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Paradoxical Assimilation in Latin America—And Its Consequences

An example of a casta painting that might have been distributed back to New Spain

I recently watched a documentary entitled: Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet by Professor Henry Louis Gates, where he explores the disappearance and misrepresentation of Blackness in Mexico and Peru. Although Gates explores many topics in his commentary, he particularly focuses on culture (art, music, dance, lifestyle, food, etc) and key historical figures to represent not only the erasure of Blackness but its paradoxical assimilation. Tracing back this history seeks to explain the possible disparities that we see in the criminal justice system in some regions in Latin America, particularly regions that were formerly colonized by a Catholic power.

At the beginning of the documentary, Gates explores “La Bamba,” an infamous Mexican song that has unknown roots in Angolan culture. Gates describes this song and genre of music as a fitting metaphor for the Mexican roots in African culture. Contrary to popular belief, New Spain received more slaves than North America. What I found particularly fascinating was the story of Yanga and his liberation of a maroon colony of slaves in Mexico. It is argued that his successful resistance to the Spanish could technically be considered the first free Black settlement in the Western Hemisphere. Yanga’s story and even the story of Mexico’s independence headed by men of African descent serves as Gates’ proof that Blackness has not even been recognized in the most important events in the country’s history.

Gates also explores a series of casta paintings, revealing normalcy in racial intermixing in New Spain. A stark difference between New Spain and the British colonies, in terms of slavery, was the permission of interracial marriage by the Catholic Church alongside their children being born free. This is an entirely different concept than the “one-drop” rule that essentially defined the racial caste in American society. The casta paintings were not the only representative of this interracial intermixing, it was representative of Black assimilation. Although Blackness was stigmatized, it was not necessarily deviant, and this allows for assimilation that is gradual rather than near impossible. This serves to explain why the erasure of Blackness in Mexico is common; everyone was essentially mixed. This gave rise to a plethora of racial categories to define people of all shades.

Through this art, we can see that racial intermixing was normal. However, this also served in its paradoxical erasure of Blackness. Although Blackness had a level of regularity, it allowed for its dilution to take root. Many of the leaders of African descent or leaders of liberation eliminated racial categories or implemented laws that attempted to create a colorblind society that failed to disseminate anti-Blackness and racism. Most poignant is the legacies of plantation slavery in Peru, as Afro-Peruvians are the disproportionate laborers of cotton still to this day. Many in these communities do not graduate high school and do not want the same lifestyle for their children. Although the Peruvian government has issued an apology for these impacts, Gates and many of the commentators note there is still a long road ahead—one that is paved with multiculturalism.

This attempt at multiculturalism has extended to the phenomenon of “multicultural constitutionalism” in some regions in Latin America. An example includes that it was only after 2000 that Peru introduced “ethno-racial legislation” that would “propel a recognition of Black citizenship in the country.” This is an example of the consequence of racial assimilation with a motive of erasing Blackness. The unfortunate consequence of this erasure has led to disparities across the board, but particularly those relevant to the criminal justice system. The practice of anti-Black policing and the criminalization of Blackness is not exclusive to the United States—it is a legacy of slavery. Although colonial powers may have used different techniques to confine or erase Blackness, the effects are strikingly similar. Similar cases include police brutality in Argentina, anti-Black policing practices in Brazil, the murder of an Afro-Colombian man, and general calls for a look at police brutality in Latin America as a whole. The microscopic history I provided for some regions in Latin America hopes to provide a better understanding of the similarities in the cries for justice for Blackness in the Americas.

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