With the rise of powerful indigenous movements in the 1990s, ethnic studies have gained renewed interest in academic circles. This heightened attention was manifest in the creation of a new Ethnicity, Race, and Indigenous Peoples (ERIP) section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) and an associated journal, Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies (LACES). Directly or indirectly, subject populations have always set the agenda for ethnic studies.
An interest in ethnicity can be traced back to the beginnings of the European conquest of the Americas. Most notable was Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566), a Dominican priest who accompanied early Spanish conquistadores. Along with other priests, he engaged in a sustained study of indigenous cultures and languages—often for the purposes of conversion to Christianity. Under colonial administration, European powers divided the Americas into two republics—one for Europeans and another for Indians. In the nineteenth century, liberal politicians emphasizing equality attempted to erase these racial differences. Rather than improving the lives of indigenous peoples, this led to increased poverty and oppression for them. In the 1920s educated urban elites engaged in an indigenista discourse that attempted to address indigenous poverty. Most notably, the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui argued for the necessity to study indigenous cultures in order to understand the social reality of Peru.
In the 1960s agrarian reform programs again attempted to de-ethnicize indigenous populations, believing that turning Indians into peasants would be a way to improve their lives. In a surprise to outsiders, indigenous peoples continued to cling to their ethnic identities. Out of this situation emerged powerful indigenous-led movements for liberation. With increased politicization of ethnic identities, academic interest in ethnic studies increased as well. It spread out from its roots in anthropology to become an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that incorporates sociology, political science, geography, history, and other disciplines.
Historically, studies of ethnically distinct populations have tended to debate whether their marginalization would best be solved through extermination or assimilation. It was rare to argue for maintenance of ethnic identity, and equally rare for members of a marginalized ethnic group to study their own heritage. In the twentieth century a long-running debate raged over whether oppression of subaltern populations was due to racial or class discrimination. Increasingly, scholars recognized this as a false debate, as these issues often merged, together with gender and other factors, into a singular system of domination. Many studies began to look at ethnicity as a cultural construct that served to advance a specific group's political, economic, and social interests.
The term ethnicity itself has come under scrutiny. Sometimes it has referred to culture, as distinct from race, which was seen as a biological category. Often it has been used as a gloss for race, particularly as scientists have proved that in biological terms distinct races do not exist. Ethnicity has also been commonly used to refer to indigenous populations, whereas race has been used for Afro-descendants. All of these categories imply a homogeneity that has never existed in the Americas. Not only is Indian a colonial term that grouped thousands of different groups together under one rubric, but it also ignored the presence of other ethnicities. Particularly since the nineteenth century there has been a significant and diverse Asian immigration to the Americas. Arguably, descendants of the European conquistadores also have their own ethnic heritages, though these are rarely considered within the framework of ethnic studies.
Ethnic studies have traditionally been the domain of elites studying other, marginalized, populations. One of the most noted developments is ethnic populations' studying their own history and culture. There has also been a strong move toward collaborative research between academics and indigenous intellectuals. Scholars of ethnic studies increasingly recognize their responsibilities to those they study, often reversing the power dynamics as ethnic peoples increasingly refuse to be subjugated or marginalized.
Postero, Nancy Grey, and León Zamosc, eds. The Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Latin America. Brighton, U.K. and Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2004.
Rappaport, Joanne. Intercultural Utopias: Public Intellectuals, Cultural Experimentation, and Ethnic Pluralism in Colombia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
Wade, Peter. Race and Ethnicity in Latin America. London and Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997.