Mestizaje and Self Hate


By Victor Mejia

La Raza!
Chicano! or whatever I call myself,
I look the same I feel the same
I cry and Sing the same

-from I Am Joaquin, by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales

As Chicanos/Mexicanos, we claim a mixed cultural heritage called mestizaje. But we really do not know who we are, which explains why we juggle different labels of identity like the ones exclaimed in Gonzales’ “epic” poem. We are indecisive about our cultural identity, and we embrace mestizaje because 509 years of colonial domination have convinced us that that is who we are. But mestizaje is nothing to be proud of. It is a damaging concept that-like everything else from the Conquest-has served to crush our indigenous heritage and our dignity. It has ruined us spiritually and psychologically and promoted self-hate. It has blurred the understanding of ourselves as indigenous people and furthered the disintegration of our ancient indigenous culture.

Perhaps no other ethnic group is as self-conscious and irresolute about its self-worth than the Mexican people. Mexicans reproach their identity. They characterize themselves in a self abasing tone as the “hijos de la chingada, fruits of the violation of Indian women by Europeans” (Lafaye 12). The verb chingar is replete with meaning. But as Octavio Paz explains in his essay Sons of La Malinche, its essential meaning is rooted in physical aggression: “The verb denotes violence, an emergence from oneself to penetrate another by force. It also means to injure, to lacerate to violate-bodies, souls, objects-and to destroy.” La chingada, then, “is the Mother forcibly opened, violated or deceived.” She is the raped “Indian” mother of us all who is associated with the Conquest, “which was also a violation, not only in the historical sense but also in the very flesh of Indian women” (Paz 76-86).

Yet ironically, racial mixture was reviled in sixteenth century New Spain. Mixing with native people was deemed disgraceful by the conquistadors who prided themselves in their “limpieza de sangre-purity of blood.” Still, this did not stop some male Spaniards from forcing themselves on native women then abandoning their offspring. Their atrocious behavior was so prevalent in the years following the Conquest that “the term mestizo was almost synonymous with bastard” (Meyer and Sherman 210). The concept of mestizaje, therefore, is rooted in the idea that Mexicans are halfbreeds, illegitimate children not fully Indian nor fully European. In the eighteenth century the criollos (Mexico-born Spanish descendants who comprised the ruling elite) co-opted mestizaje as an ideology to help fuel their movement for independence from Spain. By the turn of the nineteenth century, mestizaje was sufficiently forged into a national Mexican identity.

Mestizaje was further promulgated and institutionalized in 1925 with the help of Jose Vasconcelos, Mexico’s former Minister of Education. In his well-known essay La Raza Cosmica-The Cosmic Race, Vasconcelos champions mestizaje, viewing it as the only hope for humanity. He argues that a cosmic “fifth race” will emerge once the four races of the world,”the Black, the Indian, the Mongol, and the White” are fused together (Vasconcelos 9). He believed that this process had already begun in Mexico with the arrival of Europeans and that true peace and love on Earth would reign once the intermixing was complete:

What is going to emerge out there is the definitive race, the synthetical race, the integral race made up of the genius and the blood of all peoples and, for that reason, more capable of true brotherhood and of a truly universal vision.

It is a romantic theory made insidious by the fact that Vasconcelos viewed Christianity and “Iberian” culture as the foundation for the fifth race. He did not envision a shared hybridized culture or spirituality; instead, he surmised that Christianity would guide the “cosmic race” into a new human epoch. Only the Iberian (i.e. Spanish) element of Latin America possessed “the spiritual factors, the race, and the territory necessary for the great enterprise of initiating the new universal era of Humanity” (20). In other words, this new era would remain rooted in European culture. All other cultures would be assimilated into it.

There was no world he hoped would assimilate more completely than Native America, which Vasconcelos considered inferior to European society. In his prologue to the 1948 edition of La Raza Cosmica he writes, “Christianity made the American Indians advance, in a few centuries, from cannibalism to a relative degree of civilization.” Vasconcelos found nothing redeemable in indigenous society and believed strongly that the “Indian” had “no other door to the future but the door of modern culture, nor any other road but the road already cleared by Latin civilization.” Moreover, he credited the “white race” for bringing “the world to a state in which all human types and cultures will be able to fuse with each other” (Vasconcelos 5-9). But, again, he did not mean a harmonious blend of disparate cultures. He meant the assimilation of non-Western people into a European model of civilization. Vasconcelos’ ideas exemplify the truth about mestizaje: that it is a Eurocentric concept advocating Westernization of native people in exchange for their ethnocide.

In the United States, Vasconcelos continues to influence how Chicanos view themselves and their history. His ideas have helped lay the ideological foundations of Chicano Studies programs, despite the inherent racism of these ideas. At California State University Northridge (considered to have the biggest and the best Chicano Studies program in the country) for instance, students study the social, cultural, and political developments of North America beginning with the Spanish Conquest. Particular emphasis is placed on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 and the Chicano Movement of the 60s and 70s. Pre-Columbian civilization, on the other hand, is ancillary. The school offers one semester course in mesoamerican civilization, an independent study course in classical Nahuatl, and a third course in Mexican philosophical thought, which overviews the religious syncretism that occurred in Mexico in the colonial period. But the core of the Chicano Studies curriculum remains rooted in the events of the last 150 years and in the distinct Mexican/Chicano identity that emerged as a result of Anglo and Spanish colonization. The 4000 years of indigenous civilization that preceded the arrival of Europeans, beginning with the Olmec (2000 b.c), is virtually ignored. Thus, Chicano Studies is in actuality mestizo studies. It tenders a predominately post-Conquest worldview of North America that inculcates Chicanos into identifying as mestizos (and find pride in being so) and not as indigenous people.

This emphasis on mestizaje permeates much of Chicano literature as well, and no poem exemplifies this better than Gonzales’ I Am Joaquin. Written in 1966, Joaquin was the quintessential expression of Chicano/Mexicano identity and struggle during the 60s and 70s. The poem’s embittered reproach of “gringo society” articulated the common feelings held by many Mexicans of the time who felt victimized, discriminated against, and denied entry into America’s social institutions. The title itself-an allusion to the 19th Century California “bandit,” Joaquin Murieta, who “tangled with Americans because of their treatment of Mexicans…[and] sought revenge against all gringos” after his wife was murdered by miners during the Gold Rush-symbolized the race-relations between Mexicans and Anglos (Camarillo 17). Praised for its socio-political critique of American society and for its literary style, I Am Joaquin remains at the core of Chicano cultural identity.

But the crisis of identity expressed by the poem’s peculiar glorification of mestizaje-that is, the mixing of Spanish and Mexica (Aztec) culture-has never been adequately examined. The poem’s protagonist, Joaquin, agonizes over being mestizo and ventures on an internal journey to reconcile two cultures. But his “epic” struggle is futile for Joaquin fails to overcome the greatest obstacle facing him: his self-hate. This is the poem’s most salient and pertinent feature; for, it exemplifies the profound inferiority complex that has been intrinsic to Chicano/Mexicano identity since the Conquest.

Although the poem appears to be exalting the indigenous past while vilifying the Spanish conqueror, it remains a glorification of mestizaje. The poem refers to Hernan Cortez as a “gachupin,” a pejorative term, and in the fifth stanza Joaquin boldly identifies with Cuahutemoc, the last huei tlatoani (great speaker) of the Mexica:

I am Cuauhtemoc, proud and noble, leader of men, king of an empire civilized beyond the dreams of the gachupin CortezŠ

But immediately following this assertive expression of indigenous pride is the peculiar line:

who also is the blood, the image of myself.

Here is the schism within Mexican identity. By disparaging Cortez as a “gachupin” then identifying with him as “the blood, the image of myself,” Joaquin is essentially internalizing his disdain for the Spanish conquistador. He is detesting himself. This peculiar glorification saturates the entire poem:

I am the Maya prince. I am Nezahualcoyotl, great leader of the Chichimecas. I am the sword and flame of Cortes the despot.

The merging of both the indigenous world and the despotic forces that brought it to ruins infuses the poem with a schizophrenic tone. Joaquin condemns the “hordes of [g]old starved [s]trangers [w]ho changed our language and plagiarized our deeds” yet proudly announces that “[p]art of the blood that runs deep in me [c]ould not be vanquished by the Moors.1 I defeated them after five hundred years and I endured.” To glorify this ethnic and racial mixture is, of course, the point of the poem. But this glorification reveals an unresolved, internal turmoil. It exposes a crisis in identity in the protagonist, Joaquin. Joaquin sides with the conquering nation by proclaiming he “owned the land as far as the eye could see under the Crown of SpainŠ” But then also states he “gave [his] Indian sweat and blood for the Spanish masterŠ” Joaquin is conqueror and conquered: “I was both tyrant and slave”; “I am Aztec Prince and Christian Christ.” These schizophrenic statements ultimately amount to a profound psychosis. Joaquin both praises and condemns his heritage, but he cannot reconcile them. He himself seems to recognize this contradiction and acknowledge a deep sense of worthlessness permeating his being. He describes himself as a man with stifled pride living “[i]n a country that has placed a different weight of indignity upon my age old burdened back. Inferiority.” He explains that “Inferiority is the new loadŠ” that the “Mestizo must yet overcome.” Curiously, Joaquin cannot see that mestizaje and inferiority are two sides of the same coin. The former is rooted in the latter.

In recognizing both Spanish and Mexica identity, Gonzales is also saying in his poem what many defenders of mestizaje say: that Mexican identity is mixed and layered and that the Spanish presence (both in blood and in culture) cannot be denied, but must be embraced. There are at least two problems with this argument. One, it overlooks the brutal crimes of the Spaniards and forces Chicanos/Mexicanos to abandon any claims for justice for the atrocities committed by Europeans against native people, atrocities that include murder, rape, slavery, plunder of natural resources, ethnocide, and genocide. And two, it assumes that all Chicanos/Mexicanos are mestizos-half Spanish, half Indian. While it is undeniable that some Mexicans are mestizos, many are not. Indeed, it is safe to say that most Mexicans cannot trace any Spanish or any other European ancestry. The perception held by the world-and by Mexicans themselves-that Mexico is a mestizo nation is almost completely false.

To begin with, intermixing between Spaniards and Indians during the colonial period was very limited; for, the act was socially unacceptable to the Spaniards. Indians were seen “as an inferior people,” as “pagans, cannibals, and sodomites. Natives were frequently described as lazy, disposed to vices, devious, and backward” (Meyer and Sherman 211). Many Spaniards refused to marry native women, and most of those Spaniards who did have sexual relations with them, often did so under the force of rape. In the colonial period, “[b]iological mixture was frequently the product of violence” (Batalla 17). Moreover, the offspring were often unrecognized by the Spanish fathers; these mestizos were almost never raised in Castillian fashion. Instead, they were nurtured under native tradition by their mothers “and so became culturally more Indian than Spanish.” (Meyer and Sherman 211). When they became adults, these mestizos usually married back into the native population, thus retaining an indigenous sense of identity. Furthermore, an elaborate caste system was established by the Spanish Crown to distinguish pure-blooded Spaniards from “other” races and to thwart the ascent of Indians, Blacks, and mestizos on the social ladder of New Spain. Not surprisingly, this caste system helped generate resentment and self-hate among the dark-skinned, colonized people who witnessed the social and economic privileges that were enjoyed by Mexico’s lighter-skinned, European population. Meyer and Sherman succinctly describe the plight of the mestizo in New Spain:

The mestizos were, by and large, poor, uneducated, and in a distinctly inferior socioeconomic class. For every mestizo who gained a comfortable place in society, there were a hundred others who remained culturally adrift, living in miserable circumstances and scorned by the upper class. For most of the colonial period they were grouped socially with Indians, blacks, and mulattoes (211).

Furthermore, the indigenous population then far outnumbered-and still outnumbers today-the non-Indians in Mexico. It must remain clear that only 900 Spaniards accompanied Hernan Cortez in 1521 when he conquered the Mexica.2 In contrast, 150,000 people inhabited the Mexica city, by conservative estimates. Some historians have calculated the number closer to 500,000, while still others place Tenochtitlan’s population at one million (Thomas 613). These figures speak only of the Mexica city, which was located in central Mexico, a region estimated to have been inhabited by 25 million people. Overall, Mexico’s entire native population is believed to have numbered 30 million in 1521, making Mexico “more populous than any country in Europe. France, the largest, had about 20 million, and Spain roughly 8 million.” (Meyer and Sherman 89). Simply put, 900 Spaniards were insufficient to alter the racial make up of the entire native population.

In addition, despite European and African migration into Mexico during the colonial period, indigenous people continued to “vastly outnumbered all other racial groups in New Spain” (211). Even when the native population in central Mexico fell to its lowest point in 1650 to one million, as a result of European disease and Spanish cruelty, it still exceeded whites, who were only 119,000. Blacks were 35,089 (208 and 215). By 1810, native people numbered nearly four million while whites were only 1.1 million and mestizos only 704,245 (218). More importantly, these numbers only reflect the demographics of central Mexico. In the northern and southern regions the indigenous population is believed to have totalled at least four million in 1521 (Stannard 85-86). Although the native population here also dropped by as much as 95 percent in some areas during the colonial period, a conservative estimate of Mexico’s indigenous population in 1810 can be placed at 4,250,000; three and a half times the non-native and mestizo populations combined.

In this colonial society where “whiteness” was rewarded and “Indianness” was stigmatized, many of the colonized quickly forsook their native culture in a quest to become more “white”, both physically and culturally. Of course, the dark complexions and “Indian” features of most Mexicans barred them from attaining high social status in New Spain. But those who did pass as Spanish or European reaped the rewards. It is from this colonial tradition that so many Mexicans today often speak of the need to “mejorar la raza-to make the race better.” This usually means forsaking native identity and marrying into lighter-skinned, Europeanized families. In the Chicano/Mexicano reality, “Europeanness” continues to be synonymous with beauty and social and economic opportunity. Conversely, “Indianness” is equated with ugliness, backwardness, and poverty. To a large extent, Mexicans believe that the farther they distance themselves from an indigenous identity, the better off they will be.

The desire to shed one’s native ethnic identity is one of the most devastating consequences of colonization in Mexico. In his seminal work, Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla called this transformation “de-Indianization”:

De-Indianization is a historical process through which populations that originally possessed a particular and distinctive identity, based upon their own culture, are forced to renounce that identity with all the consequent changes in their social organization and culture (17).

In Mexico, the Spanish colonizers were “able to convince the colonized of their own inferiority,” and once the population stopped considering itself Indian, then de-Indianization was complete. (22 and 46). Because these de-Indianized Indians could never truly be considered European, they were labeled mestizos instead.

This process of shedding one’s indigenous identity is linked with the desire to improve one’s socio-economic condition; for, native people remain the poorest, most subjugated group in Mexico. Since the Industrial Revolution, Indians have been desperately moving out of the rural areas and into the cities and across the US-Mexican border to escape the appalling poverty in the countryside. But for most of them, living in urban, Western cities have forced them to abandon their traditional ways of life. This, in fact, is the experience shared by most Mexicans; families moving to the cities or across the border and raising children who are removed from their indigenous heritage, becoming Westernized and “taking on the characteristics of the white society.” (Meyer and Sherman 270). Mexico also institutionalized this process of de-indianization with the formation of the National Indigenous Institute, a federal program that runs various social and educational centers in rural areas. The goal is to “improve” life in indigenous communities by incorporating Indians into the modern, “national life.” As Coe describes it: ‘Every effort is made to wean people away from their language and from their traditional cultureŠ”( 203).

Denying and, in many instances, obliterating indigenous identity is the function of mestizaje. It is not a process of racial mixing, and it has very little to do with racial identity. Rather, mestizaje is an ethnic identity, one that is worn, like a mask, to hide the true indigenous face. The vast numbers of “mestizos” living in the big cities of Mexico (and of the United States), who today comprise 60 per cent of the Mexican population, are in actuality “the contingent of ‘de-Indianized’ Indians” (Batalla 17). They no longer identify as indigenous people, but remain so biologically. Although social differences exist between the Indian and the mestizo, both remain similar physically. As Batalla explains:

[T]he mestizo Mexican population, which today forms the largest part of the rural and urban non-Indian population, is very hard to distinguish in physical appearance from the members of any community that is recognized without question as indigenous (17).

Both “look” Indian because they share traits that include dark complexions, almond-shaped eyes, and aquiline features, all of which are common physical characteristics of native people. There is no denying that the “immense majority of us have somatic traits that loudly proclaim our Indian heritage” (15). Moreover, it is no accident that these traits are prevalent in the Mexican lower classes, while being almost absent among the ruling elite who tend to be light-skinned and proud of their European lineage. The glaring physical and cultural differences that exist between those who rule and those who are ruled in Mexico is indication that racial mixing between Indians and Europeans was (and still is) far less common than widely believed. Indeed, it is so uncommon that Mexico remains a predominately indigenous nation; 28 million people are officially recognized by the Mexican government as Indian, and an additional 56 million de-Indianized Indians (mestizos) are said to live throughout the country. Combined, they make up 90 per cent of the Mexican population.

For Chicanos/Mexicanos, life since 1492 has been a process of de-Indianization. It is a quest (both conscious and unconscious) to separate completely from our indigenous roots. We no longer have a sense of our ancient Mexican history and very few of us recognize any connection with the indigenous past. Mesoamerican civilizations “are assumed to be something apart from ourselves, something that happened long ago in the same place where we, the Mexicans, live today. The only connection is based on the fact of them and us occupying the same territory, but in different time periods” (Batalla 3).

We are proud to be Mexican, but secretly wish we could eliminate all trace of our indigenous heritage. As an ideology, mestizaje allows this to some extent. It is a lopsided identity that favors the European component. It succeeds only in masking our indigenous sense of identity with a Western European visage. We can see this in various aspects of our culture. First of all, the Spanish spoken in Mexico is peppered with Nahuatl words (e.g. tocayo, tomate, mecate); but, most Mexicans are not fluent in Nahuatl (nor in any other indigenous language) and Spanish remains our lingua franca. Secondly, there is some syncretism in our religious beliefs (e.g. Dia de los Muertos, La Virgen de Guadalupe); however, we do not worship a hybrid deity in sacred temples, we pray to Jesus Christ in cathedrals and remain decidedly Catholic. Finally, we may glorify mesoamerican civilization and revere our indigenous heros (e.g. Cuahutemoc, Cuhitlahuac, Zapata); but, we ourselves do not identify as indigenous people nor do we give our children indigenous names. Instead, we christen them with Christian-European names. As an identity, mestizaje does not express an equal and harmonious balance of Mexica and Spanish culture. The European element tends to supplant the indigenous. Thus, we become faux Europeans with a poor understanding of our ancient Mexican past.

Today, de-Indianization continues as an increasing number of Chicanos/Mexicanos in the United States prefer to identify as ‘Latino’, a Eurocentric label that totally ignores our indigenous heritage. Also revealing is the Mexican (and highly colonialist) expression “no seas indio-don’t be an Indian”, an admonishment that connotes ignorance, racial inferiority, and social and cultural primitiveness, characteristics generally associated with “Indians.” The expression reflects the self-hate and the racist disdain that Mexican society holds for its indigenous ancestry.

This self-hate is further reflected in many Mexicans’ desire to recognize and exalt their purported European heritage. It is common, for instance, to hear Mexican families proclaim that a distant relative (usually a great-grandparent) was from Spain. Rarely do these families grant similar praise to their predominately indigenous ancestors. In an article entitled “Roots And Reality,” published in the Los Angeles Times, 25 January 2000, Jose Cardenas reported that most Mexican American families that commission genealogy groups in Southern California hope to trace European lineage. For these families, “an Indian is not a respectable ancestor.” Mexican families will go to great lengths to downplay any non-European ancestry. Even when powerful evidence exists that the family tree is indeed racially mixed, Eurocentrism prevails. For instance, Mario Grajeda, president of one Orange-county based genealogy group sardonically observes in the Times article that some families may “have five mulatto lines, 20 Indian lines, and maybe two Spanish lines, but, boy, they’re tracing that Spanish line” (E3). This is truly one of colonialism’s great accomplishments: compelling the colonized to deny their indigenous identity and adopt a European one.

We must come to realize and accept that there is nothing praiseworthy about mestizaje. Mestizaje teaches us to loath and deny our predominately indigenous roots. It is a concept that has never advocated an equal and harmonious balance of Indian and European culture; rather, it has distanced us from our ancient Mexican past and forced us to grope for a European identity. Like Gonzales’ Joaquin, we suffer from a cultural psychosis, juggling labels like Latino, Chicano, Raza, and Mexican American, which only obfuscate our indigenous identity. Our cultural schizophrenia is part of the legacy of the Conquest, a legacy that has drenched us in self-hate and washed the indigenous world to ruins. Our redemption will come only after we abandon mestizaje and redefine our ethnic identity on purely indigenous terms. This is the vital first step in reclaiming our ancient Mexican heritage and building a new future for ourselves as indigenous people. Until then we shall remain like Joaquin, tortured by self-hate and wallowing in an identity crisis.


1. This is a reference to the Spanish victory over the Moors who occupied Spain for nearly 800 years until they were ousted in 1492. Interestingly, Spain retains a strong castillian cultural identity and does not regard itself as a mestizo nation, despite having been invaded and colonized by the Moors for so long.

2. It must also remain clear that the Spaniards could never have vanquished the Mexica without the help of two different armies: the 150,000 Tlaxcalans, who supported Cortez, and European diseases. Some authors, like Elizabeth Hill Boone in The Aztec World, argue that “Cortes’ arrival touched off what was essentially an indigenous revolution against the Mexica-dominated empire” (142). Although it is undeniable that divisions did exist between the Mexica and surrounding peoples, the Conquest was hardly “an indigenous revolution.” It remained a battle between indigenous people and Europeans. Cortez exploited the internal divisions to his advantage and after conquering the Mexica, he subjugated the Tlaxcalans and others who had helped him raze Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The battle was mismatched only by the diseases the Spaniards carried with them. Smallpox, in particular, ravaged the Mexica city within weeks after it was introduced (some say purposefully introduced) by the Spaniards. Despite the conquistadors’ superior weaponry and more than 100,000 allies (who were also affected by smallpox), many historians agree that the Spaniards owe their conquest of Mexico to the spread of this debilitating disease.


Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo. 1996. Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill. 1994. The Aztec World. Montreal: St. Remy Press.

Camarillo, Albert. 1984. Chicanos In California: A History of Mexican Americans in California. San Francisco: Boyd &Fraser Publishing Company.

Coe, Michael D. 1994. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson. Cremo, Michael A., Richard L. Thompson. 1996. Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Publishing, Inc.

Deloria Jr., Vine. 1997. Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Golden: Fulcrum Publishing.

Lafaye, Jacques. 1974. Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness 1531 – 1819. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Meyer, C. Michael, William L. Sherman. 1987. The Course of Mexican History. 3rd. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Paz, Octavio. 1985. The Labyrinth of Solitude: And Other Writings. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Thomas, Hugh. 1993. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Vasconcelos, Jose. 1997. La Raza Cosmica. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press

%d bloggers like this: