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

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.

Tags: , , , ,

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.


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.

Tags: , , , ,