Theories of mixture; mestizaje

Posted by: | February 8, 2009 | Comments Off on Theories of mixture; mestizaje

Before starting, I have to say that I found these two articles extremely interesting although they clearly arguing in favour of two very different opinions. Despite there are numerous points which I do not agree with, The Cosmic Race written by José Vasconcelos is a surprisingly impassioned and confident text. I was really stunned to see how confident is the author accumulating arguments that appear to me as highly controversial and contradictory. Actually, his text is full of strange and even shocking opinions for instance the so-called virtues of Christianity in terms of civilizing peoples (p5)!

The attractive theory of the author is that the four main races of our world are going to mix and create a ‘fifth universal race, the fruit of all the previous ones and amelioration of everything past’ (p 9). The destiny he sees for humanity is a pretty optimistic and brilliant one. However, the process he describes is especially focused on one race, his own. Latin America has to recover his unity and to lead the fusion ‘of all peoples ethnically and spiritually’ in a new assimilated human kind. He sees LA as an ethnically homogeneous region which sounds like an unusual conclusion. Thus this mission belongs to the Latin civilization which has proven a greater tolerance towards ethnic differences and a tradition of assimilating all peoples into the national construction rather than destroying dominated races. The mixture of races that became a fundamental characteristic of Latin America since the colonization is the example that should lead the creation of a new synthetic race and the reason why this mission has been given to Latin America.

Although he explains that Latin America does not have an aim of racial domination but a universal mission of racial mixture, there is a clear underlying assumption about a Latin superiority. The way he speaks fosters racial hierarchy. Only Latin people have been able to integrate every race (which is easily contestable). All the qualities necessary to the formation of the fifth race are possessed by ‘the mestizo people of the Ibero-American continent’ (p38). I really felt a constant glorification of his people and its qualities. I personally have trouble with the idea that a global mestizaje has to be led by a single ethnic group; it sounds really contradictory and dangerous to me especially when he starts speaking of selection within the reproduction process.

Apart from that, what really strikes me is the idealistic mysticism that characterises this text. The author sounds like if he was preaching and many allusions are made to religion. Latin America has a ‘divine’ mission and possess ‘a fine aesthetic sensitivity and a profound love of beauty’ necessary for the process. Christianity serves as a justification and the text is extremely messianic. One should also point out how much Vasconcelos is influenced by historical determinism. He thinks that History has an aim and that there is ‘a law of history‘. The problem I have with his speech, although the idea of a universal integrated race is really attractive, is that he is presenting a complete utopia as something inevitable, necessary and dictated by the law of History and divine providence. The first example of historical determinism that comes to my mind is socialism. This theory also predicts an end to History and an historical pre-determined drive. Preaching for something that we consider as a divine mission and an inevitable outcome, especially if the carrier of the change is a racial group in particular, is a dangerous prod to authoritarianism.

Finally he has a very curious way of interpreting History. ‘Spanish colonization created mixed races, this signals its character, fixes its responsibility, and defines its future. The English kept on mixing only with the whites and annihilated the natives’. I believe that mixed race relations actually occurred in North America even if obviously the oppression he describes is true. But Spanish colons did not have a better behaviour towards indigenous. Moreover the following independent national construction that was glorifying mixed race identities has carried on raising questions of racial hierarchy and differentiation.

Rethinking Mestizaje is by contrast very academic and referenced. The reflexion presented by Peter Wade is highly complex and interesting. I think that it answers and contradicts some points made by Vasconcelos, but also goes further than that. The author explains that the concept of ‘mestizaje’ has many different meanings and possible interpretations. Basically, what Vasconcelos forgets is that a process such as mestizaje almost always contains tensions between spaces of homogenisation and differentiation.

Scholars have usually analyzed ‘mestizaje’ as an official discourse of nation formation, described as an ‘all-inclusive ideology of exclusion’ which is a very interesting formulation. This is precisely why I tried to say about Vasconcelos’ idealist view of Latin American’s mixture of races; a lot of people think that nationalist ideology of mixture perpetuated the marginalisation of racial minorities. The author explains the ‘dependence of the ideology on its excluded others’. Indeed, ideology reconstructs racial categories supposed to disappear with mestizaje because ‘it is impossible to conceive processes of mixture without recourse to ideas about origins and roots’. One can also distinguish another face of mestizaje which is a ‘resistant’ one locating ‘mestizo America within indigenousness’. I would personally tend to be more convinced by the first analysis focusing on the elite discourse and the use of the concept of mestizaje in order to serve white interests. That is why I criticized the glorification made in the first article about racial mixture in Latin America. I do agree with the author when he says that ‘the discourse of national homogenisation includes within itself complementary discourses of differentiation’.

However, his analysis is much more complex and maybe more optimistic as well. He shows how the concept of mestizaje also has a reality in everyday lives. Through different examples he describes how origins combine and shape ‘embodied persons’. Ethnic/racial differences and crossbreeding are experienced by people and constitutive of their identities. According to the author this is what provides a process of inclusion, because people share this ‘sense of shared mixed-ness’. Thus he proves that there is more in the process of mestizaje in Latin America than an underlying exclusion.

Having said that, he does recognize that whiteness remains favoured and that hierarchies of power still exist, ‘which tend to limit the nature of the space blackness and indigenousness can occupy’. I think that this last sentence is a nice answer to the first article; ‘Mestizaje is a space of struggle and contest. It is not a reason for automatic optimism or for Latin Americans to feel benevolent about their societies simply because mestizaje can have inclusive effects’.


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