There is a tendency in the United States to believe mixed-race experiences are exceptional or out of the ordinary because we live in a society that historically silences racial mixture. A recent exhibit at Monticello that highlights the denial of Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings is just one high profile example. Contrasting colonial Latin American racial discourses with our own provides a blueprint for understanding erasure of multiracial experiences and white racial anxiety.
Mixture produces people who inhabit what Zadie Smith defines as the "Dream City [or] a place of many voices, where the unified singular self is an illusion. Naturally, Obama was born there. So was I. When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in an almost too obviously thematic manner, in your DNA, in your hair and in the neither this nor that beige of your skin -well, anyone can see you come from Dream City." As a Black biracial woman, I am confronted with frustration from people who struggle with my mixed identity.
The racially fluid "dream city" is common to Latin America even if it is denied by those who claimed to be of Spanish ancestry. (Creoles, or Spaniards born in the Americas, are a group that came to include people of mixed ancestry.) Those who passed for White had to choose carefully what they shared about their lives. Their entrance into spaces of privilege ultimately undermined colonial power and a new Spanish subject who would revolt against Metropolitan power was created. Black Africans pushed back against enslavement and duhumanization from the moment of their arrival to the Spanish Caribbean more than one hundred years before their arrival to North America in 1619. Jose F. Buscaglia-Salgado explains in Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean Blacks' violent resistance on the earliest American sugar plantations bred anxiety in Europeans that predicted race-mixture.
Blacks mixing with Whites and Amerindians was a nightmarish reality for the elite because the colonial hierarchy would collapse if it became impossible to know who belongs in which category. Latin American anxiety is repeated in White Americans who are threatened by the growing mixed-race population today. Colin Kaepernick has become a case study in what happens when mixed-race people do not tow the line and threaten white power. Not only is he speaking out against the most extreme measures taken to maintain White power, he openly displays his own mixed background and his love for his White adoptive family.
There is a universal quality to Kaepernick's story that people of mixed ancestry are desperately seeking. In a recent article titled "I Study Biracial Identity in America. Here's Why Meghan Markle is a Big Deal" Duke Psychologist Sarah E. Gaither writes, "Growing up in the late '80s as a biracial girl, I never had a mixed-race princess whose image I could sport on my backpack or my lunchbox. There was little to no representation of my identity -almost no characters in movies or television shows, no musicians or celebrities who identified as mixed-race." Gaither summarizes the legal and social erasure of the biracial population in the United States throughout history. "Slow social acceptance of multiracial identities remains the norm, even though it is at odds with changing US demographics now more than ever. The biracial population is one of the fastest-growing groups in our country...who can biracial kids look up to if the popular press and culture avoid this racial identity?" Though biracial people are increasingly accepted in society, Gaither signals another paradoxical issue -American ignorance concerning biracial identities.
Mixed people un the U.S. today can be more open about our origins. Still, outside the "Dream City" have to decide how much to share and how to deal with incomprehension. We will be asked "What are you?" and our relationship to our families is questioned. The Dream City is an even more glaring reality in Latin America. Most Spanish settlers arriving to the New World were individual men who often sought to partner with women who were not European. Ann Twinam's Public Lives, Private Secrets: Gender, Honor, Sexuality and Illegitimacy in Colonial Spanish America illustrates how Latin American colonials in the eighteenth century could even buy whiteness through legal petitions known as gracias al sacar in the case that they were born illegitimate. Family relationships, along with culture and religion, often decided how people were categorized.
Elizabeth Kuznesof has found that people of mixed indigenous-African ancestry were able to become "Spanish" by marrying people of mixed indigenous-Spanish ancestry; later their female offspring most likely could have married other "Spanish" men and assimilated into the "Spanish" ethnic category. By Kuznesof's estimate, by 1570 the Spanish population of Spanish America must have had 20-40% admixture of indigenous and African blood that was often unacknowledged (155). Another method of achieving social mobility was marriage. Racial status, especially for women in colonial Latin America, and perhaps in Meghan Markle's case today, could easily change depending on who a woman married. Though Markle's blackness is known, she seems to be assimilating to whiteness and the social status that comes with it as light skinned women did in colonial Latin America.
However, there were limits because assimilation also means whiteness loses political and social power as more an more of those who claim white identity are not "pure". Cecilia Valdés's aspiration to marry a wealthy white man epitomizes the threat to white power race-mixture posed. Cecilia is a white-passing mullata like Markle with her always perfectly straightened hair. Unlike Markle, Cecilia, a fictional character in a nineteenth-century Cuban novel, is not recognized publicly by her white family. (Perhaps Markle wishes some members of her White family would not recognize her, but that is another story.) Cecilia is mulatta but she is also, ironically, very much a part of the elite White family. Denying her leads to incest and the undoing of the elite family structure.
Will lessons from the past be learned? Can the Dream City become a waking reality for us all? A peaceful approach to living with people from different backgrounds, races and cultures will improve society. Besides serving as a model for people like myself to better understand our plural identities, colonial Latin American studies can also provide a road map for monoracial people who wish to learn from past errors, understand the Dream City and engage with difference with love and acceptance rather than hate and rejection. Race-mixture in colonial Latin America ultimately shows that whiteness is a fantasy.
Buscaglia-Salgado, Jose. Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean. Yale University Press, 2010.
Kuznesof, Elizabeth. "Ethnic and Gender Influences on 'Spanish' Creole Society in Colonial Spanish America." Colonial Latin American Review, 1995.
Twinam, Ann. Public Lives, Private Secrets: Gender, Honor, Sexuality and Illegitimacy in Colonial Spanish America. Stanford University Press, 1999.
Monica Styles is a recent graduate of the PhD program in Spanish American Colonial Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include race, identity and the interplay between historical and literary discourses.