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Indigenous Nationalities and the Mestizo Dilemma

Taking a closer look at indigenous identity within Central, Latin and North America

Mestizo. Métis. Mixed bloods. Though clearly different, all these terms are used to racially classify people with Indian ancestry. However, the definitions vary—and none is wholly satisfactory.

Part of the problem is the widely varying histories of these people. The U.S. and Canada, for example, are settler states, where immigrants who took the land went on to form the majority. There, Indian and mixed-blood populations are a distinct minority.

However, many other countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Ecuador have majority mixed-blood and indigenous populations, or mixed-blood leadership over indigenous majorities. Here, indigenous and mixed-blood identities and political relations come into sharper focus.


Officially, racial classifications were officially discouraged in so-called Latin America after Spain lost control over most of its colonies there in the early 1800s. Just the same, many governments, like Mexico’s, promoted a mestizo national identity based on a mix of European and indigenous heritages. In the United States and Canada, we call this process assimilation.

In Mexico, by contrast, it is called mestizaje. Mestizaje policies ask Indigenous Peoples to join the national community and economy, adopt the Spanish language, and abandon their traditional tribal communities, culture, language and dress.

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Over the years, many indigenous individuals have accepted the path of mestizaje. But about 10 million contemporary indigenous Mexican individuals have not. In much of Latin America, a person is classified as Indian if he or she speaks an indigenous language or identifies with and lives within an indigenous community. That’s certainly true in Mexico, where indigenous identity has become a choice, depending on cultural commitments and identity rather than race. Even a person of full Indian descent can be considered a mestizo, depending on his or her cultural affinity.

North of the border, however, Indian identity is a much more racialized and legalistic affair. Among most U.S. and Canadian tribes, Indian status is determined by federal policies as a function of blood quantum and descent within a particular tribe. But there, unlike in much of Central and Latin America, there is no requirement of language use, cultural knowledge or lifestyle, or community participation.

This poses a dilemma. Many tribal members move to largely white cities for economic reasons but join urban Indian communities. Other tribal members, probably even the majority, live in nonreservation locations for generations with knowledge of their tribal heritage but no direct cultural ties or participation. This latter group, a few million in number, might be called ethnic Indians. They are similar to those in the Mexican mestizo community who have abandoned tribal life but retain an indigenous identity, which they uphold like other nonindigenous identities such as the English or Irish.

Consider, too, how membership in these categories is determined. In Mexico, indigenous individuals are invited to join a mestizo nationality. But in the U.S. and Canada, indigenous people are asked to join the European immigrant nationality and culture. In both cases, the process is inadequate. Mestizo nationalities, like European-based nation-states, do not respect and support the contemporary continuity of indigenous culture and political sovereignty.

Even in mestizo states and nationalities, indigenous culture, government and identities continue to be marginalized and even persecuted. In El Salvador in 1932, the indigenous uprising called “La Matanza”—translated as “the massacre”—resulted in the ethnocide of 35,000 to 50,000 indigenous persons. Even today, Latin American nations and governments retain a caste-like orientation toward Indigenous Peoples who refuse to accept the often dominant mestizo state and nationality.

The contemporary world offers many cultural and identity choices and possibilities. Increasingly indigenous identity requires a conscious choice by individuals, communities and nations about what indigenous membership means and how it is defined. The mestizo nationality, however, does not offer the political, cultural, and territorial autonomy that Indigenous Peoples the world over seek. Until it does, the mestizo dilemma will continue—at who knows what cost in tears and blood alike.

This story was originally published July 24, 2012.