Publication Date

October 1, 1997



Contributing Editor's Note: This essay not only delineates a structure and language for teaching about race in Latin America, it also represents a useful introduction for historians looking to strengthen the Latin America portion of their world civilization surveys.

Race has been entangled in every major issue of politics, religion, gender, economics, and culture in Latin America for the past 500 years. I teach an upper-division one-semester history course at Kent State University that seeks to explain Latin American race relations from a political standpoint. Students are challenged to explain whose purpose was served by the construction of racial categories through an examination of the Hispanization of the Indians and the Africans, the transmutation of indigenous ways in Spanish America in a manner that allowed for collective survival, and the transmission of African cultures, customs, languages, religions, and labor practices to the hostile environment of the Caribbean and Brazil. Although I argue that race is an outcome of political struggle, the course does not focus on grand political events. Our subjects are the actors of social history—ordinary men and women who challenged racial and sexual stereotypes. The history of race in Latin America should not be allowed to degenerate into the victimology savored by some academics, nor need we accept the rhetoric of "racial democracy" repeated by politicians on national holidays. The historian's task is to trace the evolution, and sometimes revolution, of race relations across time.

I taught this class for the first time in spring 1996. Most of the students who signed up had not taken a course on Latin America before. Their assumption, like that of many Americans, was that Latin Americans all belong to one race, or to the contrary, that language and religion are the only features that separate Latin America from North America. I proceed to point out that historians have actually identified three kinds of racial categorization used in Latin America: (1) phenotype—race defined by physical characteristics, chiefly skin color and the shape of lips, hair, and nose; (2) genetics—also known as the "one-drop" rule, whereby having a single ancestor belonging to the "inferior" race was enough to have oneself classified as part of that group; and (3) sociocultural status—racial identity conferred by formal education, language skills in the dominant tongue, religion, wealth, custom, dress, and manners.1Which categorization prevailed depended not so much on the goodwill of the dominant group but on the ability of people of color to resist the stigmatization associated with their race.

The Precolonial Triple Heritage

A course on race relations in Latin America should start with a broad survey of the indigenous, Iberian, and African populations on the eve of conquest, emphasizing their cultural uniqueness and also the political limits to their view of themselves and outsiders as members of a separate race.

The civilizations of the Aztec and Inca had enough in common to allow for useful comparisons with their European conquerors: large urban centers that served as political, administrative, religious, and commercial capitals; an economy run on intensive agriculture; social classes and estates based on distribution of economic surplus appropriated by the ruling class through tribute collection; a monarchy that monopolized the legal use of violence, but ruled through provincial units of political organization—thecalpuli in Central Mexico and ayllu in Inca territory— that were based on ethnic, religious, and economic specialization; and an organized religion, with a cosmogony that attempted to give a rational explanation for the origins of the civilization. For both groups, the concept of an Indian “race,” based either on biology or culture, lacked any meaningful context. (The disappeared civilization of the Maya is treated separately when I touch on Yucatan in our readings.)

Spain is also a modern invention. Before 1492 it did not feature a national labor market or currency, and hardly any trans-regional trade. The ruling class ofhidalgos (nobles) made money through pillage and other forms of extralegal expansion. Spanish cities had won a great deal of autonomy from the national state, and fueros (legal and political privileges held by local elites) limited the outreach of state power. Only the Catholic Church and the experience of the Reconquista (reconquest) of the Iberian Peninsula from Arab rule infused Spaniards with a sense of national unity, albeit weakly. Race was not the crucial element in defining a Spaniard. Nationality was seen largely as a matter of faith and birthplace; Spaniards were not Moslems or Jews, and most Iberians identified themselves by place: region, city, or town.

Portugal, Spain's next-door neighbor, had a longer tradition of national identity but one built on weaker foundations. Its territorial boundaries had remained virtually the same since the Middle Ages, and the monarchy underwent only two changes of dynasty after 1200. But with only one million inhabitants in 1500 (the year of Pedro Cabral's arrival in Brazil), Portugal could scarcely hope to shape the overseas societies it had conquered, and was more concerned with India and Africa than with the South American colonies.

The heritage of Africa—animistic religions, farmer and herder societies, mutual family and clan obligations, and the spread of Islam and Christianity—was vital to the shaping of Brazilian and Caribbean societies. The instructor should survey ancient African economies, religion, and political systems so students may understand why Africa was chosen as the site for the transatlantic slave trade, and the economic capacities and technical knowledge of Africans that allowed their implantation in the Americas. Slavery should be treated as an institution common to all three continents—Africa, Europe, and pre-Colombian America— but which devastated Africa once it was transformed from a domestic institution into an international chattel trade.

The Colonial Background

Race relations after 1492 evolved according to the economic needs of Europe, changing demographic ratios between the three populations, and political organization within each community. The ideal of limpieza de sangre (biological and cultural purity) and the segregation of the races in Spanish America clashed with the practical reality of running an empire. The myriad racial categories devised by the Spanish authorities—mestizo, castizo, mulatto, quadroon, and other castes—indicated the inability of state and church to stop the blurring of racial lines and the entry of the “mixed-races” into areas of life from which their caste status should have barred them. The status of a caste came to be associated with other features besides bloodlines, such as occupation, residence, wealth, and religion. Mestizo became a cultural, not biological category, determined largely by behavior. Likewise, mulattos were reserved a special status in Spanish America and Brazil, as opposed to British North America, not due to any particular Spanish or Portuguese cultural affinity for dark-skinned people, but because the severe labor shortage in these areas meant they had to perform jobs that Indians and poor whites would have performed elsewhere.

Probably the biggest myth that survives about colonial race relations is that of the total collapse of the Indian world after 1492. "Indian" as a racial category is a Spanish invention, resulting from what the conquerors saw as the overthrow of the indigenous people through demographic collapse, land grabs for the formation of haciendas (great estates), enforcement of the labor tribute system of encomienda, subjugation of national and regional political institutions, eradication of indigenous religions, and the gradual replacement of Indian languages. But although the conquest did reorder Indian society at the highest levels of economics, politics, and culture, it did not eradicate Indian ways. Recognition and use of native elites was a vital necessity for the Spaniards to exploit indigenous labor. The Indian nobility in Mexico and Peru acquired Spanish honorific titles of Don and Doña, won the right to intermarry with the conquistadores, and kept a portion of the tribute labor. Indian commoners maintained their way of life intact after the conquest by consciously maneuvering through the interstices of the Spanish state, church, and society. Precolonial provincial and subprovincial political units served as the basis for the encomienda, town, and parish districts, allowing Indian mayors and town councils to function under Spanish direction. The indigenous people were also active in the world of the church. Indian political leaders often allied themselves to the secular and regular clergy against Crown officials, while others held minor but symbolic church offices.2

The great contradiction confronting Africans in the New World was that, although by phenotype they were the ethnic group most removed from Europeans, they were much closer to their masters than the Indians in the practices of everyday life. Legally Africans were chattel slaves, but soon they assumed the role of intermediaries between Europeans and the indigenous population. Africans in Spanish America served as soldiers, supervised Indian workers on the hacienda, and managed domestic servants in the town house. The shortage of labor in urban areas eventually led to the creation of a class of skilled black craftsmen who could purchase their own freedom.

The social life of slaves in Brazil is especially instructive in illuminating the survival of African ways in the Americas. On the plantation, godparenthood and coparenthood, both common to the peoples of Africa, substituted for the shattered extended family. In the large cities the innandades (lay brotherhoods; cotradias in Spanish America) sponsored by the Catholic Church granted slaves, free blacks, and mulattos a degree of autonomy by permitting them to assemble on holidays, gather funds for the less fortunate, and elect a leadership to observe the rituals of their particular saint. African languages mixed with Portuguese provided a lingua francathat kept African practices alive, particularly through the religious ceremonies of Candomble, Macumba, and other Afro-Brazilian syncretic faiths.3

Modern Latin America: A Second Conquest and New Resistance

The 19th century witnessed a second conquest of the Indian and African peoples. Independence from Iberia led to further dependence for these subaltern groups. In Argentina, some Indians fought in the gaucho ranks against the Spaniards, while in Mexico, Indians and mestizos followed the rebel priests Miguel Hidalgo and José Morelos. But these were the exceptions; few of the Creole independence leaders dared to stir up the indigenous population with talk of liberation. Afro-Latin soldiers fought on both sides of the South American wars. Simon Bolivar, although he led a multicolored army, promised abolition to the slaves of Nueva Granada only after the Spaniards had done so, and at the end of his life expressed fears that Venezuela would become a pardocracia (mulatto republic).

The transformation of the Indian majority into mestizos and the marginalization of the emancipated African population constituted the two great trends of 19th-century racial history. Both were ultimately the product of changes in the global economy: the reorientation of the hacienda away from domestic markets toward exports, and the beginnings of industrialization in Latin America.

Mestization in Mexico, Central America, and the Andean republics was tied to the presence of valuable export products that drove the Indians out of their villages and into the market economy; for example, the mining sector in Mexico, guano in Peru, and coffee in Central America. Mestizos also formed the majority of the rural proletariat and the informal semiproletariat in the cities. The mestizo was now identified not by ancestry but socioeconomic status: bilingualism; Catholicism of the orthodox, not syncretic, variety; residence in the rural towns or cities; and new European styles of dress and fashion.

Blacks in Latin America found the freedom that came with abolition to be deceptive. The modernization of the sugar industry in Brazil from labor-intensive plantations to the capital-intensive factory system spelled disaster. Former slaves were regarded by white employers as unreliable and more likely to resist industrial discipline, and many wound up living in shantytowns employed at menial tasks in the service sector. Black women were even worse off. Those who had previously worked in the plantation fields or served as domestics saw their jobs vanish, and this period witnessed a diminution in their social position vis-à-vis black males.

The economic boom in Latin American exports in the second half of the 19th century caused the elites to ponder why their nations were not following the path of economic stability and political order trodden by the advanced capitalist countries. The philosophy of positivism and its cult of progress seemed to offer a plausible explanation. If the measure of civilization was industry, and if technology was available to all nations, then Latin America's backwardness had to be due to cultural factors. Indians, Africans, and mixed- bloods lacked the requisite mentality to adapt to industrial civilization. National progress thus depended on forcibly assimilating these "barbarians" into the dominant culture or physically removing them from society.

The indigenous and African peoples under siege from modernizing elites did not passively accept their degradation. Indigenous communities from Mexico to Chile combined archaic and modern methods of preserving their economic and political autonomy, including the resuscitation of the traditions of ancestor worship, animism, and millenarian movements; appealing to the national government against abusive local officials; litigation—law suits as well as "mock trials" of hacendados and corrupt officials; adopting European forms of warfare such as fortified defenses; starting a system of tax collection to forge inter- Indian unity; making alliances with local and regional caciques (political bosses); and the restoration of precolonial forms of economic and political organization such as community plots and popular councils.

Less research has been done on Afro-Latin forms of resistance to white hegemony in the post-abolition period. Blacks and mulattos, who during the colonial era had been culturally closer to the Spaniards than Indians and mestizos, now found themselves hurled to the margins of society by the need of the elite to catch up with Europe and the United States. Attempts at independent political organizing met with savage repression. The "Race War of 1912" in Cuba, in which thousands of Afro-Cuban militants were massacred in a matter of weeks, was the most dramatic example of how white rulers responded to demands for racial equality.

Denied direct political expression, black resistance focused on preserving family life, religion, and culture. The strength of the black family allowed for the formation of autonomous communities composed of extended households who zealously defended their freedom from the white world. In many parts of Spanish America blacks chose their own local jefe (political boss) who traded votes for economic favors from the white ruling class. Blacks were also adept at negotiating for their value as laborers. A black community located in an economically valuable area usually selected someone who would haggle over terms of employment, often through a mulatto contractor. Black economic life outside the wage economy needs to be explored further by historians, including the exploitation of natural resources through subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing, and trade networks.

Course Assignments

The case studies of race relations examined in my course are the Mayan Indians of southern Mexico—Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula—from the mid-19th century to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, blacks in Cuba under slavery in the 19th century, and Afro-Brazilians from emancipation in 1888 to the 1960s. The Maya afford a chance to study how indigenous people combined militant and subtle forms of resistance—armed struggle, religious revival, and political alliances with "revolutionary" elites—to preserve their own identity. Nelson Reed's The Caste War of Yucatan is both an exciting yarn and a profound historical investigation of how the modern Mayans fought back against the intrusion of the mestizos and succeeded in forging their own theocratic state that lasted for nearly half a century. Mexican anthropologist Ricardo Pozas’s Juan the Chamula tells the heartbreaking tale of a Chiapas Maya who participates in the Revolution of 1910 and unwittingly brings the modern world into his own community. Both volumes stress that no matter how many times the Maya were trounced politically and militarily, their defeat was never final, because they had a culture more resilient than that of their enemies, a fact recent events in Chiapas have once again dramatically confirmed.

Cuba's development as a slave society with a black majority population serves the historian well in documenting the interplay of social class, race, and gender in Latin America. A parallel African world coexisted beneath Spanish hegemony, with its own religion, language, martial arts, and political leadership. Verena Martinez-Alier's Marriage, Class, and Colour in Nineteenth-Century Cuba is a demanding work of social anthropology that may be too difficult for some students, but it does prod them into thinking of how racism and sexism reinforce each other, and the ways in which men and women of color exploited the contradictions of colonial society to facilitate social mobility. Biography of a Runaway Slave, the story of Esteban Montejo as told to Cuban anthropologist Miguel Barnet, illustrates how the struggles for abolition, national liberation, and social revolution in late 19th-century Cuba became intertwined, sowing the seeds for Fidel Castro’s triumph in 1959. Particularly fascinating are Montejo’s recollections of how the blacks’ constant attempts to outwit their masters fed a growing political consciousness that led them to embrace the Cuban independence movement.

Brazil begs consideration for a different reason: to test the claim made by the proponents of Latin American "racial democracy" that miscegenation provides the only viable solution to racism. Some Brazilian historians view their country as a glorious counterpoint to the legal segregation once found in the United States. Others see a false stability produced by centuries of denial of the problem of racism by Brazilian whites. Carl Degler's thesis of the "mulatto as escape hatch," presented in Neither Black nor White: Race Relations in Brazil and the United States, has come under challenge since the book was published.

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