Feature: The Racist Origin of “Mixed” Race in Central and South America

By Juan Zapata


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Many of my fellow Native Americans from south of the U.S. border suffer from an identity crisis when I reveal the truth of their race; many “Hispanics” and “Latinx” are Native American. This has been acknowledged by past historical figures.

Take note of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Alexander von Humboldt in April 1811 regarding Mexicans:

“All former Spanish colonies are now in insurrection. What kind of government will they establish…have they mind enough to place their domesticated Indians on a footing with the whites?” (History of Mexico 23)


A speech to Congress on January 4th, 1848 by Senator John C. Calhoun opposing the All-Mexico Plan following the Mexican-American War:

 “To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes.  I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race…”


A statement from U.S. diplomat Waddy Thompson Jr. in 1836.

“That the Indian race of Mexico must recede before us, is quite certain as that[,] that is the destiny of our own Indians.” (An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States 117)


The subject of racial identity shocks people of Native American descent from south of the U.S. border  – many vehemently argue, others embrace it, and almost all yearn to know more. A common protest is the fact we are mixed or “mestizo”, or that some of us have very little native DNA; however, the concept of being mixed is a foreign, European one that stems from the racist Spanish caste system; it was not self-imposed by our Native ancestors. This was implemented not only in Mexico, but in other Central and South American countries during colonial times.

Despite dismantling the native empires in Mexico, the Spanish were still vastly outnumbered by the native population.

Native Land Map of southern North America and Central America
Native Land Map from: https://native-land.ca/

Because of the shortage of white Spanish women, Spanish men initially reproduced with natives and later blacks. This produced mixed children. The Spanish fathers in these relationships faced a choice regarding the future treatment and status of their offspring.

If the Spaniard accepted the child as legitimate, the child would be considered white despite the biracial appearance and would hold the status of a white person. In effect, the child would become a part of the creole elite. At the beginning of colonialism, this term embodied white people that were born in the Indies. It later evolved to mean a white person with little native DNA. Ultimately, accepting legitimate, mixed children bolstered the ranks of the white class which benefited them as more people were needed to govern the land.

If the Spanish father rejected his offspring, the child would be sent to an indigenous community to live as any full-blooded native and be accepted there; however, this system proved to be problematic. Rebellions and conspiracies spawned against the colonial government from these mixed children over many years, threatening the colonial elites. Due to this, in the 1540s to 1570s the Spanish created the label of “mestizo” or mixed which became synonymous with being illegitimate. Mestizos were unequal to white people and not to be trusted fully in the colonies.

This “mestizo” label had roots on the Iberian Peninsula with a concept known as “limpeza de sangre.” The Spanish desired to eradicate the Moors and stop the spread of Judaism in the 15th and 16th centuries. In contrast, society’s classes were racial in the colonies, in Spain, they were delineated by religion. The further one’s ancestral lineage from a Muslim or Jew, the better. This “limpeza de sangre” concept provided the caste template for hybridity in the colonies regarding race. (Vison 43). Indeed, those called “mestizo” in Spain were described as “Christian in name and Muslim in heart.” (Hill)

The issues in Spain continued to fester. The “moriscos” (Full-blooded white + a mulatta = morisco. A Morena/black person + full-blooded white = mulatta) rebelled against the Spanish crown in the middle of the 17th century in the Alpujarras region while strife continued in New Spain (the pre-Mexican region). This aggravated the situation because the colonial government saw the conflicts as connected, giving them a reinforced cause to implement this “mestizo” term to de-rank their offspring and other mixed individuals.

Map of the Alpujarras Region
Alpujarras Region
Example of the Spanish Caste System
Spanish Caste System Example

As if there wasn’t a lot happening already, there had been an exponential increase of black slaves surging into New Spain. In the mid-sixteenth century, the number of blacks equaled the number of whites at roughly 20,000 in 1550-1560, and this plurality continued to grow over many decades. The colonial government feared the union of natives, mestizos, and blacks into an insurmountable rebellion that would displace them, so they opted to fully implement a caste system to sow division and maintain control.

Though quite complex, unorganized, and extreme, the caste system’s purpose was to place full-blooded white Europeans at the top of the social ladder and all other groups at the bottom. The closer a group’s proximity to whiteness, the greater its individuals’ status; it opened special privileges, advancement, and wealth potential. At the very bottom were blacks and full-blooded natives. Above them were the mestizos, the mixed children of whites and natives. Above them were the castizos, the progeny of a mestizo and a white person. It went on and on with many combinations possible. (Vinson III 11-14). This created a split between the groups and the beginning of a racist framework that affects Mexican society to this day.

Currently, indigenous groups in Mexico are discriminated against by white Europeans and mestizo populations. The Spaniards created a self-sustaining system for their continuous racial dominance that has far outlived their rule. Mixed natives subjugate full-blooded natives, doing much of the dirty work for majority-white elites. 

There are also more subtle forms of racism with many actors, TV anchors, etc. being predominantly European and commercials favoring European descendants.

A deviation from this norm is not well received. For example, when the indigenous actress, Yalitza Aparicio, gained prestige for her performance in Roma, there was racial hatred and ridicule thrown against her from many in Mexico. Those of European descent spewed hate, but so did the mestizos, which is very puzzling as a significant percentage of their genetic makeup is indigenous. Colonial brainwashing and division have produced a desire for whiteness and disdain for the indigenous, a subtle form of self-hatred for mestizos. While this has undoubtedly lost power compared to a hundred years ago, the remnants are still significant today and continue to impact society.

Univision Co-Anchor Borja Voces
Yalitza Aparicio
Yalitza Aparicio

“Continuous infusions of whiteness could fully “cleanse” indios into whites in as little as three generations.” (Vinson III 48). “A new and better day was on the horizon for Mexico through racial mixture…the qualities of the scorned populations [natives and blacks] were not only salvageable but potentially positive contributors to nationhood.” (Vinson III 31).


The fact of the matter is that the illusion of being different due to mixed blood is a racist European concept meant to manipulate descendants of native blood. The state was deliberate in this machination.

“Retaining small enclaves of these [full-blooded] populations as living relics, especially blacks and Native Americans, conveniently served the state’s purpose of validating the merits of mixture. Especially as long as these groups remained in poverty, the state could use them to juxtapose what were supposedly prototypical black and native lifestyles against those of the racially mixed mainstream.” (Vinson III 37).

In Mexico, the word “Indio” (Indian) is considered an insult. “Cara de nopal” is derogatory as well (Cactus face or having a cactus nose) along with being “prieto” (dark-skinned). Conversely, having lighter skin, is exalted and admired. This attitude also stems from Jose Vasconcelos’s book of “La Raza Cosmica,” which views whiteness as quality Mexicans must fuse into by marrying lighter and diluting, mixing, and rejecting native roots. Only through these infusions of whiteness could the seemingly inferior races advance.

As rector of the National University and Minister of Education from 1921 to 1924, it is not a stretch by any means to say that Jose Vasconcelos’s philosophy had societal impacts even if his name is not recognizable to the average Mexican. These are his most anti-Indian and anti-Black quotes from “La Raza Cosmica.” He also acknowledges how the white race is “superior,” and he himself was white, a son of European parents:

Jose Vasconcelos
Jose Vasconcelos
  • “A religion such as Christianity made the American Indians advance, in a few centuries, from cannibalism to a relative degree of civilization.” (Vasconcelos 5).

  •     “The stain from the spilled blood still remains. It is an accursed stain that centuries have not erased, but which the common danger must annul. There is no other recourse. Even the pure Indians are Hispanized, they are Latinized, just as the environment itself is Latinized. Say what one may, the red men, the illustrious Atlanteans from whom the Indians derive, went to sleep millions of years ago, never to awaken.” (Vasconcelos 16).

  •     “The Indian has no other door to the future but the door of modern culture, nor any other road but the road already cleared by Latin civilization.” (Vasconcelos 16).

  •     “Depths contained in the pupil of the red man, who knew so much, so many thousand years ago, and now seems to have forgotten everything.” (Vasconcelos 21).

  •     “Latin America owes what it is to the white European, and is not going to deny him…However we accept the superior ideals of the Whites but not their arrogance.” (Vasconcelos 25).

  •     “Perhaps the traits of the white race will predominate among the characteristics of the fifth race, but such a supremacy must be a result of the free choice of personal taste…” (Vasconcelos 25).

  • “The lower types of the species will be absorbed by the superior type. In this manner, for example, the Black could be redeemed, and step by step, by voluntary extinction, the uglier stocks will give way to the more handsome. Inferior races, upon being educated, would become less prolific, and the better specimens would go on ascending a scale of ethnic improvement, whose maximum type is not precisely the White, but that new race to which the White himself will have to aspire with the object of conquering the synthesis. The Indian, by grafting onto the related race, would take the jump of millions of years that separate Atlantis from our times, and in a few decades of aesthetic eugenics, the Black may disappear, together with the types that a free instinct of beauty may go on signaling as fundamentally recessive and undeserving, for that reason, of perpetuation.” (Vasconcelos 32).

Taken at face value, The Cosmic Race might appear to be a positive work that is accepting of racial mixture and unions of love. Still its roots are in the desire to dilute the “Indian” and “Black” out of existence – that only through becoming whiter would a proper new race be born in Mexico worthy of pride and admiration. The Cosmic Race’s main underlying thesis is that any race (besides the white one) is not worthy enough on its own. Therefore, a mix is necessary to salvage any redeeming qualities. Vasconcelos does say that the white race is not the new master race and that the days of the pure whites are numbered, but he views them as inherently superior; he shows disdain for natives and blacks. For these reasons, his work is flawed and negative.

These racist notions are hundreds of years of psychological conditioning to hate oneself, turn against one’s roots, and surrender to colonialism as a conquered and defeated people. Fortunately, this system of thought is only a paper tiger. If the mestizo populations of Central and South America united racially as Native Americans, caste divisions could finally be eliminated. The system could then be replaced for an authentic version of the current countries with pride in their ancestral, indigenous ties.

To this end, I say: I am an Indio – soy prieto – tengo la cara de nopal. I embrace these terms proudly, and I don’t flinch at being called this, nor do I care quite frankly. I am at peace with who I am. I do not hate the color of my skin or my ancestors or my Native American facial features. I do not buy into white supremacy. I urge you to break free from the Spanish caste system’s remnants, from Vasconcelos and others like him. To embrace your native side (if applicable). The goal should also be to stop the discrimination of indigenous groups in Mexico and other countries that retain their tribal identity. They are lucky that the Spaniards did not destroy this as well.

Having mixed blood does not invalidate a person from identifying with one race, such as Native American/American Indian. We must note the strength of the black community in the U.S. due to their unity as a race; even mixed or light-skinned Black people still call themselves Black and are regarded as such. They aren’t hung up on the white part of them (some of which is a product of rape, just how some mestizos were no doubt created).

One should lean toward identifying with the group that they find purpose with, the group that they are treated the same as. Racist white people don’t see mixed natives as white or care about the differences between someone fully indigenous versus someone mixed. It’s all the same to them, even if they are not aware that a non-white or non-black “Hispanic” IS Native American; those are the features they dislike – the black hair, onyx eyes, bronze skin. This disdain stems from racism, and racism is almost impossible without a difference in phenotype; the mix is irrelevant.

To address those self-conscious of being mixed, observe the image of the Monacan Tribe (recognized federally by the U.S. government in 2018). Other tribes such as the Cherokee require at least 7% Cherokee blood to be a fully-fledged member. This is not to cast hate at these people but to illustrate my point. In the case of the Monacans, many of their members are majority white, yet they do not call themselves mestizo, mixed, or part native. They identify as simply native. If the Monocans and other similar tribes can declare themselves as natives despite having mixed-race members, we can too.

Images from 2007 Monacan Powwow

A common rebuttal to my point is that tribes are sovereign nations and race isn’t the only factor for membership, so they can define themselves as they see fit. Fair enough, I respect that, but the government, public, and the U.S. Census do not consider “American Indian” to be an ethnicity. It is a racial category, and tribe members are regarded as the “American Indian” race regardless of how much native blood they actually possess. For the sake of this argument, ethnicity can’t be used as a cop-out when it’s convenient; it devolves into dishonest double standards and mental gymnastics.

There is power in recognizing the truth and making it known. “Those natives are crossing the border illegally! Deport those Native Americans!” Doesn’t carry the same punch as “Those illegals/wetbacks/beaners/Latinos need to be deported.” Semantics and perception affect everything—the little details matter.

I am no authority on who you should be, but I fight for those that don’t want to be consigned to a mixed-status. I fight against those individuals who don’t allow mixed people to identify with one race. Against those that try to take that choice away. For many of us, I know it can be hell. It feels like because you’re not all in somewhere, you’re nowhere. Truly, from my personal experience, people in the U.S. don’t respect a mixed identity or being “mestizo.” They hear that word, and their eyes glaze over because they don’t realize the significance. The indigenous side of you is denied to the casual observer/thinker, and it never registers; this makes it so, in effect,you’re selling your identity short. You become a foreigner on your own continent.

As Jack Forbes eloquently put in his essay, The Mestizo Concept: “More significantly, to be a mestizo is to cop-out. It is to accept the Spaniard’s colonialist-racist ideology. It is to fall supine before the European’s racial grading system instead of struggling for psychological liberation. It is to deny one’s own people’s history in order to have a masochistic, obscene relationship with the invaders and conquerors.”

Mestizo was first created to differentiate a person from being fully white because of historical treachery. It became an agent of rejection because being fully indigenous was to be inferior, and no one desired that, so they chose to flee from that identity. With the background of “mestizo” revealed, the choice lies with you and no one else on how you wish to identify. I support whatever choice you make. 

I leave you with a challenge with the picture below. Pick out the “Latinos” and “Hispanics” from the natives. I’m confident saying that you cannot because there is no difference. We are all one people.


Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. “Sea to Shining Sea.” An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Beacon Press, 2015, pp. 117

Forbes, J. (1970, January 01). The Mestizo Concept. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from http://texasedequity.blogspot.com/2020/03/the-mestizo-concept-by-jack-forbes.html

Hill, Ruth. “Casta as culture and the sociedad de castas as literature.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century Norwich (2004): 231-259.

History, Captivating. History of Mexico: A Captivating Guide to Mexican History, Starting from the Rise of Tenochtitlan through Maximilian’s Empire to the Mexican Revolution and the Zapatista Indigenous Uprising. Captivating History, 2020.

John C. Calhoun, “A Southern Senator Opposes the “All-Mexico” Plan,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 18, 2020, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1273.

Vasconcelos, J., & Jaén, D. T. (1997). The Cosmic Race: A Bilingual Edition. Baltimore, Massachussetts: Johns Hopkins Univ. Pr.

Vinson, B. (2018). Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press

About the Author
Juan Zapata
Juan Zapata is a Guachichil Native American, discovering this through intensive genealogy research. He is the author of The New Order trilogy, an Army Reservist (views are not representative of the military’s), and an alumnus of Alabama A&M University. He was undocumented until he was 15 years old before DACA was instated. Other pieces of his include “Letter from an Omniscient Racist”, “International Half-Breed”, and “Why Don’t All These Damn Illegals Come in the Right Way”. Disclaimer: Juan's other pieces are not against Hispanics, Latinxs, or Immigrants. They are satirical with the intent to challenge opinions.