Nationalism and Ethnicity: Latin America

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Latin America

Race and ethnicity are categories that have been fundamental to the processes of state formation and national identity in Latin America. The idea of mestizaje—the positive conceptualization of interracial mixtures and cultural fusions—has generally anchored Latin American nationalist thought and distinguished it from nationalist developments in other parts of the Western world. Mestizaje has served as both an elite racial ideology and a popular cultural narrative with ambiguous social impacts. On the one hand, mestizaje has glorified miscegenation as

a democratizing process that has produced racial harmony. On the other hand, mestizaje has also served as a rhetorical tool that elevates the whitening ideal and obscures racist practices. In effect, tensions between sameness and difference and equality and hierarchy have marked the development of mestizaje in Latin America. Tracing the links between racial thought and nationalism through three distinct historical periods reflects how local, national, and transnational contexts, as well as various historical actors, have shaped continuities and changes in the discourses and practices of ethnic nationalism through time.


Latin American struggles for independence in the nineteenth century featured attempts by liberal patriots to unravel three hundred years of colonial rule by Iberian powers. The challenge included the need to create citizens out of colonial subjects and national identities from fragmented, hierarchical colonial societies. In most cases, the push for independence came from native-born Spaniards, called Creoles to distinguish them from the Iberian-born Peninsulars. By the late 1700s, Creole resentment of the Peninsulars' privileged access to power and wealth constituted an intra-elite colonial conflict. However, the majority population had little stake in Creole-Peninsular tensions since the colonial caste system, premised upon the construction of ethno-racial categories, promoted white superiority and excluded peoples of indigenous, African, and mixed descent.

Despite the increasing tensions between the Spanish Crown, Creoles, and Peninsulars, colonial elites shared an interest in preventing popular insurgency. The emergence of popular rebellions in the late colonial period reflected precursors to independence, as well as alternative political visions of subordinated groups. Most notably, the Tupac Amaru II Rebellion from 1780 to 1783 in the Andes commemorated Tupac Amaru I, an Inca resistance leader in the conquest period, and called for an alliance among Creoles, mestizos, and indigenous people against the Peninsulars. Ultimately, the resistance movement became primarily a massive indigenous mobilization that reinforced the fears of the Andean elite and sounded alarms throughout Spanish America. In central Mexico, the multiethnic Hidalgo and Morelos movements begun in 1810 by a Creole priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo (1753–1811), and led later by a mestizo priest, Father José María Morelos (1765–1815), promoted the expulsion of all Peninsulars and the unification of all Americans under the banner of the Lady of Guadalupe. The battle cry, “Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe, and death to the Spaniards!” proved highly effective among thousands of poor rural people, although few Creoles joined the rebellion. Creole-led forces actually helped repress these popular rebellions in Mexico and Peru. The late colonial rebellions demonstrated to Creoles how they could potentially lose control over large indigenous populations; however, Creoles understood well that they could not gain independence without popular support.

Nativism and its keyword, Americanos, became the Creole strategy to garner widespread support. The glorification of American identity defined by birthplace rather than race helped unify multiethnic populations in Spanish America and Brazil while transforming Peninsulars into foreign enemies. In addition, the rhetorical, popular appeal of nativism proved highly compatible with liberalism and its tenets of liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty, which guided the Creole patriots' push for independence. In effect, Creole patriot use of nativism forged a rupture with models of colonial identity and introduced the earliest elements of nationalism in Latin America.

The post-independence era, however, revealed the insincerity of the Creoles' nativist call. Liberal patriots such as Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) viewed racial diversity as a significant obstacle to democracy, which led him to advocate for a strong lifetime executive as well as hereditary political appointments in Gran Colombia. In the mid-nineteenth century, Argentine liberal Domingo F. Sarmiento (1811–1888) echoed Bolívar's lack of faith in the nonwhite population, albeit in much more explicit terms. He promoted education and immigration as means to counter what he deemed a barbaric Spanish and Indian past, and he famously called for the extermination of the gauchos in the pampas. On the other hand, conservative elites and caudillos in the nineteenth century fought to restore the colonial order, particularly through the reestablishment of the privileges of the church and landowners, as well as by reaffirming social hierarchies. Sarmiento's nemesis, Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793–1877), forged alliances with mestizo gauchos, and he conscripted Afro-Argentines into his frontier militias while at the same time imposing authoritarian rule. In contrast to liberals who demanded assimilation and homogeneity for integration in the nation, conservatives revived racialized forms of subordinate incorporation.

Nonetheless, peasants and other popular groups took political actions that shaped nation-building in the nineteenth century, albeit to varying degrees throughout the region. In Mexico, the popular or communitarian liberalism of the Puebla highlands challenged the reform movement led by Benito Juárez (1806–1872) and elite liberals in the 1850s and their resistance to the French intervention from 1862 to 1867. Juárez, a Zapotec who

later became the first indigenous national to serve as president, and his supporters faced the organized efforts of a radicalized and youthful peasant movement that rejected individual property rights and upheld communal landholdings and popular education. In effect, Puebla villages articulated an alternative nationalism during the Reforma period that influenced the outcome of liberal-conservative conflicts in the mid-nineteenth century. In late nineteenth-century Peru, on the other hand, Indian peasant communities of the Mantaro Valley supported patriot struggles against Chilean occupation. However, after the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), Nicola's de Piérola (1839–1913), known as the founder of the Peruvian modern state, and his successors combined physical repression and paternalistic rhetoric to revive the margin-alization of indigenous communities. Despite key differences, both cases underscore how intricate processes of alliances, divisions, and conflicts between Indian peasant communities and national elites contributed to state formation outcomes in the post-independence period.


Despite many transformations, by the late nineteenth century Latin America experienced internal and external processes that many historians argue created neocolonialism. Despite a boom in export economies that reorganized regional power, most of Latin America remained subordinate to foreign powers, namely Great Britain and increasingly the United States. Although slavery came to an end, the export boom prompted the expansion of plantations and commercial agriculture. Landowners supported emergent authoritarian governments that functioned as either oligarchies or dictatorships that served to facilitate economic expansion and promote the positivist ideals of order and progress.

Simultaneously, the racial theories that prevailed in Europe and the United States from roughly 1870 to 1920 influenced dictatorial and oligarchic visions for modernization. Throughout Latin America, a close link existed between the scientific racism of the era and policy reform. National leaders argued for education and immigration as primary means to transform supposedly backward peoples into disciplined, productive citizens. The racialized implications of the project were clear: education could forge cultural homogeneity, while promotion of European immigration would supposedly whiten racially heterogeneous populations.

National leaders and intellectuals drew upon the racial theories of Europe and the United States by selectively borrowing from thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931), Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), and Francis Galton (1822–1911) in order to adapt the ideas to local contexts. The appropriation and adaptation of racial science by political and intellectual leaders reflected their diverse if not anguished response to scientific racism from abroad. Most intellectuals in Brazil ignored the scientific assertions about the immutability of race and condemnation of race mixture and instead opted to promote whitening ideals and practices through miscegenation and immigration. Argentina, which had a less diverse population due to the brutal killings of indigenous groups in the colonial period and the seeming disappearance of Africans through racial mixture, could more easily embrace scientific racism. Yet it, too, conveniently adapted theories by ignoring ethnic differences and scientific hierarchies imposed upon Europeans themselves by making no distinction between Spaniards, Italians, and the English.

Throughout the whole region, however, racialist thinking drove policy decisions. Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba implemented new immigration laws. Brazil and Cuba used racial science to defend particular responses to criminal behavior. In Cuba, the U.S. occupation after the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898 proved influential on race relations as well. Cuba witnessed segregationist policies, shifts in electoral legislation, and violent repression of a black political party. Racial theorizing in Argentina led to the scapegoating of Russian Jews for labor unrest. Prerevolutionary Mexico under the rule of Porfirio D'ıaz (1830–1915) had drawn on racial science to rationalize the dispossession of rural indigenous communities. The tension between the reality of racial diversity and the logic of racial science would endure even among the later nationalists who allegedly opposed scientific racism.

At the same time, U.S. imperialism in the region also unleashed a separate strain of thought among Latin American writers who began to extol the distinct virtues of a supposed Latin American “race” vis-à-vis the assumed national characteristics of the United States. The U.S. takeover of Cuba and Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898, alongside interventions in Panama in 1903 and military occupations in Nicaragua (1912–1933) and the Dominican Republic (1916–1924), betrayed the enduring assumption of a pan-American union that had been established with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. The Cuban revolutionary leader José Martí (1853–1895) began a literary movement that configured “America” without the United States and defended Latin American history and culture and the potential of “el hombre del sur,” the man of the south. Martí also mobilized ex-slaves and former slave masters against Spain by defining Cuba as “raceless.” He thus offered an inclusive national vision for Cuba, as well as a powerful counterpoint to U.S. national identity.

Martí's intellectual successor, the Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó (1872–1917), proved even more influential with his essay Ariel, which was published in 1900. Rodó drew upon William Shakespeare's The Tempest to develop a debate between Ariel, who represents Latin America, and Caliban, who represents North America, about the future course of history. Rodó, like Martí, admired the United States for its industry, but worried that U.S. utilitarianism led to materialism, which he found incompatible with, if not dangerous to, Latin American nations. He encouraged Latin Americans to reject materialism and instead embrace idealism and aes-theticism, which he argued were more compatible with the Latin American essence and spirit. Latin American intellectuals like Rodó and Martí, among others, embraced anti-imperialism, rejected former models of progress, and inverted North Atlantic ideas about the inferiority of Latin American populations. These early articulations of a new Latin American identity and distinct pan-national character would serve as a foundation for nationalists of the twentieth century to build upon.


The new nationalism that spread throughout the region in the first half of the twentieth century proved to be a watershed in the region. Early twentieth-century nationalists sought to shatter neocolonial paradigms that had achieved little national integration and to develop more ambitious and inclusive national visions. The nationalist effort from roughly 1910 to 1950 was an extension of the nativism of the independence period, but now with a strong economic agenda, a more powerful articulation of ethnic and cultural identity, and an explicit advocacy of marginalized groups. In short, twentieth-century nationalists began to focus on public welfare in ways the liberals of the nineteenth century had failed to do. These early twentieth-century efforts manifested in unifying discourses of racial similarity, expanded concepts of citizenship that now included even women, and popular mobilizations. Mexico and Brazil are the two most prominent examples.

The nationalist surge erupted with the onset of the twentieth century's first great social revolution: the Mexican Revolution. Initially, the revolution sought to overthrow the thirty-four-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. An armed conflict ensued from 1910 to 1920 with competing national visions put forth by popular leaders, such as the agrarian leader Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919) and the labor leader Pancho Villa (1878–1923). The new constitution of 1917 also showed a strong nationalist orientation as it reclaimed all subsoil rights, limited the rights of foreigners, and protected indigenous communal lands, called ejidos.

Military and legal events were crucial to the development of the revolution; however, the cultural change brought on by the intellectual contribution of mestizaje proved to be its most enduring legacy. Various key thinkers, writers, politicians, and artists—such as José Vasconcelos (1882–1959), Manuel Gamio (1883–1960), Diego Rivera (1886–1957), Alfonso Caso (1896–1970), and Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán (1908–1996)—addressed the issue of race in Mexico directly during the institutional phase of the revolution from 1920 to 1940. Vasconcelos argued that Latin American miscegenation was producing a superior “Cosmic Race.” Others, like Gamio and Caso, developed the idea of indigenismo, which celebrated indigenous culture and heritage and advocated for the incorporation of Indian communities into the state. A diversity of thought existed among indigenistas, practitioners of indigenismo, as they were not a monolithic activist group. However, discourses of mestizaje and indigenismo were not necessarily incompatible; rather, they often reinforced each other. The state-sponsored work of the Mexican muralists, also diverse in their politics and style, left indelible nationalist images on public spaces that affirmed indigenous, peasant, and worker identities and also offered a revisionist history of the Mexican pueblo. Ultimately, the collective expressions of the revolutionary nationalisms produced a national popular culture embodied in newly celebrated folk music (corridos), traditional food (tamales, moles), and folk art (papier-mâché skeletons, indigenous wood carvings and pottery).

Brazilian intellectuals also described their nation in inclusive and antiracist terms that were grounded in the notion of a “racial democracy” and the interests of the Estado Novo, or New State, of the 1930s. The Estado Novo, directed by Getúlio Vargas (1883–1954), was a highly authoritarian government that dissolved legislative bodies, banned political parties, and censored the mass media. It was also a pragmatic and flexible regime that achieved an unprecedented multiclass alliance and gained widespread support. Its success lies in part in the prolific state-sponsored production of nationalist culture and symbols, such as samba music and dance, regional literatures, and Brazilian modernist art best exemplified in the work of the Grupo de Cinco (Group of Five). Like the Mexican Revolution, the Estado Novo also addressed the issue of race explicitly. Vargas drew upon anthropologist Gilberto Freyre's 1933 book The Masters and the Slaves to promote ideas about racial harmony in Brazil. Freyre argued that all Brazilians should embrace the nation's unique national and ethnic identities, which were constituted by the nation's African heritage and the supposed consensual sexual unions between the white male master and the black slave mistress on colonial plantations. Freyre's interpretations introduced the controversial

idea of Brazilian racial democracy and inspired the Luso-tropicalism movement. The former perpetuated notions about miscegenation's power to unify and democratize Brazilian society, while the latter assumed Portuguese proclivities for harmonious cultural and racial mixing.

These nationalist expressions in the first half of the twentieth century, however flawed and problematic, reached a broad spectrum of Latin Americans, inspired a collective self-discovery, and forged both national and regional unification. On the other hand, nationalist thought in this period did not fully transcend racialized paradigms rooted in biological and cultural markers. Nonetheless, the classic nationalist era mobilized formerly marginalized groups—namely, indigenous, African, and women's groups—that would challenge nationalist assumptions and unveil social realities about race and ethnicity in the post–World War II era.


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Alexandra Puerto

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Nationalism and Ethnicity: Latin America