Mestizes, Race, and Colonialism in Mexico

José de Páez (New Spain, 1720–1790), Mexican Castes (Castas mexicanas), (15 total), ca. 1780, “1. De Español, e India, produce mestizo”, 18th century, Oil on canvas; 36 x 41 in. (91 x 104.5 cm), Private Collection. Photography by Peggy Tenison.

Witnessing the coup in Bolivia and seeing masses of both criolles and mestizes reassert colonial rule against Indigenous people in the country has convinced me of the need to write a particular essay about mestizes’ relation to the colonial caste systems in the Americas as well as to colonialism broadly. I am myself a Chicane mestize, and my community is drowning in false, colonial assumptions in the direction of three incorrect extremes of either mestizes being simply white, a raza cósmica born of the mixing of master races, or being entirely the same as Indigenous people, save a deluded mindset.

Each of these views bases itself in an idealist understanding of race and nation, and must be combatted through the demystification of la sistema de castas. I have already written a condensed history of the rise of the modern race system, and a Marxist analysis of it. In this essay, I hope to extend that condensed history and analysis into the specificity of mestizes. I will focus primarily on mestizes in Mexico and the US, as I am most familiar with that case.

Mestizes as a significant caste were born out of the particular characteristics and conditions of Spanish franchise-colonialism. The Spanish Empire had already been born with the Reconquista and the “practice run” colonization of the Canary Islands, wherein it would begin to develop slave systems which would later be put into practice in the Americas. The new Spanish society, dominated by landed estates, sought to bring itself from a backwater country into prominence among rising nations such as the Dutch and French, and to combat the global power of the Byzantine, Ottoman, and later Protestant blocs.

With this push factor for expansion, they joined the European scramble for a piece of the spice trade, primarily in Afro-Asia. As the Indian Ocean was already dominated by the Portuguese, and land trade was expensive due to West Asian and North African middlemen hiking prices up between Europe and Asia, Spain had to search for a new route to markets in Afro-Asia, leading to the Spanish monarchy’s financing of Columbus’s voyage. Famously, he had an incorrect understanding of geography and “discovered” what the Spaniards would call Hispaniola, and the indigenous Taíno call Haiti. The colonization of the island and enslavement of its inhabitants for sugar production began almost immediately. From their Taíno slaves, the Spaniards learned of the grand Aztec Empire on the mainland, and began to plan its conquest.

The Aztec Empire, which lasted from 1428 to 1521, when the Spaniards destroyed it, was an alliance of three city-states in the region around Lake Texcoco: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. The dominant city-state in the empire was Tenochtitlan, inhabited by the Mexica people. Tenochtitlan was built at some point in the early 14th century on an island in Lake Texcoco, with the region around the lake already dominated by more powerful peoples and city-states. The Mexica began to change the island into something which could support production, using primarily chinampas and gardens for production of means of subsistence. Tenochtitlan, along with the other city-states, had a complex class system, largely based upon independent free laborers, slave labor, and a complicated bureaucracy. Aligning with the victors (Texcoco, Tlacopan) of a war between Azcapotzalto and its tributary states, the Aztec Empire was born.

It immediately commenced rapid conquest of city-states around Lake Texcoco, with Tenochtitlan growing dominant in the alliance. Eventually, the Texcoco region was controlled by the Empire, with it coming to extend farther North into modern Mexico. Being an appropriative empire rather than a capitalistic empire, it began to demand heavy tribute from the conquered city-states, growing wealthy from this income. Resistance in the course of and after conquest meant even more exorbitant tribute demands, as well as the enslavement and slaughter of a significant mass of the rebellious city-state’s population. High tribute and tax burdens led to burning resentment among tributary states of the Empire.

It was this context that the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, and his men arrived in 1519, hungry for the legendary wealth of the Aztec Empire. His allies in combatting the Empire, largely the Tlaxcalans and Cempoalans, were Indigenous people who resented the oppressive rule of the Aztecs. They composed the vast majority of the war effort, though Spaniards would try to downplay or obscure this fact. Despite Moctezuma II’s efforts to intimidate the Spaniards with displays of wealth and power, and to perhaps win them over as an ally to his Empire, the Spaniards attacked Tenochtitlan, eventually murdering him (contrary to the claims of colonial historians). By 1521, with the aid of a smallpox epidemic, the Spanish siege and offensive had defeated Tenochtitlan, and with it, the Aztec Empire, razing the city to the ground and slaughtering thousands. The Spaniards began the colonial transformation of the region now under their control.

In order to organize the production of bullion and cash crops (sugar, tobacco, maize, etc), the Spanish used the encomienda system to enslave Indigenous people. Later, at the behest of Bartolomé de las Casas, these would merely operate as de facto slave labor operations called haciendas. This project bloated wealth of the the conquistador owners of the encomiendas, alongside that of the Spanish Empire, which took a major cut of the profits. Spain became a predominant power in Europe, though inflation caused by the huge influx of bullion (which played a major part in the development of capitalism in Europe, more on this in Caliban and the Witch) would come to devastate it.

This was the era of the rise of la sistema de castas, a world-historic institution in the development of the modern race system. Because the conquistadors who came to the Americas were almost exclusively men, the reproduction of the colonial population had to be done with Indigenous women. The Spanish colonial system was franchise-colonial, not settler-colonial. This means its intent was not the seizure of the homelands of Indigenous peoples for the ownership of settlers, alongside the displacement and slaughter of Natives, but was to exploit Indigenous labor. Its colonial system was organized accordingly, with social intercourse between Spanish men and Indigenous women being seen as a necessary evil. Through this, the mestizes were born in the wider context of the birth of la sistema de castas. The eventual transition to African slaves in place of Indigenous slaves, who were dying due to the devastations of disease and overworking, or fleeing to relatives, solidified the new system.

La sistema de castas was basically organized thusly, from highest to lowest: peninsulares (Spaniards born in Spain), criolles (Spaniards born in the Americas), mestizes (mixed Spaniard and Indigenous), Indigenas (Indigenous people), mulates (mixed African and Spaniard), zambes (mixed African and Indigenous), and negros (African). Status in la sistema was according to one’s proximity to Europeanness (la limpieza de sangre), with Africans being seen as the most distant. Mestizes were the highest non-white caste in la sistema, often dwelling among criolles. Mestizes were not merely deluded Indigenous people, they were materially, in the context of the new caste system, distinct from Indigenous people, winning status from their greater proximity to whiteness.

As far as the relation of caste to class in Nueva España goes, the correspondence of high caste to high class and low caste to low class was very close. The landed estates were largely dominated by peninsulares, though many of these eventually became criolles. Criolles held minor landed estates, and were highly represented among the bourgeoisie, liberal professionals, and guildmasters. Peninsulares tended to be favored in higher posts of the clergy and bureaucracy, while criolles were typically consigned to lower posts, lacking significant political power.

Mestizes held minor representation among the bourgeoisie, though they were largely petite-bourgeoisie, journeymen, and wage laborers. Unlike Indigenous people and mulates, they did not have to pay a caste-specific tribute to the Spaniards. Indigenous people and zambes were largely slaves, agrarian wage laborers, and peasants, with Indigenous leaders being granted minor political status by the Spaniards in order to reproduce colonial order.

Africans were consigned to slavery, though mulates could sometimes be exempted and live as wage-laborers, journeymen, or even petite-bourgeoisie, though they did not have the social or political status of the mestizes. As Nueva España expanded north into the modern day southwestern US, they conquered Indigenous nations living there, spreading la sistema de castas without spreading the practice of Spaniards having children with Natives to the same extent as in the former Aztec Empire. Nueva España’s grasp on the region was absolutely impotent due to the power of Plains peoples whose raids became highly effective with the acquisition of horses, with the Comanches specifically growing into the dominant power of the region.

The antagonism between the major peninsulare landed estates, clergy, bureaucracy and the minor criolle bourgeoisie, landed estates, clergy, bureaucracy and guildmasters would culminate in the 1810–1821 Mexican War of Independence from Spain, then from the French Bourbons. While the war was primarily fought for criolle interests, mestizes played a major part in the war effort. México was declared a federal republic in 1823, and the transition to criolle rule began. La sistema de castas remained in place for the most part, along with the associated class relations, though Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, with the exception of Texas, which contained Anglo settlers.

These US settlers had been allowed into Texas by Mexico beginning in the 1820s in order to combat Comanche power in the region. The settlers came to take advantage of fertile farmland in the east, with their production being dominated primarily by landed estates’ use of slaves and secondarily by agrarian petite-bourgeois production. Settler immigration into Texas began to increase, though Mexico tried to cap it with the abolition of slavery in other provinces. Texas settlers, angry at restrictions on slavery and the perceived threat of its abolition in the province, began to rebel against the Mexican Republic, declaring independence in 1836. Mexico rejected this declaration, resisting Texan settlers in an ensuing conflict. The Texans won, achieving independence and recognition by the US.

Most Texans sought integration into the US, but the question was contentious for congress, with fears of the integration of a new slave state upsetting the already precarious balance of representation. Nevertheless, President James K. Polk purposely provoked war with Mexico in 1846 by sending troops into contested territory, seeking the annexation of the parts of Mexico in the modern southwestern US (from Texas to California). Mexico of course resisted, leading to a US declaration of war. The US defeated Mexico in 1848, marching all the way into to Mexican City, annexing the desired territories with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The US had fulfilled its “manifest destiny.”

The integration of the new territories posed a problem for the US, not only due to the question of which would be slave and which free territories or states. There was a major population of mestizes and indigenous people now living in US territories. Up until then, citizenship to the US, in both the political and the social sense, had essentially been confined to white men, initially to landed estates, the haute bourgeoisie, and the major petite-bourgeoisie, and later extended to the minor petite-bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The Indigenous peoples of the territories were obviously not to be considered white, and thus citizens, to the USAmericans. They were to be excluded, as contrasted to forceful incorporation into the social system, as in the Spanish franchise-colonialism. While early American settlers had entered into intercourse with Indigenous peoples, they were now at a stage of development where they could and did seek total exclusion of them, in favor of their replacement by settlers.

The people who posed a real question in these annexed territories were the mestizes. Could they be considered white, and thus citizens of the US? Many argued that they could, that they were of European ancestry and culture and thus white, while others argued that they were far too “polluted” by their Indigenous ancestry to be proper citizens, and were thus to be excluded. The mestizes, for their part, cried out that they were white just as the US settlers were, that they rejected Indigenous “barbarism” and were truly European. Though they were excluded from citizenship in localities for years, they were eventually granted citizenship in the late 1890s. The practice of segregation, however, which had begun during the course of the incorporation of the territories into the US, continued, solidifying mestizes in the US race system as a nonwhite caste, though they were still considered above Indigenous people.

Mexico’s defeat would lead to the devastation of its society. In the late 19th century, General Porfirio Díaz, a mestizo who was considered a national hero due to his role in the struggle against Maximilian I, would dominate Mexico as its de facto dictator. His administration represented the rule of the massive criolle and mestize landed estates and haute bourgeoisie. He was resented by the criolle bourgeoisie and petite-bourgeoisie, the mestize and Black petite-bourgeoisie, proletariat, and peasantry, and the Indigenous proletariat and peasantry. He encouraged industrial development of the country, doing so not only with national industry, but with the investment of foreign imperialist powers as well, especially Europe (which he typically favored over the US).

With the approach the 1910 election (which Díaz intended to fix in his favor, as always), with the Mexican masses sick of his corruption and the conditions they faced, resistance began to grow. The laboring classes agitated, forming opposition movements to fight for their interests. Francisco Madero, a haute bourgeois mestizo whose family had a long-standing rivalry with the Díaz family, stepped up to represent the criolle and mestize bourgeois and petite-bourgeois opposition. Madero announced his presidential campaign against Díaz, beginning to gain massive support. Díaz jailed Madero, fixing the election to make himself win. In response, the bourgeois-led opposition revolted, led by Madero (from jail) and his family. Madero’s opposition movement was offered minor support by US imperialist bourgeoisie, who believed he would favor them unlike Díaz. Madero, in order to rally the peasantry to his cause, made vague calls for land reform. The peasantry joined the struggle in droves, with the mestizos Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata being major leaders, and the revolution entered full swing.

In 1911, Díaz was forced to enter negotiations with the bourgeois leadership of the opposition, leading to the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, which provided for the abdication of Díaz, the appointment of an interim president, and the scheduling of elections. Madero was elected president, with the support of the US, and began to pass minor reforms, though according to the terms of the Treaty, the basic structure of the state was largely the same. Unsatisfied by the lack of true change, the mestize and Indigenous petite-bourgeoisie, proletariat, and peasantry recommenced the revolution.

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata arose as the predominant leaders of this phase, with the latter’s movement having many Indigenous people within it, due to his advocacy for radical land reform (solidified in El Plan de Ayala). General Victoriano Huerta, an Indigenous bureaucrat, led the repression of the radical opposition to President Madero. Madero was assassinated by the opposition, leading Huerta to stage a coup and establish a military dictatorship. European powers supported his regime, while the US was less confident in his ability to serve US imperial interests, and initially remained neutral to him.

Zapata and Villa continued their resistance. The US was convinced that the social upheaval of the revolution, and the threat of it spilling over the border, could not end unless Huerta was expelled from power. They occupied the port of Veracruz to weaken his regime and assert US imperial power. Huerta resigned in 1914, with the revolutionaries meeting in the Convention of Aguascalientes. The Convention split between the factions represented by Villa/Zapata (petite-bourgeoisie, proletariat, peasantry, largely mestizes and Indigenous people) and Carranza (landed estates, haute-bourgeoisie, largely criolles and mestizes).

Carranza, supported by the ruling classes of Mexico and US Empire, became president, with Villa and Zapata forming a loose alliance to resist him. Though factors initially appeared to be in their favor, with the US becoming directly involved in response to Villa’s border raids, along with superior organization, tactics, and weaponry of the Constitutionalists, led to the loss of the rebel factions, with Zapata being assassinated in 1919, and Villa much later in 1923 (under mysterious circumstances). Carranza would himself be deposed and replaced by Alvaro Obrégon, who was a stabilizing force. With the consolidation of his presidency, Mexico was ensured to be a nation dominated by the national bourgeoisie, now sharing power with the formerly dominant landed estates. Mexico became a bourgeois democratic-republic of the mestizes and criolles. While Indigenous people continued their resistance, mestizes of all classes began to be integrated into the reborn colonial system, now solidified as settlers in alignment with the criolles.

Modern Mexico is now primarily a settler-colonial rather than franchise-colonial state. The system does not focus so much on the exploitation of Indigenous people, but their replacement by mestizes aligned with criolles. Mestize identity began to be reproduced and promoted on an official level by the Mexican state, with them producing cultural institutions recognizing events and developments in the history of mestizes. Mestizes began to be seen as la raza cósmica, a race which transcends all other races as a combination of their greatest attributes. Mexican mestizes began to refer to Mexican identity as la raza, of course obscuring that the race in question is the mestizes, not all Mexican people. Chicane mestizes in particular are guilty of this invisible preference of mestizes and erasure of indigenous people. This is where I come to my thesis regarding mestizes and their relations to Indigenous people.

I am a Chicane mestize. I have seen the mistakes of my people, and I must identify them and demand that we correct them.

I will quote from El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, a manifesto of the Chicane national movement, in order to critique the Chicane mestize approach to national liberation and mestize identity. The Plan begins with the statement:

In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage but also of the brutal “gringo” invasion of our territories, we, the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlan from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare that the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny.

We are free and sovereign to determine those tasks which are justly called for by our house, our land, the sweat of our brows, and by our hearts. Aztlan belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops and not to the foreign Europeans. We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.

Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and who struggles against the foreigner “gabacho” who exploits our riches and destroys our culture. With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our mestizo nation. We are a bronze people with a bronze culture. Before the world, before all of North America, before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlan.

Nowhere is the very real distinction between mestizes and Indigenous people identified. In fact, many Chicane mestizes assert that mestizaje is merely a delusion; that the only distinction between mestizes and Indigenous people is a colonial mindset. This is dangerously idealist, and ignores the difference in material reality between the two. We mestizes very clearly hold status above Indigenous people through our proximity to whiteness. Many Chicane mestizes will respond to this by pointing out that mixed white and Indigenous people in the US are still considered Indigenous, and that mestizes can thus have the same standard applied to them. Again, this is an idealist, metaphysical view of race, and I will explain why.

When we approach this problem, we must acknowledge race as a socially constructed caste system, a division of labor, a complex of social relations. The race system of the Spanish colonizers, born of franchise-colonialism, and the race system of the US colonizers, born of settler-colonialism, are wildly different. The Spanish colonial race system is one of integration, one which makes a place for all colonized peoples within a society, where status must clearly be defined within said integrated society. Proximity to whiteness is determined in a more complex manner with this race system.

Mestizes were born in this system as a caste entirely distinct from Indigenous people, and almost entirely divorced of their national Indigenous origins. The US colonial race system is one of exclusion, one which assigns non-whiteness according to essentially any significant presence of non-white ancestry. In this context, Indigeneity is determined according to any significant Indigenous ancestry. Indigenous people under US settler-colonialism typically define identification with their nations by direct connection to culture and nation, though this cannot always be in the same manner, due to the creation of diasporas by the US reservation system and displacement of nations from their homelands.

Modern mestizes in Mexico and formerly Mexican territories dwell within the legacy of the Spanish race system, and can very much be settlers when they align against Indigenous people (whether that is with criolles or for their own interests alone). We can and do displace and replace Indigenous people, and we can and do operate as the ruling classes over majority-Indigenous populations in franchise-colonial countries. Anti-Indigenous sentiments (think of how many mestize insults are based on proximity to Native identity) and practices among mestizes is not merely the holdover of a colonial superstructure, it is the reproduction of mestize settler-colonialism.

We cannot merely be considered the same as them, nor do we need to take a white supremacist colonial view in distinguishing ourselves from them. The choice does not have to be between erasing indigeneity either by fetishizing it and ignoring our own role in settler-colonialism or by embracing traditional colonial race systems. We can acknowledge ourselves as a caste distinct from Indigenous people while also recognizing that we must reject alignment with Euro-American settler-colonialism and align with the struggles of Indigenous people.

Mestizes are highly represented among the proletariat, and Natives among the peasantry. Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, discusses the character of these classes in a colonial context:

The rank-and-file of a nationalist party is urban. The workers, primary schoolteachers, artisans, and small shopkeepers who have begun to profit — at a discount, to be sure — from the colonial setup, have special interests at heart. What this sort of following demands is the betterment of their particular lot: increased salaries, for example[…]

The peasantry is systematically disregarded for the most part by the propaganda put out by the nationalist parties. And it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization are simply a question of relative strength. The exploited man sees that his liberation implies the use of all means, and that of force first and foremost[…]

But although this proletariat has read the party publications and understood its propaganda, it is much less ready to obey in the event of orders being given which set in motion the fierce struggle for national liberation. It cannot be too strongly stressed that in the colonial territories the proletariat is the nucleus of the colonized population which has been most pampered by the colonial regime. The embryonic proletariat of the towns is in a comparatively privileged position. In capitalist countries, he working class has nothing to lose; it is they who in the long run have everything to gain. In the colonial countries the working class has everything to lose; in reality it represents that fraction of the colonized nation which is necessary and irreplaceable if the colonial machine is to. run smoothly: it includes tram conductors, taxi drivers, miners, dockers, interpreters, nurses, and so on. It is these elements which constitute the most faithful followers of the nationalist parties, and who because of the privileged place which they hold in the colonial system constitute also the “bourgeois” fraction of the colonized people[…]

Boycotted by the towns, these men first settle in the outskirts of the suburbs. But the police network traps them and forces them to leave the towns for good, and to quit the scenes of political action. They fall back toward the countryside and the mountains, toward the peasant people. From the beginning, the peasantry closes in around them, and protects them from being pursued by the police. The militant nationalist who decides to throw in his lot with the country people instead of playing at hide-and-seek with the police in urban centers will lose nothing. The peasant’s cloak will wrap him around with a gentleness and firmness that he never suspected. These men, who are in fact exiled to the backwoods, who are cut off from the urban background against which they had defined their ideas of the nation and of the political fight, these men have in fact become “Maquisards.” Since they are obliged to move about the whole time in order to escape from the police, often at night so as not to attract attention, they will have good reason to wander through their country and to get to know it. The cafés are forgotten; so are the arguments about the next elections or the spitefulness of some policeman or other. Their ears hear the true voice of the country, and their eyes take in the great and infinite poverty of their people. They realize the precious time that has been wasted in useless commentaries upon the colonial regime. They finally come to understand that the changeover will not be a reform, nor a bettering of things. They come to understand, with a sort of bewilderment that will from henceforth never quite leave them, that political action in the towns will always be powerless to modify or overthrow the colonial regime. These men get used to talking to the peasants. They discover that the mass of the country people have never ceased to think of the problem of their liberation except in terms of violence, in terms of taking back the land from the foreigners, in terms of national struggle, and of armed insurrection. It is all very simple. These men discover a coherent people who go on living, as it were, statically, but who keep their moral values and their devotion to the nation intact. They discover a people that is generous, ready to sacrifice themselves completely, an impatient people, with a stony pride. It is understandable that the meeting between these militants with the police on their track and these mettlesome masses of people, who are rebels by instinct, can produce an explosive mixture of unusual potentiality. The men coming from the towns learn their lessons in the hard school of the people, and at the same time these men open classes for the people in military and political education. The people furbish up their weapons; but in fact the classes do not last long, for the masses come to know once again the strength of their own muscles, and push the leaders on to prompt action. The armed struggle has begun.

The mestize laboring classes cannot be revolutionary except in alignment to Indigenous people’s class and national struggles. Our bourgeoisie is hopelessly entangled with the colonial system and the criolle ruling classes, we must reject continued settler-colonial and franchise-colonial alignment with them. In Mexico, we mestizes must advocate for the transformation of the state from a bourgeois nation-state controlled by settler mestizes and criolles into a multinational socialist state which is controlled by the Indigenous peoples and the mestizes aligned with them. In the US, we Chicane mestizes must connect ourselves with the issues and struggles of Natives in the regions we dwell in, along with the struggles of migrant mestize and Indigenous agrarian laborers. We must reject recuperation into this settler empire and embrace national liberation.

Further, when we advocate national liberation in North America, Aztlan is a very poor model to do so on. The Aztec Empire collapsed due to the many issues I delineated before, primarily the fact that the many nations it oppressed hated it and were desperate for liberation. Former Aztec territories are not occupied by Mexica alone; there are many distinct Indigenous nations in the region. The homogenization of them under the banner of Mexica is a mestize settler-colonial identity building project. It is not a liberatory project for Indigenous people, nor even a truly liberatory one for mestizes.

If we are to agitate for national liberation, we must acknowledge ourselves as mestizes, acknowledge that not every Indigenous person in the former Aztec territories is Mexica, and advocate for self-determination on the basis of the nations as they exist, not as mestize delusions think they exist.

Mestizes cannot be national revolutionary except in support of our Indigenous siblings, we must absolutely reject settler-colonialism and aid them in their struggles. We must do this in the wider context of the construction of a Communist movement aiding Indigenous and Black national struggles in North America, and national struggles worldwide, against colonialism and imperialism.

I’m influenced by Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought and social reproduction theory. Follow Line Struggle Collective

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