Playing with Race in Transnational Space: Rethinking Mestizaje GCI-04-01

Marcia Farr
Professor of English and Education
Ohio State University

Race and ethnicity have a complex history in the New World, in the confrontation of Europeans, and Africans, with Indians. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a hierarchical society based on caste, or “race,” was established, with Spaniards at the top, followed by castas (mixed bloods of various types), then Indians, and then Africans. Although this caste hierarchy evolved toward a more class-based system, especially during the 19th century, colonial racial ideology endured, and it continues to underlie Mexican society even today (Lomnitz-Adler, 1992). Most studies of Mexico and Mexicans have assumed that mestizaje, or racial mixing, has been so thorough that the two resulting social categories, the (remaining) indigenous Indians and mestizos, are generally indistinguishable from one another physically. That is, there has been so much genetic, and cultural, mixing in both groups that one cannot tell who is Indian and who is mestizo by physical characteristics alone. For example, Foster’s (1967/1979/1988) statement that one cannot distinguish racially between indigenous and mestizo communities in this region of northwest Michoacán is common in the ethnographic literature on rural Mexicans. Foster, however, carried out his study in Tzintzuntzan, Michoácan, a very old indigenous site that was the seat of power in the pre-conquest Purépecha kingdom. Presumably most mestizos in Tzintzuntzan would have heavily indigenous familial histories, unlike those from the rancho in the present study, which seems to have experiencedCand is experiencingCmestizaje from a heavily Spanish and other European familial history. The fact that Tzintzuntzan is only a few hours drive from the rancho in this study points out how much (unstudied) variation exists within the northwest portion of this state, let alone in the rest of Mexico, or among Mexicans in the United States.

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