Translating “Race” and “Raza” between the United States and Mexico


Considering North America as both a culture area and a domain of anthropological inquiry, race presents a substantive fault line across which generalizations and abstractions about its significance, scope, and characteristics become tenuous. This line is sharply drawn into view by posing the question: how does race matter in the United States and Mexico? Reasons abound for responding to this question with a broad view of race, one that highlights a common dynamic of forms of inequality and hierarchies of advantage that are rooted in histories of European colonization and the slave trade. This view also might easily recognize whiteness as a consistent feature in the structuring of advantage, although the question of how skin color is perceived and interpreted in each country quickly complicates this perspective. An opposite response perhaps begins from this very point, keying in not just on the distinct ways racial identity is construed as legible in the United States and in Mexico, but quickly moving on to consider the different philosophies about racial purity and mixing informing these perceptions, as well as the contrasting sensibilities about the relative importance of biology and culture in defining race. Is race a function of biology or kinship or wealth? While the stance that “race is a social construction” may turn our attention back to the first set of concerns regarding the operation of inequality, the uncertainty posed by trying to answer the question about the constitution of race turns just as easily toward the manifold specificities, developed in particular locales, through which racial matters are encountered, contested, and resolved, in everyday life. 1

This essay reflects my efforts to contend with these questions and alternating perspectives as I shifted from working principally on racial situations in the United States to examining race in Mexico. I initially approached race ethnographically by studying white people in Detroit, Michigan (Hartigan 1999), but then later wrote a cultural history of “white trash” (Hartigan 2005), and most recently analyzed racial public discourse by way of “the national conversation on race” (Hartigan 2010). But I began shifting my focus in 2008 as I started pursuing a science studies approach to race, one that engages with the nettlesome role of genetics in shaping racial policies and sensibilities (Hartigan 2008). Drawing upon the extensive ethnographic work already done on racial genomics in the United States, I tried developing a comparative perspective by looking at genetics research in Mexico asking, to what extent is it similarly informed by racial interests? This question, so easily and succinctly posed at the outset, grew more complicated and confusing. Regarding my basic trajectory over the past several years of working in Mexico, I have shifted from a fairly “global view” of race (da Silva 2007) — based largely on assuming that genomics operates similarly everywhere — to now emphasizing the importance of national contexts. 2 Likely, my views on race will evolve further as I continue to this line of inquiry. But what I offer here is a current assessment of the challenges posed by translating “race” across this highly fraught border.

Before proceeding further, a couple of qualifying statements are in order. First, race is not a stable, unified concept or condition. What race is remains subject to intense debate, but what is certain is that its significance and the ways in which it is recognized, projected, or contested changes continuously, both historically and in particular locales. Race is dynamic and variable, partly because it is so often contested but also because, as a materiality or symbolic representation, race is elusive and illusory. That said, there is a great deal of consistency to the social practices and the ideological forms that we generally label racial. In using these forms of consistency as a sort of baseline, though, it is important not to reify race as simply real or given in any context, no matter how consequential its impact. A second point is that it matters not to construe the United States and Mexico as entirely independent, distinct entities. These countries are profoundly and inextricably intertwined, historically and contemporarily, through the movements of people, goods, and ideas back and forth across the border (Limón 1998; Menchaca 2011). At the same time, there are obvious differences to how race is made manifest and tangible in each country, which will be the focus of the following discussion. The challenge in drawing these into view is to maintain, simultaneously, a critical awareness of the relational aspects both to racial matters generally, but also to the cultural domains in the United States and Mexico.

Given these qualifying concerns, then, let us turn to the strikingly obvious fact that two distinct racial ideologies dominate in these two countries — hypodescent and mestizaje. For all the nuances of multiculturalism and the rapidly changing demographics in the United States, hypodescent remains firmly ensconced. This is an ideology that assumes that racial identity is fixed by any trace of physical inheritance from a dominated group. This is why President Barack Obama is uniformly referred to as “black” rather than “white” or “mixed,” a view that is continually reinforced by incessant anxieties or uncertainties over “mixed” couples and children. Indeed, despite the variety of forms of “mixing” across racial and ethnic boundaries in the United States, the dominant racial formation remains largely characterized as “racial bipolarism” (Ong 2003), with whiteness as an unmarked, normative identity, and blackness figured as dangerous and stigmatized. In contrast, in Mexico, as in much of Latin America, mestizaje is the dominant ideology. 3 This is a view that valorizes exactly the type of mixing that is disparaged in the United States, but it, too, starkly delineates forms of racial exclusion and inclusion. The term, mestizaje, originates from the Spanish casta system, where it stood in distinction with Peninsulares (European-born) and Creoles (born of European parents in the Americas), designating offspring of parents from either of these groups in combination with an indigenous parent (Martinez 2008). Briefly, mestizaje champions a fused heritage of European and indigenous sources — biological as well as cultural — while eliding the ongoing stigmatization of “indios” and continued forms of discrimination against indigenous peoples, as well entailing a distinct “uneasiness about blackness” (Whitten and Torres 1992). 4 A key point in contrast between these two systems is that where hypodescent associates race with phenotype or biology, with mestizaje racial identity is as often discerned by language, clothing, food, and residence — that is, cultural forms rather than biological substances.

Given these sharply contrasting ideologies, what basis is there for thinking comparatively about the operation of race? 5 This question is being posed and answered with greater frequency, particularly by sociologists who look at social dynamics in Mexico and recognize similar patterns of discrimination based on skin color (Villarreal 2010). But the assertion that there is a common operation of phenotype-based social stratification in both countries runs into certain complications: on the one hand, from disavowals (or what might be labeled denial) on the part of Mexicans who are insistent that discrimination is not a problem in their country; on the other, from the manifold forms of plasticity to racial identity in the mestizaje system. The latter, perhaps not surprisingly, is the focus of much anthropological research because it involves the manipulation of cultural materials and their meanings. Add to this conundrum an additional complicating factor: the cognates “race” and “raza,” which we might assume share a common set of referents, signify in such distinct manners that establishing a form of equivalence between the two domains of meaning risks obscuring as much as it reveals about racial matters. Let me illustrate each of these points with a set of vignettes.

During the height of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a popular morning television program in Mexico, Primero el Mundial (Televisa), broadcast a skit of reporting on the games, featuring commentators in blackface wearing fake animals skins and “Afro” wigs, waving spears and gyrating wildly. As the Los Angeles Times deadpanned in reporting this incident: “Yes, in the 21st century, blackface characters on a major television network” (Wilkinson 2010). In media coverage in the U.S. press, this incident unfolded similarly to an earlier outrage (2005) over the Memin Pinguin postage stamp and former President Vicente Fox's comment that Mexicans working in the United States take jobs that “not even black people will do.” Americans gazed across the border in disbelief to see the type of public images of minstrelsy that have long been squelched in this country. Mexicans, for their part, took great umbrage at charges from Americans about racism. These contrasting sensibilities were captured in the hundreds of letters to editor generated by the Los Angeles Times coverage.

Readers responded, in English and Spanish, from both sides of the border. There were numerous disavowals of racism in Mexico but also acknowledgements that this incident did indeed reflect racist attitudes in that country. These remarks illustrated, on one hand, the long tradition of insisting that race is unimportant in Mexico and, on the other, the recent challenges to such assertions. But they also highlighted a sharp contrast in public discourse around race in each country, with public speech and imagery in the United States consistently influenced by the tenets of “political correctness,” while in Mexico this bawdy attention to race melded with a style of directly referencing bodily features in ways that would be considered rude in the United States (Lomnitz 2005). As Tracy Wilkinson, in reporting on the TV show, observed: “negrito” should be seen alongside “gordo” or “fatso”: “These terms are jarring when seen through the prism of U.S. sensibilities, but here they are usually used in a context of affection and friendship.” Indeed, many of the posts argued that the problem here was a misunderstanding of how humor works in each country. But responses to this incident also featured the voices of Mexicans who had experienced racial discrimination first-hand in the United States. They saw only hypocrisy on the part of Americans who were accusing Mexicans of racism: this from a country where immigrants from across Latin America suffer manifold forms of discrimination, and many Latino citizens are not regarded as belonging to the nation. “Racism,” one respondent wrote, “is thinking Mexicans wear sombreros and speak in a horrible accent.” As well, they pointed to the forms of racial oppression facing African Americans and wondered aloud how these far more onerous conditions drew so little attention in the United States, while Americans obsessed about one TV skit.

A second vignette turns away from contentious questions over how to call attention to racial matters in each country and points toward a “something else” about race in Mexico that is easy to miss in this first example. In 2008, I commenced my fieldwork on genomics in Mexico at the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Genómica (INMEGEN) in Mexico City (Beltrán 2011). Each day I reached INMEGEN by taking the Number 3 Metro line. As I stood in packed cars through the morning and evening rushes, I eventually noticed that one of the stops just beyond mine is named “La Raza.” At first this seemed hardly surprising; references to “la Raza” in Mexico are not unusual. This stop draws its name from a nearby large, pyramid-shaped monument commemorating the peoples of Mexico. But the thought grew in my mind after repeated trips under the city, to and from the genetics institute, that I could not imagine a similar public invocation of race in the United States. While fully cognizant that “raza,” in this usage, references a sense of shared lineage and heritage, whether with Spain or across the Americas, I realized that there simply is no comparable public invocation of “the race” in the United States. To begin with, “race” in the United States is principally a form of classification, and we “know” that there are a variety of races — the U.S. Census Bureau struggles with establishing a fixed quantity of these every ten years. The singularity, though, of “la raza” speaks both to a history and a tradition, to political and institutional ties that one would be hard-pressed to characterize in taxonomically racial terms in the United States. For all the apparent frankness of Americans' “national conversation on race,” there was something explicit and commonsensical here that I could not easily translate. That is, for all Mexicans might be accused of refusing to recognize race and repressing any explicit reference to it in public discourse, here was a striking counterexample, one that it is hard to match in looking at public space in the United States. Can you imagine a metro stop in New York or Washington, D.C., called, “The Race”?

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Mexico may well recognize in “La Raza” a reference to an immaterial form of identity more than a biological entity, as suggested in José Vasconcelos' quasi-mystical notion of the “la raza cósmica.” With the “cosmic race” Vasconcelos imagined the emergence of a new people from the older races of the world, one that would be distinctively realized in Latin America. Importantly, he and other Mexican intellectuals who further developed the concept conceived of it in opposition to Anglo-Americans racial constructs. In contrast to Anglo ideas about racial purity based on biology, “La Raza” imagined a culture of mixedness, one in which biology was specifically downplayed (Juarez, 1973; Stern 2003; Vargas 2000). The difficulties I encountered when I tried to imagine “the race” are historically rooted and enduring. But the question of the equivalence of “race” and “raza” is also subject to ongoing considerations, as is evident in usage such as The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States. Alert to possible accusation of reverse racism from the political Right in the United States, NCLR insists on their website that it is a mistranslation to construe “La Raza” as meaning “the race,” lest exclusionary sensibilities be imputed to the organization. They prefer instead an innocuous rendering simply as “the people.” This gestures toward the principal concern of NCLR — unifying peoples of Latin descent in the United States. But this goal is continually confronted by complications from the disparate class and citizenship statuses of “the people,” who varyingly make inclusive or exclusive use of this term. 6

There are two further characteristics of “raza” that provide a contrast with “race.” The first is that it names forms of collective identity that are as much tied to place as they are to any literal notion of biological inheritance. “La raza argentina” or “la raza colombia” name national forms of identity or belonging. In the United States, in Austin, Texas, I often hear on the radio references to “la raza de Michoacán” or “la raza de Jalisco,” which identifies listeners or callers both by place and by a larger affiliation with Mexico. I have even heard it used to mark a group of friends or a cohort, a form of usage that signifies quite differently from what people in the United States tend to mean when they invoke “race.” Second, and most significantly, “raza” had a meaning and usage long before it was applied to humans, a usage that it retains today in signifying breeds of animals (de Miramon 2009). Razas de perros (dogs), toros (bulls), caballos (horses), as well as of gallos (roosters) and gallinas (hens) are all commonplace in Mexico and seem to present little or no cognitive dissonance with the term's usage on people. This is partly because, as much as it refers to “breed” in a biological or genetic sense, this usage of “raza” carries over an implicit reference to “spirit” or at least to an immaterial quality of identity and belonging.

From these two vignettes and the elaborated discussion of “raza,” the challenge of translating “race” as an analytic across the U.S. and Mexican border should standout in somewhat greater clarity. First, there is ample reason to see racism at work in both countries but in ways that often elude the perception or recognition of native citizens (Horcasitas 2007). This suggests one dimension of the role that culture plays in configuring the significance of race — in the “common sense” notions that pattern everyday, routine ways of practicing racial exclusions and inclusions might easily pass without notice or comment. While the “national conversation on race” in the United States may stand in stark contrast to the still common Mexican insistence that “race” is a foreign, distorting optic when applied to that country's public discourse, Americans are deeply ensnared by “color-blind racism” that obscures the important, ongoing operations of racial domination (Bonilla-Silva and Glover 2009; Frankenberg 1994). The second aspect, evident in the notable contrasting significance of “raza” and “race,” indicates an additional cultural dimension is at work. More than just masking reality, in an ideological sense, culture provides the templates of meaning by which people pursue the daily, manifold interpretive tasks involved in making sense of the world. That is, “race” is imbricated in a much larger dynamic of meaning, one that is reductively rendered only at the risk of great distortion.

Certainty about apparent, underlying forms of racism has to be balanced with an acknowledgement that cultural configurations distinctly constitute racial matters. The particular alignment of genes, biology, and culture that are construed as racial in the U.S. system of hypodescent does not operate similarly in Mexico (Hartigan 2013a). For that matter, trying abstractly to define “racial” strictly in relation to skin color, to enhance its translatability across borders, risks obscuring a great deal of the important contestations over belonging and difference that “raza” entails in Mexico. This brings us to a third point, one that I will consider in more detail in the conclusion. “Raza” highlights the fact that “race” is not strictly about humans (Hartigan 2013b). Its usage did not originate to name human forms of difference, nor did its eventual application to humans curtail its active use in Hispanic countries to talk about breeds of domesticated animals. Rather than consider this usage an anomaly, it matters to give this serious consideration because it has the potential to tell us something important about the role of “nature” in constituting racial identities. Instead of striving to resolve or efface the apparent discrepancy between the uses of “race” and “raza,” these should be highlighted instead as an indication of what we still need to investigate and comprehend regarding racial matters.

What I have sketched here with these three points is basically a continuum along which one passes from certainty to uncertainty regarding definitions of race that translate across the border between Mexico and the United States. In terms of current research that strives to achieve such translations, this continuum ranges from projects, mostly sociological ones, that look for tangible effects and proofs of the operation of racial ideology, to ethnographic works that grapple with the muddledness of culture. Race, like any other social phenomenon, can alternate from being obvious to ambiguous. The added complication with race, though, is that in both the United States and Mexico we find examples of dominant discourses — mestizaje and color-blind racism — that purposefully obscure and deny the relevance of race. The analytical challenge is to see through such denials without entirely discounting the distinctive cultural dynamics that lets race slide in and out of view for situated subjects in any setting. Assuming that we can just refer to “race” commonly in both national contexts distorts the lived, everyday register by which people come to regard bodies, words, and the material world as meaningful (Wade 2005). Thus, the work of translating “race” is twofold, requiring a crosscutting perspective on forms of discrimination and domination, while being attentive to the basic fact that the cultural dynamics through which we daily sort out matters of belonging and difference entail multiple registers of meaning. These registers may sometimes seem obviously keyed to skin color, but they might as often draw on other forms of reference that do additional cultural work of organizing belonging and difference.

To sketch the continuum of research on the United States and Mexico, I turn first to work that focuses heavily on the ideological, then shift to race in consider ethnographic accounts that show race not just as a variable set of meanings, but as something made malleable in everyday life. Sociologist Andrés Villarreal (2010) assails the notion that race is not socially significant in Mexico — in the absence of a commonly shared set of classifications based on skin color — by using survey research to objectify implicit racial sensibilities and perceptions. He argues that, even though “a state-sponsored ideology explicitly denies the existence of any further racial or color distinctions among the Mexican population” (671), there is evidence of skin color stratification. Even if Mexico may be characterized as featuring “extreme ambiguity in skin color classification,” “individuals with darker skin tone have significantly lower levels of educational attainment and occupational status, and they are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be affluent, even after controlling for other individual characteristics” (Villarreal 2010). As he concludes, “the Mexican case is important because it demonstrates that stratification by skin color may exist in a society in which the primary ethnic distinction is not based on phenotypical differences” (Villarreal 2010). That is, in lacking a keen attention to biological markers of race that dominate in the United States, Mexico still manages to produce remarkably similar racial effects.

But if establishing patterns of discrimination are fundamental to demonstrating the operation of a racial ideology, such an approach encounters difficulty crossing the border back into the United States and asking simply whether “Mexican American” is a racial identity. Sociologists range from construing this category largely in ethnic terms — as assimilated or on the way to melding fairly seamlessly into the larger society (Alba and Islam 2008; Emeka and Agius Vallejo 2011; Ono 2002; Yancey 2003) — to seeing it instead as a racial identity (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Telles 2008; Vasquez 2011). 7 Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz (2009) opt for the latter in examining “the ways in which race plays a role in the lives of Mexican Americans,” while acknowledging both that “the issue of race among Mexican Americans is contested in many ways” and that “the racial status of Mexican [remains] debated” (2012:42). The crux of the matter is how “Mexican” — a national identity 8 — can be understood as a racial category in a country still predominantly defined by “racial bipolarism” between whiteness and blackness. Ortiz and Telles contend with two unresolved questions: “one is whether Mexican is a racial category and the other is whether Mexicans are white or non-white” (Telles and Ortiz 2009). The first conundrum is captured well by the fact that neither “Mexican” nor “Hispanic” (nor “Latino”) are considered a racial identity in the U.S. Census because these categories collapse skin color distinctions (not just “white” and “black,” but “brown” and “red”) that Americans strive to keep distinct. The second turns on the challenge of assessing how well Mexican Americans are “integrated” into U.S. society (Jiménez 2010; Katzew and Deans-Smith 2009; National Research Council 2006).

Both of these issues are complicated by the fact that the indicators of belonging change as the content of national identity does, which is evident in the increasing “Latinization” of U.S. society (Dávila 2004, 2008). Perhaps just as tricky is the class differentiation within the category “Mexican American,” as well as the regional variation in experiences of racial identification or disidentification (Oboler 1995; Perlmann 2005; Portes 2001). Telles and Ortiz (2009) find that “Mexican Americans with more education report that they were less likely to racially identify as Mexican and be considered Mexican by outsiders” (54). They also find that respondents to their surveys “reported fairly extensive experiences of discrimination and being stereotyped … in institutional settings like the work place and school as well as in public places like restaurants and retail stores” (Telles and Ortiz 2009). But these experiences varied by location, especially within or beyond the confines of “ethnic neighborhoods.” These variations, textured by class and location, are the focus of sociologist Jody Vallejo's more nuanced approach to these questions. Drawing principally on qualitative data, Vallejo sketches trajectories of racial or ethnic identification and disidentification that vary by generation as well as class.

Vallejo (2012) contrasts the “racialization framework” used by Telles and Ortiz and developed by Michael Omi and Howard Winant with an attention to “ethnic attrition,” which she defines as the “process whereby assimilated descendants of immigrants stop identifying as Mexican and disappear into the white category” (131). Vallejo finds that “some Mexican Americans' identification simply as American or white is institutionally supported by the fact that Mexicans are federally defined as an ethnic group and can therefore make a claim to whiteness” (Vallejo 2012). But more broadly, she depicts a variety of forms of racial or ethnic identification amongst middle-class Mexican Americans that reflect different generational experiences relating either to immigration or to class (ranging from those who were initially born into poor neighborhoods versus those who were raised in wealthier families). In contrast to a focus on discrimination as the principal register of racial identity, Vallejo attends to the manifold forms of boundary work involving intergroup and intragroup contests over belonging that are intensely contoured by class and generation. She attends to how her subjects actively navigate a variety of social categories, “from Mexican to Mexican American to Latino to American.” In conclusion, she stresses that “these socially constructed identities have different meanings in everyday life and range from instrumental to optional to symbolic” (141).

Juxtaposing these approaches, Telles and Ortiz with Vallejo, indicates that racial matters entail more than the presence or absence of discrimination; they also encompass a great deal of interpretive work that must contend with unstable, varied meanings that are contoured by time and place (Macias 2006). Not surprisingly, anthropologists draw these additional registers of race into view via ethnographic work in Mexico and the United States. The need for specific attention to distinct cultural dynamics shaping the significance of race between these two countries is emphasized by Lynn Stephen in her ethnography, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Stephen 2007), which examines the differential experiences and sensibilities of Mixtec and Zapotec immigrants working in the United States. Stephen analyzes the experiences of indigenous peoples from Mexico as they follow different routes of travel and work than their fellow nationals do in the United States. The contrasts lie in the experience that indigenous peoples face of being racialized, first in Mexico as “inditos sucios” (dirty little Indians), and then in the United States generically as “Mexican.” As she conveys, “the borders they cross are ethnic, class, cultural, colonial, and state borders within Mexico as well as at the U.S.-Mexico border and in different regions of the U.S. Regional systems of racial and ethnic hierarchies within the U.S. are different from those in Mexico and can also vary within the U.S. Thus the ways that ‘Mexicans’ and ‘Indians’ have been codified in California and Oregon can differ from how they have been historically built into racial and ethnic hierarchies in New York or Florida” (6). Stephen finds that the dynamics shaping racial identity vary a great deal, reflecting the “regional systems of racial and ethnic hierarchies” that derive from specific historical, economic, and social dynamics within and between each country. These are the forces that also make the situations of “Latinos” different in Chicago and New York from those in Los Angeles and Miami.

Indigenous immigrants' distinct perspectives offers great insight on the variable ways racial identity is coded, perceived, and articulated in the various regions of these two countries. A term like “Chicano” underscores these transnational contrast. 9 In the United States, as Stephen (2007) explains, “the Chicano understanding of mestizaje and subsequent popular cultural manifestations of Chicanismo that draw on symbols of Aztec indigenous culture come from profoundly different understandings and experience of ‘being indigenous’ than that of many Mixtec and Zapotec migrants” (225). For that matter indigenous Mexicans confront another contrasting sensibility about race in a different set of U.S. Census terms for the racial option “American Indian or Alaska Native.” Because this category specifies “the original peoples of North and South American (including Central America),” it encompasses people who identified themselves as both “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” and “American Indian.” “In other words,” Stephen finds, “self-identified Latin American indigenous migrants could identify both ethnically as Latinos and racially as American Indians.” This choice for identification is complicated by the additional option to list “tribe.” Stephen notes that “most did not write in the name of a tribe, as this is a U.S.-based concept that makes no sense in the Mexican and Central American context, where until the 1980s and 1990s panethnic identities such as ‘Mixtec,’ ‘Maya,’ and others were not commonly used” (229). This variation in racial identification between countries, accentuated by internal, regional differences, underscores the cultural dimensions of race and points to the increasing complexity of grappling with the various ways this category of identity intensely matters.

Notably, this type of variation is also evident within forms of mestizaje, as revealed by Marcia Farr in her ethnography, Rancheros in Chicagoacán: Language and Identity in a Transnational Community (Farr 2006). Farr focuses on a community “nestled amid rolling hills on the western edge of the highland plateau called the Meseta Tarasca in northwest Michoacán” (138), but she also follows its members as they move back and forth across the border. Farr's ethnographic perspective affords her a view of the multiple ways her subjects actively “do” race, in manners that vary from one local to another. In Mexico, the rancheros mostly live in little hamlets, purposefully distinct from the Tarascan communities nearby. They distinguish themselves, too, from city dwellers who express great disdain for these ranchers, in terms of class and their rural location. With words and actions these rancheros are “distancing from mestizaje, even while acknowledging some indigenous heritage themselves, [which] clearly reveals ambiguities and locally perceived differences in racial identity among what are lumped together and generically referred to as mestizo communities” (133). Then, as immigrants in the United States, the rancheros similarly distance themselves from homogenizing categories such as “Hispanic” or “Latino”. In doing so they deploy a range of humorous retorts to forms of racial classification in the United States. Farr relates that they “contest the U.S. racial hierarchy in various ways. First, they implicitly question the discreteness of the categories with jokes about some of them being taken as whites: their very phenotypic diversity essentially undermines the white/nonwhite dichotomy that is conventionally assumed in the United States (and the terms güero and güera are used to refer both to U.S. ‘whites’ and to ‘white Mexicans’). Similarly, they deconstruct the white category by explicitly referring to Italian Americans as Latinos” (151).

This range of active engagement with racial matters is quite similar to the kind of performative work with race that John L. Jackson encountered in his ethnography of Harlem (Jackson 2003) and that I found in Detroit. Basically, ethnographic perspectives consistently complicate an approach to race that renders it in fairly reductive terms as a series of ideological effects, such as discrimination. No doubt, the emphasis on ideology is crucial and is of particular import in contesting notions in both countries that “race doesn't matter.” But it is also not sufficient for capturing the plasticity and dynamism of racial forms of meaning, particularly forms of contestation that are not reducible to racism — what Robin Kelley (1998) identifies as forms of playfulness and pleasure associated with race. Farr observes of the rancheros, “given their ambiguous place in each racial hierarchy, they sometimes play with the categories, enjoying the ambiguity and perhaps their own dexterity in sliding from category to category, depending on the context. All such play, or course, deeply questions the validity of the categories themselves” (Farr 2006:152). This form of cultural play is also crucial to understanding race, but it can fall from view entirely if we regard “racial” as principally about “skin color stratification.”

I will close by touching upon my current work, which is focused on razas de maíz or races of corn in Mexico. In 2010 I started an ongoing ethnographic study of Laboratorio Nacional de Genomica para la Biodiversidad, (LANGEBIO) in Irapuato. LANGEBIO was established in 2005 and charged with identifying the nation's biodiversity, but their most significant accomplishment to date has been sequencing “el genoma de la raza Palomero Toluqueño,” an early domesticated maize. Researchers there regard Palomero Toluqueño as a window onto at least a dozen other “razas mexicanas,” emphasizing that its distinctive genetic features were a basis for comprehending the process of artificial selection that led to the domestication of maize varieties. Estimates of the number of “razas de maíz” range from 41 to 59, depending, in part, on whether you ask breeders or geneticists. 10 These razas are not just a subject of scientific or agricultural interest; since the issue arose of the presence of transgenic maize in Mexico (Fitting 2010), these “razas” are often construed as imperiled in the Mexican media.

This usage of “raza” offers an apt, closing means of considering the work of translating “race” between these two countries. Such a usage is perplexing, bemusing, or troubling in the United States, where an application of “race” to nonhumans can seem nonsensical — as I am oft reminded when I describe this project to people. 11 But it would be wrong to dismiss this usage by maintaining the race is “really” about people because ideas about natural entities have long been fundamental to racial matters. As well, there are key contrasts highlighted here between “race” and “raza” that should not be effaced in the hopes of settling upon a seamless, certain means of applying one analytical frame in both countries. This designation is not about nature in the way Anglo theorists typically assume racial thinking to operate. Rather, the ineluctable blend of culture and biology in the practice of domestication associated with “razas de maíz” provokes a reconsideration of the importance of naturalization as a key component of racial thinking. As well, these razas are not fixed types of the order that cultural analysts in the United States imagine when equating race with typological thought. Instead, as breeders generally know, these razas are fairly plastic — they are the outgrowth of centuries of tinkering, yet they remain susceptible to losing their characteristics within a generation if they are not bred properly. In this traffic between nature and culture, then, fluidity more than fixity is key (Wade 2002), suggesting a dynamism to race that is not anticipated by assumptions that the natural order is used principally to ratify the social order.

There is a great deal yet to understand about “razas de maíz”—their history is complicated and the range of current uses is quite varied. But the little I have sketched here, I believe, is sufficient to raise cautions about the work of applying race as a common analytical frame in both countries. My concern is that in trying to translate “race” in both contexts, we risk flattening out important distinctions in the ways that racial matters signify, as with the dissonances between “raza” and “race”. As illustrated by the various sociological and anthropological works highlighted earlier, there are ample reasons to proceed with the idea that we can indeed discern similar cultural dynamics that we would commonly identify as racial operating in both Mexico and the United States. But we should do so with a recognition that we have yet to fully comprehend how race means and matters in relation to biology and genes as well as culture. Our subsequent work should be as focused on grappling with, and learning from, this uncertainty as it is on benefiting from our certainties as well.


  1. 1

    In addition to the works cited below, see Murguia and Saenz (2002), Munoz (2008), Lee (2010) and Roth (2012).

  2. 2

    In this effort, I am both following and aiming to contribute to the developed critical questioning of race across different national contexts. See Harris (1974), Harris et al. (1993), Bourdieu and Wacquant (1999), French (2000), Telles (2006), and Beserra (2011).

  3. 3

    There is an enormous amount of literature on this topic, both in Mexico and across Latin America. In particular, see special issue on mestizaje in Journal of Latin American Anthropology, (1996, edited by Charles Hale), as well as Knight (1990), Basave Benítez (1992), Alonso (2004), Sanjines (2004), Miller (2004), Esteva Fabregat (1995), Whitten and Torres (1998), Pérez-Torres (2006), and Hale (2006); on the interplay of mestizo and indigenous identities, see De la Cadena (2000), Field (2002), Chorba (2007), and Wade (2010).

  4. 4

    Also see Bennett (2010), Lewis (2000, 2000,2012), Vinson and Restall (2009), and Wade (1995).

  5. 5

    This is a form of incorporated comparison, “where process-instances are comparable because they are historically connected and mutually conditioning” (McMichael, 2000:671). On the particular challenges mestizaje poses for such comparisons, see Wade (2004).

  6. 6

    Nicholas De Genova (2005), in his ethnography of “Mexican Chicago” observes “the use of la Raza as a preferred nomenclature for the Mexican/Chicano polity,” (109) yet notes that most immigrants are also preoccupied by exactly distinguishing between the two identity, “Mexican” and “Chicano.” As De Genova (2005) remarks that, Mexican immigrants were profoundly invested in ensuring that their children “were not, and should never become, ‘Chicanos,’ regarding ‘Chicanos’ to be a kind of abject and degraded derivative of ‘American'-ness.” (205). Also see Montgomery (2002) on how “Hispanos” in New Mexico have distanced themselves from “Mexicans,” identifying instead principally through their Spanish ancestry.

  7. 7

    Another dimension of this discussion involves the debate on the “browning of America” (Rodriguez 2003; Dávila 2008) and Gregory Rodriguez's (2008) argument on how Latinos have fundamentally transformed racial meanings in the United States. Also see Bonilla-Silva et al. (2004).

  8. 8

    Alejandro Lugo, in Fragmented Lives, Assembled Parts: Culture, Capitalism, and Conquest at the U.S.-Mexico Border (Lugo 2008), conveys this conflation well. “In continental Mexico in the late twentieth century, ‘Mexican’ was, and still is today, particularly in its nationalist sense, a political category associated with the nineteenth-century Mexican state, when ‘Mexicans’ fought against the Americans (1846–1848) and against the French (1862). This same term, however, can still be turned into a racialized cultural category, as used both by outsiders (mainly Americans and Europeans) and by the Mexican tourist industry that serves those ‘outsiders.’ Yet, the problem of color in Mexico has also constituted, culturally and politically, a shifting social matrix of power relations in which indigenous and mestizo Mexicans have to cope with European Mexicans and with the hierarchy of color that history has forged on the psychology and culture of state citizenry” (59).

  9. 9

    Stephen tracks their disparate uses of U.S.-based categories of “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “Chicanos” — apart from “Oaxaqueños,” their frequent form of self-designation, or “Oaxaquitos” (little people from Oaxaca), which carries a racial charge in Mexico — and the way these terms mark important distinctions that get collapsed in Anglos' racialized use of “Mexicans.” “Latinos,” in contrast to “Americanos,” can distinguish between “Mexicanos” born south of the border and Spanish-speaking Americans, in the reckoning of these migrants.

  10. 10

    On the varied criteria by which the razas de maíz are distinguished, see Paczka (2003).

  11. 11

    In English-speaking countries there is a comparable usage of “landrace” to identify genetically heterogeneous breeds of various domestic crops. But I have yet to encounter this term in everyday discourse.