January 20, 2010

Mestizaje and Blackness in Peru and Latin America

Mestizaje – racial and cultural mixture – is at the core of scholarly understandings of race in Latin America. Mestizaje is often described as racial and cultural mixture that involves progression towards whiteness. Few scholars, however, have paid attention to the ways that mestizaje works differently for blacks and Indians. This is a crucial oversight, as race mixture and whitening have very different meanings for blacks and Indians in Latin America.

In Peru, the question of race has been seen by national entities, and by scholars, as an Indian problem. Although the black population in Peru has received some treatment in terms of slavery and abolition, there have been few studies of the contemporary African-descended population in Peru, a notable exception being Heidi Feldman’s Black Rhythms of Peru (2006), which explores the black arts revival in Peru.

As race is conceptualized in Peru, a person with brown skin and black hair could be labeled white (blanco) or Indian (indio), or either of the two intermediate labels: cholo or mestizo. According to these studies, what determines one’s racial status is not skin color, but level of education, cultural markers such as language, dress and food, and geographic and class location. Because of flexible nature of these markers, through the process of mestizaje, an Indian can change his cultural traits and become a mestizo.

This conceptualization of race does not fit black Peruvians. For example, Orlove (1998) argues that a person is more Indian and less mestizo on the basis of his or her proximity to the earth. Indians are more likely to walk with muddy feet, whereas mestizos are more likely to wear leather shoes. This continuum of differences between going barefoot, wearing rubber sandals, wearing old shoes, and having new shoes makes little sense in the context of black Peruvians. Blackness is not defined in Peru on the basis of social or cultural attributes; it is a distinction made primarily on the basis of skin color, making it quite distinct from indigeneity.

Scholars of indigeneity in Peru have argued that Indians can be whitened through cultural assimilation (de la Cadena 2000; Ortiz 2001). However, when Afro-descendant residents of Ingenio talk about mixture or mestizaje, it is most frequently a discussion of how light or dark the children will be. I did not hear people in Ingenio talking about mestizaje as cultural mixture or as social whitening. People in Ingenio did not perceive blackness to be something that could disappear by virtue of changes in cultural or social features. In addition, people from Ingenio who migrated to Lima did not experience their upward social mobility as whitening. Cultural and social whitening are not possible for blacks from Ingenio because of the centrality of skin color in definitions of blackness.

Black Peruvians do not experience mestizaje and whitening in the same way that indigenous Peruvians do. For this reason, it is crucial to distinguish between mestizaje as cultural assimilation and mestizaje as intergenerational whitening. Further, it is crucial to remember that processes of mestizaje work differently for blacks and Indians.

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