in Mexico). The Indians that had lost their connections with their communities and had adopted different cultural elements could "pass" and be considered mestizos. The same applied to Blacks and castas. Rather, the factor that distinguished the various social groups was their calidad; this concept of "quality" was related to an idea of blood as conferring status, but there were also other elements, such as occupation and marriage, that could have the effect of blanqueamiento (whitening) on people and influence their upward social mobility.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  18. ^ Chambers, Sarah C. (2003). "Little Middle Ground The Instability of a Mestizo Identity in the Andes, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries". In Nancy P. Appelbaum (ed.). Race and Nation in Modern Latin America. University of North Carolina Press. This blending of culture and genealogy is also reflected in the use of the terms Spanish and white. For most of the colonial period, Americans of European descent were simply referred to as Spaniards; beginning in the late eighteenth century, the term blanco (white) came into increasing but not exclusive use. Even those of presumably mixed ancestry may have felt justified in claiming to be Spanish (and later white) if they participated in the dominant culture by, for example, speaking Spanish and wearing European clothing.(p. 33)
  19. ^ Nutini, Hugo; Barry Isaac (2009). Social Stratification in central Mexico 1500–2000. University of Texas Press. p. 10. Members of the upper-middle class consider themselves and are generallyregarded by others as "white," although the class includes some individuals of light mestizo appearance ("mixed", showing some Indian and/or African ancestry) and about 5 percent with dark mestizo features. The solid-middle class presents the obverse phenotypic profile: predominantly mestizo, usually light skinned but including many individuals with noticeable Indian/African or European phenotypes. The lower-middle class, like the adjacent working class in the lower stratum, is overwhelmingly mestizo, and many of its members have very prominent Indian and/ or African features. There are also a few criollos (very light-skinned mestizos) and a sprinkling of individuals with a fully European physical appearance in these two classes. Thus, while there is a very striking increase in the proportion of European features as one goes up the social class scale in Central Mexico, there is sufficient variation within each class to prevent "race" (phenotypic perceptions) from playing a determinant role in interclass relations.
  20. ^ http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7846.html
  21. ^ "The Japanese in multiracial Peru, 1899-1942". 2009.
  22. ^ Bartolomé (1996:2)"En primer lugar cabe destacar que en México la pertenencia racial no es un indicador relevante ni suficiente para denotar una adscripción étnica específica. El proceso de mestizaje no ha sido sólo biológico sino básicamente social y cultural, por ello personas racialmente indígenas pueden asumirse y definirse culturalmente como mestizas. De esta manera ser o no ser indígena representa un acto de afirmación o de negación lingüística y cultural, que excluye la pertenencia a un fenotipo racial particular. Por lo tanto es relativamente factible realizar el llamado tránsito étnico, es decir que un indígena puede llegar a incorporarse al sector mestizo a través de la renuncia a su cultura tradicional y si sus condiciones materiales se lo permiten. Este acto supone tanto la aceptación de un estilo de vida alterno como la negación del propio, incluyendo la no enseñanza de la lengua a sus hijos. Pero muy difícilmente ocurre lo contrario; esto es que individuos fenotípicamente "blancos", pretendan reivindicar una adscripción indígena. Sin embargo, y con gran frecuencia, esas mismas personas considerarán a los indígenas como sus antepasados, fundadores de una "nación mexicana" que ahora les pertenece en calidad de herederos."
  23. ^ Knight (1990:74)
  24. ^ Wade (1981:32)
  25. ^ Knight (1990:78-85)
  26. ^ a b Bartolomé (1996:2)
  27. ^ Wade (1997:44-47)
  28. ^ a b Knight (1990:73)
  29. ^ Knight (1990:75)
  30. ^ Friedlander (1971)
  31. ^ Bartolomé (1996:5)
  32. ^ Knight (1990:73-74)
  33. ^ Bartolomé (1996:3-4)
  34. ^ Wimmer, Andreas (2002). Nationalist exclusion and ethnic conflict: shadows of modernity. Cambridge University Press. pp. 115. This new politicisation of ethnicity finally led to the peculiar form of multi-ethnic nationalism that we find in present day Mexico.
  35. ^ Poole, Deborah (ed.) (2008). Companion to Latin American Anthropology. Blackwell publishing. pp. 3. Most notably, by the late 19th and early 20th century, some anthropologists and intellectuals in Latin America began to articulate theories concerning the "vigor" and resilience of their countries’ mixed or mestizo races as a productive counterpoint to the charges of racial inferiority leveled against them by those who believed in the natural superiority of the European or "Anglo-Saxon" races. Although these proponents of mestizaje subscribed to the same doctrines of racial determination that drove European racial theories, they did so in the interests of defending the "civilizational" achievements of their nations and region.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)


  • Knight, Alan. 1990. "Racism, Revolution and indigenismo: Mexico 1910–1940". Chapter 4 in The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940. Richard Graham (ed.) pp. 71–113.
  • Wade, Peter. 1997. Race and Ethnicity in Latin America. Pluto Press.
  • Bartolomé, Miguel Alberto. (1996) "Pluralismo cultural y redefinicion del estado en México". in Coloquio sobre derechos indígenas, Oaxaca, IOC.[1]
  • Friedlander, Judith. 1975. Being Indian in Hueyapan: A Study of Forced Identity in Contemporary Mexico. New York: Saint Martin's Press.
  • von Vacano, Diego. 2011. The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American/Hispanic Political Thought (Oxford University Press).
  • Leibsohn, Dana, and Barbara E. Mundy, “Reckoning with Mestizaje,” Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1820 (2015). http://www.fordham.edu/vistas.

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