Identity and culture are two pitfalls encountered by anyone who decides to study humanity. How can we grasp the meaning of these categories in order to understand our origins? In the case of Latin America, a region of countless opportunities and abundant resources, yet still suffering from rampant corruption and inequality, identity and culture are complex issues.
For centuries, the Americas have been conceived as a place where gold and glory were promised to those who decided to venture in its diverse geography. From Mexico to Chile, colonisers arrived and claimed land and resources, brought slaves from Africa, and introduced new systems where powerful and advanced empires existed.
As Serge Gruzinski brilliantly argues in his book, The Mestizo Mind, there were plenty of El Dorados to conquer, slaves to raid, and souls to save. The shock of conquest shattered identities and forced the vanquished to find ways to make sense of the unforeseen chaos that surrounded them. Many chroniclers documented the first contact between Europeans and Native Peoples, and the prospects were far from romantic. “When we saw the land through our inner vision, it appeared filled with great shadows,” narrates Franciscan monk Motolinía in his chronicles of 1521, the year of arrival of colonisers in Mexico City.
During colonial rule, a complex system of racial hierarchy was adopted in the Americas in order to ensure social control. These hierarchies were perpetuated even after many nations became independent. Until the mid and late 1980s, public discourse and state policies in the Americas were dominated by the Mestizo identity, a construction which was misused to uphold European values inherited from conquerors. Identity policies were important for nation building and these discourses eliminated the possibility of making sense of a cultural background that requires a thorough analysis of the mechanisms that were set in motion when two different temporalities met, and different ideas and knowledge were clashed.
In some countries Mestizo identity was used to discourage Indigenous identification, thus marginalizing a large part of the population. Identity making systems are confusing for the population that is of mixed ancestry. The question was, and still is: who is a Mestizo?
Nowadays the emphasis has shifted towards a construction of identity that values difference and diversity, although racism and discrimination are still present in Latin American societies. Steps have been taken by several governments towards fairer societies: native languages have been recognized and Indigenous groups have achieved a certain degree of autonomy over their territories.
A wonderfully diverse region, Latin America and people of Latin descent are a proof that coexistence of cultures is possible and can lead to the strengthening of ties between nations. Latin America needs a deeper comprehension of its own history and the challenges that it imposes. Indigenous, African, and European: the Mestizo identity is an essential part of every Latino. Some argue that knowledge of the real is a light that always projects some sort of shadow. This light is acknowledging our heritage, and its many shadows stand as proof of our diversity.
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Illustration: Jia Sung
Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu