The terms “mestizo” (masculine) and “mestiza” (feminine) come from sixteenth-century Portuguese and Spanish, but over the past few hundred years, they have been incorporated into US English. In general, “mestizo/a” refers to racial and cultural mixing among Europeans, Indians, and Africans. As nouns, “mestizo” and “mestiza” refer to a mixed man and woman, respectively, but the word may also be used as an adjective, as in “the mestiza writer” or “a mestizo nation.” The process of such mixing is called “mestizaje.” These words have long and complex histories in diverse parts of the world, including Asia and the Americas, but their most prominent usages in American studies and cultural studies scholarship have referred to the Mexico/US borderlands. In that context, the meanings of “mestizo” have been intimately shaped by dominant and oppositional political movements.
The earliest known appearance of “mestizo” is in a Portuguese dictionary from the 1560s, in which it is treated as a synonym for “mulatto.” Subsequent texts emphasize a broad set of mixtures, including different kinds of animals and humans. In response to the long Moorish presence in Spain, “mestizo” was used to describe the offspring of Christian and non-Christian parents, as well as Spanish Catholics who had become acculturated Arabs. Like “hybrid,” the early uses of “mestizo” referred to “almost any kind of mixture, of wild and tame, of citizen and non-citizen, of resident and traveler” (Forbes 1992, 125).
With the expansion of overseas empires, new uses of the term developed to describe and govern subjected peoples. In mid-sixteenth-century India, Portuguese speakers used “mestizo/a” to describe people who were half Asian and half Portuguese; around the same time, Jesuits in Brazil employed it in reference to the mixed population. Spanish colonizers used the word in the Philippines and in Spanish America, at first to signify mixtures of religion, class, local origin, and culture, but over time, its meanings shifted toward racialism and caste. Starting in the mid-sixteenth century, “mestizo” was increasingly distinguished from “mulatto.” Over the next hundred years, the semantic line between the two terms hardened, so that in Spanish colonial usage, “mulatto” came to mean African and Indian mixes, whereas “mestizo” came to mean part Spanish and part Indian.
The earliest English citation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589). Here and in subsequent entries from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, English-language authors use “mestizo” to indicate intermarriages between Europeans and non-Europeans in the Portuguese and Spanish colonial worlds. The OED neglects, however, influential examples from the US-Mexico War (1846–48). While the Spanish (and subsequent Mexican) political system was built on the incorporation and manipulation of mestizaje, mid-nineteenth-century commentators indicate that the US empire was instead built on segregation. Opponents of the annexation of Mexico argued that it would harm US democracy to incorporate a “mongrel” race such as the Mexicans. One newspaper editor warned that Mexico was “a sickening mixture, consisting of… a conglomeration of Negroes and Rancheros, Mestizos and Indians,” while in Congress, one representative argued that it would be impossible to assimilate “the mongrel, miserable population of Mexico—the Mexicans, Indians, Mulattoes, [and] Mestizos” (qtd. in Horsman 1981, 239, 242). Although prowar forces won out and the United States invaded Mexico and took large portions of its land, the racism of the antiannexation side continued to influence attitudes and policies directed at Mexican peoples in the United States, often serving as an excuse for discrimination and exploitation. By the 1920s, an influential eugenics movement attempted to clothe such racism in the prestige of science, arguing that, as a mongrel race, Mexican mestizos threatened the nation with racial degeneration. So widespread had the negative meanings of the word become that in 1934, Fox Studios named one of its western film villains “El Mestizo.” Although such frankly racist sentiments are uncommon in mainstream venues today, “mestizo” remains current on white supremacist websites as a pejorative synonym for “Mexican.”
In the first third of the twentieth century, another current of meanings emerged in Mexico, where intellectuals, artists, and politicians used “mestizaje” to represent the postrevolutionary nation. Mestizos were a significant force in the revolution, and subsequent Mexican governments promoted their images as symbols of national unity. Critics often cite José Vasconcelos’s influential study The Cosmic Race ( 1997), in which the Mexican minister of education outlined his theory that, far from being a form of racial degeneration, mestizaje was a means of progress. According to Vasconcelos, whereas the United States had insisted on racial purity, the Spanish empire had incorporated beneficial forms of racial mixing. He concluded that mestizaje had the potential to produce a universal culture that could overcome divisions and combine the best of world cultures. After the revolution, nationalist mestizaje was popularized in film and other media, particularly in the figure of Cantinflas, the popular Mexican actor who specialized in comic underdog roles about the mixture of the rural and the urban. One frequent critique of official Mexican uses of the term, however, is that they symbolically incorporate mestizos while leaving actual mestizos on the margins of society. The nationalist focus on mixture further tends to “disappear” Indian peoples. Similar claims could be made concerning Africans.
This brief etymology raises questions about the relationships among mestizos, Indians, and Africans in the Americas. As Jack Forbes (1992) suggests, in Spanish, mestizo reflected a relatively new hierarchy with whites on top, Africans and Indians at the bottom, and mestizos/as in the middle. Mestizos/as were stigmatized by the Spanish, but because they were closer to “whiteness,” they were often afforded rights and privileges denied to Indians and Africans. By contrast, some mid-nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans placed mestizos/as closer to Indians and Africans, while others argued that Mexico’s mixed population made it an essentially Indian country. This ambivalence is also central to contemporary debates. Does mestizo/a identity stabilize hierarchies by partly “whitening” mixed people and dividing them from people of color? Or does it produce possibilities for oppositional coalitions by pushing mixed people closer to oppressed Indians and Africans?
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, writers and activists associated with the Chicano movement revised Mexican concepts in order to construct their own form of nationalism that was opposed to US nationalism and imperialism. Insisting on the word “Chicano” to distinguish their political positions from those of prior generations, who sometimes identified as “Spanish” or “Mexican American,” members of the Chicano movement also used the term “mestizo” to guard against assimilationist identity constructions that denigrated indigenous histories and cultures (Valdez 1972). Instead, mestizaje was promoted as a source of pride and progressive political possibilities. Although some members of the movement based their political identities on essentialist models of racial mixing, others recalled earlier histories in which the term signified cultural mixing. “Mestizo” and “mestizaje” were often employed to describe instances of cultural hybridity, as in the combination of indigenous and European rituals and belief systems, hybrid historical memories, and mixed European and indigenous iconographies.
In some cases, this version of mestizaje led Chicanos/as to seek coalitions with African Americans and Native Americans, but in others, it led to an exclusionary nationalism in which Chicano political claims trumped those of other groups. This is particularly true with regard to Native Americans. “Mestizo” perspectives sometimes led Chicanos/as to make claims to a native or indigenous status that partly displaced Native American claims. This problem is not unique to the United States; concepts of mestizaje have created political conflicts between Latin American mestizos/as and indigenous peoples and between mestizos/as and members of the African diaspora (Hale 1994; Rosa 1996; Beck and Mijeski 2000).
A related criticism of the Chicano movement is that its theory of mestizaje was masculinist and heterosexist, since its prototypical subject was imagined as decidedly male and straight. Feminists criticized the movement’s elision of gender, but such arguments gained critical mass only in the 1980s, notably with the publication of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987, 1999). Combining the racial and cultural meanings of the term, Anzaldúa used “mestiza” as a metaphor for the kinds of borderland subjectivities produced by multiple discourses and practices of gender, sexuality, race, class, nationalism, and imperialism. Not only is Borderlands / La Frontera a powerful rejoinder to Chicano-movement sexism and homophobia, but it also articulates a version of mestizaje that has served as the basis for coalition building among women of color and others. Whereas historically “mestiza” has been used either pejoratively or, more recently, as a neutral descriptor (as in the fields of history and anthropology), Anzaldúa affirms mestiza consciousness as a potentially critical, activist identity informed by material histories of oppression (Alarcón 1996).
Although debates continue regarding the limits and possibilities of Anzaldúa’s theories, her use of “mestiza” raises questions about the relationship between hybridity and power. Since the 1980s, cultural critics have increasingly used “mestizaje” to describe not racial but cultural differences. Although such an emphasis avoids the sorts of racism described earlier, the concept risks becoming a free-floating signifier, abstracted from the material histories that have produced mixed peoples. Moreover, cultural mestizaje may dovetail with the reifications of contemporary capitalism (Hames-García 2000). In addition to the significant number of scholarly books that use the term in titles, “mestizo” is also the name of a commercial film, a popular music group, a paperback western novel, a café, and an internet-based company that sells Mexican crafts. The Spanish translation of the sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is titled Harry Potter y el principe mestizo. And near the end of the film The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), the fair-skinned actor who plays Che Guevara makes a toast to the “mestizo race.”
Finally, “mestizo” has become a privileged term for thinking about the future. It is often used in titles that project near-future mixtures, as in such books as Mestizo: The History, Culture, and Politics of the Mexican and the Chicano, the Emerging Mestizo-Americans (Vento 2002), Mestizo America: The Country of the Future (Ospina 2000), and The Future Is Mestizo (Elizondo 2000). There the term signifies looming demographic transformations and cultural hybridities that are already beginning to overtake the present. In some versions, the coming mestizaje is positive and utopian, as in the “Mestizo Christianity” in which, recalling Vasconcelos, theologians argue that mestizos/as bear the future hope of God’s plans for humanity. In other cases, it recalls earlier uses that suggest a dystopian future. A 2002 public policy report called The Changing Face of the San Fernando Valley (Kotkin and Ozuna), for instance, includes a chapter titled “The Mestizo Valley.” “Once virtually all-white, and overwhelmingly native born,” the report claims, “the San Fernando Valley has become increasingly a mixed area—mestizo in Spanish—that challenges many of the traditional assumptions still held about the region” (10). Recent work by the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington projects such concerns nationally, arguing that immigration poses a threat to “the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream” (2004a). Well known for his influential theory of the clash of civilizations between Christian and Islamic cultures, Huntington translates the biological racism of the US-Mexico War period into cultural racism by suggesting that Mexican Catholic values are inferior. In these ways, different articulations of mestizo/a draw on different historical tendencies, including the dystopian futurology of Anglo-American racism and the utopian futurology of the post-Mexican-revolutionary era and the Chicano movement.