Comparative essay: Mexico versus Brazil

Ye Sil Cha
Sociology 3085
Professor Henken
Comparative essay 1
Comparative essay: Mexico versus Brazil
A. The key focus of the paper
This paper will cover two chapters from Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin
America by Edward Telles, specifically chapter two (The Different Faces of Mestizaje) by
Regina Martínez Cases, Emiko Saldívar, René D. Flores, and Christina A. Sue and chapter five
(Mixed and Unequal) by Graziella Moraes Silva and Marcelo Paixão. This book sheds light on
the way ethnicity and race are defined in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. The authors of
each chapter begin by covering the history of each Latin American country in relation to
colonization, independence, and whitening. Then the PERLA surveys are introduced in order to
illustrate the following: the factors that contribute to ethnic identification; “the extent and nature
of inequality and discrimination”; “the degree of ethnic inequality”; and “the nature of social
relations across ethnic boundaries” (3).
I will focus on Mexico and Brazil’s mestizaje and miscegenation narratives, as well as
briefly discuss the influence of Manuel Gamio and Gilberto Freyre, respectively. Then I will go
over some important PERLA data that sheds light on the mestizaje self-identification in Mexico
and the preto/pardo self-identification in Brazil. I will conclude by mentioning some
nation-building initiatives taken by these two countries to attain a more multicultural nation.
B. A summary of the readings
The first part of chapter two discusses Mexico’s ethnic and racial relations. Under Spanish rule,
the lives of the native indigenous population in Mexico were heavily regulated and controlled by
sociopolitical institutions. The Spanish Crown created legal codes that the Spaniards, indigenous
people, slaves, and castas (mixed race) had to follow. These laws governed the rights of each
ethnoracial group and regulated how one group interacted with another. The castas system was a
way for the Spanish and creole elites to establish, maintain, and exercise power over the
mixed-race, those in the middle of the socioracial hierarchy, and indigenous people and Africans,
those on the bottom of the hierarchy. After Mexico gained independence in 1821, the castas
system was abolished and replaced by the mestizaje ideology. This ideology promoted the
mixing of Mexicans racially as well as linguistically and culturally, which was emphasized by
Vicente Riva Palacio who believed that the mestizo race or mixed race was superior to the white
race. He questions the power and superiority of racial purity by saying that “the mestizo…had
accumulated virtues and vices from various races and, by multiplying them over time, acquired
the indisputable right to autonomy…” (42). Another influential anthropologist in Mexico,
Manuel Gamio, argued that mestizaje was a fusion of cultures rather than genetics. The key
takeaway is that mestizaje is polysemic; race mixture can be attributed to the mixing of cultures
and, at other times, it can be associated with the mixing of genes.
Chapter five begins by emphasizing Brazil’s celebration of mixture and miscegenation in
the early twentieth century. They were portrayed as a nation that was able to overcome racial
discrimination and prejudice from interbreeding with African slaves, white Portuguese
colonizers, and the indigenous people. But studies began to show that racial inequalities were
still very much alive in Brazil– upward mobility was not equal for blacks’ (pretos) and whites’,
and even if the blacks achieved upward mobility, they still faced discrimination. Social scientists
found that blacks and browns or mixed-race (pardos) were affected by racial discrimination
almost equally (173). Even after the abolishment of slavery in 1888, Brazil still excluded blacks
from social mobility through different restriction laws, cultural and social movement repressions,
and European immigration encouragements. The Brazilian government wanted to whiten the
population by advocating white immigration. But when Getulio Vargas took power, Brazil began
its journey towards racial democracy. Vargas’s plan to build the nation included the acceptance
of African cultural expressions– he believed that Brazil’s prosperity depended on a celebration
of racial mixture.
An anthropologist, Gilberto Freyre, also held the belief that Brazil should accept the
ethnoracial minority; however, he put greater emphasis on the Portuguese contributions to
Brazil’s national identification over the contributions made by Indigenous and African
populations. The presence of racial discrimination has been overlooked and denounced countless
times until the 2001 United Nations Conference against Racism and Discrimination: the
Brazilian government acknowledged the presence and persistence of racial discrimination and
prejudice. Brazil began to take action by passing laws and mandating a change in the education
system in order to deal with racial inequalities. The Brazilian state even implemented affirmative
action programs in order to combat the racial and socioeconomic inequalities throughout the
C. Comparative assessment
The ideology of race mixture in Mexico and Brazil has been articulated by two very influential
thinkers, Manuel Gamio and Gilberto Freyre, respectively. Both anthropologists emphasized the
importance of mixture for a prosperous nation; however, Gamio believed in the fusion of
cultures while Freyre pushed for a racial mixture or a miscegenation, but still, they both saw the
importance and benefits of celebrating mixture rather than viewing racial differences as a
problem. The ideas of whitening a country by mixing European blood with the colored began to
lose popularity as the mestizaje ideology gained momentum. But both nations have different
mestizaje narratives: Mexico’s narrative emphasizes the role of the indigenous and Spanish
population on its mestizaje identity while understating African contributions while Brazil’s
national mestizaje narrative incorporates its African roots.
Out of the four countries PERLA surveyed, Brazil showed the greatest consistency
between census racial categories and the color categorization by respondents according to the
color palette the researchers used. There was a clear role in how pigmentocracy was affecting the
socioeconomic lives of Brazilians. “Money whitens” is a famous expression that was adopted by
Brazilians in order to whiten the population. Although over the years whitening has become less
popular, there was a strong belief in ‘racial mobility’ by moving up on the socioeconomic ladder.
However, modern Brazil shows the opposite: education which increases the chance of
socioeconomic mobility no longer whitens the population but darkens it– more years of
schooling increases the likelihood that one will identify as preto/pardo.
This is also seen in Mexico: Mexicans were more likely to self-identify as mestizo with
greater years of high school education due to a formal exposure to Mexico’s mestizaje ideology.
However, the key difference between these nations’ self-identification in regards to the social
structure is that Mexico’s strong mestizaje ideology is shared and emphasized in the lives of
many Mexicans, so identifying as Mestizo puts one higher up on the social ladder; however,
Brazil still holds some social and economic value to the lightness of one’s skin composition so
self-identifying as white increases one’s social status. Inequality or pigmentocracy in the case of
Latin America does not always correspond to ethnoracial classifications– again, sometimes
mestizos held a higher status than whites in Mexico.
There has been a long-held belief that all Mexicans self-identify as mestizo and
indigenous but the PERLA survey revealed the following about contemporary Mexicans: more
than 13% identified as white, 64.3% as mestizo, 11.9% as indigenous, and 3% as either black or
mulatto. The PERLA data also found a polysemic nature with ethnic and racial categories for
both Mexico and Brazil. The format of the questions influenced the racial and ethnic
self-identification population percentage. Questions that were more general and broad yielded a
greater number of self-identified indigenous people in Mexico than questions that were more
specific about ethnic groups. Again, education had a great influence on one’s identification as a
mestizo, along with the influence of one’s geographic location; those residing in the northern
regions of Mexico were more likely to identify as white partially due to the north being regarded
as an “important component of capitalist development”.
The Brazilian’s identification of blackness also depended on how blackness was
operationalized; the percentage varied greatly, being as long as 6% to 59.4%. When open-ended
questions about one’s race identification were asked PERLA found that only 6% self-identified
as preto/pardo, but more specific questions about one’s African ancestry resulted in more than
60% of the respondents indicating that at least one parent was preto or pardo. This shows the
polysemantic nature of racial and ethnic identification in Mexico and Brazil– there are multiple
ways to ask the same question because different cultures have different ways of categorizing race
and ethnicity.
Mexico and Brazil participated in nation-building initiatives for the betterment of their
country. Mexico embraced the ideology of mixture and adopted it as their national narrative
partially to dissociate itself from Spain and Europe; by doing so, Mexico was able to focus on its
indigenous heritage rather than the influence of whites. The mestizaje ideology has been
incorporated into the academic environment in order to educate students on the history and
meaning of mestizaje. The Brazilian government has denied racial inequality until the 2001
United Nations Conference against Racism and Discrimination in Durban, South Africa. After
this conference, it established federal agencies to combat racial inequalities, passed laws
“granting land rights to communities that were historically lands of fugitive slaves”, and
implemented affirmative action in most public universities (181). But these actions do not
indicate a full eradication of racial and ethnic inequality– discrimination and prejudice are still
very prevalent.
Let’s conclude by taking a look at employment and education opportunities in Mexico:
those with lighter skin were more likely to work for “high-status jobs” (76). It’s a good sign that
government action is being taken but we must remember that that’s only the start and it’s the
easiest step. The existence of racial inequality can get lost in new governmental reforms and
initiatives tackling discrimination, but it can still exist in the social and cultural sectors.
D. Discussion questions
1. How are the two anthropologists, Manuel Gamio and Gilberto Freyre, similar and
different in their ideologies?
2. How do the ideologies of mixture/miscegenation in Mexico/Brazil differ?
3. What was the significance of the 2001 United Nations Conference against Racism and
Discrimination? What steps were taken by the Brazilian government after this
4. Why is education so important in one’s racial and ethnic self-identification? How did
education affect people from Mexico? From Brazil?

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