Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos

Posted in Books, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2017-05-03 02:24Z by Steven

Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos

Oxford University Press
2017-05-01
280 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0190633691

Juliet Hooker, Associate Professor of Government and African and African Diaspora Studies
University of Texas, Austin

  • The first book to simultaneously analyze U.S. African-American and Latin American political thinkers and their ideas about race.
  • Transforms understandings of prominent U.S. African-American and Latin American intellectuals through a hemispheric analysis.
  • Challenges political theory’s preoccupation with East/West comparisons by foregrounding the Americas.
  • Brings African-American and Latin American political thought into conversation and shows how each discipline was developed through transnational intellectual exchanges.
  • Maps a genealogy of racial thought in the Americas.

In 1845 two thinkers from the American hemisphere – the Argentinean statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and the fugitive ex-slave, abolitionist leader, and orator from the United States, Frederick Douglass – both published their first works. Each would become the most famous and enduring texts in what were both prolific careers, and they ensured Sarmiento and Douglass’ position as leading figures in the canon of Latin American and U.S. African-American political thought, respectively. But despite the fact that both deal directly with key political and philosophical questions in the Americas, Douglass and Sarmiento, like African-American and Latin American thought more generally, are never read alongside each other. This may be because their ideas about race differed dramatically. Sarmiento advocated the Europeanization of Latin America and espoused a virulent form of anti-indigenous racism, while Douglass opposed slavery and defended the full humanity of black persons. Still, as Juliet Hooker contends, looking at the two together allows one to chart a hemispheric intellectual geography of race that challenges political theory’s preoccupation with and assumptions about East/West comparisons, and questions the use of comparison as a tool in the production of theory and philosophy.

By juxtaposing four prominent nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers – Frederick Douglass, Domingo F. Sarmiento, W. E. B. Du Bois, and José Vasconcelos – her book will be the first to bring African-American and Latin American political thought into conversation. Hooker stresses that Latin American and U.S. ideas about race were not developed in isolation, but grew out of transnational intellectual exchanges across the Americas. In so doing, she shows that nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. and Latin American thinkers each looked to political models in the ‘other’ America to advance racial projects in their own countries. Reading these four intellectuals as hemispheric thinkers, Hooker foregrounds elements of their work that have been dismissed by dominant readings, and provides a crucial platform to bridge the canons of Latin American and African-American political thought.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Race Theory and Hemispheric Juxtaposition
  • Part I : Ambas Américas
    • 1. “A Black Sister to Massachusetts”: Latin America and the Fugitive Democratic Ethos of Frederick Douglass
    • 2. “Mi Patria de Pensamiento”: Sarmiento, the United States, and the Pitfalls of Comparison
  • Part II: Mestizo Futurologies
    • 3. “To See, Foresee, and Prophesy”: Du Bois’ Mulatto Fictions and Afro-Futurism
    • 4. “A Doctrine that Nourished the Hopes of the Non-White Races”: Vasconcelos, Mestizaje’s Travels, and U.S. Latino Politics
    • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Race and Justice in Transnational Perspective: “From the Conservation of Races to the Cosmic Race”

Posted in Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Live Events, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2013-10-16 03:30Z by Steven

Race and Justice in Transnational Perspective: “From the Conservation of Races to the Cosmic Race”

Seminar Series: Race and Justice in Transnational Perspective
University of California, Merced
California Room
5200 North Lake Rd.
Merced, California 95343
2013-10-23, 10:30 PDT (Local Time)

Juliet Hooker, Associate Professor of Government
University of Texas, Austin

The Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos [1882-1959] and the African American political thinker W.E.B. DuBois [1868-1963] are viewed as having developed conceptions of race and racial identity that are quintessentially Latin American and U.S. American respectively.  Vasconcelos is one of Latin America’s foremost advocates of mestizaje; his notion of the Cosmic Race is generally viewed as articulating a more complex approach to race that sought to dismantle specific racial group identities and reformulate hybrid subjectivities. This approach is often contrasted to the binary, static conceptions of race developed in the U.S., including by African-American thinkers. This paper analyzes this characterization of Latin American and African American political thought by comparing Vasconcelos and DuBois’ arguments about race, especially racial identity. In particular, I will analyze DuBois’ discussion of racial mixing in the U.S. and the motivations behind Vasconcelos’ account of mestizaje in order to complicate the comparison between supposedly static, biologically grounded accounts of race and flexible notions of race that are able to acknowledge processes of racial mixing.  The aim of this juxtaposition is to stage a hemispheric dialogue about race between these two towering American pensadores, in order to show the surprising points of convergence and divergence between U.S. and Latin American ideas about race.

The seminar series “Race and Justice in Transnational Perspective” is organized by Tanya Golash-Boza, Nigel Hatton, and David Torres-Rouff. The event is co-sponsored by the UC Center for New Racial Studies, Sociology, and SSHA.

For more information, click here.

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Book Review: Land of the Cosmic Race: Race Mixture, Racism and Blackness in Mexico

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Mexico, Social Science on 2013-09-09 04:08Z by Steven

Book Review: Land of the Cosmic Race: Race Mixture, Racism and Blackness in Mexico

LSE Review of Books
London School of Economics
2013-08-30

Zalfa Feghali, Editorial Assistant
Journal of American Studies

Land of the Cosmic Race is a richly-detailed ethnographic account of the powerful role that race and colour play in organizing the lives and thoughts of ordinary Mexicans. It presents a previously untold story of how individuals in contemporary urban Mexico construct their identities, attitudes, and practices in the context of a dominant national belief system. Carefully presented and self-consciously written, this is an excellent book for anyone with an interest in how Mexican racial politics can be seen to operate on the ground, finds Zalfa Feghali.

Land of the Cosmic Race: Race Mixture, Racism, and Blackness in Mexico. Christina A. Sue. Oxford University Press. March 2013.

One prevailing fact of studying race in the Americas is that the discussion almost always turns to the US as a reference point. Studies of racial dynamics in the Americas are—obviously—rich, necessary, and often sidelined in favour of these more popular ways of thinking about race. Christina A. Sue’s Land of the Cosmic Race: Race Mixture, Racism and Blackness in Mexico attempts to redress this imbalance by complicating and problematising the dynamics of racial mixture in Mexico. Primarily an ethnographic study, this book offers new ways of thinking about race studies in the Mexican context.

The book’s title, which Sue discusses but doesn’t fully unpack, is taken from a provocative work by Jose Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race, published in 1925. Vasconcelos’ views on mestizaje­—racial mixture—are key to understanding the dominant ideological logic behind Mexico’s national(ist) relationship with race. In The Cosmic Race, Vasconcelos sees the vast potential of (specifically) Mexicans as mestizos, and lauds them for their mestizo/a (mixed race, specifically Spanish and Indigenous) character. Significantly, he also casts the mestizos as the first stage in the creation of a new, cosmic race that will eventually take on characteristics and subsume the genetic streams of “all the races.” According to his logic, this cosmic race would take on the best or most desirable traits from each respective race and eventually lines between the “original” races will blur to the point that any one individual’s “racial heritage” would be completely indistinguishable from another’s, thus becoming the ultimate mestizo/a (something akin what some might now call a post-ethnic or post-racial world)…

Read the entire review here.

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In most of these societies, a great deal of miscegenation and genetic admixture occurred between masters and their slaves, very early on in the history of slavery there.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-06-08 19:25Z by Steven

In spite of the unique histories of slavery and persons of African descent in each of the six countries discussed in this book, certain themes recur. In a sense, this book is a study of the growth and demise of the sugar economy in many of these countries, along with that of coffee and tobacco. In most of these societies, a great deal of miscegenation and genetic admixture occurred between masters and their slaves, very early on in the history of slavery there. Several of these countries sponsored official immigration policies of “whitening,” aiming to dilute the numbers of its citizens who were black or darker shades of brown by encouraging Europeans to migrate there.

And speaking of skin color, each of these countries had (and continues to have) many categories of color and skin tone, ranging from as few as 12 in the Dominican Republic and 16 in Mexico to 134 in Brazil, making our use of octoroon and quadroon and mulatto pale by comparison. Latin American color categories can seem to an American as if they are on steroids. I realized as I encountered people who still employ these categories in everyday discussions about race in their society that it is extremely difficult for those of us in the United States to see the use of these categories as what they are, the social deconstruction of the binary opposition between “black” and “white,” outside of the filter of the “one-drop rule,” which we Americans have inherited from racist laws designed to retain the offspring of a white man and a black female slave as property of the slave’s owner. Far too many of us as African Americans see the use of these terms as an attempt to “pass” for anything other than “black,” rather than as historically and socially specific terms that people of color have invented and continue to employ to describe a complex reality larger than the terms black, white, and mulatto allow for.

After extended periods of “whitening,” many of these same societies then began periods of “browning,” as I think of them, celebrating and embracing their transcultural or multicultural roots, declaring themselves unique precisely because of the extent of racial admixture among their citizens. (The abolition of “race” as an official category in the federal censuses of some of the countries I visited has made it extremely difficult for black minorities to demand their rights, as in Mexico and Peru.) The work of José Vasconcelos in Mexico, Jean Price-Mars in Haiti, Gilberto Freyre in Brazil, and Fernando Ortiz in Cuba compose a sort of multicultural quartet, though each approached the subject from different, if related, vantage points. The theories of “browning” espoused by Vasconcelos, Freyre, and Ortiz, however, could be double-edged swords, both valorizing the black roots of their societies yet sometimes implicitly seeming to denigrate the status of black cultural artifacts and practices outside of an ideology of mestizaje, or hybridity.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Black in Latin America, (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 10-11.

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Writing Africans Out of the Racial Hierarchy: Anti-African Sentiment in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Mexico on 2012-02-13 00:20Z by Steven

Writing Africans Out of the Racial Hierarchy: Anti-African Sentiment in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Cincinnati Romance Review
Volume 30 (2011): Afro-Hispanic Subjectivities
pages 172-183

Galadriel Mehera Gerardo, Assistant Professor of Latin American History
Youngstown State University

Over the past two decades scholars have examined Mexican racial ideology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They have paid particular attention to the positivist ideas propagated by Porfirio Díaz’s científicos in the late 19th century and the creation of the seemingly nationalist, antiimperialist concept of mestizaje most associated with post-revolutionary scholars in the early to mid 20th century (Castro, Hedrick, and Minna Stern). Most studies focus on the inaccurate, racist portrayal of indigenous people by the Mexican nationalist intellectuals of this era. They often note the influence of U.S. and European scientific racism, particularly Social Darwinism, on Mexicans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They rarely emphasize the absence of Africans in Mexican intellectuals’ discussions of race, however. The absence or near absence of Africans in early- to mid-20th century Mexican discussions of race indicates as much about the attitudes of Mexican scholars as their emphasis on the indigenous past. Likewise, excluding Africans from the Mexican racial narrative was as significant to the creation of Mexican national identity as Mexican scholars’ depictions of native peoples. Mexican intellectuals “whitened” the imagined Mexican, simultaneously writing Africans out of Mexico’s history while challenging North Atlantic ideas about race and racial supremacy by promoting the mixing of European and indigenous peoples, offering what they believed was a distinct, nationalist vision of the racial hierarchy.

This article concentrates on three Mexican scholars and their discussions of Africans (or, in some cases, lack thereof) in their most significant essays. The first two—José Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio—emerged among Mexico’s most important intellectuals of the revolutionary period. The third—Octavio Paz—became Mexico’s most influential literary figure a generation later. While he criticized many of the previous generation’s ideas, he embraced aspects of Gamio and Vasconcelos’s arguments. Moreover, in The Labyrinth of Solitude, widely considered the definitive work on Mexican character, Paz continued both the trend of integrating indigenous people as a means of ultimately eliminating them, and of “lightening” Mexico’s racial stock by avoiding acknowledging the presence of people of African descent in Mexico’s population and history.

This study consciously focuses on three individuals who at various times in their lives worked for branches of the Mexican government (usually educational) and in some cases even founded government institutions based on their ideas. Despite their antiimperialist, nationalist mentalities, all three spent periods of time living in the United States, often seeking refuge when their ideas fell out of favor with their own government. Both their experiences in the U.S. and the influence of North Atlantic ideas on their educations are significant for understanding each of these men’s assertions about race, and particularly their decision to render invisible Afro-Mexicans by writing them out of treatises on Mexico’s future. In contrast to the científicos who worked during the Porfiriato, these 20th century Mexican intellectuals considered themselves nationalists and intended their visions of the Mexican people’s future to counter the white supremacist ideology supported by Social Darwinism and embraced by U.S. intellectuals. Yet in ignoring the historical presence of Africans throughout Mexican history, Mexican intellectuals reified the North Atlantic vision of a racial hierarchy with Anglo-Europeans and Anglo-Americans at the top and Africans and indigenous Americans at the bottom. Many recent scholars have pointed out the racism inherent to the concept of mestizaje. However, these critiques have focused on Mexican intellectuals’ treatment of indigenous people. Emphasizing the exclusion of Africans  from the racial narratives underlines the nuances of Mexican racism in the first half of the 20th century. It also suggests how firmly entrenched North Atlantic ideas about race had become in Mexico by the 20th century.

Anti-African Sentiment

The history of Africans in Mexico spans as far back as the history of Europeans there. Africans took part in the conquest of Mexico and were present throughout the colonial period. Often they held significant intermediary roles as overseers, skilled craftsmen, and merchants. Both free and enslaved Africans could be found in colonial Mexico. As the colonial period progressed, Spaniards imported more African slaves to work as unskilled laborers in the semi-tropical sugar-producing regions around Veracruz, Acapulco, and parts of Guerrero and Oaxaca. Because more male than female slaves were imported, interracial unions regularly occurred in the colonial period, particularly between indigenous women and African men. As a result of the decline of slavery combined with racial mixing, by the time of independence only a small portion of Mexico’s population was considered “black,” although a significant portion of the mixed-race population likely had some African heritage (Meyer 164-6)…

Read the entire article here.

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José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race

Posted in Biography, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, Latino Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2012-02-12 18:50Z by Steven

José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race

Rutgers University Press
2011-05-07
142 pages
5.5 x 8.5
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-5063-3
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-5064
Web PDF ISBN: 978-0-8135-5104-3

Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture
Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts

Mexican educator and thinker José Vasconcelos is to Latinos what W.E.B. Du Bois is to African Americans—a controversial scholar who fostered an alternative view of the future. In José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race, his influential 1925 essay, “Mestizaje”—key to understanding the role he played in the shaping of multiethnic America—is for the first time showcased and properly analyzed. Freshly translated here by John H. R. Polt, “Mestizaje” suggested that the Brown Race from Latin America was called to dominate the world, a thesis embraced by activists and scholars north and south of the Rio Grande. Ilan Stavans insightfully and comprehensively examines the essay in biographical and historical context, and considers how many in the United States, especially Chicanos during the civil rights era, used it as a platform for their political agenda. The volume also includes Vasconcelos’s long-forgotten 1926 Harris Foundation Lecture at the University of Chicago, “The Race Problem in Latin America,” where he cautioned the United States that rejecting mestizaje in our own midst will ultimately bankrupt the nation.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Ilan Stavans
    • The Prophet of Race
  • Jose Vasconcelos
    • Mestizaje
    • The Race Problem in Latin America
  • Chronology
  • Acknowledgments
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The Cosmic Race in Texas: Racial Fusion, White Supremacy, and Civil Rights Politics

Posted in Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Social Science, Texas, United States on 2011-09-25 22:06Z by Steven

The Cosmic Race in Texas: Racial Fusion, White Supremacy, and Civil Rights Politics

The Journal of American History
Volume 98, Issue 2 (September 2011)
pages 404-419
DOI: 10.1093/jahist/jar338

Benjamin H. Johnson, Associate Professor of Global Studies and History
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

In the early twentieth century, a number of Latin American intellectuals embraced racial fusion and predicted that it would one day undo the white supremacy represented by the United States. These ideas influenced Mexican American civil rights advocates in Texas in the 1930s and 1940s, who found the embrace of hybridity to be a realistic description of their own racial backgrounds and an effective rejoinder to Jim Crow’s emphasis on racial purity. Attacking the consensus that an aspiration for whiteness drove these civil rights claims, Benjamin H. Johnson finds deep ties between Mexican American and Mexican political cultures and concludes that borderlands histories can take a transnational approach without obscuring the influence of nation-states or denying the emancipatory potential of claims to national belonging.

“The days of the pure whites, the victors of today,” proclaimed José Vasconcelos in 1925, “are as numbered as were the days of their predecessors. Having fulfilled their destiny of mechanizing the world, they themselves have set, without knowing it, the basis for a new period: the period of the fusion and mixing of all peoples.” Vasconcelos wrote these words in Mexico as his four-year tenure as the secretary of the nation’s public education system came to a close and as his quest for an elected position (first the governorship of the state of Oaxaca and then the presidency) began. They appeared in La raza cósmica, an enormously influential work that circulated across the hemisphere. Whereas the U.S. intellectual and civil rights crusader W. E. B. Du Bois had prophesied that the color line would be the problem of the twentieth century, Vasconcelos confidently predicted its erasure. The struggles of a country such as Mexico, which had just emerged from a decade of revolution and civil war, were for Vasconcelos at the center of global dynamics, as they heralded the rise of the cosmic race of his title, first in Latin America and then across the globe.

Although Vasconcelos was not well known in the United States, where his predictions would have surely struck both the architects and victims of a particularly brutal phase of white supremacy as ludicrous, he did have a profound influence there. His ideas, and the postrevolutionary political and social order of which they were a part, provided Mexican American civil rights leaders in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly those involved with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a reflection of their own racial self-conception and a set of arguments with which to critique white supremacy.

This article examines the connections…

Read or purchase the article here.

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The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American / Hispanic Political Thought

Posted in Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science on 2011-06-28 20:24Z by Steven

The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American / Hispanic Political Thought

Oxford University Press
November 2011
288 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4
Hardback ISBN13: 9780199746668; ISBN10: 0199746664

Diego A. von Vacano, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Texas A&M University

The role of race in politics, citizenship, and the state is one of the most perplexing puzzles of modernity. While political thought has been slow to take up this puzzle, Diego von Vacano suggests that the tradition of Latin American and Hispanic political thought, which has long considered the place of mixed-race peoples throughout the Americas, is uniquely well-positioned to provide useful ways of thinking about the connections between race and citizenship. As he argues, debates in the United States about multiracial identity, the possibility of a post-racial world in the aftermath of Barack Obama, and demographic changes owed to the age of mass migration will inevitably have to confront the intellectual tradition related to racial admixture that comes to us from Latin America.

Von Vacano compares the way that race is conceived across the writings of four thinkers, and across four different eras: the Spanish friar Bartolomé de Las Casas writing in the context of empire; Simón Bolívar writing during the early republican period; Venezuelan sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz on the role of race in nationalism; and Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos writing on the aesthetic approach to racial identity during the cosmopolitan, post-national period. From this comparative and historical survey, von Vacano develops a concept of race as synthetic, fluid and dynamic—a concept that will have methodological, historical, and normative value for understanding race in other diverse societies.

Features

  • Advances an alternative concept of race as inherently mixed, unstable, fluid, and politically potent
  • Links approaches to race in Latin American thought to canonical Western political discourse
  • Posits “race” as a central component of modernity and of political theory

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. Paradox of Empire: Las Casas and the Birth of Race
  • 2. Mixed into Unity: Race and Republic in the Thought of Simon Bolivar
  • 3. Race and Nation in the Democratic Caesarism of Vallenilla Lanz
  • 4. The Citizenship of Beauty: Jose Vasconcelos’s Aesthetic Synthesis of Race
  • Conclusion: Making Race Visible to Political Theory
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Mestizaje

Posted in Definitions on 2011-06-26 18:12Z by Steven

Mestizaje is an ideology which believes that the fusion of various cultural traditions (including language, religion, food, music, etc.) in the Americas created a new and better mestizo race. This idea gained strength after the Mexican Revolution, and José Vasconcelos popularized it in his 1925 essay La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race).

Source: Marc’s House of Knowledge (http://www2.truman.edu/~marc/resources/terms.html)

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Re-articulating the New Mestiza

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2011-06-03 03:46Z by Steven

Re-articulating the New Mestiza

Journal of International Women’s Studies
Vol 12, #2 (March 2011)
Special Issue: Winning and Short-listed Entries from the 2009 Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Annual Student Essay Competition
pages 61-74

Zalfa Feghali
University of Nottingham

This essay provides an overview, critique, and the beginning of a refiguration of Gloria Anzaldúa’s theorization of the new mestiza as set out in her seminal 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. By examining both Anzaldúa’s precursors and the articulations of hybrid identities of her contemporaries, this essay depicts the complex dynamic that characterizes the mestiza’s need to develop, beyond borders and attempts to fashion a more contemporary, transnational mestiza. Using the writing and criticism of Françoise Lionnet alongside Anzaldúa’s and other critics, and utilizing postcolonial and feminist theories, this essay hopes to provide an alternative articulation to conventional understandings of hybridity and mestizaje in contemporary thought.

Introduction

The purpose of this essay is to provide an overview, a critique, and the beginning of a refiguration of Gloria Anzaldúa’s theorization of the new mestiza. Anzaldúa’s mestiza exists in borderlands, and is “neither hispana india negra española / ni gabacha;”1 rather, she is “mestiza, mulata, half-breed / caught in the crossfire between camps / while carrying all five races on [her] back / not knowing which side to turn to, run from” (Borderlands/La Frontera 216). However, according to Anzaldúa, and despite the difficulties engendered by her very existence, the mestiza is also a figure of enormous potential, as her multiplicity allows a new kind of consciousness to emerge. This mestiza consciousness moves beyond the binary relationships and dichotomies that characterize traditional modes of thought, and seeks to build bridges between all minority communities in order to achieve social and political change. Anzaldúa locates the new mestiza consciousness at a site that, as Françoise Lionnet suggests, “is not a territory staked out by exclusionary practices” (“The Politics and Aesthetics of Métissage” 5).

Although there are clear precursors to Anzaldúa’s work, one of which I discuss at length below, many critics and thinkers choose her work to engage with. This has to do with her unique place in the “canon” of Chicana/Mexican American writing—what she calls the “Moveimento Macha.” Writing from the position(s) of queer Chicana womanhood, code-switching between English and Spanish, and mixing poetry and prose, Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, at the time of publication in 1987, represented an important break from the mainly male-dominated pool of “traditional” Chicano writers and inspired a generation of women, Chicana and non-Chicana alike, to write about their experiences as border-crossers with hybrid identities. Anzaldúa’s work remains popular because it retains much of its original subversive potential, its cross-disciplinarity providing new and varied methodologies to analyze borders. In many ways, it has also played an important role in refocusing American studies as a transnational discipline. In her presidential address to the American Studies Association in 2004, Shelley Fisher Fishkin identified Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera as epitomizing the transnational nature of American studies, and credited her work for opening up a space for “American studies scholars [to] increasingly recognize that understanding requires looking beyond the nation‟s borders, and understanding how the nation is seen from vantage points beyond its borders” (“Crossroads of Cultures” 20)…

…A “Cosmic Race”

In his original essay of 1925, Vasconcelos lauds the people inhabiting the area of Mexico for their mestizo/a culture, which, as Rafael Pérez-Torres has put it, “locates itself within a complex third space neither Mexican nor American but in a transnational space of both potential and restraint” (“Alternate Geographies and the Melancholy of Mestizaje” 322). In its traditional meaning, mestizaje “reflects a simultaneously racial, sexual, and national memory, an embodiment of colonization and conquest” (Bost, Mulattas and Mestizas 9). In fact, one of the reasons that Jose Vasconcelos won popular acclaim for his theories was the attractiveness of the idea that an entire population, which literally embodies a history of violence, can forge an identity that moved beyond such a violent history—and flourish. Anzaldúa herself refers to this very specific history in her hope that the emergence of the new mestiza will bring an end to rape, violence, and war.

For the purposes of his essay, Vasconcelos sees this group as the first stage in the creation of a new, cosmic race that will eventually take on characteristics and subsume genetic streams from all the races on earth. This cosmic race will take on the best or most desirable traits from each respective race. Eventually, according to Vasconcelos, the lines between the “original” races will blur to the point that any one individual’s “racial heritage” would be completely indistinguishable from another‟s, thus becoming the ultimate mestizo/a (something akin what critics would now call a “post-ethnic” or “post-racial” world). This emphasis on the special character and potential of the mestiza/o Mexican subject has made Vasconcelos‟ theory very attractive to Mexican and Chicano/a activists, particularly nationalists. As many Chicano/a activists have done, Anzaldúa uses a narrow interpretation of Vasconcelos’ essay in the hope of finding a solid theoretical grounding for her own project. However, this has brought her much criticism, as Vasconcelos’ theory has been rigorously undermined. As Didier Jaén puts it:

It is true that mestizaje is one of the central concepts of the Vasconcelos essay, but of course, it is also clear that the racial mixture Vasconcelos refers to is much wider, much more encompassing, than what can be understood by the mestizaje of the Mexican or Chicano…But even if we expand the concept of mestizaje to include all other races, this biological mixture would not fulfill what Vasconcelos expresses with the idea of the Cosmic race (“Introduction” xvi).

Clearly, Vasconcelos’ utopian vision of mestizaje leading to a new, privileged subject that lives in a race-less world does not hold up theoretically or pragmatically. For example, he clearly delineates the “four major races of the world” before envisioning a fifth, cosmic race which embraces the four “original” races of the world. Despite the fact that the original text was written in 1925 and must be read with one eye trained on that time’s theoretical and scientific reach, it is problematic in the way it combines scientific language and terms with a more mystical outlook (something that is echoed in Anzaldúa‟s work, albeit for a different purpose). It thus presents itself as scientific fact and knowledge while in fact holding little or no solid scientific basis.

My main objection to Vasconcelos’ analysis comes from the implications of his own underlying premise, namely, that there are four races of humans: the Black, the Indian (as in American native), the Mongol, and the White. Out of these four races, Vasconcelos imagines that the fifth, mestizo, cosmic race will resemble a symphony:

Voices that bring accents from Atlantis; depths contained in the pupil of the red man, who knew so much, so many thousand years ago, but now seems to have forgotten everything. His soul resembles the old Mayan cenote of green waters, laying deep and still…This infinite quietude is stirred with the drop put in our blood by the Black, eager for sensual joy, intoxicated with dances and unbridled lust…There also appears the Mongol, with the mystery of his slanted eyes that see everything according to a strange angle…The clear mind of the White, that resembles his skin and his dreams, also intervenes…

Clearly Vasconcelos’ theory is based on fundamental racism on his part. Yet despite having borne heavy criticism for his theory, Vasconcelos’ essay was reprinted in 1948 and became a rallying point for Chicano activist and Mexican nationalist movements. In addition to Vasconcelos’ popularity as an alternative Mexican historian, this is most likely why Anzaldúa espouses his theory. However, as I plan to show, Anzaldúa’s work also falls into many of the same traps as Vasconcelos’. It has been important to look at Vasconcelos’ work in such depth as I will show that Anzaldúa’s work, while in many ways vastly different, may have the effect of re-inscribing Vasconcelos’ racism…

Read the entire article here.

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