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7.7: Racialization and Identity

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    • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick & Ulysses Acevedo

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    Race and Racial Identity

    Gutierrez and Almaguer (2016) point out that that Latinx populations have a very long history of racial classification that goes back to the Spanish colonial period, which lasted hundreds of years in Latin America. The racial mixing (referred to as mestizaje) that occurred included Spanish troops, indigenous populations, and imported African slaves and led to the development of a color and class stratification system, sometimes referred to as a racial caste system. In those societies where indigenous people were used as the primary colonial labor force, indigenous ancestry was devalued and stigmatized, mostly in Mexico, Central America, and Peru. In those societies where the indigenous population was decimated and replaced by African slaves, such as the Caribbean islands, blackness was devalued. Terms such as mestizo, moreno, mulato and trigueño began to be used in the 16th century and are still used today. What resulted was a system where "either white and black, or white and Indian, were at opposite ends of this racial hierarchy, and a large set of intermediate brown categories that complexly stratified the population were deemed to occupy the middle" (Gutierrez & Almaguer, 2016, p. 154). It is evident that people who have migrated to the United States bring with them this complicated history of racial classification and identity.

    In the United States, Latinx people are not designated on the U.S. Census as a "racial group" but instead are considered an ethnic group with a shared cultural backgrounds, who can be of any "race". The 2010 Census form first asks respondents if the person in question is of Hispanics, Latin or Spanish origin and asks to specific a Latinx subgroup is the answer is "yes" to this question. Then, the following question asks for the person's race but only provides the following potential responses:

    2010 Census Race Question
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): 2010 Census Race Question. (CC PDM 1.0; via U.S. Census Bureau)

    Given the limited responses to the race question, it is not surprising that in 2010 more than half (53%) of the Latinx respondents selected the "White" racial category on the Census form. Interestingly, there were differences across the subgroups. Cubans (85.4%) and South Americans (65.9%) were among the highest and Guatemalans (38.5%) and Salvadorans (40.2%) were among the lowest to select the "White" racial category. Approximately 53% of both Mexicans and Puerto Ricans selected the "White" racial category. Some 37% of Latinx respondents selected "some other race" and a majority in this group selected their nationality as their specified "race." A small percentage of Latinx respondents (6%) identified themselves as multiracial and even smaller percentages as American Indian (1.4%) or Black (2.5%) (Gutierrez & Almaguer, 2016). After the results of the 2010 Census were published, news organizations such as the New York Times wrote stories with headlines that read "More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White" and concluded that the results provided evidence that the Latinx population may "assimilate as white Americans, like the Italians or Irish, who were not universally considered to be white" (Cohn, 2014). So, is this the end of the story? Are Latinx people simply the next "Italians" and are assimilating into white America?

    Other research actually reflects a more complex Latinx racial and ethnic identity. For example, in their survey of Latinx adults, Parker et al. (2015) found that 67% of respondents considered their "Hispanic" background to be both a racial and ethnic background, contrary to the assumption made in the Census question and other standard race survey questions. In this same survey, a much higher percentage of Latinx adults described themselves as being of mixed race (34%), Indigenous (25%), and Afro-Latino (24%) then was captured in the 2010 Census. Part of this was the contextualization of the questions in the current survey. For example, respondents were asked if they consider themselves "Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean or, for example, Afro-Mexican." Respondents were also asked if they had ancestry that included specific indigenous peoples of the Americas, such as Mayan, Taino, Quechua, etc. As for being of mixed race ancestry, more culturally relevant terms such as mestizo or mulatto were utilized in this survey. The results provide a rich and more complex picture regarding the self-identity and racial classification of the Latinx population.

    Large Minorities of Hispanics Self-Identify as Mixed Race, Indigenous or Afro-Latino
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Large Minorities of Hispanics Self-Identify as Mixed Race, Indigenous or Afro-Latino. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.)

    Critical Latinx Indigeneities

    Maylei Blackwell and colleagues (2017) define Critical Latinx Indigeneity as a lens to:

    ...critique enduring colonial logics and practices that operate from different localities of power as well as the physical, social, cultural, economic, and psychological violence that often targets Indigenous Latinx peoples, including forms of state and police violence, cultural appropriation, economic exploitation, gender violence, social exclusion, and psychological abuse (p. 132).

    This perspective challenges Latina/o/x and Chicana/o/x Studies to uproot ideologies in broader society, especially as they are reproduced through narrow definitions of Latinidad. For instance, the ideology of Indigenismo is an “Aztec-centric celebration of the Indigenous past of the nation, which often serves to erase the present and future of the sixty-three Indigenous pueblos of Mexico” and the millions of Indigenous peoples living around the world (Blackwell et al., 2017, p. 131). This section will provide an overview of the concepts and background to recognize diverse Indigenous heritages among Chicanx and Latinx communities and the intersecting dynamics of racialization, mestizaje, and Afro-Latinidad.

    Indigenous Roots in Chicanx and Latinx Communities

    While stratification among Latinx communities occurs on racial lines, it is also present in Indigeneity. Indigeneity is constructed through cultural norms, shared group formations, communities, institutions, and families. Indigeneity is also often recognized and policed through phenotype, where individuals with darker skin and features associated with local Indigenous peoples are more likely to be visibly associated with stereotypes and cultural scripts pertaining to Indigenous people. The reality of colorism is present in many societies and cultures. In the lands referred to as North America and Latin America, the Indigenous peoples have used names like Isla Tortuga / Turtle Island, referring to the North American continent; Abya Yala, referring to southern Mexico and Central America; and Pachamama, referring to South America. Indigenous people are an active part of the culture, politics, and history of island societies in the Caribbean, such as the Arawak-speaking Taino people.

    In Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), you can see a visual representation of the percentage of Indigenous people living in Latin American countries today, which totals 46 million across the region and ranges from 0.2% in El Salvador to 62.2% in Bolivia. Guatemala follows this at 41%, Peru at 24%, and Mexico at 15.1%. There are over 800 recognized Indigenous groups in Latin America, with the most significant number of distinct Indigenous peoples residing in Brazil, with over 300 different Indigenous peoples represented. Scholars also estimate that 200 or more groups operate actively but do not seek state or federal recognition. The image displays important information, including that by the year 2010, an estimated 45 million Indigenous people lived in Latin America, accounting for 8.3% of the region’s population. The United Nations has championed the promotion of their rights through the use of different resources and special regulations for this purpose. At present, there are 826 Indigenous peoples. An additional 200 are estimated to be living in voluntary isolation.

    In the chart below, the countries are labeled by their name, the percentage of Indigenous people out of the total population, and the total number of the Indigenous population. The countries included are Mexico, 15.1%, 17 million, Honduras 7%, 537,000, Panama 12.3%, 420,000, Colombia, 3.4%, 1.6 million, Venezuela, 2.7% 725,000, Brazil, 0.5%, 900,000, Bolivia, 62.2%, 6.2 million, Paraguay, 1.8%, 113,000, Uruguay, 2.4%, 77,000, Argentina, 2.4%, 955,000, Chile, 11%, 1.8 million, Peru, 24%, 7 million, Ecuador, 7%, 1 million, Costa Rica, 2.4%, 105,000, Nicaragua, 8.9%, 520,000, El Salvador, 0.2%, 14,500, Guatemala, 41%, 5.9 million. Additionally, the captions included read: “The countries with the greatest number of Indigenous peoples are: Brazil, 305, Colombia, 102, Peru 85, Mexico 78, Bolivia, 39.” and “Many Indigenous peoples are in danger of physical or cultural disappearance: Brazil, 70, Colombia, 35, Bolivia, 13.” And the chart is summarized with the text, “ECLAC encourages the region’s countries to put public policies in practice which:

    1. are based on standards of Indigenous people’s rights;
    2. include their perspectives and contributions to the region’s development;
    3. consolidate improvements in their well-being and living conditions, political participation and territorial rights;
    4. promote the construction of multicultural societies that benefit us all.”
    A graph depicting Latin America with the proportion of the Indigenous population in each country. Details in text.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): “Indigenous Peoples in Latin America” (Free Use; Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) via United Nations)

    For example, the identity term Chicanx Indigenous signifies being Indigenous to Mesoamerica, also called Anahuac in the Nahua language. It is a self-identity category used by people, unlike Hispanic or Latinx, which emerged from western institutions. Chicanx is an identity term that originates from Xicano, which stems from Mexicano that has roots in Mexica -- one of the central Indigenous groups in Mesoamerica (Anahuac).

    For Chicanx communities, in the 1960s Aztlán was considered the name of a homeland in the area now known as the Greater Southwest in the United States. The claim to the Greater Southwest by Chicanxs in the 1960s is troubling because it overlooks the past and present existence of Native tribal nations living in the regions in the areas signified, who were colonized by the Spanish before becoming part of Mexico, and then the United States. The idea that Chicanxs had a rightful claim to the land is contradicted by the Nahua paradigm, which states that the meaning of Aztlán is not a physical homeland but rather a commitment to stewardship.

    Mestizaje and the Intersection of Indigeneity and Race

    Stories of heritage among Chicanx and Latinx Indigenities or groups vary on their past and present ties to their homelands as well as in terms of their degree of inter- and intra-group recognition. Mestizas/os/xs are a diverse population with a combination of mixed heritage, often including Indigenous lineage, along with a combination of African and/or European backgrounds. Across these diverse groups, some have experienced contemporary forced acculturation, and others have been taught to believe they can assimilate and be invested in the dominant Spanish or Anglo-American cultural ways. The investment in whiteness is sometimes experienced through colorism when children are born, as they may be referred to as being a güerita/o or morenita/o, if they have light or dark skin. Children’s light skin may be celebrated guided by the belief that they may eventually pass as white, which leads to identity conflict and pressure throughout development.

    The idea of mestizaje, or mixed-race identity, emphasizes the multiple lineages that not only shape individual identity but also the communities, cultures, languages, and traditions that we practice. However, an overemphasis on the mixing of various groups in Latin America can be used to create a false sense of equality that is not reflected in the actual conditions of racialized groups in Latin America, the United States, and Canada. In particular, Mexico and Brazil have both promoted a sense of national unity that attempts to erase differences based on race, color, and Indigeneity (Telles, 2014). For communities experiencing the effects of inter-generational oppression, segregation, and exploitation, the idea that all ethnic differences have fused in a post-racial society erases the realities of inequity and the importance of advocates calling for justice. For Indigenous peoples, reductive deployments of ethnic categorization can disrupt attempts for collective liberation (Sánchez, 2021).

    This long history of racial classification has also resulted in a form of colorism within the Latinx population, defined by Chavez-Dueñas et al. (2014) as "a form of discrimination imposed upon Latinos/as by members of their own ethnic group." (Chavez-Dueñas et al., p. 4). This internalized hierarchy that devalues indigenous and African ancestry and a preference for whiteness or traditionally European features is reflected at the institutional level in terms of people in power, socioeconomic status, and depictions of people in media (i.e. movies, news broadcasters, telenovelas, etc.).

    Marginalization continues through everyday stereotypes and myths about Indigenous people taught in various institutions, such as schools, mass media, and policy. As an example of anti-Indigenous oppression among Chicanx and Latinx people, we may hear pejorative terms like “India Maria” and “Oaxaquita,” signifying a connotation of inferiority. At the micro level, Chavez-Dueñas (2014) found the following comments frequently used by Latinx family members to describe friends or relatives to be a clear reflection of colorism and an internalized racial hierarchy :

    - Hay que mejorar la raza o cásate con un blanco. [We need to improve the race by marrying a white person.]

    - Ahi que bonita es su niña, as tan güerita/blanquita! [Oh! How pretty your daughter is, she is so white/light skinned!]

    - Oh, nació negrito/prietito pero aun asi lo queremos. [Oh, he was born black/dark but we still love him all the same.]

    - Pobrecito, tiene el cabello tan malo. [Poor little thing, her hair is so bad/coarse.]

    - Eres tan Indio. [You are so Indian. (connoting negative stereotypes about indigenous people)] (Chavez-Dueñas et al., 2014, p. 17).

    Community responsive efforts, like in Ventura California, have included the “No me llames Oaxaquita” campaign. This effort created greater awareness about how this harmful term can negatively impact young people and their communities, motivating people to question their own biases and assumptions. Social movements have always been important for responding to the marginalization and direct threats to the lives of Indigenous peoples. Movement mobilization includes calling for sovereignty, treaty rights, resistance to Columbus Day and triumphalist narratives in history, stopping environmental destruction, water rights, cultural revitalization, land acknowledgment, and more. A land acknowledgment is a formal statement recognizing and respecting Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of the land as well as the historical relationship between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.

    Latinidad has also been critiqued for the ways that it calls for an overriding unity between all Latinx, Latina, and Latino people. These generalizations tend to benefit the most privileged within this group, including cisgender, heterosexual, male, English-speaking, light-skinned or white, citizen Latinos. For this reason, some groups who are multiply marginalized within the Latinx community have called against using this term or qualifying it (Flores 2021). Others have modified the term, including through the label, Afro-Latinx, which describes people from Latin America of African descent.


    The histories and identities of Afro-descendant people and Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been interacting and intertwined for centuries. For example, the Garifuna people are of mixed African and Indigenous heritage from the island called St. Vincent. Members and descendants of this group exist across Central America, the Caribbean, and the United States and are just one example of the strength and pride that has been built through solidarity with African and Indigenous heritage.

    However, Afro-Latinxs are more likely to experience discrimination and policing in the United States (Noe-Bustamante et al. 2021), and also more likely to raise these issues within Latinx communities more broadly (Gonzalez-Barrera, 2022). Within Latinx communities, dynamics of racism and colorism work to silence Afro-Latinx voices and discourage inclusive participation. These dynamics can be seen as widespread as white supremacy and global colonialism. Racial categorization in places like Brazil tends to be closely layered with colorism, leading to vastly different experiences of racial norms and consequences, even within biological families, based on one’s physical presentation of race (Telles, 2014).

    In the United States, self-identified Afro-Latinxs make up nearly 25% of the total Hispanic population (Gonzalez-Barrera, 2022). This suggests that the concerns of Afro-Latinx people are more central to both Black and Latinx cultures than is typically represented in popular media or social movements. For example, Black feminism often credits the development of major theoretical traditions like intersectionality to African American women in the United States. However, when considering transnational Black communities, there have been theoretical and conceptual developments in places like Brazil that predate U.S. manifestations of Black feminism. The recognition of these mutual sources of inspiration and activist mobilization is an opportunity for transnational coalitions and mutual learning. For example, Angela Davis has made a practice of collaborating with Black feminist leaders in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, such as Preta Ferriera, Lélia Gonzalez, and Marielle Franco.

    The formal categorization of individuals into sub-categories by race was constructed by the Spanish empire in the Americas through the system of casta. Casta sorted people based on their heritage. A painting of the casta designations can be found in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\), which shows sixteen different designations organized hierarchically, with Spanish descendant (Español or Española) individuals ranked at the highest positions, and those with Black and Indigenous ancestry ranked at the bottom. They are:

    1. Español con India, Mestizo;
    2. Mestizo con Española, Castizo;
    3. Castizo con Española, Español;
    4. Español con Mora, Mulato;
    5. Mulato con Española, Morisca;
    6. Morisco con Española, Chino;
    7. Chino con India, Salta atrás;
    8. Salta atras con Mulata, Lobo;
    9. Lobo con China, Gíbaro (Jíbaro);
    10. Gíbaro con Mulata, Albarazado;
    11. Albarazado con Negra, Cambujo;
    12. Cambujo con India, Sambiaga (Zambiaga);
    13. Sambiago con Loba, Calpamulato;
    14. Calpamulto con Cambuja, Tente en el aire;
    15. Tente en el aire con Mulata, No te entiendo;
    16. No te entiendo con India, Torna atrás

    Many of the categories and labels used in this image are considered derogatory and are only presented here for a sense of the historical language use and social construction of race.

    Spanish colonial racial hierarchies visualized through parents and their children. Details in text.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): “Las castas” (Public Domain; Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico via Wikimedia)
    Latino Identity Formation \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Ferdman and Gallegos(2021) propose that Latinx individuals develop orientations or lenses through which they view their identity. Their orientation or lens depends on their experiences with social institutions including the family, education system, peer groups, and U.S. cultural racial constructs, etc. Note: This is not a linear stage model that youth will progress through in order.

    • Latino Integrated: understanding of racial constructs and ability to challenge them.
    • Latino Identified: acceptance of the races Latino and white and identification with Latino
    • Subgroup Identified: identification of multiple Latino races and identification with a regional subgroup.
    • Latino as Other: identification as a generic Latino due to mixed heritage.
    • Undifferentiated: colorblindness, adherence to dominant culture, and tendency to attribute failure to the individual rather than racial constructs and systems of oppression.
    • White Identified: acceptance of white and Latino races and identification with white and rejection of Latino

    Ferdman, B. M., and Gallegos, P. I. (2001). “Latinos and racial identity development.” In C. L. Wijeyesinghe & B. W. Jackson III (Eds.), New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: A Theoretical and Practical Anthology (pp. 32-66). New York University Press


    Content from this section is drawn from the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 sources:

    Espinoza-Kulick, M. A. V., and M. Moreno. 2022. “Chicanx and Latinx Indigeneities.” Chapter 4 in New Directions for Chicanx and Latinx Studies. OER: LibreTexts.

    8.1: History and Demographics by Erika Gutierrez, Janét Hund, Shaheen Johnson, Carlos Ramos, Lisette Rodriguez, & Joy Tsuhako is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.


    • Chavez-Dueñas, N.Y., Adames, H.Y., & Organista, K.C. (2014). Skin-Color Prejudice and Within-Group Racial Discrimination: Historical and Current Impact on Latino/a Populations. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. Vol. 36(1), pp. 3-26.
    • Cohn, N. (2014, May 21). More Hispanics declaring themselves White. NY Times.
    • Ferdman, B. M., and Gallegos, P. I. (2001). “Latinos and racial identity development.” In C. L. Wijeyesinghe & B. W. Jackson III (Eds.), New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: A Theoretical and Practical Anthology (pp. 32-66). New York University Press
    • Flores, T. (2021). “Latinidad Is Cancelled”: Confronting an Anti-Black Construct. Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture, 3(3), 58–79.
    • Gonzalez-Barrera, A. (2022, May 2). About 6 million U.S. adults identify as Afro-Latino. Pew Research Center.
    • Gutierrez, R. A., & Almaguer, T. (Eds.). (2016). The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective. University of California Press.
    • Noe-Bustamante, L., Gonzalez-Barrera, A., Edwards, K., Mora, L., & Lopez, M. H. (2021, November 4). Majority of Latinos Say Skin Color Impacts Opportunity in America and Shapes Daily Life. Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.
    • Parker, K., Horowitz, J., Morin, R. & Lopez, M. (2015) Chapter 7: The Many Dimensions of Hispanic Racial Identity. Pew Research Center: Multiracial in America, June 11, 2015.
    • Telles, E. (2014). Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, race, and color in Latin America. The University of North Carolina Press.e