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Mestizaje,(1) the process of interracial and/or intercultural mixing, is a foundational theme in the Americas, particularly in those areas colonized by the Spanish and the Portuguese. Such is the scope of mestizaje in Latin American society that, for nearly two centuries, its intellectuals and statesmen have explored it in an attempt to elucidate its impact on what Jose Marti called "our mestiza America." During the nineteenth century, mestizaje was a recurrent trope indissolubly linked to the search for lo americano (that which constitutes an authentic [Latin] American identity in the face of European and/or Anglo-American values). Later, during the period of national consolidation and modernization (1920s-1960s), mestizaje underscored the affirmation of cultural identity as constituted by "national character" (lo cubano, lo mexicano, lo brasileno, etc.). Most recently, since the late 1980s, the concept of mestizaje has come to play an important role in the recognition of the plurality of cultural identities in the region and, therefore, of the hybrid constitution of the nation (as epitomized by the recognition of identities such as that of Japanese Brazilians, Argentine Jews, African Cubans, Mexican Lebanese, and Chinese Peruvians, to mention a few), as well as in the formation of a diaspora identity forged under the rubric of lo hispano or lo latino. In short, because Latin America is one of the regions in which racial and cultural mixing has taken place most extensively and most violently because of the nature and timing of colonization, mestizaje is a theme that virtually every Latin American writer/intellectual has addressed in one fashion or another.
In this article, I present a critical overview of the discourse of mestizaje, primarily, although not exclusively, of African European mestizaje, and its relationship to the intellectual formation and transformations of the nation and of national cultural identity from 1845 to 1959.(2) I examine the role that social scientific writings and cultural criticism have played in creating and extending race-defined exclusions and inclusions. My purpose in studying mestizaje as a discursive practice is not to unravel its allegedly labyrinthine nature per se or to invent yet another (Latin) American identity. Rather, I am driven by a scholarly and personal/political commitment to tracing the salient moments in the history of racialist discourse in Spanish and Portuguese America after the 1820s(3) and, in doing so, mapping the poetics of racism in the region to come to terms with this rather complex historical phenomenon.
Central to this article is discussion of the mechanism by which a socially and historically constructed identity - mulatto identity - has been essentialized in the work of some of Latin America's most important cultural critics and writers and how from this essentialist glorification of mulattoness (referred hereafter as "mulatez") the conceptual basis has been drawn for the cultural, political, and aesthetic paradigms that have fashioned (Afro-) Latin America's national-cultural identity from the turn of the nineteenth century to the first half of twentieth century.(4) Essentially, "mulatez" has been treated as a signifier of what many consider a racial and/or ethnic ontological condition - that of being mulatto - a condition often ascribed to individuals, groups, and national cultures whose "character" is drawn from the notion of (Sub-Saharan) African and European miscegenation. Thus, when referring to this essentializing of identity, I will place "mulatez" in quotation marks.
Reflecting on his own "mulatto verses" back in 1931, the Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen, a mulatto of African and European mix, found himself also reflecting on the process by which "the two races that emerge on the surface on the island, although apparently distant, reach out subterraneously to each other like the underwater bridges that secretly join two continents.'"(5) He concluded his reflections by asserting that "the spirit of Cuba is mestizo" (1972: 114).(6) This instance marks one among many in which Guillen asserted Cuba's mulatto essence; indeed, most critics have placed "mulatez" at the center of his poetics. For instance, in Nacion y mestizaje en Nicolas Guillen (1982), the black Cuban writer Nancy Morejon, extending the legacy of mulatez as originally conceptualized by Guillen, posits mestizaje (read mulataje) as the means to a homogeneous and naturalized national culture. For Morejon, Cuban national identity "presupposes a variety of races and one mixed culture. And not a multiplicity of races and of cultures, as occurs in countries with a diverse culture, that is, a culture that has not been transculturated" (1982: 31).(7)
The theorization of mestizaje, I should note, is not unique to Cuba or, for that matter, to the Spanish-speaking world. Lusophone America has also contributed its fair share to the ample body of writings on mestizaje in Latin America (see, e.g., the work of Silvio Romero [1888; 1949(1888)], Gilberto Freyre [1946(1933); 1955; 1963(1959); 1986(1936)], and Darcy Ribeiro). Most recently, however, critics have tended to draw - however uncritically - from the Cuban rather than the Brazilian model and, in doing so, have given the discourse of mestizaje a new and exciting twist. To cite one example, in "The Politics and Aesthetics of Metissage," Francoise Lionett posits metissage as a subversive paradigm, an arena where arguments based on racial purity are shattered, therefore allowing individuals and nations to move beyond racial and/or cultural essentialism (1989:16). For Lionett, metissage is the "fertile ground of our heterogeneous and heteronomous identities as postcolonial subjects" (1989: 8). The pendulum effect of mestizaje, as rendered by the two examples cited above, is fascinating: it allows for racialized discourse to oscillate from cultural absolutism to cultural relativism, from the means to a homogeneous and naturalized national cultural identity to the site of a heterogeneous postcolonial one.
Seen as the site of heterogeneous cultural identities, mestizaje, indeed, ought to be a fertile aesthetic and political ground for the proliferation and expression of individual and national subjectivities. Clearly Lionett, like many other postcolonial critics, rearticulates mestizaje in terms that would legitimate not only her own critical enterprises and political and intellectual investments but also the access of individual and/or collective subaltern subjectivities (such as people of mixed origin or postcolonial subjects or countries) to cultural and political visibility and power. This project, however, while mimicking the gesture of Latin American intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in relation to European racial and environmental theories, clearly stands substantially differently to the various paradigms of mestizaje deployed by Latin American intellectuals in the past. In fact, when reading mulatto fictions in conjunction with the various projects of nation building and state fashioning in Latin America, what surfaces - as the previously cited passage from Morejon's text clearly illustrates - is not the recognition and proclamation of ethnic difference or of a heterogeneous identity but the Eurocentric glorification of a cultural sameness, of similarity in identity.(8) Oddly enough, Lionett draws from the work of Guillen and Fernando Ortiz, via Morejon, the enabling metaphor of transculturation - which for all of them has meant cultural homogeneity rather than heterogeneity - capable of standing against the hegemonic discourse of racialism (1989:15).
Throughout this essay, I show how various paradigmatic articulations of mestizaje in Latin America, while standing against the hegemonic discourse of racialism that promotes racial binarism, have not, in fact, challenged racialism itself. Instead, the racial and cultural paradigms elaborating on the ideologeme of mestizaje(9) have replaced racial binarism with a third entity resulting from the transmutation (read synthesis) of the binarism. The result, in my view, is a new form of racialized discourse, of racialism, that culturalizes mulatez while continuing to glorify it in essentialist terms. Hence, as I hope to show, mulatez, as rendered in Latin American writings, is more often than not tainted by racialized determinism (although, I agree, not racial purity) or, at best, endowed with a sort of cultural essentialism that has a priori subsumed race within its argument, despite the fact that race, in and of itself, is nothing more than the social construction of color and culture (as officially instituted in the twentieth century), a politicized paradigm used by the state for, among other things, national unification and homogenization. I will return to the latter point.
INDEPENDENCE AND THE RACIALIZATION OF LATIN AMERICAN THOUGHT
Instrumental in forging mulatto fictions - that is, an array of works, both fictional and nonfictional, epistemologically grounded in the various scientific theories of race prevalent from the 1840s to the 1910s - were a group of literati, social scientists, and politicians who, under the influence of Spencerian positivism, polygenism, evolutionary theory, philosophical liberalism, and eugenics, reflected on interracial mixing while strengthening the controversial position of the mestizo and the mulatto in Latin American …