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8.5D: Race Relations in Mexico: The Color Hierarchy

  • Page ID
  • Mexican society still shows traces of the racial and ethnic caste system that was instituted by the Spanish during the colonial period.

    Learning Objectives

    • Explain how racial relations in Mexico have been influenced by the colonial caste system

    Key Points

    • With regards to Mexican population groups, processes of identity formation and social stratification can be analyzed both in terms of race and of ethnicity. This is because definitions of each depend upon biological and socio-cultural traits.
    • The large majority of Mexicans can be classified as “mestizos,” meaning that they neither identify fully with any indigenous culture nor with a European heritage. Rather, they identify as having cultural traits and heritage that combine elements from indigenous and European traditions.
    • Mexican officials intentionally spread a racial ideology, known as mestizaje, that encouraged miscegenation between European and indigenous people. This was intended to distribute European descent throughout the population and create a new mestizo national identity.

    Key Terms

    • miscegenation: the mixing or blending of race in marriage or breeding; interracial marriage
    • indigenous: native to a land or region, especially before an intrusion
    • Caste System: an elaborate and complex social system that combines some or all elements of endogamy, hereditary transmission of occupation, social class, social identity, hierarchy, exclusion and power

    Race Relations in Mexico

    Generally speaking, Mexican ethnic and racial relations can be arranged on an axis between two extremes, European and Native American heritage. This division is a remnant of the colonial Spanish caste system, which categorized individuals according to their perceived level of biological mixture between these two groups. Along this axis, a color hierarchy emerged that persists in importance today. In this hierarchy, those who are viewed as being more European, or “white,” are generally endowed with higher social status. Those who are viewed as being more “indigenous,” or “dark,” are typically given less social prestige.

    The color hierarchy is utilized for more than simply classifying people based on their phenotypical traits, or physical appearance. It is also a way to racialize socio-cultural traits. For example, because upward social mobility is generally correlated with “whitening,” if persons with indigenous biological and cultural roots rise to positions of power and prestige, they tend to be viewed as more “white” than if they belonged to a lower social class.

    The racial hierarchy is complicated by the presence of considerable numbers of people with partly African and Asian heritage. Nonetheless, these groups are often categorized on the color hierarchy somewhere between indigenous and European.

    Indigenous Groups

    As a classifier, indigenous identity was constructed by the dominant European and Mestizo majority and imposed upon indigenous people as a pejorative. This identity was associated with a lack of assimilation into modern Mexico. This identity therefore became socially stigmatizing, and contrary to social expectations and ideals. In early post-revolutionary Mexico, cultural policies were paternalistic towards indigenous people, and contained efforts to completely assimilate indigenous peoples into Mestizo culture.

    The category of “indigena” (indigenous) can be defined according to linguistic criteria as people who speak one of Mexico’s 62 indigenous languages. This categorization method is used by the National Mexican Institute of Statistics. Conversely, indigenous identity can also be defined broadly to include all persons who self-identify as having an indigenous cultural background, whether or not they speak an indigenous language.


    Mexicans of European descent, often called “blancos” (“whites”) or “güeros” in Mexican Spanish, have light skin and predominantly European features. These people are typically associated with Mexico’s upper and middle socioeconomic classes. Because “Mestizos” are also people with varying amounts of European ancestry, the differentiation between “mestizos” and “blancos” is often based on socio-cultural rather than biological boundaries.

    Europeans began arriving to Mexico after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The descendants of the conquistadors, along with new arrivals from Spain, formed a new elite class of the population. Intermixing eventually produced a Mestizo group that would become the nation’s demographic majority by the time of Independence. That being said, during this time, power remained firmly in the hands of the elite, called “criollo. ”

    Today, most blancos are still associated with the Spanish colonial order. Although some would not be considered “white” by U.S. or European standards, one way blancos distinguish themselves is by keeping separate from the Mestizo and other classes in Mexico. In popular conception, blancos are closely associated with ideas of modernity, which supposedly means that they are the closest culturally to Americans and Europeans (both are idealized as white).


    The large majority of Mexicans are classified as “mestizos,” meaning that they neither identify fully with any indigenous culture nor with a particular non-Mexican heritage. Instead, they identify as having cultural traits and heritage that combine elements from indigenous and European traditions. By the deliberate efforts of post-revolutionary governments, the “mestizo identity” was constructed as the basis of the modern Mexican national identity, through a process of cultural synthesis referred to as mestizaje.

    The term “mestizo” is not widely used in Mexican society today, and it has been dropped as a category in population censuses. That being said, it is still used in social and cultural studies when referring to the non-indigenous part of the Mexican population. The word has somewhat pejorative colloquial connotations. Most people who would be defined as mestizos in the sociological literature would probably self-identify simply as Mexicans. In addition, people will self-identify as “gente de razón” (“people of reason”), in contrast to “gente de costumbre” (“people of tradition”), thus further differentiating themselves from the status of indigeneity, which is considered superstitious and backward.

    The Process of “Mestizaje”

    In the Mexican post-revolutionary period, mestizaje was a racial ideology that combined ideologies of white superiority with the social reality of a postcolonial, multiracial setting. It promoted the use of planned miscegenation (the mixing of racial groups through reproduction) as a eugenic strategy to improve the overall quality of the population. In the logic of “mestizaje,” the distribution of white genetic material throughout the population would improve citizens.


    Map of Indigenous Languages in Mexico: This map shows the regions where there are over 100,000 speakers of particular indigenous languages. These areas are concentrated in the poorer southern states. Thus, the areas that have not been heavily economically modernized have not been as significantly affected by ethnic mestizaje.


    Spanish Caste System in Mexico: This artist’s rendering of the Spanish racial/ethnic caste system imposed in Mexico during the colonial period illustrates the hierarchy from white Europeans to dark-skinned Native Americans or indigenous people.



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