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The United States of Mestizo

By Ilan Stavans | HUMANITIES, September/October 2010 | Volume 31, Number 5

One learns little about the endless, mind-rattling permutations of the word mestizo from the simple, straightforward definition offered by the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, the official lexicographic arm of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, located in Madrid. The dictionary says the word comes from late Latin, mixticĭus, meaning mixed, juxtaposed (mixto, mezclado), and not, as some linguists assume, from an aboriginal source. It then offers three definitions, which I translate: 1. Said of a person born from parents of different races, especially a white man and an Indian woman, or an Indian man and a white woman. 2. Said of an animal or vegetable, resulting from two different races. And 3. Said of a culture, of spiritual events, etc.: Coming from the mixture of different cultures.

A few lines before, the Diccionario describes mestizaje as the crossbreeding of different races. But the dictionary ignores the intricacies of identity, a striking absence given that nowadays, mestizo is a buzz term favored by millions in Mesoamérica from lower Mexico to Central America, a region that in pre-Columbian times included multifaceted cultures with shared agricultural, religious, technological, and economic lives. A new documentary When Worlds Collide provides a suitable opportunity to meditate on the elasticity of the word. Hosted by Rubén Martínez, the film explores the vicissitudes of the concept, and the message it delivers is clear-cut: The encounter of the Old and New Worlds in the annus mirabilis 1492 not only forced the Americas into a premature modernity, it reshaped the ethnic, political, economic, spiritual, and culinary contours of Europe.

But what are the uses of mestizo? Who is referred to by the term? How do governments invest in its meaning? What epistemological wars have surrounded it? And how is the word understood in the United States, where it appears to have taken on a new life?

People in Mesoamérica perceive themselves in ways that distinguish them from the rest of the hemisphere. Although African slaves were an important racial ingredient in the hodgepodge, the dominant groups are, as Diccionario states it, the Iberian and indigenous. The conquest was a quick, successful military undertaking: Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City, in 1519, with a couple of hundred men, and within a generation, Spanish culture came to dominate, resulting in a hybrid civilization, part European, part Mexica, Maya, Olmec, Toltec, and other variants.

Mestizo fills numerous spaces of meaning. In Spain, I hear the word used to describe, unflatteringly, what people call sudacas, immigrants from South America.

The documentary suggests that cross-fertilization reshaped the landscape of the Americas, and also the way Spaniards, and by extension other Europeans, look at things. Starting with the entrepreneurial Columbus, not only were Indians brought to the Old World as indentured species, but gold and copper, and tomatoes, chocolate, and corn were also brought.

Mestizo is at the core of Mexican Spanish and is used in Mexico and by Mexicans far more than in any other national community, but it has other meanings, as when Filipinos use it for individuals who are mixed indigenous Austronesian or other foreign ancestry. Often the term becomes a synecdoche to portray the Hispanic, Francophone, and Anglophone Americas. The hemisphere, one might say, is a miscellany. But isn’t that a quality of the world entire, its jumbled nature, things having their place and time, with fusion as the beat? Is this region more of an assortment than the United States, for example?

Terms competing with mestizo are in vogue, from Puerto Rico’s jíbaro to Ecuador’s ladino, none of which mean the same thing. Actually, their connotations in history might be diametrically different. In any case, I have a Chinese-Cuban artist friend, and I’m acquainted with a Peruvian politician from Cuzco who lives in Los Angeles, both of whom describe themselves as mestizos.

While the term might be synonymous with synthesis, it can’t be used indiscriminately. I recently learned, for instance, that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth installment of the saga, when translated into Spanish, was to be called Harry Potter y el príncipe mestizo. But the publisher thought one of the characters might be misunderstood to come from Mesoámerica, so the title was changed to Harry Potter y el misterio del príncipe (Harry Potter and the Mystery of the Prince). The word, hence, means amalgamation in a specific context: Latin America. (Coincidentally, in Greek mythology, Mestizo was the name of one of the daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys.)

The word mestizo in sixteenth-century Spanish sometimes referred to children born out of wedlock, thus uniting it with the term bastard. In the colonial period, as the caste system was being established, to be a bastard signified that one’s own genealogical stream was questionable. The Hispanic world emphasized purity of blood as proof of casticismo, authentic Iberian linage. For instance, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun and unquestionably the best Spanish-language poet of the seventeenth century, born out of wedlock, probably needed to seek shelter in a convent in order to evade questions of legitimacy.

It took a long time for the idea of bastardry to metamorphose from a derogatory concept to one denoting alternative forms of pride, dignity, and self-respect. In 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos y Pavón, among other priests and activists in New Spain, launched the fight for Mexican independence from Spain, mestizo was in for a fresh start. There no longer was any shame in the fact that the majority of the country were byproducts of Iberian and native miscegenation, from married and unmarried couples. The colonial caste system had an elaborate taxonomy that included españoles, criollos, mestizos, indios, mulatos, zambos, and negros, with mestizos outnumbering all other groups added together. Majority rule established the mestizo sensibility at the core of the emergent national project.

During the first battle in the war for freedom, Father Hidalgo y Costilla carried along a flag showing an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, an icon closely linked to this sensibility. She is a Mexicanized Virgin Mary, a divine mestiza surrounded by a halo and wearing a green tunic and holding her hands in prayer. Her image is ubiquitous nowadays, and the nation understands itself as el pueblo guadalupano, the Guadalupean people.

The cinematography of When Worlds Collide is striking, in particular the section addressing La Virgen. It tells the anecdotal story of Juan Diego, an indio (Indian)—his name in Nahuatl was Cuauhtlatoatzin—having a Marian vision in which the Virgin appeared to him at Tepeyac Hill, near Mexico City, in 1531. Her asking an indio to deliver a message of love on her behalf to the Bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, speaks profusely of a merciful motherly figure that embraces all Mexicans in her heart. She is the ultimate indicator of syncretism, the conciliation of conflicting models of belief.

Mexico was the first country in Latin America to become autonomous, starting a domino effect that would continue well into the twentieth century. The independent government depicted the country’s history as mestizo-driven. In the first half of the twentieth century, the murals of Los Tres Grandes, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, mestizaje is the leitmotif: The past is depicted as a clash of civilizations, and the present as an attempt at balance. At that time, in part as a response to the spread of psychoanalysis, a debate among intellectuals ensues on the depth and complexity of the Mexican psyche. Thinkers like José Vasconcelos, Samuel Ramos, and Octavio Paz have participated, each to his own rhythm, with the ideological purpose of mestizaje at stake.

Vasconcelos might be the most influential figure in this realm. A prolific, if disorganized, philosopher whose political career included a stint as minister of education and an unsuccessful campaign to be president, he wrote The Cosmic Race in 1925. This disjointed travel book for portions of Latin America starts with a long essay called “Mestizaje,” in which Vasconcelos elaborates a bizarre, essentialist, futuristic—and decidedly unscientific—view of racial intermingling in world history. He suggests that the bronze race will conquer the world. This cosmic race, which lives in Mexico and Central America, is benign, peaceful, forward-looking, and the outgrowth of mixed marriages that started in the colonial period. At a time when racial theories were on the rise, culminating, approximately a decade later, in Hitler’s view of Aryan superiority, Vasconcelos placed the gravitas on another color, bronze, as a metaphor for a mixed ethnicity.

Samuel Ramos, instead, in his 1934 volume Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico, looked at the peladito, the downtrodden mestizo making ends meet with a few pesos, as the emblem of the nation’s soul. He studied his psychological traits and his relationship with authority (God, government, and jefe) to offer an ethnographic assessment. Octavio Paz picked up where Ramos left off in his classic study The Labyrinth of Solitude. In it, Paz discusses, without the nod to Sigmund Freud that Ramos made, Mexico’s attitude toward work, family, nature, and language. Ramos and Paz don’t engage the term mestizo in the way Vasconcelos does. While they refer to it constantly, their collective portrait invokes it by employing other categories, for instance, pachuco in Paz’s case to describe Mexicans living in Los Angeles who have “become extremes of la mexicanidad,” or Mexicanness.

The work of these three intellectuals poses an unavoidable question that is crucial in understanding the kaleidoscope through which mestizo is viewed. It has been the literary elite, mostly coming from the middle and upper classes, that has embraced the word as a valuable tool to understand politics and culture in Mexico and in other parts of the Americas. The people feel connected to the concept, but one hears it spoken more often among the educated than the common folks. La raza, the race, is a figure of speech in street Mexican Spanish that refers to the masses. Other figures, not always easily translatable, are el naco, la prole, and el pueblo. Such preferences suggest that, while Mexico does indeed perceive its sediment as mestizo, the malleable term is a construct exploited by the media and the government to give the nation, inside and out, a deliberate, easy-to-package sense of identity. This identity is then sold to tourists through movies, literature, museums, postcards, and other promotional material.

In popular culture, the Mexican psyche is best represented by several comedians. The foremost is Mario Moreno, best known as Cantinflas, whom Charlie Chaplin saw as his equivalent in the Spanish-speaking world. Cantinflas saw Chaplin’s tramp as his double in the English-language realm. The comparison only goes so far because Chaplin’s movies belong to the silent era, whereas Cantinflas’ humor depends on his chaotic speech, which, among Spanish speakers, is recognized to this day as el arte de cantinflear, the art of making sense out of nonsense. Moreno made dozens of movies that centered on Cantinflas, his peladito, to use Ramos’s typology, a savvy, unemployed urban dweller, who is always in trouble. Moreno himself was mestizo, as is Cantinflas and, consequently, the millions of people in the audience who adore him for the ingenuity with which he constantly looked disaster in the eye.

Still, Cantinflas might describe himself in scene after scene as a happy-go-lucky fellow, never as a mestizo. Again, that identity is implied, not verbalized in his adventures. The second king of mestizo comedy is Tin-Tan, a darling of the pachucada, the Mexican-American population in California, Texas, and other parts of the United States. Tin-Tan couldn’t care less about the literary elite reflecting on mestizaje, yet he took Octavio Paz at his word, making “extreme Mexicanness” the target of laughter in numerous movies. In his parlance, he constantly uses Spanglish, in itself a hybrid tongue.

And the third is Roberto Gómez Bolaños, aka Chespirito, a legendary actor who, as the Mexican film industry declined and the appeal of TV soared, created an assortment of antiheroes for the small screen, from El Chavo del Ocho, a small boy always playing with his neighbors in a lower-class vecindad, the patio of a housing project in Mexico City, to El Chapulin Colorado, a red cricket with superpowers who is always ready to help average people.

Speaking of superheroes, there is Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, who plays a luchador, a wrestler called El Santo. This serious wrestler, always wearing his signature silver mask, supports la raza against aliens, mad scientists, and corporate villains. All these are integral types of mestizo mythology, beloved in Mexico and throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Intriguingly, the conversation on mestizaje has deep roots in the United States, where the Mexican-American population exceeds thirty million and where the Mexican diaspora makes its base well beyond the Southwest, from rural areas to big cities. (One out of every four Mexicans lives north of the border.) Mestizos have left a mark in los Estados Unidos since the Christian misiones were established in Texas, California, and along the Pacific coast. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, coming after the Mexican-American War, transferred large portions of territory and the inhabitants in them from Mexican to U.S. hands. And the revolution of 1910, led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, followed, sometime later, by the Bracero Program, increased the demographic presence of mestizos on this side of the divide.

Nevertheless, awareness of a mestizo sensibility didn’t take hold in the U.S., at least in public discourse, until the Civil Rights era, when El Movimiento, the Chicano movement, stressed an essentialist collective conscience. The term Chicano itself, while etymologically distant from mestizo, is, in cultural terms, intimately linked to it: A Chicano, in the sixties, was a mestizo with a desire for self-determination. Political activists and labor leaders like César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Reies López Tijerina, and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales linked the Virgin of Guadalupe, the mixed genealogical and cultural background, and a sense of ethnic pride with a mestizo identity that was crystallizing as a mechanism of auto-determination.

Out from the Chicano movement came a theology, an educational approach that pushed for the opening of Chicano studies programs, a political alertness, and the conviction that mestizaje ought to be seen not only as a racial term but as unique view of the self. As time went by, several thinkers reflected on that view. Some were directly linked to El Movimiento, like Gloria Anzaldúa, whose 1987 feminist book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, offered fresh insights into the adaptability of the term mestiza. For Anzaldúa, it meant to live defiantly, with the conviction that a hybrid life is perfectly suited for our changing times. Another English-language essayist attracted to the word is Richard Rodriguez. He has produced a trilogy of books, including Brown: The Last Discovery of America, in which he suggests that mestizaje is, actually, a most useful category for understanding how the United States has become multicultural in recent decades.

The transformative power of the Latino minority, the largest and fastest-growing in our pluralistic United States, has had an effect on this debate. In colleges across the nation, the notion of mestizaje is part of the curriculum in Hispanic courses. A majority of Mexican-Americans are mestizos, and Mexican-Americans today are also Latinos. However, not all Latinos are Mexican-American. On one hand, the mestizo self pushes a portion of Mexican-Americans to understand themselves as separate from other Latinos, although, as in the case of Anzaldúa, they make the concept of mestizaje permeable enough to serve them as a platform to relate to other people of color. On the other hand, there are some, including Rodríguez, who suggest that mestizaje is no longer a term defining an individual group alone. It has become universal. By virtue of the cross-fertilization defining the country in its entirety, we’re all mestizos now, no matter if one comes from Bogotá, Beirut, or Jakarta.

In short, the Diccionario might think that a mestizo is a person or culture born from different races, but it is something far bigger yet less tangible: a state of mind.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the author of The Hispanic Condition, and, more recently, Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years. He is general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, which is due out in September. Next year the University of Texas Press will release What is la hispanidad?, a volume of his conversations with historian Iván Jaksić.

The documentary When Worlds Collide airs on PBS on September 27 during Hispanic Heritage Month. Cowritten by Rubén Martínez and Carl Byker, and directed by Byker, the film explores how the collision of the Old World and the New transformed the nature of ethnicity and identity in the Americas. NEH provided $682,324 in funding to the film.