The darker side of mestizaje

The darker side of mestizaje [explain title, which riffs on Mignolo]

When before the Congress of Angostura Bolívar proposes to shape nations by mixing the “diverse blood” of the new citizens (1819), he makes a double gesture. The new nations are conceived in racial terms and at the same time situate themselves, at least at the level of public discourse, beyond race and racialization. The mestizaje that would become a primordial sign of Latin American identity is neither a mixture that dissolves differences nor a transgression against hierarchies, but a hyperracial strategy for social control or in other words, a mechanism which keeps racial hierarchies in place while also disabling criticism of them. At stake in this and other key texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is not only the formation of national cultures, but also that of the modern racial state.

Latin American theories of mestizo identity also have origins and analogies in Spain, where racial models of Hispanic identity have been proposed from the Renaissance forward (Piedra 1987, Branche 2006). These models took on a new layer with the scientific racism of the nineteenth century. Faced with the Spanish defeat of 1898 eugenicist doctors cited insufficient mestizaje as the cause of the Spanish soldier’s lack of resistance to tropical disease; the Francoist state also offered a culturalist definition of the “Hispanic” race (Goode 2009). The inclusivist model bases national identity on attributes such as language, religion, and “character” and is thus able to embrace a diverse palette of colors and origins. Mixture is not merely tolerated, but is almost required as a strategy for the building of empire and later, the nation.Language and faith were key elements in the imperial  imperial “Hispanic” identity from the fifteenth century forward, conferring authority and cultural strength upon Spain and offering syncretic assimilation to its conquered subjects. Piedra writes,

The final result was an “impure,” but unified empire. . . .  The fact that the “impurity” of the system was not officially accepted only served to strengthen imperial hold. Furthermore, it would offer outsiders a false sense of accessibility and a similarly false hope of equality within Spain’s implicit, unofficial heterogeneity. (304)

The concept of raza is thus not a merely a particular system of classification, but a racial order in which culture and cultural identity have an important role and the meaning of color varies. It is nonetheless administered by the state as racial, and despite its flexibility as a category, it remains inflected with questions of color and descent. Piedra’s discussion of the Hispanic self as a text into which Otherness is woven in a “tactical compromise” shows why mestizaje as state policy has not meant racial tolerance but “literary whiteness,” or subjugation to the colonial letter (307). The estatutos de limpieza de sangre, created in 1449 to identify descendants of converted Jews, persisted through much of the nineteenth century. In the Americas, they were used to exclude people of African and indigenous descent from access to education and from some government posts. Latin America’s fabled valorization of mixture, furthermore, coexists with racial hierarchies in which European descent is highly valued (Portocarrero 2007). The idealization of mixture reconsititutes originary or essentialist identities, reinforcing the bases for racism (Wade 2004).  As Nicola Miller notes, ideologies of mestizaje were “based on racialized state structures and official national iconographies” and excluded darker or less Europeanized people (2006: 304).  Joshua Lund discusses mestizaje as a statist discourse that hardly moves beyond race, as it purports to do, but rather confirms racialization as a state project (2012).

This is to say that inclusivity does not resolve the problem of racial difference but functions to mask or render unspeakable the mechanisms of exclusion and hierarchization which still persist. The elasticity of the category Hispanic does stand in contrast to the less flexible categories that have operated in the United States or South Africa, enabling José Martí to posit in 1891 the existence of a specifically Latin American cuture where “[n]o hay odio de razas, porque no hay razas” and “El alma emana, igual y eterna, de los cuerpos diversos en forma y en color” (38-39). Yet inclusion in the raza hispana does not confer recognition as blanco, as Martí’s own text suggests by positing a Latin American “we” that is identifiably criollo (Ramos 1989). Bolívar’s earlier call for mestizaje had come in the wake of the challenge to elite classes that the Haitian revolution represented, and he expressed concern toward the end of his life that Venezuela would become a “pardocracia” (Helg 2003).

If mestizaje in the colonial period was a strategy supporting hispanization and European hegemony, the nineteenth century nation-states harnessed it to marginalize blackness and indigeneity yet more thoroughly than the colony had done (Mariátegui 1928, Lund). The mestizo as idealized citizen-subject supported, and did not contest elite hegemony; mestizo alliances were with the lighter, not the darker classes. These were also the eugenicist years, when the new republics sought to “whiten” by encouraging European immigration. At the same time the Amerindian as symbol and mestizaje as trope affirmed Latin American originality, authenticity, and difference from the United States and Europe (Martínez-Echazábal 1998). It is in the twentieth century that this racialized discourse becomes cultural, and mestizaje becomes a trope for the nation.

Beginning in the 1920s, Latin American writers like José Vasconcelos, Fernando Ortiz, Nicolás Guillén, Gilberto Freyre, and Oswald de Andrade began to formulate new theories of cultural identity, based on earlier models but with a reversed emphasis: in their festive and exuberant representations, the mestizo became superior rather than degraded. The result was a seemingly more inclusive mestizo nation. Post-colonial critics and some scholars of race and ethnicity have welcomed these theories as counter-hegemonic. Mestizaje in the national mold is still one of the prevailing models for those wanting to overcome racism and racial difference. But critics of mestizo theories have pointed out that despite their mixed origins, they are as essentialized and monocultural as are other, ‘purer’ racial and national categories. Positing a unified culture and a national race, they work toward homogeneity, dissolving otherness or engulfing racial others.

The image of the mestizo nation cultivated during this period of “cultural readjustment” (Osorio 1982) is still highly influential; Doris Sommer (1991) is not the only one to have read earlier discussions of mestizaje through this interpretation. In Sommer’s nineteenth century, mestizaje is “the way of redemption in Latin America, a way of annihilating difference and constructing a deeply horizontal, fraternal dream of national identity” (39). The difficulty is not only that this dream of national identity is to some extent illusory, but also that its prior history and textual precursors are more conflictive and conflicted than Sommer and other critics suggest. A rereading of some key texts, less filtered by the mestizo strategies of the early and mid-twentieth centuries, may be revealing, since the shift in racialist discourse that took place in the 1920s and 1930s was sharper than is always remembered now. Nineteenth and early twentieth century discourse and social policy did create images of mestizo nations and forge loyalty to these, but their larger project was to form modern racial states.

This paper considers nineteenth century discourse in light of current theoretical work on race, modernity and the state. Novels like Jorge Isaacs’ María (1867), Aluízio de Azevedo’s O Mulato (1881), or Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés (1882), among others, have been read as stories through which the national community is “imagined,” with the miscegenated subject as a figure of union for the new nations. Their tragic endings do not entirely support the romanticized readings they have sometimes elicited. In fact, these texts may not so much project future harmony as trace interlocking conflicts around race and identity, paternity and patrimony, legitimacy and exile; at stake is not only the formation of the mestizo nation but also that of the racial state that lies behind it.

If race is constitutive of the modern state, as scholars including David Theo Goldberg (2002) hold, or of modernity itself, as Denise Ferreira da Silva argues (2007), the liberal assumption that inequality can be addressed within the framework of the modern nation may misrecognize the situation it addresses. A look at theoretical and historical work on race and the state, as opposed to mestizaje and the nation, may help understand some of the ambiguities in these texts and their dominant readings.

Set largely on slave plantations, all three novels are key works in their national canons. Like several other narratives from the Latin American nineteenth century, their plots feature romances that fail due to varying combinations of incest and miscegenation. In Cecilia Valdés most clearly, the patriarch Cándido Gamboa is the literal father of both lovers. Cecilia and Leonardo are separated too far by race and joined too closely by blood for marriage. Excesses of endogamy and of exogamy flow together, destabilizing the family edifice don Cándido has so carefully built and highlighting questions of patrimony and power. The Gamboa family’s breadth is a measure of its influence, but also a threat to its power if racial hierarchies cannot be maintained within it. The miscegenated Cecilia nearly succeeds in confounding the social structure upheld by the color lines she attempts to cross. The characters’, and the novel’s greatest efforts are directed towards avoiding this implosion of patriarchal power and loss of hegemony by the Spanish and criollo elites.1

Sommer reads Cecilia Valdés’ exposure of the irrationality of the racial system as an argument for integration in the struggle for an independence. This reading conforms with others popularized in the twentieth century, where, for example, Cecilia symbolizes a miscegenated Cuba oppressed by the colonizer Cándido Gamboa. Other analyses of the novel’s tangled politics and racial logic suggest that it actually advocates limiting mestizaje, so as to establish whiteness outside the framework of the madre patria (Luis 1990, Monteleone 2004, Nelsen 2011). From that perspective, this novel–like many other writings on race and the nation from this period–hardly signals a mestizo or post-racial nation to come. Rather, these writings trace struggles for racial hegemony in the formation of the post-Independence state.2

Staged after the death of the lovers and their father, and the loss of the family lands and fortune, María asks the reader to mourn a world that felt moribund well before its passing. The noble characters seem marked for death: María suffers from the epilepsy that also felled her mother, and Efraín’s father spends a large part of the novel convalescing from the nearly fatal fever that beset him upon receiving dire financial news. Noble, African-born slaves are also part of this receding world, while Creole working classes and less traditional elites exude energy and life. It is possible to see a mestizo “nation” arising here, bound across racial and lines by love, of each other and of the land, and by memory. This reading, however, does not entirely account for the tensions around race and sexuality the writing evinces, or adequately explain why the marriage that would remedy the family fortune as well as unite the lovers, is so much deferred.  And if the old elites are symbolically killed off in this novel, so are the Semitic origins of Spanishness; in O Mulato, it is the mulatto class that suffers this fate.

These stories chronicle rupture and and loss at least as much as interracial union or suture;  they might more accurately be considered novels of originary violence than of national conciliation. The reader witnesses a shift within the modernizing state, but not a challenge to its hierarchies. The national projects Sommer sees are there, but anxieties about race, gender and social control are also present on every page. These and other writings from the period engage questions of mestizaje and nation at one level, and race and state at another. The texts in question embody struggles over racial meaning in the modernizing state, and do not move unidirectionally toward democratization or other forms of “progress.” Comparative scholarship working beyond the frame of the nation can elucidate these complexities, and also shed light on some of ambiguities and impasses present-day discourse on race inherits from this era. It will also help us theorize race itself, not just the form of racialist discourse we have come to call mestizaje.

The association of race and national identity, and the supposition that race-based inequality in our societies is a superficial rather than a fundamental flaw, limit our understanding of how race and racialization work. In the United States, racial hierarchization has been seen as a problem to be overcome as the dream of equality was realized, through projects of racial “uplift” in the nineteenth century, or by making good on constitutional guarantees, in the twentieth. In the Latin American nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racial difference itself was to be superseded by “whitening” projects and miscegenation. National colors would be consolidated and cultural homogenity attained, as with Nicolás Guillén’s “color cubano”:

Por lo pronto, el espíritu de Cuba es mestizo. Y del espíritu hacia la piel nos vendrá el color definitivo. Algún día se dirá: «color cubano».

Estos poemas quieren adelantar ese día.3

More recent anti-racist efforts in the United States have included calls for a “post-ethnic” consciousness (Hollinger) and Latin American-style racial amalgamation (Carter). Latin America has launched agressive anti-racist programs, including multicultural and plurinational projects. Mestizaje succeeded as a national discourse not by overcoming racism but by masking it, or driving its discussion underground; as its façade has fissured over the past twenty or thirty years, it has become possible to examine once again basic questions: what are racialism and racism? what is their relation to the new nation-states?

Despite local and regional differences in ways races are defined, and racialism and racism are manifested, the contours of racial hierarchization are remarkably uniform from a global perspective. Race, a concept stemming from colonialism, is not a thing (e.g. a biological category, an immutable cultural or group identity), but a relation or “formation” (Omi and Winant)–a strategy and a political concept having to do with power, property and space (Lund). Its importance to Volksgeist or national identity is key, and also seductive for those of us trained in national literary traditions or focused on the question of national culture(s). However, the workings of race in our “foundational fictions” (Sommer) may be still better understood if we are also equipped to analyze race as state discourse (Goldberg) and as a category in modernity itself (da Silva). These perspectives are useful in part because they can counterbalance the discourses of Latin American exceptionalism (e.g. Gilberto Freyre and his popularization, and other theories of mestizaje from the 1920s and 30s) which, by fetishizing mestizaje and transculturation, maintain focus on questions of identity and nation, but not race and state.

It is worth remembering that race does not have to do only with identity and culture, but property and political rights–questions of state. Referring specifically to state formation in the wake of Spanish expansion, David Theo Goldberg (2002) has shown that race and state are not simply connected, but that the modern state is racially informed: “[R]ace is integral to the emergence, development, and transformations . . . of the modern nation-state.” (5)  Critical race theory generally, of which Goldberg’s work is an example, highlights the racialized nature of the state and state discourse, often expressed in the “neutral” language of the law.

This is a very different perspective from that of liberal reformism, which assumes racism is a colonial residue or superficial flaw that can be cleared through “inclusiveness” and tolerance. It sheds light on some reasons why reformist projects may be misdirected, since the issues are the state itself and a failure of modernity, not a lack thereof. A more fundamentally critical perspective may also help to clarify the limited and also circular nature of multiculturalist efforts, where the nonwhite subject is asked to demonstrate their culture so as to establish its worthiness of inclusion. Goldberg emphasizes the ways in which “racist states have sought to distribute the means and modes of their expression behind the façade of racial dispersal” (5) and “the tension between racial conditions and their denial.” (6)  These are the precise strategies in nineteenth century Latin American texts that have been misleadingly read as working toward inclusivity and equality, in the form of mestizaje.

While for Goldberg race is constitutive of the modern state, for Denise da Silva it is constitutive of the modern subject and perhaps, modernity itself. In Toward a Global Theory of Race, da Silva argues that racial thinking, far from being an error in modern thought, is what enables it. Rooted in the Cartesian cogito, with its division between interiority or mind and exteriority or body, and echoed in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, the emergence of the Western subject depends upon its self-assertion over and against an other separated from it in time and space. This other is primitive, not modern, and has origins in peripheral, rather than central countries. The division between self and other is thus fundamentally racial. Furthermore, only the Western subject is considered “universal” and fully human; the racialized other only aspires to universality and humanity.

This definition of the human explains why racism persists despite repeated declarations of its irrationality and immorality, and why we accept racist actions and arrangements to the degree we do. It also throws into relief the way in which celebrations of hybridity replicate and dramatize, but do not contest this division. In hybridity and mestizaje as well as multiculturalism, the racialized other is struggling for admission to a humanity that the paradigm of Western modernity cannot grant them. With “inclusivity,” the other is appropriated and engulfed into the white, self-determining or national subject. In Gilberto Freyre’s work, for example, sexual violence on the plantation, the appropriation of the body of the female slave by the Portuguese male, is rewritten as the moment of production of the miscegenating national subject. Africanness is sidelined as a residue, and the mestiço offspring of this union–the subaltern Brazilian subject–signify both Portuguese productive power and “Brazil’s unstable placing at the outskirts of the modern global configuration.” (246)

The scene of engulfment and the ambivalent national subject it produces is descriptive of the elision of otherness and denial of difference that can be seen in many narratives of mestizaje, if one looks closely. In the three novels we are considering here, the questions of race, racial difference and also racial conflict within the nation are repeatedly raised only to be silenced, with greater or lesser ease, until they arise again. The “literary whiteness” that Piedra identifies as the passport into a Hispanic identity would be another example of “engulfment.”

One implication of da Silva’s work for the readings of the three novels under consideration here is that they are grappling with a process of insitutionalizing “race” and hierarchization in a new way, not about becoming free of these. If we can remove the lens of the mestizaje paradigm, remembering that it was itself only institutionalized from the 1930s forward, the impasses of racial discourse in the earlier texts are thrown into stark relief. These impasses include the sense of urgency around the question of controlling the darker classes, and of finding a way to maintain a “white” definition for the criollo classes that were, although élites, still situated Europe’s darker side or sibling.

The mestizaje paradigm, da Silva shows, enables racism to operate under an epistemological structure of invisibility. It is the formation of this paradigm we are witnessing when we observe  ambivalence or instability around race in a number of nineteenth century texts (the phenomenon I have called “evoke-and-elide”). But race, whether we look at this or not, comes first in the formation of American societies; the first law of the Louisiana colony, for example, was the Code Noir. The novels of the period are not romances of national conciliation as much as they are interventions in the discussions about the conservation of white supremacy and patriarchy;  meditations on identities and subjectivities as they are formed and informed in this situation; and attempts to conciliate these hardly democratic projects from modern ideas that are, at least to some extent, “out of place” (Schwarz). From the 1930s forward the national text has been mestizo, and the mestizaje paradigm has a utopian dimension. The mestizo state, however, retains many aspects of the colonial hierarchies. The way in which the mestizo state operates to maintain hierarchies in plain sight through unseen effort is usefully clarified, at a theoretical level, in da Silva’s work.

1 Dionisio and other Black characters have the information that would save Cecilia from disaster, but are prevented from giving it; the novel moves away from them when situations arise when they might divulge it. See Nelsen (2011).

2 This becomes yet clearer in view of new work by Clark (2013), showing how the plaçage trope on which the story is based is not historical fact but does express white fears of both miscegenation and outright Black insurgency.

3 Guillén, Sóngoro Cosongo, 1931. Prólogo.

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