Mestizo: Definition, History & Culture

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  • 0:00 Definition of Mestizo
  • 0:54 Historical Origin
  • 2:20 Mestizos by Country
  • 3:09 Notable Mestizos
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels. He has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

In this lesson, we will discover that mestizo is a common racial category in Latin America. We'll learn its origin in the Spanish colonies, how common it is in different Latin American countries, and discover some famous mestizos in history.

Definition of Mestizo

In 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes overthrew the Aztec Empire in Mexico and set up a Spanish colony. At his side was a Native American woman named La Malinche who served as his translator. Although she was given to Cortes as a slave, La Malinche played an influential role in helping him conquer this massive Aztecan Empire with only a small army. The relationship between Cortes and La Malinche grew romantic, eventually producing a son, Martin. This baby, Martin, became one of the first examples of a mestizo, a racial category used in Latin America to describe those with both Native American and European Spanish ancestry. The word roughly translates from Spanish to English as 'mixture.'

Historical Origin

When the Spanish began to colonize Latin America, they created a social class system for regulating their newly conquered territories. They used a racial system to rank people in the New World. At the top of the social pyramid were white peninsulares, or Spaniards born in Spain, followed by white criollos, or the children of Spanish born in the New World.

The mestizo population were the next highest social class. These were the children of Spanish and Native Americans. Very quickly, the mestizo population became the numerical majority in Latin America, although they still had less power than peninsulares and criollos.

Underneath the mestizos in the class system were indios, or Native Americans; negros, black slaves brought from Africa during the slave trade; and mulattoes, the children of Spaniards and black slaves.

Based on recent genetic tests, most European heritage of mestizos is traced through the male y-chromosome, whereas most Native American heritage is traced through the female x-chromosome. This is consistent with historical accounts because the vast majority of Spanish colonizers in the New World were men seeking gold, God, and glory. Given the high ratio of men to women coming from Spain, it is not surprising that Spanish men sought relationships with Native American women.

Mestizos by Country

In each Latin American country, a different percentage of people identify as mestizo. In Paraguay, Honduras, and El Salvador, more than 90% of the population identify as mestizo. Other countries that have a high percentage identifying as mestizo are Panama (70%), Nicaragua (69%), Venezuela (67%), Ecuador (65%), and Colombia (58%).

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