The story of race and nationalism in Latin America is much more complicated than meets the eye. Join us as we dig in. 

Transcript for Race and Nation in Latin America: Whitening, Browning, and the Failures of Mestizaje

Written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Marissa: It’s 1974. Colombian historian and sociologist Orlando Fals Borda is ecstatic. He’s just discovered a forgotten portrait of Colombia’s former president, Juan José Nieto Gil in the damp basement of the Inquisition Palace at Cartagena. This was quite the find. There was no color portraiture of Nieto Gil, only one black and white photograph. But something was wrong. Nieto Gil’s painted face was a strange tint of whitish-blue. Surely this was some kind of alteration, Fals Borda mused, because he knew something that many Colombians did not know: that Nieto Gil was black.

Indeed, nearly 150 years before the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the USA, Juan José Nieto Gil served as the fourteenth president of the United States of New Granada (as Colombia was called back then). Nieto Gil was the first black president of the Americas. But in 1974, few Colombians knew anything about him. This was not a simple oversight, Fals Borda was sure of it. The figure of Nieto Gil, America’s first black president, had been deliberately obscured from Colombian history.

Juan Jose Nieto Gil, President of Colombia in 1861 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Juan Jose Nieto Gil, President of Colombia in 1861 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Justiniano Durán had carefully painted Nieto Gil’s official presidential portrait from life some time around 1861. After Nieto Gil’s death in 1866, his portrait was sent to Paris for an alteration, intended to make it look more “distinguished.” This is where his face acquired the strange whitish-blue tint observed by Fals Borda over 100 years later. Once the portrait was returned to Colombia, there was very little interest in it. Eventually, it ended up being abandoned in the Inquisition Palace. Just as his dark-faced portrait was lightened, the reality of Nieto Gil’s African ancestry was obscured and lost to history. Fals Borda was intent on rectifying this wrong. He had the portrait restored, that is re-darkened, that year.

Marissa: It wasn’t until 2018, however, that the restored portrait and Nieto Gil’s black ancestry, was recognized and celebrated by the Colombian state. In August of that year, former president Juan Manuel Santos presided over the installation of a replica of Nieto Gil’s original portrait to the presidential palace in Bogata. Perhaps the 19th-century Colombian authorities’ effort to erase the African roots of its fourteenth president is unsurprising to those who know Latin American history. But the story of race and nationalism in Latin America is much more complicated than meets the eye. Join us as we dig in.

I’m Marissa

And I’m Elizabeth

Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

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Marissa: There are few ideologies more important to the history of Latin America than nationalism. To early moderns, this statement would have been surprising. While European countries were centralizing and consolidating along national lines, Latin America remained a decentralized, politically heterogenous colonial holding ruled by Spain and Portugal. Few could have imagined that the various viceroyalties that made up the Iberian empires would one day declare independence and coalesce around their own national identities.

To be fair, it took quite some time, an entire century, before the independent states of Latin America developed a durable, stable national identity that held their societies together. One of the biggest impediments to nationalist sentiment was Latin America’s complex racial hierarchies, called castas. For most of the colonial period, Latin American societies were pigmentocracies, a system that links skin color with honor, virtue, and calidad– which translates to “status.”

Elizabeth: The Latin American castas were, in one sense, a bastardization of the Iberian concept of blood purity. Seven months before Cristoforo Colombo made landfall on the island of Hispaniola, Spanish monarchs Fernando and Isabel (known in English as Ferdinand and Isabella), completed their Catholic Reconquista, or Reconquest, of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim Moors. While Muslim rule was over in Spain, the 700-year Reconquista had inexorably shaped Iberian society.The Spanish and Portuguese became suspicious of so-called “New Christians,” whose families had not always been Christians. This suspicion gradually formed into a sort of hereditary caste system. Old Christians, families who could prove that they had no Jews or Muslims in their ancestry, were considered to be “of pure blood.” All others: conversos (recent Jewish converts to Catholocism), moriscos (recent Muslim converts to Catholicism), and all of their descendents had polluted bloodlines. Families with impure blood were discriminated against by civil and ecclesiastical statutes.

Marissa: This culture of blood purity hitched a ride on the backs of the conquistadores as they conquered and colonized the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries. While the New World was an ethnically diverse place from the start, the arrival of enslaved Africans after 1502 amplified this diversity considerably. In this environment, the concept of blood purity was plucked from its religious context and applied to racial and ethnic mixture. But this took some time.

In other words, castas developed organically over centuries of colonial rule and they didn’t  reach their peak of complexity until the second half of the 18th century. This makes sense since the 18th century one of intellectual exploration, collection, and classification in Europe. Philosophers like Denis Diderot, taxonomists like Carl Linneus, and zoologists like Georges Cuvier sought to discover, catalog, and organize the synthetic, plant, and animal worlds. An outgrowth of this impulse was the growing science of human taxonomy. Applying the scientific method to the study of human difference, human taxonomists sought to label and arrange humanity into species and races. Latin American societies were well-positioned as objects of study for human taxonomists because of their racial diversity and long history of racial and ethnic mixing, called mestizaje.

Eizabeth: Historian Ruth Hill has traced these scientific efforts and their impacts on Latin American society. According to Hill, iIf the cultural origin of castas can be found in ideas of Iberian blood purity, their scientific origin can be found in folk notions of animal breeding. For example, early modern animal breeders had developed “degeneration equations” after generations of experimentation. They figured out how many reproductive cycles it would take to turn a purebred animal into a base breed, with no trace of its purebred ancestry visible. In colonial contexts, animal breeders also observed the impact of climate on the appearance of their brutes. The same was done with plants. Spanish monk Benito Feijoo y Montenegro, for example, wrote:

“The seed of wheat planted in less fertile soil produces a grain very inferior in shape, color, flavor, etc., that they call rye. The seed of cabbage grown in good soil, planted in another that is less suitable, produces in the first generation cabbage not as good as that from which the seed was taken; in the second, it already produces wild cabbage; and in the third and fourth this same plant starts deteriorating so much that these wild cabbages, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the cabbage, appear to be vegetables of a completely different type from their grandparent and great-grandparent. Why couldn’t the same thing happen, in proportion, to men?”

Marissa: Now, “degeneration” has a negative connotation but in this context, degeneration could be both “good” and “bad.” In the case of a purebred horse, for example, its continual crossings with mixed breeds would erase its purebred blood entirely after a few generations. If purebreds are your goal, which it often is in the case of horses, degeneration is bad. (Alert: this next bit is offensive as hell and these are not our ideas but, rather, the ideas of early modern contemporaries). But in the colonial Latin American context, degeneration was often welcome, depending on where the original “purebred” human’s race fell on the racial hierarchy. For example, an African-born person (analogous to the purebred horse for 18th-century scientists) might be able to erase their black blood over time by mixing with whites (blancos) or biracial people (mulatos). After three or four generations, there may be no trace of blackness left in the African’s descendents because their black blood had been degenerated to the point of no return.

Casta painting showing 16 hierarchically arranged, mixed-race groupings, with indios mecos set outside of the orderly set of "civilized" society. Ignacio Maria Barreda, 1777. Real Academia Española de la Lengua, Madrid.
Casta painting showing 16 hierarchically arranged, mixed-race groupings, with indios mecos set outside of the orderly set of “civilized” society. Ignacio Maria Barreda, 1777. Real Academia Española de la Lengua, Madrid.

Elizabeth: This was called blanqueamiento, or whitening, when it was applied to humans. During Latin America’s colonial history, whitening was regarded as the goal. Hill’s work suggests that Latin Americans (or at least those who maintained power and left copious records) were preoccupied with degenerating, or whitening, black and brown blood. A vibrant print culture emerged wherein naturalists argued about how many “crossings” were required to “clear” black or brown blood. Missionary and naturalist José Gumilla argued that four “crossings” were needed to breed a white person from a black or brown person. Jean-Baptiste Labat argued that whites could be bred from indios (Indians) in merely three “crossings.”

During the eighteenth century, typologists began to doubt that black blood (as opposed to Indian blood) was capable of whitening. These anxieties are depicted in famous Mexican castas paintings. In these paintings, the fourth crossing (which earlier experts believed would achieve whitening, at least in the case of the indio) did no such thing for descendents of blacks. Instead, an octoroon (1/8th black) male and Spanish (white) female birthed a Torna atrás or “throwback.” As Ruth Hill puts it “a fugitive blackness resurfaces,” indicating the “depth of Negrophobia” in late-eighteenth-century Mexico.

Marissa: Hill also explains, “This black torna-atrás couples with a Spaniard and produces the tente-en-el-aire (literally, “stay up in the air”), also known as grifo (literally, “griffon,” a canine breed)… who has one-thirty-second of black ancestry and yet marks a very visible regression to blackness… All descendants of the black tente-en-el-aire remain in that category no matter how many times they have children with Spaniards.” She continues, writing that this “revealed the inexpungible essence of blackness: it cannot be cleared from the human body; whites cannot be bred from blacks.” What’s more is that “blackness grafted onto Amerindian ancestry also renders the latter impenetrable to whiteness.”[1]

Elizabeth: In some senses, whitening was an ideology but it was also a colonial policy and a strategy for social mobility. In the colonial period, whitening policy typically took the form of manipulating census data. For example, in the 1793 census of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (which includes present day Mexico, Southwest USA, central America, and the Caribbean) purposely omitted the category negro (black) from the census. In Mexico City, the only category associated with blackness was mulato. According to official census information then, blacks had disappeared from Mexico City.

Marissa: Members of less desirable castas could often use this census manipulation to their own advantage, claiming membership in the mejor castas (upper castes.) One royal official in charge of the Texcoco census described his census-taking process thusly: “I have indicated groups [castas] español, castizo, mestizo, pardo, etc. using the declarations of residents themselves as my guiding principle, although some have given me cause to suspect that they did not tell me the truth.  In the census from Tepetlaoxtoc, Your Honorable Viceroy will see a town full of Spaniards, but whether they are or aren’t, they are certainly well-to-do, they live honorably, and if some abrogate for themselves a higher rank [mejor casta], they have valid legal titles to support it.”

Elizabeth: Census-takers agreed to uphold colonial subjects’ racial fictions to preserve their calidad (status). The same official also wrote: “This would be an odious process, and were it conducted rigorously, very dark stains erased over time would be revealed in the most distinguished of families, with this precision resulting in scandalous filings that, once bound over to the courts, would never end. I view the charge of conducting censuses for the establishment of militias as one of giving honor rather than taking it away.” Historian Mara Viveros Vigoya explains, “whiteness was also a matter of reputation, since a person could be white if they were considered to be so publicly.”[2] So even though this was an incredibly hierarchical society that privileged whiteness, it was also a place where race was fluid and changeable.

Las castas. Casta painting showing 16 racial groupings, 18th century, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.
Las castas. Casta painting showing 16 racial groupings, 18th century, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

Marissa: This values system remained even after the 1820s when Latin American countries declared independence from Spain and expelled the Spanish peninsulares from the Americas. One might this this would revolutionize the racial landscape. In some ways, it did, at least the way that racial categories were legislated. The categories of indio and esclavo (slave) had been the defining categories prior to independence, tying black and brown bodies to the lower castes. And indeed, there was a brief period of racially inclusive politics during the revolutionary wars but this did not last long. While Latin America successfully emancipated themselves from direct European rule, the white criollos (creoles) who retained power continued to value European culture and science which elevated whiteness above all else.

Elizabeth: The middle third of the 19th century was a tough time for the fledgling nations in Latin America. European-style republican government did not translate easily to the Latin American context. Revolutionary criollos lost faith in their liberal visions. (By liberal we mean classical liberalism: free market, civil liberties, secularism, and individualism.) This was partly due to their recognition of Latin American demographics. They believed in the abolition of slavery, expansion of the franchise, and a federal political structure. But they doubted that indios and negros were capable of the kind of political participation they’d witnessed in the United States and France. One exception to this was Haiti, which had established the first black republic in 1804 but Haiti’s revolution was bloody, tumultuous, and their republican project somewhat doomed by a failing economy. White, criollo Latin American revolutionaries were not keen to use them as an example. As Historian Peter Wade describes it, “[criollos] saw their black and indigenous populations as inferior and their large mestizo populations as a burden.”[3]

Marissa: These doubts were especially compelling to the criollos governing areas with large indigenous populations (like Mexico and Peru), and those with large Afro-latino populations (like Brazill and the Caribbean). For most of Latin American, the answer to these anxieties and the only way to bolster the legitimacy of the many new nation-states, was to turn to regional caudillos (which translates to strongmen). The middle third of the nineteenth century saw caudillo after caudillo seize power using military coups. During this turmoil, national projects were often put on hold but blanqueamiento persisted.

It was during this time that national discourse coalesced around mestizaje. Mestizaje, meaning miscegenation or racial mixing, was something that had been happening since the 15th century. But colonial authorities, and then criollo revolutionaries, had always considered Latin America’s racial mixing to be a liability rather than an asset. This began to change during the nineteenth century. It would be a mistake, however, to view these nineteenth-century Latin American nations are some sort of post-racial utopia. By the late 18th-century, mixed populations became the dominant demographic so authorities bent on strong nation-states could no longer afford to ignore them.

A Redenção de Cam (Redemption of Ham), by Galician painter Modesto Brocos, 1895, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. The painting depicts a black grandmother, mulatta mother, white father and their quadroon child, hence three generations of racial hypergamy through whitening. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A Redenção de Cam (Redemption of Ham), by Galician painter Modesto Brocos, 1895, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. The painting depicts a black grandmother, mulatta mother, white father and their quadroon child, hence three generations of racial hypergamy through whitening. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Elizabeth: For some countries, those with large indigenous and afro-latino populations, the fight for whitening was over before it began. They resigned themselves to pursuing a policy of mestizaje, or racial mixing, instead. In these years, mestizaje was often a pragmatic solution pursued by authorities who recognized the importance of nationalist feeling to the cohesion of the nation-state. Artists also contributed to a sense of national feeling, publishing art and literature, called costumbrismo, that celebrated national folkways. For example, here is an excerpt from an 1855 publication called A Mexican Self-Portrait:

“Mariquita lives in a rented room, and she keeps the door open, because cleanliness is her strong suit, and that applies to her person, her clothing (and not just the outside layer), and her living quarters. Her room is small, but its floor is spotless. There is a bed in one corner, with modest linens, scrupulously clean. Beside her petticoats, her shawl, her sewing basket, and a few romantic novels. Her necklaces may or may not be there, depending on the day of the week, because they are regularly in the pawn shop except for Sundays, when she finds money to rescue them temporarily before pawning them again on Monday or Tuesday.”

Marissa: Costumbrismo was believed to capture the national essence, to transcend race and class, and regional difference. By mid-century, regionalism gave way to nationalism as caudillos such as Argentina’s Juan Manuel de Rosas and Mexico’s Porfirio Diaz and their republican analogs consolidated power on a grander scale. These nationalist governments were republics in name but they functioned as dictatorships or oligarchies. This disingenuous veneer was often reproduced in the person of the president or prime minister.

One example is Mexico’s Benito Juarez, who was full-blooded Zapotec. One would be forgiven for assuming that this was a triumph for indio representation but Juarez was no crusader for indigenous rights. He wore rice powder on his face to lighten his complexion and did little or nothing to improve the lot of indigenous Mexicans. Juarez pursued a classical liberal agenda, attacking military and church courts, and abolishing collective landholding in favor of individual property rights. Moreover, he was chummy with the United States. Napoleon III had been invited by Mexican conservatives to invade Mexico in the 1860s. He installed Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico. Once the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States finally had the bandwidth to help their ally, Juarez.

Elizabeth: Juarez was a contemporary of Jose Nieto Gil, the black president of Colombia that we mentioned at the top of the show. Much like Juarez and his indigeneity, Nieto achieved the presidency IN SPITE OF his blackness, not because of it. This explains why his portrait was whitened in Paris after his death. National discourse had reverted to mestizaje out of necessity but that doesn’t mean that racism was any less virulent. During this period, mestizaje was often treated as a vehicle to blanqueamiento rather than as an ideology to replace it. Wade describes this so well: “elites could not escape the mixedness of their populations– although this varied markedly from one country to another, being more prominent in Mexico than Argentina or Chile. Mixture could however be defined as a process of whitening. The perceived superiority of whites would tip the nation’s biological and cultural balance in their favor, helped by European immigration.”[4] And it’s worth pointing out that most national programs of mestizaje excluded black latinos, focusing instead on mixing indio and blanco blood, especially during the 19th century.

After the conservative triumph of the caudillos in the middle third of the 19th century, liberalism rebounded and grew more attractive to most Latin Americans. Latinos witnessed the monumental economic, industrial, and political successes of liberal Europe (and after 1870, the United States) and they wanted a piece of the pie. But liberal reforms would be necessary to open up Latin American economies to the free market and beef up their infrastructure. Having experienced disappointment during their first attempt at importing liberalism to Latin America, most latinos believed that in order to modernize successfully, they needed to whiten their population, assimilate the indios, and invite European influence over Latin American economies and states.

Marissa: As Wade suggests, an optimistic approach to genetic blanqueamiento was paired with attempts to make their demographics more European. This was, itself a form of whitening with origins in racial and environmental determinism. They believed that their supposed racial inferiority would determine their success as a nation. This is also rooted in environmental determinism. Modern science suggested that cultures living in tropical climates were, and would always be, primitive, lacking the hallmarks of modern civilization. So Latin Americans have a chip on their shoulder: they view themselves as imitators of European and North American culture.

Elizabeth: So many Latin American countries actively recruited European immigrants to transform their demographics. From 1870-1930, Latin America welcomed 4.2 million immigrants from Italy, 3 million from Spain, and 1.2 million from Portugal.[5] South American countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil were most successful in their European immigration campaigns. More than 5 million of these 10 million or so immigrants had come to Argentina. By 1914, 30% of the Argentinian population was foreign-born and there was a vibrant hybrid culture in Buenos Aires, with a new dance called the tango and a pidgin language called lunfardo. Montevideo, in Uruguay, was much smaller than Buenos Aires but culturally similar.

Marissa: While this New Immigration movement happened in the United States as well, New Immigrants to South America did not live in ethnic enclaves once they arrived as they did in American cities. Immigrants often mixed together, living in conventillos, which were old colonial mansions that had been converted into tiny one-room apartments. Historian James Scobie describes the census information for a Potosi Street conventillo thusly:

“The 207 inhabitants of this conventillo filled thirty rooms and took up the same floor space which one well-to-do family of ten to fifteen members and five to ten servants would have occupied. Some nuclear families lived in individual rooms: a Spanish washerwoman in her sixties with four children, the oldest of whom was widowed and lived here with his six year-old Argentine-born son; an Italian shoemaker with his wife and three children, all born in Italy; a French mason and his French wife (a washerwoman), and their four children, all born in Buenos Aires; a widowed Spanish washerwoman and her five children, the three oldest born in Uruguay and the youngest two in Buenos Aires. More common was the group of men, some single and others married to wives they had left in Europe, who had banded together to form a single room.”[6]

Elizabeth: With Latin America’s demographic whitening well underway, all that was left was economic and industrial modernization. Most Latin American countries did not have the expertise or extensive capital to invest in infrastructure to support an industrial revolution like that in Britain or the United States. So they invited British, French, and American investors to build up Latino economies. From 1870-1913, British investment in Latin America went from 85 million pounds sterling to 757 pounds sterling; an increase of nearly 900%.

Comparing Latin America to Europe and North America (where liberalism also triumphed): Latin America remained comparatively agricultural, comparatively less urban, political agency remained contained to an elite few (suffrage mostly very limited); Latin American cities (though growing fast) were not as industrialized as European and North American cities—industry took place in the countryside in foreign “company towns” since the economy revolved around export of raw materials rather than the manufacture of finished goods (a few exceptions).

Marissa: Thus, blanqueamiento became part of achieving European-style, modern states and industrialized economies. And foreigners became deeply involved in Latin American economies and politics. Here, Latin American governments entered what is often called their neo-colonial period. This period- in almost all Latin American countries, is characterized by whitening efforts, and low racial esteem among Latinos. With their investments of capital, Europeans and Americans essentially BOUGHT political influence in Latin America. Most countries were run by either oligarchies deeply loyal to foreign business interests or dictatorial strongmen (similar to the caudillo-style rule but on a national level rather than regional). Elections were generally managed (aka rigged) and foreign investors were incredibly powerful, elevating or destroying domestic politicians at will. Dictatorial strongmen, like Mexico’s Porfirio Diaz for example, were often from marginalized groups. Diaz was himself mestizo. But they never represented indigenous or Afro-latino interests.

Elizabeth: The neo-colonial period had several impacts on Latin American society that are worth mentioning here. First, the modernization of upper-class elites. Historically, upper class elites were content to sit back and rake in passive profit from their landholdings. These elites were never interested in political power. They had always left that to the Spanish/Portuguese, and then later to the rebel creoles, then to the military/caudillos. Now, elites sought both commercial success and avenues of political power. They lived very elegant, European lifestyles with mansions, pianos, fancy furniture, china, fine art, automobiles, etc. And they were highly educated, especially in the fields of law, medicine, engineering.

Marissa: It was in response to this period of neo-colonialism that a new racial ideology, called indigenismo, emerged. During the early 20th century, indigenous majorities in countries like Mexico  and Peru rose up and rejected foreign investors and blanqueamiento policies pursued by their apologists. The indigenismo movement generally advocated for greater authority for Indians in countries where they constituted a majority of the population. But, as all things are, it’s complicated, and there are some really nasty sides of indigenismo ideology as well.

Indigenismo and mestizaje came to operate in tandem in the 20th century. In Mexico, Central America, Peru, and the Caribbean, immigration campaigns were less successful. Blanqueamiento appeared to be outside of their grasps. And they didn’t even want that anyway. They began to perceive whitening as one of the many racist remnants of their colonial pasts.So those countries- Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, etc. leaned into mestizaje, now with an emphasis on indigenismo, or “browning” of Latin America rather than whitening. Indigenismo and mestizaje became new rallying points for national cohesion, ones that, in countries like Mexico and Peru, was more inclusive of their population.

Elizabeth: This concept was especially potent in Mexico, which experienced the Mexican Revolution in 1910. In response to the European and American economic interference, exploitation, and racism, Mexicans revolted against Mexico’s pro-US dictator Porfirio Diaz. Diaz’s rule, called he Porfiriato (1876-1911) served as the height of foreign investment and racist policy in Mexico. A rising, educated, urban middle class coalesced around Fransisco Madero’s challenge to Diaz in 1910. Mexican peasants, led by charismatic revolutionaries, joined the political tumult in its second phase, after Madero ousted Diaz but failed to institute land reform. Mexico is the only country whose nationalist movements extended to the peasantry in the early 20th century. Peasants in the North coalesced around Pancho Villa and peasants in the south coalesced around Emiliano Zapata. Mexico was thrown into a state of civil war. While the moderate, middle-class Constitutionalists eventually emerged triumphant in 1920, the near-universal involvement of the Mexican citizenry had transformed Mexico’s ideology of race.

Marissa: In a way, the Mexican Revolution signaled the triumph of indigenismo and mestizaje over blanqueamiento. Artists like Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera embraced the philosophy of indigenismo, which they incorporated into their revolutionary politics. To Frida Kahlo, whose father was German and mother an indio, mestizaje represented the two parts of herself. In her painting “The Two Fridas,” Kahlo depicts two versions of herself, one dressed in the white, delicate lace of a respectable Spanish lady, and the other dressed in the course, peasant clothing of an Indian or mestizo peasant. The two Fridas are connected by a blood vessel, perhaps representing the blood Frida shares with both Europeans and the indios. But the European Frida suffers from a diseased heart, while the indigenous Frida’s heart is strong and healthy. The European Frida clamps a blood vessel emerging from that diseased heart, lest it empty her European body, and eventually her indio body, of the rest of their blood. But this state of affairs can’t last forever. European Frida’s artery clamp forestalls inevitable bleeding out of both the European and Indio Frida.

Elizabeth: In more recent decades, Kahlo’s insistence on wearing Mexican peasant clothing and hairstyles and her self-professed revolutionary politics have been called into question by resentful indigenous Mexicans who ask “what has Frida Kahlo done for actual indigenous Mexicans?” It’s true, the answer is: not much. And, in hindsight, her pretenses reek of privilege. She was an upper-middle-class intellectual elite who identified with the figure of a Tehuana, a strong but poor Zapotec woman. Her Tehuana persona was, according to her, manufactured: “I’ve never been to Tehuantepec, nor do I have any connection to the town, but of all Mexican dresses, it’s the one I liked the most, and that’s why I wear it.” While her ideologies about mestijaze and populist rule were, arguably, sincere, after her untimely death, her aesthetic has grown into a marketable commodity, a “brand” that Kahlo would not have, herself, recognized.   

1937 photograph by Toni Frissell, from a fashion shoot for Vogue entitled “Señoras of Mexico.” Public Domain.

Marissa: Some scholars even describe renewed 20th-century approaches to mestizaje as mestizofilia– an obsession with racial mixing. Mestizofilia is best encapsulated by José Vasconcelos’s best-selling book, La raza cósmica, in English, “The Cosmic Race,” published in 1925. Vasconcelos argued that racial mixing would eventually result in what he called “a fifth race.” This fifth race would be a mixture of all the races that had inhabited the Earth up to that point, and it would benefit from all of the knowledge imparted onto it from its multi-racial forebears. For 1925, a time when racism was rampant, whiteness was king, and eugenics was all the rage, Vasconcelos’s ideas were radical. But, still, they fell short for many latinos.

The more that mestizaje developed, the less inclusive it tended to be, excluding Afro-latinos, and other ethnic minorities like Jews and Chinese who had arrived as part of the New Immigration movement. While indigenismo is usually perceived as a celebration of indigenous heritage and culture, in practice, it was often quite destructive to actual indigenous people. Indigenista sociologists and anthropologists prioritized indigenous communities and demographics in their studies. Political activists, too, began to privilege indigenous communities in their outreach efforts. But in doing so, they often attempted to change or modernize indigenous culture and society “for their own good.”

Elizabeth: This drive to include Indians in the national conversation was a deliberate move. Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio called for a new nationalism in 1916 that would “combine Mexico’s disparate population in a solid patriotic union.” Historian Stephen E. Lewis calls Gamio anthropology’s first “mestizophilic indigenista.” Gamio mapped out the indigenous communities living in rural Mexico, fixing them to a spectrum from “primitive” on one end to “civilized” on the other. His goal was to assimilate indigenous communities into the national framework.

The result is what Lewis calls “the contradictory attitudes of a mestizo-majority nation that reveres the historic contributions of past indigenous civilizations and recognizes a historical debt to contemporary indigenous people but also embraces a particular kind of mestizaje and a decidedly Europeanized notion of modernity and “progress.”[7]

Marissa: Indigenistas like Kahlo and Gamio may have had noble intentions but their approaches were flawed, even harmful to historic indigenous people. What’s more is that their ideologies: mestizaje, indigenismo, browning, etc. were, themselves, racist and exclusionary to an increasing number of latino nationals. Historian Robert Cottrol illustrated this phenomenon perfectly with the following anecdote:

“Señora María Magdalena Lamadrid, “Pocha” to her friends, is a fifth-generation Argentine. On August 22, 2002, at 10:00 in the morning, she went to Ezeiza Airport, Buenos Aires’s principal airport for international travel. She was planning to attend a conference in Panama honoring

Martin Luther King Jr. When she presented her documents to airport officials, she was told that her passport must be a forgery. One official told Pocha, who was then fifty- seven years old, that because she was black, she could not be Argentine. She was detained for six hours, three of them in a holding cell. Airport officials asked her if she spoke Spanish. When they found she did they asked if she were Peruvian. Finally after having taken her fingerprints and having her citizenship verified by the police, airport officials were satisfied that Pocha — whose family has been in Argentina longer than probably 70 percent of the nation’s population — was indeed

an Argentine. They apologized. Their apologies did not make up for the  indignities she suffered or her trip, which was ruined. She had missed her flight and was unable to get another in time for the conference. Later airport officials would claim it was not Pocha’s race that made them suspicious but recent changes to the Argentine passport that caused their concern. But Pocha’s memory is clear. The officials would not believe a black woman could be an Argentine. She must be a foreigner, perhaps from Peru or some other nation, but certainly not Argentina.”

Elizabeth: Pocha’s story suggests that, similarly to the United States, Latin American countries have stories that they tell themselves about who they are. In Argentina, where blanqueamiento was largely successful through extensive European immigration, this story excludes the very real and significant contingent of Afro-Argentines. It’s much the same in Uruguay and Venezuela. Areas like Brazil or Cuba, where majorities of the population are of African descent, the traditional formulation of mestizaje – mixing of white and indigenous blood– never worked. So they made their own, more inclusive mestizaje that made room for Afro-latinos within the national framework. But areas where indigenismo reigned supreme because they had large indigenous populations, like Mexico and Peru, Afro-latino or Asian-latino inclusion in the national consciousness remains a failure.


Bryant Sherwin K Rachel Sarah O’Toole and Ben Vinson. 2012. Africans to Spanish America : Expanding the Diaspora. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Bryce, Benjamin and David Sheinin. 2021. Race and Transnationalism in the Americas. Pittsburgh Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Chasteen John Charles. n.d. Born in Blood and Fire : A Concise History of Latin America. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. c2011.

Coronado Jorge. 2009. The Andes Imagined : Indigenismo Society and Modernity. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Cottrol RJ. The Long Lingering Shadow : Slavery Race and Law in the American Hemisphere. Athens Ga: University of Georgia Press; 2013. Accessed December 7 2022.

Godreau Isar P Mariolga Reyes Cruz Mariluz Franco Ortiz and Sherry Cuadrado. 2008. “The Lessons of Slavery: Discourses of Slavery Mestizaje and Blanqueamiento in an Elementary School in Puerto Rico.” American Ethnologist 115–35.

Gies David Thatcher and Cynthia Wall. 2018. The Eighteenth Centuries : Global Networks of Enlightenment. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Hernández Tanya Katerí. 2013. Racial Subordination in Latin America : The Role of the State Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Miller Marilyn Grace. 2004. Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race : The Cult of Mestizaje in Latin America (version First edition) First ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Odile Hoffmann and Rinaudo Christian. n.d. “The Issue of Blackness and Mestizaje in Two Distinct Mexican Contexts: Veracruz and Costa Chica.” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 138–55.

Viveros Vigoya Mara. 2015. “Social Mobility Whiteness and Whitening in Colombia.” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 496–512.

Wade Peter. 2017. Degrees of Mixture Degrees of Freedom : Genomics Multiculturalism and Race in Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press.


[1] Ruth Hill, “How Long does Blood Last?” pp. 84-86; Peter Wade, 178-9

[2] Viveros Vivoya, p. 499

[3] Wade, 180.

[4] Wade, 180.

[5] Chasteen, 288.

[6] James R. Scobie, Buenos Aires: Plaza to Suburb, 1870-19010 (New York: Oxford University Press. 1974), 51.

[7] Stephen E. Lewis, Ch. 5, No Place in the Cosmic Race? P. 92

1 Comment

Sophia · December 6, 2022 at 3:44 pm

This was an amazing podcast.I really appreciate your love for history

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