“You know, us Mexicans are indigenous, too,” I told my sister once while talking about ethnicity and Mexicanidad—Mexicaness. While living in Mexico, I never thought of people in terms of race, we were all just mestizos—of mixed race with indigenous descent––despite our skin color or physical traits. I grew up thinking I was mestiza so I never questioned how problematic and dangerous the idea of mestizaje was.
Now, I know that mestizaje was an identity created by the state that meant to celebrate Mexico’s “indigenous past,” but it also endorsed whiteness and maintained marginalization of indigenous and black people.
From a young age, my school curriculum pressured me to maintain a settler-colonialist mentality. Since I was 10 years old, I was taught through school that it was normal to identify as mestiza.
In Mexico, I never had a class that explored the issue of race, since all of us were supposed to be “equal” mestizos. This toxic mentality was promoted through academic activities.
When I was in elementary school, I was selected to dress up as an adelita during the parade that commemorates the Mexican Revolution. The adelitas were rural women of Indigenous or African descent that fought bravely during the revolution. The day of the parade, my mom made me wear a colorful dress that was supposed to resemble the ones that adelitas weared. She exclaimed excitedly as she took a picture of me, “you look so pretty!.” I forced a smile though the dress was uncomfortable and hot, but, I could see the pride in my parent’s eyes.
Leading up to the event, I was taught that these were just revolutionary women, but in reality, we were erasing their racial identity. I was oblivious to the fact that I, as a mestiza-identifying woman, was appropriating a role that wasn’t mine. It was concerning that my white-looking, middle class family was thrilled to see me in that dress.
It was through these cultural activities that school lead me to believe that I was mestiza and that it was OK to dress up as an indigenous woman.
This acceptance of mestizaje only grew more extreme, as I got older. We were taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered America in 1492”, and we were encouraged to celebrate him. These conversations centered around honoring him and embracing our “Spanish heritage.” I accepted this problematic version of history because I was young and naive, and I wasn’t offered the true history by the teachers I respected the most.
Not having honest conversations about Columbus’s true actions perpetrated Indigenous erasure. We never talked about how he initiated a massive cultural and physical genocide. The curriculum only focused on how his “discovery” “modernized” and “civilized” Mexico.
When I started attending UC Berkeley and took a Latin American history classes, I started decolonizing the mestizo myth.
All of these classes exposed me to the real history of Mexico. We explicitly explored the issues of mestizaje and how problematic and destructive the construction is to Indigenous and Black Mexicans.
It was infuriating to realize that being mestiza meant to proclaimed a identity that is not mine, while at the same time having the privilege of a white-passing person.
In one of the classes, I had to read Vasconcelos’ Raza Cosmica, which romanticized Spain’s colonization of people of color in America. He celebrated the “5th race” that was violently created through genocide. The “fifth race” he was referring to was the mestizo race. I was shocked to realize that Vasconcelos, who was one of the first to serve as Mexico’s secretary of education, toxically influenced education in Mexico through his racist ideologies
I realized that the mestizo identity is a harmful social construct that was imposed on me on purposefully to erase people of color, and I was disgusted by this idea.
It took me a long time to come to terms with my place in a post-colonial society. But now, I refuse to identify as a mestiza. I know that I still have all the privilege that a non-indigenous and non-black person has, but at least now I am cognizant of it. At least now, I see how by identifying as mestiza, I was replicating a system of oppression that erased indigenous and black people.
At least now, I’m aware of my settler status.
Lupita Lua writes the Friday blog on unlearning white supremacy and decolonizing aspects of her life.