Mestizaje: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Mestizaje is a complex but very important concept in the history of the Americas. In this lesson, we'll see what this has meant throughout Mexican history and to Mexican identities.

Mestizaje

Race is a difficult subject to deal with in the United States. What does it mean to identify or be identified as white or black? Americans frequently see racial categories as stagnant and immobile: 'You are what you are.'

That same mentality does not carry into Latin America. Various degrees of ethnic mixing between Amerindians, Europeans, Africans, and Asians has been a salient feature of the region's past, particularly in Mexico, which was once the center of the Spanish Empire in the Americas.

The result has been the development of a concept called mestizaje. Mestizaje means 'mixing' and refers to the mixing of ethnic and cultural groups in Mexican history. However, like Mexican ideas about racial identification, the concept of mestizaje is a fluid one, ever changing in its relation to social, political, and philosophical ideas about the nation and national identity.

The First Mestizaje

Think about this: When did American history start? Does it begin with the arrival of the English? It's an interesting question. In Mexico, that question is generally answered with the First Mestizaje.

The First Mestizaje was the initial intermixing of European and Amerindian bloodlines and cultural ideas in the Conquest of Mexico. The two most important figures here are Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Nahua mistress and translator, La Malinche (also known as Doña Marina).

Together, they had a son named Martín Cortés, who is seen as the first mestizo, this first person of mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry. When modern Mexicans ask when Mexican history began, this is often the moment they look to, but it's still a hard topic to discuss. Was La Malinche the mother of modern Mexico, or the traitor of ancestral Mexico?

In images of the Conquest of Mexico, Cortes is rarely seen without La Malinche beside him
La Malinche

This first era of mestizaje was characterized by infinite forms of exchange between Amerindians and Europeans. Through marital or sexual interaction (ranging from marriages to rape), an entire generation of mestizos was born.

In political terms, lords of the Aztec Empire were baptized and named colonial officials of the Spanish Empire. Architecturally, Mexico City was built using the stones of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Therefore, Mexico was literally built through mestizaje. The sons and daughters of the conquistadors could claim ancestry to both sides, and therefore had a legitimate sense of ownership over colonial Mexico.

'True Mexicans'

As the colony moved towards independence, frustrated colonists began rejecting Spanish identity and looked for one that was distinctly Mexican. That identity came through the concept of mestizaje- a 'true Mexican' had mixed Amerindian and European heritage.

However, this was understood in very specific terms. True Mexicans did not act like Amerindians, who were relegated to the peasantry. 'True Mexicans' claimed Aztec heritage (and not heritage in one of Mexico's other dozens of Amerindian ethnicities), but behaved like good Europeans.

That concept of mestizaje carried throughout the 19th century, utilized by the federal government to legitimize its power, evoke a sense of national pride, and excuse the violent persecution of non-Aztec Amerindian communities.

Formalizing Mestizaje

Mestizaje was a part of Mexican history, but not really a formal theory yet. That change came in 1925, when Mexican intellectual and educator José Vasconcelos published La Raza Cósmica.

In this book Vasconcelos challenged Euro-centric racial superiority by claiming that Mexicans were a fifth (and superior) race due to the mixing of all the world's people within Mexico. They were the cosmic race, la raza cósmica. This is where the concept of mestizaje was formalized as a part of Mexican political and intellectual life.

Jose Vasconcelos
Vasconcelos

Vasconcelos, and other post-revolution intellectuals, broke from the strictly pro-European view of Mexico's mixed heritage in order to elevate the rural, working class citizen as the new ideal Mexican. These people tended to have strong Amerindian identities (and not necessarily Aztec ones), so this was a big shift. Even Amerindian practices like communal agriculture were briefly celebrated in this changing concept of mestizaje.

Mestizaje and the USA

In Mexico, the concept of mestizaje remains both important and controversial, a lens through which Mexicans debate and rationalize their own history. To this day, the majority of Mexicans self-identify as ethnically mestizo. However, mestizaje is not limited to Mexico.

In 1848, the Mexican-American War ended with the USA seizing the northern third of Mexico. It became the US Southwest, but was still largely Mexican in character. Thus began the Second Mestizaje, defined by the mixing of Mexican and American cultures.

In the U.S., the concept of mestizaje is closely tied to Mexican-American and Chicano identities
Chicanos

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