Mestizaje is a historically and culturally malleable term to which many meanings have been attributed. For the purpose of this entry, I will employ only those definitions that I designate as most prevalent to the breadth of our course study, but maintain that further explanation is available. The Oxford English Dictionary outlines three variations of the term mestizaje the most essential of which is simply “interbreeding and cultural intermixing of Spanish and American Indian people” (OED Online).  A mestizo is “a person of mixed European (esp. Spanish or Portuguese) and non-European parentage…a man with a Spanish father and an American Indian mother” (OED Online). A term often understood as synonymous with ‘mixed’, mestizaje is the product of mixing two distinct cultures, i.e. Spanish and native Latin American. It thus conveys an implicit and close association with colonialism. The OED provides a brief outline of the genealogy of the term mestizo stating that the term is a derivative from the post-classical Latin terms misticius and mixticius, meaning mixed together (OED Online). While mestizo is etymologically connected at the roots to the French métis, or Portuguese mestiço, a cultural specificity is designated in this listing of mestizaje as being exclusively Spanish and Latin American indigenous (OED Online). Judith Maxwell’s entry in the Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Latin American and Caribbean Cultures links the term mestizaje to colonialism. Maxwell suggests that the Spanish hierarchy of biological superiority established in the colonies, and how the mestizaje peoples were reduced to a rank in this system (962). She notes that the Mexican people made an effort to reclaim this term at the time of their independence “claiming the benefits of biological and social hybridization as one of the strengths of the nation” (962). Maxwell’s biological approach to colonial mestizaje reveals the limits that the term has historically imposed upon the people to which it refers, but also the ways in which these limits have fostered the appropriation of the term to celebrate its dual origins. To continue down the historical avenue, let us consider the Encyclopaedia of Latin American History and Culture’s listing for mestizaje. Authored by Patricia Seed, this definition states that “so many mestizos were illegitimate that the terms ‘mestizo’ and ‘illegitimate’ were used …interchangeably’ (1). This reinforces the dynamic present from colonial times. Seed also outlines the treatment of mestizos as ‘other’ in the eyes of the Spanish monarchy, elaborating that “[the monarchy] gradually developed a series of discriminatory measures” while also begrudgingly taking responsibility for them by “opt[ing] not to class them as tribute payers”(1). This confirms an awareness in Latin American culture of ideas of belonging and identity politics, two issues that lead us further into our examination of mestizaje identity. Individual identity politics and imperial origins are conjoined in Are Mestizos Hybrids? The Conceptual Politics of Andean Identities. De la Cadena posits that through a history of imperialism, mestizaje has developed multiple meanings, citing specifically that concepts of mestizaje “house an empirical hybridity, built upon eighteenth and nineteenth century racial taxonomies…” and a “conceptual hybridity …which reveals subordinate alternatives for mestizo subject positions” (259). This illustrates that against the backdrop of the colonial history of the mestizos, there has been a creation of dual construction of meanings associated with the term. The meanings that mestizos peoples have given to themselves, and the meanings that have been imposed upon them. De la Cedena’s article touches upon a critical issue in mestizaje studies, the issue of hybridity. It has been established that the historical conditions of being mestizo imply the miscegenation of European and Latin American indigenous heritage. It is important to consider then what it means to be a ‘hybrid’, and how this hybridity is limiting. Does this implied hybridity take away from a homogeneous cultural identity? Is a homogenous cultural identity even possible in a society so fragmented by finite cultural origins? These are issues that most certainly play an integral role in the ongoing development of the mestizaje identity, and invoke further consideration of the origins and identity politics in Latin America. Author Peter Wade stands against the facile treatment of mestizaje as a solution to what he calls ‘racial absolutism’. In his book Images of Latin American Mestizaje and the Politics of Comparison emphasizes that the amalgam of origins that is mestizaje cannot fairly be pitted against racial essentialisms (363). This interpretation suggests that mestizaje, or mixing of origins is not opposite of ethnic uniformity, therefore it cannot be an antidote to racial oppression as critics have claimed. Peter Wade voices another, related perspective on the issue in his article entitled Rethinking Mestizaje: Ideology and Lived Experience. This article takes an anthropological approach to the question narrowing down the concept of mestizaje and relating its application to the family dynamic and the individual experience (239). Such an approach pulls mestizaje out of the debates and discussions surrounding nationalism as an abstract construct, by grounding it in familial relations in Latin America. In Mestizaje: Critical Uses of Race in Chicano Culture Pérez-Torres emphasizes the role of the mestizaje identity in American Chicano culture, stating “mestizaje within a Chicano/a culture represents a strategy by which counterhegemonic identities can be articulated”, recalling the course readings on Chicano art (52). But what is ‘Chicano’ and what does it mean to our discussion of mestizaje? According to Edward Sullivan, Chicanos are identified as “Latin Americans in

De español e india, produce mestizo (From a Sp...

De español e india, produce mestizo (From a Spanish man and an Amerindian woman, a Mestizo is produced). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the United-States from a heterogeneous culture with different histories shaped by indigenous, African, and European miscegenation” (316). This definition, along with Pérez-Torres’ analysis of Chicano culture in his second chapter titled “The Mestizo Voice”, communicates the diaspora of the mestizos. How does mestizaje relate to Latin American art? It seems most pertinent to discuss mestizaje against the backdrop of the collectivity of the Latin American people. The term collective is not used here to insinuate sameness but rather to suggest a community united through their shared sense of history. As has been discussed in lecture, art in Latin America has often been typified by the idea of a singular or monolithic identity. Similarly, mestizaje has been ineptly used to connect the Latin American peoples and also to position them as “other.” The inherent dualism of mestizaje is essential to its comprehension as a concept. Mestizaje embraces a series of opposites: collectiveness and individuality, indigenous and foreign, Western and non Western, inclusion and exclusion, belonging and isolation. The term is undoubtedly unstable, offering different meanings due to its overarching nature.  

Colleen Rodriguez

Fall 2011  


Works Cited

Sullivan, Edward J. Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century. London: Phaidon, 2000. Print.

This entry was posted in Chicano, colonialism, hybrid, hybridity, metis, other, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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