The Myth of Mestizaje

November 27, 2020   •   By Federico Navarrete, Ellen Jones

FEDERICO NAVARRETE’S Racist Mexico: An Accusation is an uncomfortable and provocative read. Published in Spanish in 2016, the book aims to awaken the national consciousness to the reality of Mexico’s systemic racism — a phenomenon whose existence few people are prepared to admit. Navarrete, who is a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Historical Research, shows that racism is a daily reality in Mexico, one that makes itself felt as much in private conversations as in exclusionary public policies. Through original analyses of links between racism and some of the better publicized atrocities of recent years, including the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa and the string of femicides in Ciudad Juárez, this book is a response to those who claim that racism does not exist in Mexico, and a frank criticism of the official narrative regarding cultural mestizaje, which he argues perpetuates social injustices and entrenches the privileges of the elite. In this excerpt from the second half of the book, Navarrete scathingly recounts “the myth of mestizaje” — the idea that all Mexicans belong to a single race, a harmonious fusion originating in the violent coupling of Spanish conquistadors with Indigenous women. He argues that this false idea of racial unity, which the book goes on to debunk thoroughly, has for years disguised the country’s ethnic diversity and plurality. — Ellen Jones


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Every Mexican has been hearing and reading about this myth ever since they were a child — at school, at home, in the news, and in history books — to the point that we’ve learned to take it for an unquestionable truth.


According to what we were told, and what we continue to be told — by our parents, teachers, and too many historians and intellectuals — we are all mestizos because we are all descended from a Spanish conquistador father, no more and no less than the implacable and fearful Hernán Cortés, and a conquered, Indigenous mother, our very own La Malinche, Cortés’s beautiful but traitorous local interpreter.


The most lurid versions of this tale, such as the one told by Octavio Paz in his famous work The Labyrinth of Solitude, even claim that our dad raped our mom and that all Mexico’s exemplary inferiority complexes derive from that foundational violence against our familial and national identity.


The myth goes on to claim that from this difficult union were born the mestizos, a new class of human beings who would combine the best attributes of the two races that constituted them.


Since its birth, the vocation and purpose of the new mestizo race has been to unite in its breast the two races that created it, the Spanish and the Indigenous, and to fuse them permanently in the crucible of its “syncretic” identity. What is more, ever since 1521, our unstoppable mestizaje has been successfully absorbing the various waves of immigrants arriving on our shores. Thus, the Africans brought over as slaves became “afromestizos,” and Asians and other immigrants were “incorporated” in some way or another into the mestizo race. This biological mix has also had cultural consequences, because we mestizos have absorbed certain qualities from every community that has arrived on our shores and integrated them into our own culture.


Indeed, from the point of view of the myth, this racial and cultural mixture is part of a single process of human fusion that creates hybrid beings and cultures — by necessity distinct from the cultural matrices from which they derive. As such, mestizaje changed not only the Mexican body but also its religion (creating a “syncretic” Christianity), its culture (creating a national “mestizo” culture), its ways of eating, thinking, and living.


The mestizo inheritance, however, is evidently lopsided. From our Spanish father, we received virility, strength, an adventurous spirit, reason, the “brilliant” culture of the West, and a long list of admirable qualities; from our Indigenous mother, all we inherited is an artistic sensibility, love of the earth, resistance to pain and suffering, and a considerably shorter and less impressive list of a few further attributes.


Over the course of several centuries, the mestizos became more aware of their profound originality and exceptional destiny. They finally took up the reins of the country that was wholly theirs. In fact, Mexico’s history could and should be understood as the history of the triumph of mestizaje and the mestizo race. With Independence, the mestizos shook off the Spanish yoke, and with liberal Reform and the defeat of the French invasion, they freed themselves from “criollo” and foreign rule. After the triumph of Benito Juárez, an Indigenous man turned mestizo, and the long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico could no longer deny its true racial identity; it adopted mestizaje as its vocation. Only once it had definitively melded the opposing races, which would otherwise be condemned to mutual hatred and extermination, could Mexico be saved from the horrible race wars devastating other Latin American countries, and from the despicable racism being perpetrated in the United States.


Finally, the 1910 Revolution consolidated mestizo power, and the regime it bore set in motion a cultural and social project that clearly reflected Mexico’s authentic mestizo character.


The myth also maintains that the mestizos, in turn, are the sole architects of Mexico’s brilliant future, because progress and national modernization — without ever losing sight, of course, of their proud Spanish and Indigenous roots — are their specialities. In particular, they have learned to boast about their glorious pre-Hispanic past, showing it off to the whole world when they want to emphasize their unique identity. But they must never let themselves be trapped by those autochthonous origins; that would make them a dead weight that would impede their progress.


The same is true for Catholicism and especially devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, our very own “morenita” sent directly from heaven to bless mestizaje. The mestizos must be able to recognize and honor our Catholic and Guadalupean identity without becoming paralyzed by it. Because one thing is certain, absolutely certain, and that is that the brilliant future awaiting them belongs firmly to Western culture and liberal capitalist modernity, such as is practiced in “civilized’” countries in North America and Europe, which we ought increasingly to resemble.


According to the myth, being Mexican means being mestizo and being mestizo means being Mexican. Those groups which have not integrated into this racial and cultural mix, which have insisted on holding themselves apart on account of excessive love of their traditions — such as Indigenous peoples — or because of an unfounded belief in their own superiority — such as the “criollos” and certain immigrants — are, for that same reason, a threat to national unity and an obstacle to the fulfilment of Mexico’s historical destiny.


In the name of the mestizo nation’s racial integrity, proclaimed by the myth of mestizaje, Mexican governments of the 20th century designed ambitious policies to “integrate” those who refused to become part of the nation’s racial majority. The study of Indigenism was conceived in order to convince Indigenous peoples to evolve and voluntarily transform themselves into mestizos, promising them a better life as part of the homeland’s “majority.” Modern educational policy was directed toward the “criollos” who refused to integrate into the racially unified nation and recalcitrant Catholics still cleaving to their “superstitions,” “ignorance,” and “backwardness.” Both initiatives were backed up by a combination of incentives, such as the offer of health care or support for local businesses.


The government did not hesitate to use force to repress those who openly resisted or rejected the outstretched hand of the mestizo State, such as the Yaqui rebels or the Cristeros. These conflicts were frequently described in providential terms, as a “crusade” that sought to “redeem” a backward and ignorant people.


At the same time, our governments were also looking for ways of excluding those immigrants they considered to be inferior and not sufficiently open to integrating into the mestizo nation, such as Asians, Africans, and Jewish people — which is to say, almost all non-European immigrants. “Europeans,” of course, were able to make a positive contribution to the betterment of the mestizo race.


The great mission of the revolutionary governments of the first half of the 20th century was to construct a great, racially unified country, proud of its roots but with its gaze fixed firmly on a progressive and modern future. In the voices of their most exalted representatives, such as José Vasconcelos, that task acquired a cosmic dimension. The legendary mestizo’s work did not stop at emancipating his country from the oppressive yoke of defunct Indigenous traditions, of religious fanaticism and foreign oppression: it was also to become a shining example for the rest of the world, a precursor of future humanity and its inevitable and desirable racial mixture. It would be a “cosmic race,” beginning a new era of spirituality the world over.


This universal transcendence, attributed to mestizaje by the myth, was the confirmation of the exceptional nature of our country and its history. According to its apologists, the Mexican mestizo was a globally unique creature, an unparalleled example of integration between conquerors and conquered, blessed by the miracle of the equally peerless Virgin of Guadalupe.


The same legend, however, stipulated that, in order for mestizos to fulfil so exalted a mission, constant vigilance was necessary. The risk was that the racial mixing would begin to head in the wrong direction, and instead of selecting the best qualities of each race — principally the white race — it would fall prey to their defects and vices — especially those inherited from Indigenous peoples.


For that reason, mestizaje must be led by modern science and eugenics (a medical and social discipline, now thoroughly discredited, that tried to control the way human populations reproduced in order to eliminate undesirable characteristics and improve the “racial quality” of the population). A thorough education would root out bad practices, primitive “dialects,” and the prescientific beliefs of Indigenous peoples and the few mestizos still clinging to their “Indian” roots (as well as certain Catholics who are too tied to their “superstitions”). In the most brutal terms, the task of scientists and of government was to whiten the “Indians,” but never, under any circumstance, to “Indianize” or darken the white people.


Certain versions of the myth, however, also warn of the risk of succumbing to the other extreme. Excessive whitening — complete Westernization — and mestizos would risk losing their identity, their particularity, that which makes them truly exceptional at a global level. For this reason, Mexicans must always remain proud of their Indigenous ancestry and jealously defend the magnificent ruins and startling monoliths they have inherited, the colorful codices and folkloric dances. That said, this pride should go no further than posters promoting the tourism industry, fairs, and exhibitions such as Mexico: Thirty Centuries of Splendor, so as not to obscure in the slightest the nation’s modern, Western future.


The myth demanded of our mestizo a posture worthy of a contortionist, or perhaps typical of a two-faced and somewhat schizophrenic Janus. That is why defenders and friends of the new national race have, ever since the beginning of the 20th century, been worried about its health. Philosophers and psychoanalysts have diagnosed every single symptom of its neurosis, every one of its manias and every trace of historical trauma.


Despite their cosmic exceptionality, Mexican mestizos turned out to be, in the eyes of philosophers, doctors, and men of letters, coarse plebeians, neurotic hypocrites, violent misogynists who scorned their violated mother and couldn’t help but identify with their conquistador father, so admired and so feared. Lost in the labyrinth of their own solitude, mestizos were unable to achieve true greatness without the paternal care of the State and the disinterested advice of cosmopolitan intellectuals.


Meanwhile, the myth complained that it was treated as an irresponsible minor with strong criminal tendencies and that only those in the know could reprimand or guide it, only moralists could police it incessantly, and only a one-party political regime could rule over it in authoritarian and paternal fashion. Only such guardianship would permit, in a future always promised but never attainable, the real mestizos — the plebs, the lowlifes — to truly achieve the heights of their historic mission and their cosmic vocation as a race.


FIVE THESES DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF MESTIZAJE


In what follows, I present five theses that aim to demonstrate the falsity of the history built around the myth of mestizaje and to debunk the racist, as well as sexist, prejudices it cultivates:


1. Mestizaje wasn’t a biological process

2. Mestizaje wasn’t cultural either

3. Mestizaje wasn’t just about white men and Indigenous women

4. Non-Indigenous and non-Spanish people have lived in Mexico, too

5. Mestizaje didn’t begin with the Conquest, but rather in the 19th century


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3. Mestizaje Wasn’t Just About White Men and Indigenous Women


The myth of mestizaje preaches that Mexican mestizos are descended from a Spanish father and an Indigenous mother, and it chooses as its paradigm the relationship between Hernán Cortés and La Malinche.


This legendary couple is marked by an imaginary abyss between supposed masculine superiority and alleged feminine inferiority. This patriarchal, machista conception of the mestizo prophets attributed, by necessity, a dominant role to the Spaniard’s virile, active, penetrating strength, exerted over the Indigenous woman’s feminine, victimized, penetrated passivity.


For example, driven more by misogyny than by any real historical evidence, Octavio Paz claimed in his Labyrinth of Solitude that La Malinche and all Indigenous women who had relations with conquistadors were “raped” by them, even those who might have been attracted to a white man or even seduced him:


If the Chingada [1] is a representation of the violated Mother, then it is appropriate to associate her with the Conquest, which was also a violation, not only in the historical sense but also in the very flesh of Indian women. The symbol of this violation is Doña Malinche, the mistress of Cortés. It is true that she gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador, but he forgot her as soon as her usefulness was over. Doña Marina becomes a figure representing the Indian women who were fascinated, violated, or seduced by the Spaniards. And as a small boy will not forgive his mother if she abandons him to search for his father, the Mexican people have not forgiven La Malinche for her betrayal. She embodies the open, the chingado, to our closed, stoic, impassive Indians. Cuauhtémoc and Doña Marina are thus two antagonistic and complementary figures. There is nothing surprising about our cult of the young emperor — “the only hero at the summit of art,” an image of the sacrificed son — and there is also nothing surprising about the curse that weighs against La Malinche.


The poet’s disapproval is unforgivable; in his eyes, Indigenous women do not deserve an ounce of understanding or pity. They are simply “chingadas” — fucked — abject, disposable incarnations of the humiliation of their race. In contrast, Cuauhtémoc, the vanquished, “sacrificed” warrior, is considered worthy of admiration despite, or precisely because, he was defeated in a pointless conflict.


In this way, the legend of mestizaje gives the “white race” all the supposedly positive qualities of masculinity, power, strength, and aggression, while it attributes to the “indigenous race” all the supposed limitations of femininity, helplessness, weakness, and passivity. As such, “our mother” La Malinche can’t help but be the object of derision and execration.


This sexist sentence hanging over the mestizos’ humiliated heads would be truly tragic if it was even remotely true. In truth, history shows that the (not very extensive, as I will go on to show) mixing between Spaniards and Indigenous women (as well as Africans and Asians, as we will also see in the next section) was not limited to the archetypal figures of the raping Spanish father and the raped Indigenous mother, but took many other forms; it also involved white women and non-European men.


Nonetheless, the prophets (always men) of mestizaje insist on reserving the dominant role for European men in order to confirm the supremacy of our intellectual and political elites over “mestiza” women, Indigenous men, and Indigenous women …


Translated by Ellen Jones


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Federico Navarrete is a Mexican anthropologist specializing in Mesoamerican history. He is the author of numerous books, including The Indigenous Peoples of Contemporary Mexico (2008), Towards Another History of America (2015), and Racist Mexico: An Accusation (2016).


Ellen Jones is a researcher, editor, and literary translator based in Mexico City. You can find her at www.ellencjones.com.


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Banner image: “alegoría del mestizaje, Chetumal” by Rafael Saldaña is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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[1] As Paz explains elsewhere, “the Chingada is the violated Mother.” Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Translated by Lysander Kemp (New York: Grove Press, 1961).