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In many Latin American nations, October 12, Columbus Day, is known (or has been known) as el día de la raza , “the day of the race” . On this day in 1492, Christopher Columbus made landfall on one of the islands of the Bahamas, in what was to be called the Caribbean Sea. The very next day he described the natives as a generación (generation, connoting ancestry and descent), writing that they “are of the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white.” He carefully noted that they should be good and intelligent servants. On the way back to Spain with his indigenous chattel, the name indios (feminine indias ) emerged, because Cristobal Colón, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, insisted that he had reached India, the gateway to Asia, wherein dwelled the Great Kahn and his kingdom of riches.

On his second voyage in 1493, Columbus carried black slaves, called negro s, as well as sugar cane and cattle to the territory he named Española (now Hispañola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and though he and his fellow explorers, conquerors, and administrators named islands and territories everywhere (ignoring the native Taíno names), he and others routinely used indio as a designation for the diverse populations that could be “profitable” ( provechoso is the word used by Columbus) for the Europeans. As the geographical constructions became diversified the cultural constructions of profitable labor became condensed to indio (Indian) and negro (black). In spite of the cultural construction of Españoles (and later blanco [white]) at the top of an economic pyramid, with African Americans and Indigenous Americans on the bottom, the flow of genes among those of European, African, and Native American descent created phenotypic diversity and a system of multiculture, known in colonial times as las castas (breeds).


In The Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race (2004), Marilyn Grace Miller introduces the hubris of the Mexican educator, philosopher, and politician José Vasconcelos (1882–1959), who coined the figure of speech la raza cósmica (the cosmic race) to refer to the hybridized and whitening peoples of Latin America.

Although celebrated figures such as Simón Bolívar and José Martí had already posited equations between mixed race and Latin American identity, the 1925 publication of Mexican educator and politician José Vasconcelos’ La raza cósmica: Misión de la raza iberoamericana (The Cosmic Race: Mission of the Ibero-American Race) marked the inception of a fully developed ideology of mestizaje that tied political and aesthetic self-definition and assertion to a racial discourse at both the national and the regional levels (p. 27).

Vasconcelos specifically contrasted ideologies of Latin America, as epitomized by the homogenizing vision of Simón Bolívar, with those of North America (the United States), as characterized by James Monroe. The former saw beauty and spiritual redemption in the concept of mestizaje , in its power of lightening or improving races, while the latter saw the darkening menace of miscegenation and sought to conquer those of darker skin living in Latin America and the Caribbean through what is, to Latin Americans, the infamous Monroe Doctrine. Vasconcelos spelled this out in his book Bolivarismo y Monroísmo: Temas iberoamericanos (Bolivarism and Monroism) in 1937. His first edition of La raza cósmica was published in Paris in 1925, then in Mexico in 1948, and again there in 1966, a span of some forty years, during which period the doctrine of mestizaje , and its accompanying, if often implicit, insistence on blanqueamiento , (whitening—in racial and cultural terms) and “improving the race and culture,” became an undergirding theme of Latin American developmentalism, permeating every area of life.

According to Miller, the slogan “ Por mi raza hablará el espíritu ” (the spirit will speak through my race) was to replace the fractured unities drawn together in revolution by warlords, heroes, and political bosses, and thus restore the Mexican people to a new homogeneity. Along the way, a united continent of Latin Americans opposed to the missions of the imperial north was to emerge. The tragic flaw in this “cosmic race” notion as hubris for national identity or for a continent-wide movement of self-identity was the issue of blanqueamiento , and of its corollary concept mejor la raza (improve the race). Those classed as mestizo were stigmatized for their hybridity with Indian “blood,” or (less frequently in most countries) with African-descended phenotypes, both often referred to as la mancha , or “the stain” (of race).

The Puerto Rican poet and social critic Fortunato Vizcarrondo, in his satirical and ironical writings (published in his book of poems Dinga y Mandinga ), summarized this stigmatizing affect of ancestry with the poem “¿ y tu agüela, a’onde ejtá ?” The Spanish is folk Puerto Rican for ¿ y tu abuelo, adonde está ? (where is your grandfather from?, or figuratively, “where are you hiding your ancestors?” ) meaning “you may be lightening but we know you descend from blackness.” The latter is signaled by the concepts of “Dinga” and “Mandinga,” representing different African peoples well known by Iberians until the term negro came to subsume them. In some parts of Latin America the very concept of mestizo refers to the darkening of racial features, not lightening. This is the colonial notion of “throw back.” In fact, the figure of speech (common in both Puerto Rico and Cuba) “ lo que no tiene de dinga tiene de mandinga ” (what you don’t have of the Dinga you have of the Mandinga) denies “whiteness” to the majority of people. Hybridity, in other words, cuts both ways: People who are lightening may be said to be upwardly mobile toward desired phenotypic and cultural features, or they may be backsliding into their darker indigenous- or African-descended roots.


In the Andes of Ecuador and Peru, where the indigenous people far outnumber those of African descent, this phrase becomes “ lo que no tiene del inga tiene de mandinga ” (what you don’t have of the Inca you have of the Mandinga). To move from the “racial” to the “cultural” stigma, one may say or write, “ quien no toca la flauta, toca el tambor ” (who doesn’t play the flute [ indio ] plays the drum [ negro ]). These ditties stigmatize those classed as mestizo as either indigenous- or African-descended, or as a mixture of both. A very prominent liberal intellectual, Osvaldo Hurtado (1939–), the one-time president of Ecuador and one-time head of the Leftist Democratic political party in Ecuador, also favors the phrase in his often reprinted and updated book Political Power in Ecuador (1980, p. 325). He explicates the phrase by stating that it refers to that which is “in the blood,” which can be overcome only by cultural whitening. When he was president of Ecuador, Hurtado coined the phrase indomestizaje to refer to the populace of the country, but not to those of his upper-class position. By doing so, he consciously omitted all traces of African-descended peoples from the nation’s cultural make-up.

It should be clear by now that the doctrine, or ideology, or hubris of el mestizaje is best regarded as a polarizing symbol. From the standpoint or perspective of elites and those who are upwardly mobile with aspirations to adopt elite values, mestizos are those in the middle to lower rungs of a social ladder who have shed indigenous or African descended cultural orientations, values, dress, speech, or physical features. For those in the middle, however, who choose to move upward, blanqueamiento is their aspiration and mestizaje is their stigma. To those self-identifying as indigenous or black, mestizos are those who have shed their cultural orientation for a position to which they aspire, but which they cannot attain. This is the living dilemma of those whom many sociologists and journalists call the clase mestiza .


Perhaps ironically, as the ideology of el mestizaje gives way to an ethos of interculturalidad (interculturality) in nations undergoing transformations to respect for the plurality represented by, especially, those of indigenous and African descent, the early to mid-twentieth century forces of cultural blending are making inroads in the United States. Near the end of her book on this subject, Miller writes:

Mestizaje has repeatedly proven to be a flawed doctrine of Latin American identity that nonetheless continues to distinguish Latin Americans from their Northern neighbors. At the same time, it is newly mobilized and empowered through electronic diffusion that renders it ever more ubiquitous, so that its ideology is now pervasively felt in the United States, that same national and cultural power it was fashioned to repel” (Miller 2004, p. 142).

The transformation of mestizaje to interculturality in many Latin American nations, and its transformative manifestation among Chicano and Latina movements in the United States, suggests that the phenomena of Latin American interculturality and North American mestizaje stem from the same roots and have merged to become the same overall phenomenon. In Latin American nations, interculturality stresses a movement from one cultural system to another, whereas social and cultural pluralism and hybridity stress the institutional separation forced by the blanco (white) elite on diverse peoples. The latter is national, regional, and static; the former is local, regional, global, and dynamic. Latin American mestizaje emanates from the top of social hierarchies and stifles creativity and the celebration of difference within a nation state. But in North America, the semantics change, for the ethos—probably born in the Mexican Revolution—is a bottom-up appreciation of the multiple experiences shared by peoples of other Latin American nations within the United States.


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