Discover more from Persuasion
What Mexico Gets Right About Race
The attitude of "mestizaje," though imperfect, has a lot to teach the U.S.
Mexico’s National History Museum, located atop the monumental Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, begins with two parallel displays. One chronicles the development of pre-Columbian Indigenous civilizations; the other surveys 15th and 16th-century Spain. This entryway to Mexican history concludes with a photo collage of various Mexican people. Old and young, men and women, and, crucially, people of various skin tones, are all represented. The message is clear: Mexico is a mestizo (mixed-race) country.
In fact, Mexico is hesitant to ascribe separate racial categories onto its residents at all, either through formal means like school curricula or the census, or informally through everyday culture. This attitude is embodied in the word “mestizaje,” which refers to both the process of racial mixture and the idea that Mexicans are by definition of mixed race ancestry. Mestizaje has been the country’s approach towards race for almost a century, and was certainly the narrative I was presented with as a child before immigrating to the U.S.
Recent critics, however, have downplayed this view of Mexican identity as not only inaccurate, but as responsible for masking racial discrimination in the country. Some even suggest that Mexico would benefit from adopting the more Americanized vocabulary of systemic racism and white privilege.
In reality, America can learn much from Mexico’s distinct approach to race. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist in Mexico (it certainly does); rather, the idea of mestizaje makes Mexico far less race-conscious than America, circumventing many of the dysfunctions that U.S. racial discourse suffers from.
During the Spanish colonial era, Nueva España (present day Mexico) developed a thorough system of castas: granular ethno-racial categories based on the particular “mixing” of an individual’s parents. The label “mestizo,” for example, emerged to denote the child of a Spaniard and an Indigenous person. This system created over a dozen racial categories, which often correlated with socioeconomic status: lighter skin overlapped with wealth, darker skin with poverty.
But even at its racialized colonial beginning, Mexico’s early history was in some ways racially progressive. The independence movement in 1810 was mixed-race, with Indigenous peoples, African slaves, criollos (Spaniards born in the colony) and people of various castas revolting against Spain. Once it gained its sovereignty, Mexico gradually outlawed slavery, fully abolishing it by 1829. Three decades later, it elected a man of Indigenous descent as president—Benito Juárez. He remains one of Mexico’s most prominent historical figures.
Mexico was thus poised to adopt a unique attitude towards race. This was perhaps most notably expressed by the 20th century writer José Vasconcelos, who served as Mexico’s first Secretary of Public Education. Soon after the end of World War One—and, more importantly, the Mexican Revolution of 1910—Vasconcelos penned La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race), in which he speculated that the forces of globalization and cosmopolitanism were a harbinger of the emergence of a new universal people. Vasconcelos saw Latin America as the nexus where (what he considered to be) the four races of the world—“the Black, the Indian, the Mongol, and the White”—would form a fifth “cosmic race” that would be “more capable of true brotherhood and of a truly universal vision.” Vasconcelos described mestizaje as the process by which, though continual intermarriage, the developing cosmic race would fully emerge.
Despite building upon an incorrect racial taxonomy, Vasconcelan mestizaje articulated a new identity that was crucial to Mexico’s post-revolutionary national unification process. In addition to educational and artistic campaigns, Vasconcelos formalized the idea that being Mexican meant being mestizo. Mexico’s racial self-conception became less informed by the granular categorizations of its colonial past, and instead embraced the idea that all Mexicans were essentially one mixed race—a view which, according to a 2013 study, is still generally supported by the Mexican public.
But the ideal of mestizaje also has steadfast critics.
One of the most vocal is Federico Navarrete, an anthropologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where Vasconcelos was once rector. In his 2016 book México Racista: Una denuncia (Racist Mexico: An accusation), Navarrete argues that Vasconcelos placed European descendants and traditions on a pedestal over Indigenous cultures by ascribing the best qualities to the former and barely acknowledging the cultural contributions of the latter. The Vasconcelan project, from this perspective, tried to whitewash Mexican society, fabricating a mestizo racial identity that prioritized European ancestry and denigrated Indigenous “superstition” or “backwardness.”
Another critic of mestizaje is the actor Tenoch Huerta, who recently played the villain Namor in Marvel’s Black Panther sequel. Drawing from his own experiences navigating Mexico’s entertainment industry, Huerta, who has Indigenous heritage, stresses the prevalence of racial stereotypes in Mexican film and TV in spite of the official ideal of mestizaje. “They need thieves, they need kidnappers, they need whores. So they call the brown-skinned people to make them,” he told Vice earlier this year. He’s especially critical of “whitexicans” who downplay the realities of racism in present-day Mexico.
So which is it? Is the ideal of mestizaje a cultural achievement, or does it distract from efforts to tackle racism in Mexico?
The best critics correctly point out something essential: mestizaje should not be romanticized. Mexico may not have adopted the rigid racial categories or legal discrimination found in the U.S. during the 20th century, but prejudice and racism remain. Everyday insults like “prieto” (dark) or “indio” (Indian) bear this out. Race correlates strongly with class, and darker-skinned Mexicans are often economically vulnerable and culturally excluded. Racial divisions remain, despite mestizaje’s attempt to forge national cohesion.
Moreover, Vasconcelos’s understanding of mestizaje at times relied on disquieting, hyper-racialized thinking. It was still undergirded by an attempt to categorize populations. He invoked homogenous “races” and quickly assigned particular qualities to each, even if his end goal was “true brotherhood” between these races.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for Mexico to abandon mestizaje. Despite its limits, it provides a constructive view that both complicates and moderates the significance of race. In this respect, it is superior to the prevailing discourse in the U.S.
For one, mestizaje makes it relatively easy to remove arbitrary racial categories from Mexicans’ vocabulary, or at least make them less central to an individual’s sense of self. Even while Vasconcelan mestizaje originally invoked homogenous races, it aimed towards a future where the social divisions created by race would no longer matter. The evolution of Mexico’s narrative—from colonial castas to post-revolutionary mestizaje—has loosened the mental grip of race. It has fostered an outlook where individuals don’t reflexively see themselves as part of a few distinct groups.
Furthermore, mestizaje treats individuals as the agglomeration of a varied ancestry, as part of a mixed racial identity. It broadens our understanding by intertwining the term “race” with various identities that we typically associate with ethnicity. With the introduction of post-colonial mestizaje, culture, language, religion, and politics all became components of the new Mexican “race.” This is more than a mere conflation of terms; it’s a conception of race that is inherently multifaceted, a hefty identity that extends well beyond mere appearance.
Most importantly, mestizaje represents a less polarizing view of race relations than the American alternative. According to a narrative popular in the U.S., “whiteness” and its impositions are in tension with the status and rights of “people of color.” This framework acknowledges the reality of racism—but it is also tethered to a conflict-centric view of race relations.
Mexico’s mestizaje, by contrast, charts a path to social unity. We can rightly question whether Mexico has actually achieved it, and point out the country’s failings. Still, insofar as mestizaje aspires to free individuals from seeing themselves as part of discrete subgroups in conflict with other discrete subgroups, it serves social cohesion. Mexico’s aspiration should be to ensure mestizaje fulfills its innate promise, rather than to abandon it altogether.
Do the lessons of Mexico’s experience with mestizaje have any chance of influencing how the U.S. conceives of race? It’s difficult to speculate. The historical meaning of race is radically different for each nation, and their respective national conversations are presently at very different stages.
Even so, there is a very real possibility, as more immigrants and the children of immigrants from Mexico (and from Latin America more broadly) arrive and settle in the U.S., that we’ll have to adopt a new racial vocabulary. The way the U.S. census splits the population into a few distinct racial categories, for example, doesn't adequately capture how Latinos self-identify.
But even if mestizaje is never adopted in the U.S., its lessons still matter. It shows that the salience of race is historically contingent, and that the weight Americans place on race is not inevitable. More to the point, mestizaje proves that minorities can hold a different attitude towards their identity than the reductionist one American discourse typically assigns to us—one where race is both less central, and much more fascinatingly intricate.
Luis Parrales is a contributing editor at American Purpose and a student in the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College in Annapolis.