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Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race

Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race
The Cult of Mestizaje in Latin America

This study charts the history of Latin America’s experience of mestizaje through the prisms of literature, the visual and performing arts, social commentary, and music.

November 2004
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216 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 b&w illus. |

Latin America is characterized by a uniquely rich history of cultural and racial mixtures known collectively as mestizaje. These mixtures reflect the influences of indigenous peoples from Latin America, Europeans, and Africans, and spawn a fascinating and often volatile blend of cultural practices and products. Yet no scholarly study to date has provided an articulate context for fully appreciating and exploring the profound effects of distinct local invocations of syncretism and hybridity. Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race fills this void by charting the history of Latin America's experience of mestizaje through the prisms of literature, the visual and performing arts, social commentary, and music.

In accessible, jargon-free prose, Marilyn Grace Miller brings to life the varied perspectives of a vast region in a tour that stretches from Mexico and the Caribbean to Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina. She explores the repercussions of mestizo identity in the United States and reveals the key moments in the story of Latin America's cult of synthesis. Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race examines the inextricable links between aesthetics and politics, and unravels the threads of colonialism woven throughout national narratives in which mestizos serve as primary protagonists.

Illuminating the ways in which regional engagements with mestizaje represent contentious sites of nation building and racial politics, Miller uncovers a rich and multivalent self-portrait of Latin America's diverse populations.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Cult of Mestizaje
  • 1. José Vasconcelos' About-Face on the Cosmic Race
  • 2. Caribbean Counterpoint and Mulatez
  • 3. Tango in Black and White
  • 4. Showcasing Mixed Race in Northeast Brazil
  • 5. Dis/encounters in the Labyrinths: Mestizaje in Quito
  • Epilogue: Globalization, Cyberhybridity, and Fifth World Mestizaje
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Marilyn Grace Miller is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Tulane University in New Orleans.


Introduction: The Cult of Mestizaje

All kinds of crossbreeds infest the land. The result is incredible rottenness . . . The men stand on the corners talking scandal, and utter obscenities whenever a woman passes. The streets of the cities swarm with beggars.

—Alfred Schultz, Race or Mongrel


The word mestizaje has become the object of a true cult and the symbol of nationality.

—Magnus Mörner, "El mestizaje en la historia de Ibero-América"1


Accepted miscegenation leads to ambiguous and fluid interracial boundaries. It transforms race into an achieved quality that diffuses and dilutes the power of racist thinking.

—Mauricio Solaún and Sidney Kronus, Discrimination without Violence


Observation shows us that, in the case of America, the sole invariable characteristic in the mosaic of its ethnic makeup has been its constant and rich mestizaje.

—Manuel Zapata Olivella, ¡Levántate mulato!

I. Our Mestizo America

Perhaps no part of the sum total of the historical formation and configuration of Latin American national and regional identity has been as pervasive or comprehensive as the elaboration and employment of the concept of mestizaje. The genetic and cultural admixture produced by the encounters or "dis-encounters" (desencuentros) between Europeans, the Africans who accompanied them to and in the New World, indigenous groups, and various others who arrived in the Americas from regions such as Asia, was sometimes condemned, sometimes celebrated, but nearly always productive of an animated discussion of what it meant to inhabit the ground on which such confrontations occurred. This discussion crescendos, it seems, with the publication in 1925 of the Mexican educator José Vasconcelos' The Cosmic Race. This book argued for a pan-Latin American embrace of racial and cultural mixture as progressive rather than regressive, as a boon rather than a bane to ongoing deliberations concerning questions of local and regional identity.

The rise of this idea of a beneficial mixed race was riddled with the numerous obstacles and contradictions imbedded in a colonial history in which questions of racial difference and distinction were paramount. The complexity of the racial discourse produced in the colonies is most graphically portrayed, perhaps, in several sets of paintings which catalogued racial types, or castas. Proceeding from a strange racial alchemy, earlier broad divisions of Spaniard, Indian, negro, and mestizo or mulatto were splintered into retrograde hybrids such as the lobo (wolf) and the salta-atrás (jump-back).

With this already turbulent history as a backdrop, mestizaje has been employed in radically distinct ways in Latin America's collective consciousness since the uneven transition from colony to independence. The range of meanings it has conveyed and continues to represent is surprisingly extensive and often frustrates attempts at providing coherent contexts for its examination. It is no wonder, then, that the most prevalent characteristic of a historiography of lo mestizo is its lack of uniformity and, indeed, its pervasive susceptibility to contradictions. Richard Graham notes in The Idea of Race in Latin America that "the mestizo and mulatto played an important part in the thinking both of racists and antiracists in Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba" (4), producing commentary on the symbolic significance of these figures that ranged from the lamentable to the laudatory. The same incongruence can be found in other regions of privileged mestizaje, such as the Andes, as well as in Latin American territories in which the effects of the phenomenon have been judged to be negligible, notably, Argentina.

Indeed, mestizaje can be used as a lens through which to read the complexities and contradictions of Latin American social and literary history at both the regional and the local levels. Such an enterprise is extremely illuminating, even when summarizing the multitudinous effects of mestizaje as a racial discourse is ultimately impossible. The novitiate in the cult of Latin American mestizaje is confronted, on the one hand, with the intensely dynamic rites and litanies of appropriation, and, on the other, with the knowledge that mestizaje, like all racial discourse in Latin America, is "imbedded in social relations that are themselves often masked by simulation, dissimulation, and pretense" (Graham, 71). Despite these restraints, close examination of select moments of literary and cultural expression in which mestizaje is conspicuously embraced or vehemently denied offers rich lodes of knowledge concerning local, national, and transnational social relations and cultural production.

While ambivalence and mixed feelings toward racial contact and its results are apparent in all eras following the European arrival in the Americas, social historians have frequently associated the nineteenth century with the condemnation of mestizaje (despite the examples of Simón Bolívar and José Martí), and the twentieth with its renovation as a positive, even providential, phenomenon. Thus, it is commonplace for students of Latin American history, literature, and culture to learn that the maturing of national discourses and their attendant notions of unique national character and culture depended on a complex ontology that diffused or subsumed racial, linguistic, and performative differences under the banner of multiracial or multiethnic unity that translated into an integrated and integrative "spirit" or "soul."

By the middle of the twentieth century, this idea was so common that Salvador de Madariaga could assure readers in a 1945 publication that since the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Indians, whites, and blacks had "combined in all kinds of proportions, and beyond the strictly corporeal mixtures, life also churned and mixed the three human types and their combinations in constant colorations, so that the truly representative class and type of the Indies was the man of mixed blood—mestizo or mulatto. Whatever the statistics, the soul of the Indies is, then, in its essence, a mestizo soul" (in Mörner, "El mestizaje en la historia de Ibero-América," 11; my emphasis).

This notion of a "mestizo soul," indicative of the elision between physical and spiritual definitions of the condition, will show up again and again in equations which restate the idea that "mestizaje and Latin Americanness are indissoluble terms" (Basave Benítez, México mestizo, 17). So pervasive was the concept in this period that Antonio Cornejo-Polar would later write that mestizaje was a "conciliatory and comforting utopia that seems to gather into one unique torrent the many rivers that converged in this physical and spiritual geography we call Latin America" (The Multiple Voices of Latin American Literature, 23).

Until the last decade of the twentieth century, such generalizations were generally seen as positive. Many early nation builders viewed mestizaje and its rehabilitation as a vital key to progress and development. Even when these same nationalizing projects were criticized for reifying colonial structures and practices, notions of mestizaje were usually not attacked. In many early texts of postcolonial criticism, at least, mestizaje still provided an effective tool with which centuries of colonial domination based on racial and cultural difference could be halted or reversed. Throughout this period, mestizaje—especially in counterdistinction to the racial practices of the United States which allowed little room for such ideas—was generally considered antiracist, anti-imperial, and more inclusive of a greater portion of Latin America's diverse citizenry in political and cultural engagements than ever before.

But late in the twentieth century, scholars began to reveal the links between the cult of mestizaje and earlier forms of colonial domination. Many of these scholars concluded that, in fact, mestizaje's positive retooling had not solved problems of race and class in Latin America, but instead had compounded them by employing a rhetoric of inclusion that operated concurrently with a practice of exclusion. As Alan Knight puts it, “Racism can be driven underground (not necessarily very far underground); it can shift its premises (e.g., from biological to other, ostensibly more plausible, determinants) without that ideological shift substantially affecting its daily practice; and daily practice may even acquire added virulence as a result of official attempts at positive discrimination” (in Graham, 98).

Largely through the intervention of social scientists, literary critics began to see mestizaje's darker side, its negative effects. These included the subsequent erosion of "regions of refuge" such as autonomous indigenous communities, whether geographic or linguistic, and the romanticization or folklorization of the Indian and the black, thereby dismissing their active engagement with contemporary political practices. Analysts who typically focused only on texts had to admit that through the symbolic portrayal of mestizaje in material projects such as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of the Three Cultures) in Tlatelolco, Mexico, attention could be deflected from the everyday experience of nonwhite or nonurban communities that did not share the values and goals of the mestizo majority. It soon became evident, on the ground and in the text, that the privileging of whiteness continued concurrently with the deployment of mestizaje as a national and regional doctrine. Categories such as "indio" and "negro" were still routinely used in pejorative ways, while official ideology declared the worth and occasionally even the superiority of the nonwhite. Despite this exaltation, however, sociopolitical circumstances continued to display the reality of prejudice (Graham, 101).

A second, related, problem was theoretical: due to overuse, the term mestizaje now suffered from "epistemological poverty and inherent conceptual obliqueness" (De Grandis and Bernd, Unforeseeable Americas, x). Mestizaje was often used interchangeably with terms such as "hybridity," "transculturation," "creolization," "métissage," and "heterogeneity," while other critics rejected it outright as a synonym of any of these, because of its historical associations with questions of race. In some cases, even those words associated with mestizaje became theoretically tainted. Walter Mignolo, for example, insists on the unwieldy alternatives of "colonial semiosis" and "pluritopic hermeneutics" as ways to avoid the "shadows of 'mestizaje'" in the term "transculturation" (Local Histories/Global Designs, 14). Mignolo recognizes that these terms were too frequently employed in postcolonial criticism that ignored the colonial underpinnings of postindependence American cultures (Local Histories/Global Designs, 94): "It is confusing when 'hybridity,' 'mestizaje,' 'space-in-between,' and other equivalent expressions become the object of reflection and critique of post-colonial theories, for they suggest a discontinuity between the colonial configuration of the object or subject of study and the postcolonial position of the locus of theorizing . . . Thus, postcoloniality or the postcolonial becomes problematic when applied to either nineteenth- or twentieth-century cultural practices in Latin America."

The late Peruvian scholar Antonio Cornejo-Polar, whose work has been so fundamental to an understanding of Andean negotiations of mestizo identity, in his later work called for a new emphasis on "migrancy" as an alternative to mestizaje. He feared the term had exhausted almost all its explanatory capacity ("A Non-Dialectic Heterogeneity," 114).

This revelation of the problematic and even pernicious fallout of the cult of mestizaje, though now fairly widespread in Latin American academic studies, nonetheless seems at times to have had little practical effect. When convenient, mestizaje is still often seized upon in both political and artistic engagements that strive to define nations or the region. It appears that in the twenty-first century, the concept is again being retooled, this time alongside a call for the dissolution of frontiers and differences where they might provide obstacles to a full assumption of transnational neoliberal ideologies. In the hyperglossy millennial text Mestizo America: The Country of the Future (Villegas, 17), globalization and mestizaje cooperate, allowing the "new nations" of Latin America to integrate while still maintaining their cultural and regional differences. On the one hand, hundreds of full-color photographs demonstrate both the geographical and the cultural diversity of the Latin American terrain. On the other, the book documents the increasing frequency with which "traditional" and "new" cultural elements provide a palimpsest of premodern, modern, and postmodern in the myriad corners of the continent. In one shot, a Mexican in typical charro attire, including a huge sombrero, rides down a Zacatecas street on horseback between late-model cars (306). In another, a young girl with indigenous features, a soiled gray dress, and flat canvas shoes peeks across the back of a pickup at three light-skinned women wearing high heels and skin-tight minidresses advertising Mexican beers Carta Blanca and Tecate (336-337). These everyday juxtapositions, increasingly common throughout the region, are evidence, for the collaborators, of an "ideal that is becoming a reality," that is, true continental integration. The volume notably presents the incorporation of a postnational mestizo ideology as a future project, rather than one of the most prevalent intellectual and literary gestures of the now-past twentieth century. "How can we not wish that someday, when neighborliness, cooperation and mutual respect are truly honored, the American continent will become, by virtue of its shared languages and traditions, a vast alliance of dignity and civilization!" proclaims William Ospina (27). Clearly, mestizaje is not dead, despite its legacy of semantic ambiguity, political incorrectness, and subsequent dismissal by many cultural critics.

This study looks closely at the construction of specific national and regional engagements with mestizaje in Latin America to better understand why it was such an essential part of these localized histories, why it reached its public apogee—or, conversely, its rejection—in particular sites at particular moments, how it differed from one area to another, and how it continues to be rhetorically produced, internally or externally, despite its fall from grace in the wake of revelations of its complicity with coloniality. Even in its most celebrated moment, mestizaje was riddled with ambiguities, ambivalence, contradiction, and doubt, and its fall is already present in the work of those cultural icons (both personal and national) that plot its rise to fame.

By exploring certain thickets of the semantic jungle that mestizaje represents in Latin America, I reveal how its invocation is always framed by local histories and contemporary sociopolitical conditions, contexts, and conditions which, in turn, re-dress it according to specific national and transnational concerns. Whereas mestizaje has been taken as a monolithic discourse and a commonplace of latinoamericanismo, a tour of its myriad appearances in textual and other expressive formats divulges a trajectory of tremendous variance, polarization, juxtaposition, and opposition. The most obvious juxtaposition is between its use as a term indicating racial or ethnic lineage or physical characteristics and its elaboration as an aesthetics or stylistics of cultural production. The first definition is associated with the colonial period, the second with the contemporary, though both are clearly at play in both moments. Chilean writer Jorge Guzmán, in developing a theory of the "mesticity" of Latin American texts, explains, "Of course, I understand the category 'mestizo' in the first place, as a characteristic of the Latin American semiotic system, and only in secondary terms as a topic related to genetics, that is, as something which has to do with the form and color of our bodies" (Contra el secreto profesional, 21). But historians and sociologists have not always maintained this emphasis, and Guzmán admits that "the two components, semiotic and somatic, are inseparable, and in a certain way, indistinguishable" (21).

The slipperiness of mestizaje as a somatic or semiotic category of signification should be seen in the context of several centuries in which "race" was considered a viable and, indeed, inescapable determinant of Latin American and Caribbean character and, ultimately, of cultural ontology. In this taxonomy, the mestizo was frequently converted into an essential racial type who possessed specific traits that were alternately positive or negative, thus casting him and his counterparts (the mestiza, the mulatto, the mulatta, etc.) as either villains or heroes in the drama of identity. This idea of a fixed mixed race crystallized, perhaps, in the late nineteenth century, when "empirical" theories of positivism, social Darwinism, and geographic determinism restricted the play of meanings attributed to racial or ethnic indicators. While such notions were frequently imported from countries that Latin Americans considered their models and mentors,9 their application to local situations had to account for unprecedented numbers of peoples who exhibited mixed lineage (and therefore challenged facile categorization) and for the cultural intersections implied by these populations.

II. Early Negotiations

While the term "mestizaje" is used—even by some of the writers examined here—to refer to distant parts of the world, no region, it is repeatedly claimed, boasts the degree of mestizaje brought about by the colonial encounter of Iberia and the territories convened by Spanish and Portuguese expansionism as Latin America. It is there where "there exists a case unique to the entire planet: a vast zone for which mestizaje is not an accident but rather the essence, the central line" (Fernández Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, 4; original emphasis). The cult of mestizaje renders particular homage, therefore, to revolutionary leaders such as Simón Bolívar and José Martí, who presided over the century that marked the uneasy and fitful transitions of Spanish colonies to new American republics. Two texts by Bolívar, a letter written from Jamaica in 1815 and an address read to the Venezuelan Congress at Angostura four years later, are often considered the anchor documents of Latin American mestizaje. In the first, Bolívar responds to the governor of Jamaica concerning current conditions in the colonies and provides details of specific revolutionary efforts throughout Spanish America. He dreams of an "America fashioned into the greatest nation in the world," but admits that such a dream is grandiose and distant from the complexities faced by the "Creole," or American-born, leaders sketching out national and regional autonomy. Other fallen empires, notably Rome, could build new governments on historical precedents; America was different (Selected Writings of Bolívar, 110): "But we scarcely retain a vestige of what once was; we are, moreover, neither Indian nor European, but a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers. In short, though Americans by birth we derive our rights from Europe, and we have to assert these rights against the rights of the natives, and at the same time we must defend ourselves against the invaders. This places us in a most extraordinary and involved situation." Though he invokes the categories of European and Indian, Bolívar's "midway" species is defined more in political than in ethnic terms. Thus it finds itself caught in an "extraordinary situation" between legitimate proprietorship and usurpation.

The same ideas are strikingly recycled in the address delivered at the inauguration of the second national congress of Venezuela in February of 1819, this time in the context of the future of Bolívar's national home. Again, Rome is held up as a model of reconstruction, whereas, "we, on the contrary, do not even retain the vestiges of our original being. We are not Europeans; we are not Indians; we are but a mixed species of aborigines and Spaniards. Americans by birth and Europeans by law, we find ourselves engaged in a dual conflict: we are disputing with the natives for titles of ownership, and at the same time we are struggling to maintain ourselves in the country that gave us birth against the opposition of the invaders" (Selected Writings of Bolívar, 176). The difficulty of rendering the notion of biological mestizaje into English is more apparent in this passage (thus the clumsy use of "aborigines"), but the equation between mestizaje and a unique political destiny is exactly the same. Latin America can no longer be ruled by Spain, because its people are not Spanish, and the proof of this difference is the presence—not of an indigenous, or "aboriginal," remnant—but of a "mixed species" engaged in a "dual conflict." Bolívar's formula notably leaves out the "pure" Indians in the same way that it rejects the Spanish in the configuration of the republic, although he ultimately dismisses the notion of purity as well (Selected Writings of Bolívar, 181):

We must keep in mind that our people are neither European nor North American; rather, they are a mixture of African and the Americans who originated in Europe. Even Spain herself has ceased to be European because of her African blood, her institutions, and her character. It is impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy where we belong in the human family. The greater portion of the native Indians has been annihilated; Spaniards have mixed with Americans and Africans, and Africans with Indians and Spaniards. While we have all been born of the same mother, our fathers, different in origin and in blood, are foreigners, and all differ visibly as to the color of their skin: a dissimilarity which places upon us an obligation of the greatest importance.

In this second segment of his address, Bolívar acknowledges the fundamental importance of peoples of African descent to the constitution of American ontology, questions the notion of European racial purity, and recognizes the role of the indigenous woman (though not, perhaps, indigenous women, since all are reduced here to the "same" mother) in the genealogy of the peoples of the Americas. He insists the dissimilarity, or difference, between these social mixtures and cases elsewhere obliges Latin Americans to respond to their destiny in an autochthonous way.

Bolívar's famous words, so often recalled, are tempered by others in which this characteristic difference is lost in generalizations that stereotype the Indians and blacks of nineteenth-century Latin America and subsume their quotidian experiences of inequality and injustice within a pervasive "spirit of gentleness" (The Hope of the Universe, 119). In a draft written in Jamaica about 1815 titled "Racial Harmony in the Mixed Society of the New World, and Other Thoughts in Jamaica," Bolívar contends with the notion that the main obstacle to independence "lies in the difference between the races that make up the people of this immense country" (The Hope of the Universe, 118). He addresses the specific fear raised for Euro-Americans by the Haitian Revolution in 1791 (the first successful large-scale revolutionary movement of nonwhites in the New World), namely, that where criollos or whites did not constitute the majority, a similar rebellion of blacks or Indians might occur. Bolívar concurs that whites are in the minority, "but it is also certain that the latter possess intellectual qualities which confer on them relative equality and an influence which may seem excessive to those who have not been able to judge for themselves of the moral situation and material circumstances in South America" (The Hope of the Universe, 118). This argument is, of course, much closer to the ideas of just conquest and providential expansion by Europeans and their descendants than are the references to the "midway species" in the texts examined above.

In the wake of the French Revolution and its emphasis on the implementation of majority rule, Bolívar seeks here to justify a situation in which the minority exert the greater power by reverting, implicitly, to the claim of rational (and racial) superiority: what whites lack in numbers, they make up in smarts. And he provides further proofs of why racial strife is unlikely. First, he points out that since the conquest, the Indians have thought the Europeans to be "a race of mortals superior to ordinary men," an idea which lingers, "owing to the strong influence of superstition, fear of brute force, displays of disproportionate wealth, the wielding of authority, intellectual superiority and any number of circumstantial advantages" (The Hope of the Universe, 118). While Bolívar acknowledges abuses of power by the white minority, such as the exercise of brutality, economic practices that are inherently unequal, and an ominous-sounding "wielding of authority," he nevertheless unflinchingly proclaims the intellectual superiority of Euro-Americans. The Spaniard and his New World descendant, gentle by nature (despite the aforementioned brutality and repression he inflicts) treats his servants well, and "is rarely driven by greed or necessity" (The Hope of the Universe, 119). Similarly, the Indian "is so peace-loving by nature that he desires only rest and to be left alone"; he has no ambition to prevail over outsiders. He is friendly toward all, enjoying his full rights before the law. Given this high measure of gentleness, peacefulness, and friendliness between whites and Indians, and those of mixed race, who presumably share all these qualities, "the threat of hostility between races decreases" (The Hope of the Universe, 120).

But the most difficult element to square with a vision of the great Liberator as a staunch opponent of race-based discrimination and a champion of racial mixture and harmony is his portrayal of the enslaved Latin American (The Hope of the Universe, 120): "The slave in Spanish America vegetates in complacent inertia on his master's estate, enjoying all the benefits that accrue from being part of such an establishment, as well as a considerable degree of freedom. Since religion has taught him that to serve is a sacred duty, and since all his life he has lived in this state of domestic dependence, he feels that he is leading a natural life, as a member of his master's family, whom he loves and respects." Though Bolívar never describes this slave as either African or black in this text, his previous characterization of Creoles, Indians, and mestizos makes clear the unstated obvious: black and slave have become synonymous or interchangeable in early-nineteenth-century Spanish America.

Despite the considerable "freedom" the slave population reportedly enjoyed, in 1816 Bolívar issued a decree declaring "absolute freedom for the slaves" (The Hope of the Universe, 123) who had "suffered under the Spanish yoke for the past three centuries." Much of his motivation was clearly tactical: the decree also states that within twenty-four hours of its publication, every able-bodied man between the ages of fourteen and sixty was to report to his district parish to enlist for military duty. "Any new citizen who refuses to take up arms to perform the sacred duty of defending his freedom shall remain in servitude, and not only he but also his children, even if under the age of 14, his wife, and his parents, even if elderly" (The Hope of the Universe, 123-124). Despite the clear linkage of emancipation and military service, Bolívar's strategy drew protests, and he had to reiterate his policy in 1820 and again in 1821, demonstrating that slave owners were not at all convinced that service to one's country should be paid for with freedom papers.

Where difference was perceived to be an asset, that is, mestizaje as proof of an American political destiny separate from Spain, Bolívar was careful to accentuate it. Where difference was a potential liability to his struggle for autonomy, as in the distinction between blacks and whites and between slave and master, he sought to minimize it, so that, ultimately, all Americans, whether white, black, or Indian, could unite in the defense of the homeland. Bolívar is ultimately unique in his recognition of an Afro-Euro-indigenous American mestizaje, since most early references typically portrayed the mestizo as the cross between a Spanish man and an indigenous woman and discounted African contributions. In this acknowledgment of Africans as Americans, Bolívar prefigures, to some extent, Caribbean approaches to mestizaje which lament the decimation of indigenous peoples and focus on the Afro-European encounter. Beginning with the 1815 Letter from Jamaica, then, the Caribbean begins to constitute itself as an epicenter both productive and reflective of mestizaje, producing a long line of central figures and a condensed list of key terms and critical comments which together provide a textual map of its impact in the rest of Latin America.

If Bolívar is the reigning figure in the cult of mestizaje which we have begun to chart and question, José Martí (1853-1895) may be considered its most ardent champion prior to the full elaboration of a mestizo apologetics in Vasconcelos. Martí clearly considered Bolívar an ideological mentor and a model for his own attempts to question racial hierarchies and discrimination. In an effusively laudatory essay on Bolívar, he wrote, "The hero wrapped himself in this Indian, [mestizo] and white soul merged into a single flame, and found it constant and inextinguishable" (José Martí Reader, 167). In another passage, he specifically ties Bolívar's independence projects to an explicitly emancipatory rhetoric, asking, "Did he not unshackle races, disenthrall a continent, bring nations into being?" (165).

Drawing on the example of collaboration between blacks and whites in earlier attempts at gaining Cuba's independence from Spain, especially during the Ten Years' War (1868-1878), the gifted Creole statesman-poet proclaimed that "there can be no racial animosity, because there are no races" (José Martí Reader, 119). He also addressed the lingering fears of a race war, still felt eighty years after Bolívar assured his readers that such a struggle would not occur (José Martí Reader, 161): "In Cuba, there is no fear of a racial war. Men are more than whites, mulattos or Negroes. On the field of battle, dying for Cuba, the souls of whites and Negroes have risen together into the air. In the daily life of defense, loyalty, brotherhood and shrewdness, Negroes have always been there, alongside whites." Like Bolívar, Martí championed the ideas of racial unity and cooperation in the struggle for independence, but he also expanded his predecessor's notion of mestizaje as a fundamental characteristic of Latin America's unique heritage and destiny. In the 1891 essay titled "Our America," which still enjoys enormous popularity among scholars of Latin American and trans-American studies,17 he proudly proclaims the rise of the mestizo as the guarantee of Latin American autonomy in the face of the United States' expansionist designs on Cuba, Puerto Rico, large chunks of Central America, and other regions.

Martí's ideas on race, like the subsequent notions of José Vasconcelos, should be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to official and unofficial racial discourse in the United States. Martí was convinced that the United States meant to take advantage of political disintegration in his island and impose its own government, and as Philip Foner points out in an introduction to an anthology of Martí's work in translation, "Martí's conviction that the great neighbor to the north was an omnipresent threat to Cuba's progressive and independent development stemmed as much from his fear of Yankee racism as it did from his fear of U.S. imperialist ambitions" (Martí, Our America, 29).

Both these fears were well-founded. A quarter decade after Martí called for an end to racial distinctions in Cuba, Edward Byron Reuter published a dissertation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago titled "The Mulatto in the United States" (later published by Badger Press). Despite the title, Reuter included a long discussion of mixed-race peoples in South America, arguing that, "broadly speaking, the review seems to bear out the conclusion that in its acute and troublesome form, the 'race problem' is the problem of the mulatto . . . In every case the half-caste races have arisen as the result of illicit relations between the men of the superior and the women of the inferior race" (The Mulatto in the United States, 87-88). Later on he adds (317-318):

There is no intention here to criticize the mulattoes or other men of mixed blood; quite the contrary. To recognize their desire to be white, their ambition to associate themselves through marriage or otherwise with the white race, is but to recognize their ability to appreciate the superior culture of the white group. An opposite tendency on their part would go far towards establishing the thesis of the congenital inability of the lower group to assimilate white civilization. It would show a deliberate preference on their part for the inferior in the presence of the superior.

The unperturbed certainty with which Reuter and other "men of science" fostered such notions of racial superiority would have been familiar to Martí, who lived in the United States for some fourteen years before returning to Cuba to take part (with fatal results) in the armed struggle for independence in 1895. He was also no doubt aware that many of the same ideas were prevalent in his own country and, indeed, throughout Latin America, voiced even by those attached to the long struggle to end slavery. The famous Cuban abolitionist and historian José Antonio Saco (1797-1879) had argued, for example, that once the slave trade ended and further miscegenation ensued, blacks would disappear (Graham, 39).

Despite his enormous stature in Cuban and Latin American studies today, in his own era Martí was a maverick whose ideas were dismissed by many of his Cuban contemporaries. Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969) recalled hearing his grandfather categorize all Cubans who were separatists, or independentistas, as people of color. When the younger Ortiz (who later carefully researched Martí's writings on race) maintained that the revolutionary Creole leader was born in Cuba of "pure" Spanish blood, his grandfather retorted that "Martí wasn't colored, but he might as well have been; he was a mulatto on the inside" ("Martí y las razas," 337). The comment reveals that even at the turn of the twentieth century, racial characteristics and political posture were still often considered to be mutually reflective.

Despite Martí's detractors, in the modernist Latin American ontology that emerged in the wake of the last independence struggles in the Spanish colonies in the 1890s, the discourse of mestizaje takes on cultlike dimensions, appearing as it does in numerous political and aesthetic projects under the banners of union, assimilation, harmony, synthesis, and cooperation. While these appropriations focused on contemporary cultural trends, they also entailed a reassessment of colonial practices or independence movements, rereading them as indicators or harbingers of the mestizo character only fully understood in modernity. In this progressive reading of mestizo phenomena, José Vasconcelos becomes the intellectual and spiritual heir of Bolívar (Zea, Regreso de las carabelas, 82): "Vasconcelos takes the Bolivaran utopia to its highest level."

It is the optimism and idealism of men like Bolívar, Martí, and Vasconcelos that is usually remembered, not their misgivings or fundamental changes in opinion. There is little awareness, for example, of Bolívar's later disenchantment with the notion of the "new human type" that the fusion of Indian, black, and European had produced. In October of 1830, he wrote to Gen. Rafael Urdaneta expressing pessimism about the barbarous masses (Ortega y Medina, Reflexiones históricas, 279), a crisis of faith that may have provided fodder for the virulent racism of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose mid-nineteenth-century foundational text Facundo called for the reduction of "savage" Indian and black elements and the coterminous stimulation of white European immigration to Latin America.

As tends to happen with martyrs and saints, any undercurrent of doubt is usually excised from the biographies of key figures associated with the defense of Latin America's unique mesticity. Consider, for example, the words of a contemporary celebrant, Mexican essayist Leopoldo Zea (Regreso de las carabelas, 55): "Where does this utopia that Vasconcelos, Bolívar, Martí and many other Latin Americans imagined as a universal goal come from? From history, from the historical experience of the region that emerged in the history of European consciousness October 12, 1492, that is, five hundred years ago." Zea's comment demonstrates how the historical "real" and the ideal or imaginary come together in the revolutionary configurations of mestizaje in Bolívar, Martí, and Vasconcelos, so that a history that is marked by war and atrocity paradoxically produces utopia.

Indeed, part of this common project of moving beyond the rancor of conquest was the adoption of the term "Latin American," which called attention to the cultural and linguistic heritage that distinguished countries south of the Rio Grande from the United States. But the "Latin" element also represented the importance of classical models to these thinkers, who, to varying degrees, looked for ways to adapt the Greco-Roman example to the new American situation—sometimes finding important distinctions, too, as had Bolívar. The heterogeneity of these cultures of antiquity was particularly attractive to these nineteenth- and twentieth-century contractors of Latin American identity, providing them with a tool for reinterpreting the mixture of peoples and cultures not as contamination or dilution, but as a felicitous conjoining of forces and characteristics, conjuncture that could be enlisted in the development of a regional identity that both recognized internal differences and unified Latin America in its distinction from Europe and the United States.

These early engagements with mestizaje by Bolívar and Martí left an enormous imprint on Latin American intellectual culture, and there can be little doubt that The Cosmic Race is in many ways a companion text to other writings by Vasconcelos in which these independence leaders figure prominently, such as Bolivarismo y Monroísmo. When Roberto Fernández Retamar revisited mestizaje in light of the 1959 Cuban Revolution in "Caliban: Notes toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America" (Caliban and Other Essays, 3-45), he cited both Bolívar's address to the Congress of Angostura and Martí's famous designation of "our Mestizo America." For Fernández Retamar, Martí's mestizaje serves as a harbinger of the full realization of Latin American identity within the Cuban Revolution, in which "mestizaje is not an accident but rather the essence" and "the distinctive sign of our culture—a culture of descendants, both ethnically and culturally speaking, of aborigines, Africans, and Europeans" (4). Here, Fernández Retamar seems to again equate "race"—or at least ethnicity—with culture, although in a footnote, he clarifies that what interests him "is not the irrelevant biological fact of the 'races' but the historical fact of the 'cultures'" (113). He enlists Martí's emphasis on mestizaje to prove his common cause with the oppressed, explaining that "Martí is radically antiracist because he is a spokesman for the exploited classes, within which the three races are fusing" (27). Though Fernández Retamar judges both Vasconcelos and his cornerstone essay to be "confused," he nevertheless considers the text to be "full of intuitions" that would be later illuminated by revolutionary events.

III. Transculturation and Its By-products

Beginning in the nineteenth century, written commentary on racial or cultural mixture and its ramifications for emerging Latin American nations began to have a deep impact on such diverse issues as immigration, the classification and management of criminal behaviors, religious practices and their promotion or suppression, and the enactment of a variety of juridical and economic policies. Bolstered by the "hard science" of positivism and determinism, intellectuals and policy makers generally found it unproblematic to equate physical characteristics with specific socioeconomic indicators or cultural behaviors. While this tendency produced obvious problems in terms of the discourse of mestizaje or hybridity, it also stimulated an examination of these ideas within a broadly interdisciplinary frame of inquiry. The study of science and culture often converged, as is the case in the work of Fernando Ortiz, whose Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, first published in Spanish in 1940, attempted to chart cultural modes alongside economic developments and structures in Cuba.

Ortiz used the term "transculturación" to refer to the process of complex cultural transmutations produced in Cuba through contact between Amerindians, Spaniards, Africans, Asians, and others, a phenomenon especially in evidence, he believed, in the juxtapositional cultures that grew up around tobacco and sugar production. This process was itself a multiplication of elements already "transculturated" before their insertion into the Cuban scenario: the colonial population that arrived from a wide variety of geographies and cultural experiences in Spain; the diverse "human flood" of Africans of distinct cultures and races; and the successive waves of immigrants from Asia and other parts of the globe. Ortiz argued that the conceptualization and employment of transculturation accomplished two things: first, it acknowledged the mutual processes of influence and adaptation between these different members of classes, races, stations, and settings in the emerging Cuban society; and, second, it disabled the Anglo-American models of acculturation, which recognized only a unidirectional cultural influence of dominants over subalterns (Cuban Counterpoint, 98).

There is a clear, if implicit, connection between Ortiz' transculturation and the discourse of mestizaje in the work of Bolívar, Martí, and others. The most apparent change is the weight shift from mestizaje as a result of a biological genealogy to transculturation as the result of the specific local economy. While observable racial phenomena may still be present in Ortiz' survey, they are secondary to cultural emanations. And as with previous theories of mestizaje, Ortiz' work on transculturation presents certain elements that complicate a history of contact as productive of harmony and positive synthesis. Significantly, he sees contemporary transcultural processes as the legacy of the Spanish colonial project, a project he identifies with the famous sixteenth-century Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas' condemnation as the "destruction of the Indies." In his famous chapter entitled "On the Social Phenomenon of 'Transculturation' and Its Importance in Cuba" (Cuban Counterpoint, 97-103), Ortiz' description of transculturation employs a form of terror in five different instances, alongside notions of destruction, failure, cruelty, brute force, injustice, and pain. Thus, despite insisting on the creative collaboration of oppressor and oppressed groups in the formation of Cuban and other American cultures, Ortiz acknowledges that such a process was frequently violent and, in fact, productive of violence.

The challenge to rethink transculturation in a broad trans-American frame was taken up by Ángel Rama in his influential Transculturación narrativa en América Latina (Narrative Transculturation in Latin America), published four decades after Ortiz popularized the term. Rama focuses on the creative possibilities implied by transculturation as a form of narrative transitiveness between cultures, even when those cultures stand in unequal relation to each other, and he explores these possibilities in relation to Latin American novels from the 1960s to the 1980s. Whereas Ortiz focused on performative discourses such as music and dance as the best examples of transculturation, for Rama, literature is in fact its privileged staging ground, and a model for its expression in other cultural forms.

Transculturation has since had a quite successful career in Latin American studies. It appears prominently in the work of Mary Louise Pratt, who borrows an ethnographic understanding of the term to describe "how subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture" (Imperial Eyes, 6), an application somewhat distant from the term's employment by Ortiz. One element of Pratt's work that had substantial impact in further developing the theory of hybridity and mestizaje was the development of the notion of the "contact zone," "the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (Imperial Eyes, 6). While this contact is never explicitly sexual, miscegenation is implicitly evoked as one of its immediate results, and mestizaje as a product of its "ongoing relations." For Pratt, as for Ortiz, such relations were often uneven, conflictive, and frequently violent or coercive.

Another supporter of the term is critic Nelly Richard, who has sought ways to "de-symbolize difference" and open it to a differential multiplicity of practices. Richard suggests a strategy of "appropriation-reconversion" in which hybridism and other figures "bear on local problematics of our histories and societies: the role of racial-cultural mestizaje and other forms of Transculturation in the formation of Latin America" ("The Latin American Problematic of Theoretical-Cultural Transference," 230; original emphasis).

Recognizing various historical deployments of transculturation in the writing of Ortiz as well as in works by colonial chroniclers, the artists of the Cuzco school, twentieth-century Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, and contemporary Latino narrators, Silvia Spitta's Between Two Waters defines transculturation as "the complex processes of adjustment and re-creation—cultural, literary, linguistic, and personal—that allow for new, vital, and viable configurations to arise out of the clash of cultures and the violence of colonial and neo-colonial appropriations." Whereas notions such as acculturation, adaptation, assimilation, Manifest Destiny, and the melting pot represent for Spitta one axis of (bleakly) interpreting the conquest of the Americas, transculturation, miscegenation, hybridization, syncretism, métissage, and heterogeneity are proposed as tools for an alternative, more promising, understanding (Spitta, 2). Moving between the colonial and the contemporary, Spitta argues that the Latin American subject is always "in process" and situated along a "continuum of mestizaje" (23). At the same time, she recognizes the complexity and difficulties of this process and urges us to read transculturation as a colonially produced space of "extreme ambiguity" and contradictory meanings (24).

From different corners of the field, other noteworthy critics have weighed in for transculturation (Román de la Campa, Françoise Perus, Abril Trigo) or against it (Neil Larsen, Martín Lienhard, Antonio Benítez-Rojo). In his 1990 study of the colonial chronicle in Mexico and Peru, Lienhard rejects both the notion of cultural mestizaje and its recuperation in the idea of transculturation, because of the tendency to "erase the pluricultural reality, and above all, the permanent discrimination of those sectors marginalized culturally or socially" (La voz y su huella, 132), thereby leaving unresolved the problem of political evaluations of cultural interactions (134). Antonio Benítez-Rojo, in The Repeating Island, the most ambitious study to date of hybridity and similar concepts in the context of Caribbean postmodernity, dismisses both mestizaje and transculturation as suggestive of synthesis, rather than as an ongoing, insoluble (cultural) equation of differences (26). He recommends instead "syncretism," a term, in his estimation, too often restricted to descriptions of religious practices. What all these reflections reveal, perhaps, is the semiotic variance and susceptibility of mestizaje and its sequels, including transculturation and hybridity.



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