Myths of Racial Democracy: Cuba, 1900-1912

Myths of Racial Democracy: Cuba, 1900-1912

Latin American Research Review
Volume 34, Number 3 (1999)
pages 39-73

Alejandro de la Fuente, UCIS Research Professor of History
University of Pittsburgh

This article reviews the recent literature on the so-called myths of racial democracy in Latin America and challenges current critical interpretations of the social effects of these ideologies. Typically, critics stress the elitist nature of these ideologies, their demobilizing effects among racially subordinate groups, and the role they play in legitimizing the subordination of such groups. Using the establishment of the Cuban republic as a test case, this article contends that the critical approach tends to minimize or ignore altogether the opportunities that these ideologies have created for those below, the capacity of subordinate groups to use the nation-state’s cultural project to their own advantage, and the fact that these social myths also restrain the political options of their own creators.

In a very real sense, nothing can be more real than the unreal.
Ashley Montagu, Race, Science, and Humanity

Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandes called it “prejudice against prejudice”; U.S. sociologist Thomas Lynn Smith described it as “a veritable cult.” Both were referring to what has come to be known as the Brazilian myth of racial democracy.

In its simplest formulation, the “myth” is that all Brazilians, regardless of “race,” enjoy equal opportunities and live in a racially harmonious society. It could not be otherwise, according to the myth, because Brazil’s strength and greatness reside in the widespread racial mixture of its population. It therefore makes no sense to talk about blacks and whites in a country in which most citizens are some of both. “Race” in Brazilian society is constructed along a continuum moving from “black” to “white” based on phenotypical features (skin color, type of hair, facial features) and on social factors like education and financial status. Several centuries of intimate contact and miscegenation, biological and cultural, have created a new hybrid race that is authentically Brazilian.

The notoriety of the Brazilian case has been guaranteed by the brilliance of its myth makers, foremost among them Gilberto Freyre. But it has also been sustained by two fundamental facts: no other country in the hemisphere has a numerically larger population of African descent; and no other country enslaved its black population as late as Brazil did, until 1888. A hegemonic ideology advocating some form of racial fraternity is remarkable in a country like Brazil but hardly unique. Since the late nineteenth century, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, intellectual elites in numerous Latin American countries have articulated racial ideologies that were similar in purpose and content to the Brazilian myth. Mestizaje was exalted as the true American essence, a synthesis that incorporated (allegedly on equal terms) the best cultural and physical traits that the various ethnic and racial groups populating the Americas had to offer.

Forced to cope with the troubling aspects of a North Atlantic ideology that flatly advocated the inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon peoples and the deleterious effects of racial mixing, the elites in Latin America had to reach a compromise that would allow them to reconcile the goal of modernity with the undeniably mixed nature of their populations. During this search, the mestizo was invented as a national symbol. The result was an ideological formulation that broke with the past while upholding it. The discourse on mestizaje remained prisoner of the same canon that scientific racism proclaimed as incontrovertible truths—the essentialness of race—but the discourse revolutionized social thinking by minimizing the other central tenet of the hegemonic racial gospel: biological determinism. Although race was still associated with ascribed characteristics as immutable and overpowering as those championed by genetically based racism, the emphasis was shifted to geographical, cultural, and historical factors. This is no small distinction. By placing social factors at the core of their ideological constructions, Latin American intellectuals were openly contesting the notion that their countries were doomed to failure and perpetual backwardness, while asserting (however implicitly) that social transformation was the way to reach modernity. They thus had fabricated a way out of the ideological iron cast that the North Atlantic world had manufactured by means of its high science, universities, and royal societies.

But the escape was only partial. While contesting or just ignoring the idea that racial miscegenation meant degeneration, Latin American thinkers accepted the premise that ample sectors of their populations were basically inferior and that their human stock needed to be “improved” Such inferiority was to be explained in terms of culture, geography, or climate rather than pure genetics, but the dominant vision still presented the lighter end of the spectrum as the ideal and denigrated the darker end as primitive and uncivilized. In this formulation, whiteness still represented progress. Miscegenation was perceived as the way to “regenerate” a population unfit to perform the duties associated with a modern polity, with white immigration serving as a precondition for progress. The idea that regeneration was possible at all subverted biological determinism, but the expressed need for regeneration presupposed acceptance of the idea that “race” explained the “backwardness” of Latin American societies. Whitening became the way to remove a surmountable, albeit formidable, obstacle on the road to modernity.

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