Does Race Matter in Latin America?: How Racial and Ethnic Identities Shape the Region’s Politics

Deborah J Yashar. Foreign Affairs. Volume 94, Issue 2. Mar/Apr 2015.

In 1992, the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the daughter of poor Guatemalan peasants, for her work promoting indigenous rights. Her prize, momentous in its own right, highlighted a sea change in Latin American politics. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, prominent indigenous movements had emerged in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico. As a result, Latin American countries undertook unprecedented reforms to address ethnic diversity: politicians amended national constitutions to recognize indigenous people, passed laws supporting bicultural education and affirmative action, and added questions about race and ethnicity to official censuses. Today, indigenous people not only are actively involved in politics but also have risen to leadership positions. Evo Morales, an indigenous Bolivian, has served as his country’s president since 2006. Ollanta Humala, an indigenous Peruvian, became Peru’s president in 2011.

Such a shift would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Although Latin America boasts a rich and diverse citizenry- a legacy of powerful indigenous empires, colonialism, the African slave trade, and contemporary immigration-questions about ethnic difference were long suppressed. As part of the nation-building projects they undertook after winning independence, Latin American governments constructed twin myths of national unity and ethnic homogeneity, actively promoting racial mixing and erasing ethnic distinctions from official documents and from the national discourse. Meanwhile, the blurring of ethnic lines, sanctioned by governments, contributed to fluid understandings of race and identity. Whereas in the United States, anyone with mixed black and white heritage was historically considered black, Latin American societies developed various categories of racial identity based on skin color and cultural practices. A person might even identify as more than one ethnicity over the course of a single day-indigenous at home and mixed race at school, for example.

In stark contrast to the promise of ethnic inclusion, however, indigenous groups and people of African descent remained economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized well into the twentieth century. (Even today, black and indigenous populations lag behind their white counterparts by a variety of indicators, including rates of poverty and maternal and child mortality.) But partly because race and ethnicity had become so fluid, there was little tradition of identity politics in Latin American countries, and black and indigenous communities found it difficult to mobilize as a group in order to demand reforms. In addition, by midcentury, governments were papering over ethnic diversity by focusing instead on class divisions, shoring up support among the working class and the peasantry. Leaders and officials even began to replace the term “Indian” (used to refer to indigenous people) with the word “peasant.” Yet economic programs designed to assist the lower classes unintentionally strengthened many rural indigenous communities. And when these populist programs ultimately gave way to the free market, cutting off state support to those communities, indigenous groups mobilized for change.

The Myth of Unity

Latin America’s emphasis on national unity grew out of a colonial era characterized by sharp racial and ethnic tension. Of the 11 million to 12 million slaves shipped between the 1520s and the 1860s from Africa to the Americas across the so-called Middle Passage, more than 90 percent of those who survived the voyage ended up in Latin America and the Caribbean. An estimated 40 percent went to Brazil alone. Indigenous populations also suffered from colonialism’s brutal side: colonizers inducted indigenous people into involuntary servitude, forced them to live in the hinterlands, or simply killed them off. In addition, smallpox, measles, and other Eurasian diseases ravaged indigenous populations.

The independence movements of the early nineteenth century, however, were generally led not by the colonized but by many of the colonizers. Independence leaders such as Simón Bolívar had the difficult task of differentiating their regimes from those of their European predecessors. By and large, they chose to emphasize unity, sidestepping racial and ethnic differences in favor of projecting a singular national identity. In emphasizing racial and ethnic inclusion, Latin American countries set themselves apart from their northern neighbor, the postindependence United States, which had codified racial inequality in its constitution.

For Latin American politicians, this difference became a point of pride. After independence, the United States took almost a century to abolish slavery, and it did so only then after a violent civil war. Latin American countries, meanwhile, began abolishing slavery far earlier. And whereas in the United States any mixing of the races was considered taboo, Latin American leaders promoted racial mixing as a means to “whiten” the population. In a mirror image of racist beliefs in the Northern Hemisphere-which held that people of mixed race represented a genetic step backward-the pseudoscientific racism of Latin America assumed that “stronger” white genes would have more influence on individuals and thus considered people of mixed race a sign of progress toward greater “whiteness” in society.

By the twentieth century, that particular rationale for racial mixing had faded in importance, but many Latin American politicians nonetheless held up mixed-race citizens as a national ideal. In 1925, the Mexican writer and philosopher José Vasconcelos coined the term “the cosmic race” to glorify Mexico’s history of interracial mixing. Venezuelans, meanwhile, sometimes referred to themselves as café con leche, or “coffee with milk,” celebrating the intermingling of Africans, Europeans, and indigenous groups that had produced a large population of mixed heritage. Of course, these sorts of national myths varied in strength across the region. They were particularly powerful in Brazil and Mexico but weaker in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, all of which had smaller black and indigenous populations.

As mixed races became more common, various racial categories emerged to describe them, including mestizo, for people with primarily indigenous and European heritage; zambo, for those with mostly African and indigenous roots; and mulatto, for people with African and European ancestors. Given this complexity, physical features and cultural practices, rather than biological lineage, began to play a key role in determining identities. In practice, this development has meant that indigenous people can and sometimes do change identities within their lifetimes. They may be born into an indigenous community, for example, but identify as mestizo if they move to the city and change the way they speak and dress. Politicians have cited such fluidity as more evidence of the region’s superiority to countries such as the United States, where racial and ethnic identities are considered more rigid. Unlike their neighbors, the argument goes, Latin Americans are not constrained by the race or ethnicity into which they are born.

If Latin American national myths are to be believed, the region’s attitudes toward race and ethnicity have created societies free from racial and ethnic discrimination and inequality. As the Ecuadorean general Guillermo Rodríguez Lara put it after assuming power in 1972, “There is no more Indian problem. We all become white men when we accept the goals of the national culture.” Likewise, in Brazil, twentieth-century scholars popularized the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre’s notion of “racial democracy,” the belief that Brazil, by virtue of its fluid racial categories and support for racial mixing, had escaped racism. Such notions have led many to believe that Latin American countries have solved the racial problems that afflict countries such as the United States.

Day of the Peasant

In reality, however, they have not. National myths notwithstanding, Latin America’s black and indigenous populations continue to be systemically disadvantaged almost 200 years after independence. Although fluid conceptions of identity make such data difficult to collect, scholars estimate that indigenous groups account for roughly 50 million of Latin America’s 600 million people, with people of African descent accounting for some 120 million. Both groups have suffered persistent inequality across a variety of metrics. According to the un Development Program’s 2014 Human Development Report, Latin American indigenous workers make half as much, on average, as their nonindigenous counterparts. Moreover, as the un Development Program’s 2010 Regional Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean found, the proportion of black and indigenous groups living on less than $1 a day at the turn of this century had reached as high as 61 percent in Ecuador, 41 percent in Mexico, and 37 percent in Bolivia.

Despite such stark inequality, black and indigenous populations have not, until recently, mobilized along racial and ethnic lines for reform. For one thing, the idealization of mixed blood might have made minorities with lighter skin less willing to ally with their darker counterparts. Rather than fight for indigenous rights, for example, it was preferable for many to blend in as mestizos, especially because mestizos were afforded a higher social status as exemplars of the national ideal.

For another, by the mid-twentieth century, Latin American politicians were focused almost exclusively on classbased reforms, leaving racial and ethnic concerns to fall by the wayside. Against the backdrop of the Russian and Mexican Revolutions-and, later, of the Cold War-politicians and activists began organizing to address class conflict, the salient political issue of the day. As the working class and the peasantry started to mobilize, political parties and governments began implementing populist, or corporatist, programs: expanding the role of labor unions, increasing the representation of the working class in state ministries and elected bodies, extending social benefits to the poor, and enacting land reforms.

Notably, however, the new populist regimes made no mention of Latin America’s racial and ethnic diversity. In Peru, General Juan Velasco Alvarado, who ruled the country from 1968 to 1975, went so far as to ban the term “Indian” from official discourse. In 1969, he even changed the Day of the Indian, a national holiday, to the Day of the Peasant. To qualify for state benefits, members of indigenous communities were forced to de-emphasize their ethnic identities in favor of class-based ones. In many countries, particularly in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, indigenous people officially registered as “peasants” to gain access to communal land and agricultural subsidies. For many, identifying as peasants became the most productive way to interact with-and be recognized by-the state. In Ecuador, for example, the land reforms of 1964 and 1973 effectively made access to land contingent on membership in organized peasant communities. Similar laws passed in Mexico in the 1930s and Bolivia in the 1950s. By the 1970s, the number of registered peasant communities had predictably skyrocketed. By turning “Indians” into “peasants,” at least in official parlance, governments assumed that they had once again stripped ethnicity of its political salience.

But in seeking to downplay ethnic identities, corporatist regimes unwittingly strengthened them, sowing the seeds for the indigenous rights movement of the late twentieth century. As governments focused on strengthening labor unions and expanding welfare, their reforms had the unintentional effect of bolstering indigenous communities. Labor laws, for example, freed indigenous people from debt peonage and other repressive labor systems, affording them an unprecedented degree of freedom. Land reforms and welfare programs, meanwhile, granted indigenous communities-officially identified as peasants-communal land titles and the means to secure a basic standard of living.

The distribution of communal lands to peasant communities was particularly important, as it provided indigenous people with the physical space not only for farming but also for the maintenance of local governance and indigenous culture. In Mexico, for example, land reforms provided peasants-many of whom made up indigenous communities-with ejidos, communal lands that could not be divided or sold. In Bolivia, the distribution of land to peasant communities contributed to the spread of ayllus, local indigenous governments, across the Andean countryside. In these spaces, indigenous groups were able to subvert corporatist regimes, mobilizing as peasants and, at the same time, developing and sustaining ethnic communities and identities.

“We Want to be Free”

The introduction of corporatist regimes unintentionally bolstered indigenous communities, but it was ultimately the erosion of corporatism-undertaken during authoritarian and democratic regimes-that provided the catalyst for an indigenous movement. In the 1980s and 1990s, what remained of corporatist regimes was replaced by neoliberal ones, which promoted free markets, cut state welfare, and emasculated labor and peasant unions. By the early 1990s, Latin American governments had cut the federal budgets for social services, agricultural ministries, and economic programs such as the provision of agricultural subsidies. As a result, real wages in the agricultural sector steadily declined throughout the region, dropping by some 30 percent by 1992. By the mid-1990s, proposals to privatize land markets had passed in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico, allowing for the sale and parceling out of communal lands that had been indivisible during the corporatist era. Liberalizing states also made clear that they would not maintain or reestablish special property rights or subsidies for peasants.

Indigenous communities, as a result, lost their best line of access to the state, social welfare, and land security. The threat of losing communal lands and agricultural resources was particularly damaging, as it deprived communities of not just a productive resource but also a physically secure legal space in which their own forms of governance and culture could thrive. As indigenous people still did not have an equal voice in politics, voting alone could not address the long-standing pattern of inequality these groups had suffered at the hands of the state. Seeing few other options available to them, indigenous groups began to protest, mobilizing this time along ethnic lines. Prescient indigenous activists began speaking out in the 1970s and early 1980s, shaping the agendas of the indigenous movements that would take off following the neoliberal reforms. As Bolivian indigenous leaders wrote in their 1983 Political Manifesto:

We, the current leaders, refuse to accept and will never accept class reductionist ideas which transform us to the status of mere ‘peasants.’ … We want to be free in a society where exploitation and organized oppression do not exist, in a state, which, recognizing all national groups, develops our different cultures and authentic forms of self-government.

Indigenous groups also began to mobilize in the Amazon, which had remained beyond state control during the corporatist era. State projects to develop the Amazon accelerated in the 1980s, with development agencies encouraging the expansion of cattle ranching, logging operations, and oil exploration. These initiatives challenged indigenous communities in the Amazon that had for decades sustained political and economic control over vast swaths of the region-and spurred them to action.

By the 1990s, the protest movement had grown particularly strong in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico, garnering unprecedented national and international attention. By and large, the protesters had similar demands: that federal constitutions officially acknowledge the region’s ethnic diversity and guarantee equal rights for all citizens; that governments recognize indigenous groups in their own right, not simply as peasants; and that policymakers pass laws advancing indigenous rights, for example, by recognizing communal lands and allowing indigenous authorities to regulate social practices within their communities. Galvanized by this action, international agencies such as the International Labor Organization and the United Nations threw their weight behind the international campaign for indigenous rights. These movements compelled countries to reexamine myths of national unity and come to terms with the deep inequalities affecting the region’s sizable black and indigenous populations.

The movements also provided the basis for a new wave of electoral politics- one in which political parties sought to capture “ new” ethnic voters and indigenous leaders themselves began seeking office. Largely as a result, governments have advanced many of the protesters’ demands. Today, many Latin American countries have reformed their constitutions to explicitly recognize the ethnic diversity of their populations-and, in many cases, to include legal protections for minority groups. Several countries have also sanctioned customary law, recognized communal property rights, and allowed indigenous communities some degree of political autonomy.

If indigenous groups have formally achieved many of their aims, Latin Americans of African descent have lagged behind in terms of political mobilization. Although Brazil did see significant race-based organizing in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, a larger movement never quite took off. Some scholars say that racial fluidity-alongside larger debates about what it means to be black-has hindered mobilization efforts by obscuring collective identity and dividing political loyalties. Others argue that indigenous groups, with their historical claims to land and international backing, were able to find a narrative that appeals more easily to the broader public. Still, in recent years, some countries have passed affirmative action policies aimed at reversing racial inequality. In 2012, for example, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, signed a comprehensive affirmative action law requiring public universities to increase the number of students of African descent. The consequences of such policies remain to be seen, but they have at the very least opened up a national debate about what it means to be Brazilian and black-no small feat in the world’s most famous “ racial democracy.”

A Long Way to Go

Today, Latin America’s diversity cannot be ignored. Citizens of indigenous and African descent are visibly active in party politics, state ministries, and popular protests. Notably, Latin America’s increased attention to race and ethnicity has not produced deep and enduring conflict, as it has in other developing regions. Despite the mass mobilization of indigenous groups, the region has not seen violent riots or ethnic civil wars. In fact, the introduction of racial and ethnic politics has coincided with widespread public support for democracy as a form of government. Although heated debates have surfaced over the best way to redress racial and ethnic inequalities-some Brazilians say that affirmative action will solidify social divisions rather than remedy them, for example-these conversations have, for the most part, been civil and democratic. Racial and ethnic concerns have simply become one more political agenda among many, including charting sustainable economic development, reducing poverty rates, and increasing public safety amid skyrocketing homicide rates and a booming illicit economy.

But the introduction of racial and ethnic politics alone is not enough to eliminate racial and ethnic inequality. Racial and ethnic communities in Latin America remain the most disadvantaged in a region that ranks among the most unequal in the world. Redressing such inequality will have to be a long-term political project-and, thanks to recent reforms, the relevant political infrastructure is already in place. Much remains to be done, including crafting targeted programs to rectify persistent inequality in wages, health, and education. Such reforms will require governments to partner with ethnic communities to identify core needs and shore up local support. Although the correct mix of policies remains open to debate, the need for them is incontrovertible.