Latin America and the Concept of Social Race


The aim of this paper is to give a cross-cultural overview of a special aspect of race relations in the post-columbian Americas and particularly in the Latin America, namely the systems of classification of people into so-called "social races". Emphasis will be placed upon anthropological rather than historical view.

The term "social race" has been used in the past as well as in today's American societies. We are speaking about "social" race, because these groups or categories are defined socially much more than biologically, in all of the American societies. However, the terms by which they are labeled, may have originally referred to biological characteristics. Thus terms as "Negro", "white", "Indian", or "mulatto" do not have any genetic meanings in most of the American societies - in one society they may be classifications based on real or imaginary physical characteristics, in another they may refer more to criteria of social status such as education, wealth, language and custom, or in yet another society they may indicate near or distant ancestry. So the same person might be classed as a mulatto in Brazil, a Negro in the United States, and perhaps a mestizo in Mexico (7). Modern socio-cultural anthropologists argue there are no true "races" in the world, since they are not exclusive groups or distinct biological types. Thus race is a subjective concept, not an objective fact (6).
From the anthropological point of view the focus is upon the complex problem of relations among (and within) such groups. These relations are to a great extent determined by the way people are classified in social races in the multiracial society. More specifically, the criteria for defining social race differs from region to region in the Americas. In one region ancestry is stressed, in another region socio-cultural criteria are emphasized, and in still another, physical appearance is the primary basis for classifying people according to social race. This means that in each of these regions we can observe different number of social races as well as different structural arrangements for race relations. The different ways in which each region conceives social races reflect the relations between people of diverse biological and cultural origin within a larger society.

Before description of the system of socio-racial relations it is necessary to give a description of the involved terms and an overview of basic and facts regarding the origin and formation of the populations of the American and particularly Latin American nations.

Origin & Initial Race Mixing

All of the American nations have been multiracial up to some degree. Biologically speaking the population of the New World has been formed by three racial stocks - the Amerindian of Mongoloid derivation, the African Negroid, and the European Caucasoid. Each of these three racial stocks has made contributions in different proportions in the various regions of the Americas. Amerindians predominated in the highland countries from Mexico to the south of Chile, Negroes formed numerically the most important element of the population in the lowland areas from southern United States into the Caribbean, and on the South American mainland south into Brazil, Caucasoids have contributed in greatest numbers in the northern and southern most extremes of the two continents - namely in Canada and northern United States, and in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Yet everywhere the three racial stocks have each contributed in some degree to the contemporary populations.


Precisely how many Indians inhabited the American continent before 1492 will never be known with any certainty. One widely accepted estimate gives a total population of 13.4 million more or less equally divided between South America on one hand, and North and Central America on the other (1). Alternative calculations show a much higher total, but it is unlikely that a truly accurate assessment can be made (3). Not only frequent local wars, but especially diseases like measles, smallpox, typhus and syphilis rapidly decimated original inhabitants by 30 to 60 percent in some areas (2). (There are serious doubts about the origin of syphilis that could have possibly been brought from Central America by Columbus' sailors originally.) Combined with other imported illnesses such as influenza, malaria, yellow fever, trachoma and also especially violent and cruel treatment inflicted by the conquistadors and colonizators, the population numbers were falling in a steep curve. Synchronic miscegenation eventually resulted into a of demographic disaster. Very cautious calculations imply that the aboriginal population of the Americas was by 1570 reduced to 10.8 million (5).

Throughout the Americas, the process of intermixture between the three racial stocks began early - almost at once after the arrival of the Europeans and their African slaves in the New World. In the highland countries, the Spanish conquistadors mated freely with Indian women, and by the end of the 16th century people of mixed Spanish-Indian ancestry were relatively numerous throughout the highland countries. Furthermore, in Mexico and also in other highland countries, a considerable number of African slaves were imported to work in the mines and on the plantations - the majority of these Africans were males and they also mated with Indian women. Their offspring added to the racially mixed population (mestizos, mulattoes and the castes) and further complicated the types of mixtures present in colonial society of that time.

In the tropical and semitropical regions of the Americas, a similar process of race mixture began soon after 1500. At first the Spanish, Portuguese and English mated with Indian women. But since the Indian population was sparse compared to the highlands and since many tribes were soon decimated as a result of contact with Europeans, such unions were not numerous and did not produce a large European-Indian mixed population as they did in the highlands. Nevertheless, in certain areas of the lowlands these mixtures became important, in Brazil the "mamelucos" - children of Portuguese fathers and Indian mothers - became relatively numerous in the 16th century, and in Paraguay where Spanish conquistadors lived as the owners of veritable "harems" of Indian women, a mixed European-Indian group soon became the most important element of the colonial population. But throughout most of the tropical lowland region, the formation of a mixed population comparable to that in the highlands was to face the arrival of the flood of African slaves.


As for the Spaniards - from the 16th to the 19th century 150,000 "licencias" for emigration were drawn out, and approximatly the same number emigrated illegaly. Of these some 40 percent migrated to South America (2). We have no such figures for Portuguese available, regretly, but it obvious that it was Iberians whose influence transformed the Central and South America into "Latin America" (1).

The civilization that the Iberian nations implanted in the New World was profoundly urban in character. From the early days of the 16th century settlement, through the Baroque glory of the 17th century, to the more restrained classicism of the 18th century Enlightement, the Spanish (and, to a lesser degree, the Portuguese) world in the Americas centered on cities. Paradoxically in a civilization built on agrarian and mining economic bases, the city represented the epitome of culture, the preferred arena for social and economic exchange, and the stage for political conflict and accomodation (4). This fact, however, contributed to huge inter-racial mixing and origin of a multi-layered society.


As for African peoples who were being brought the New World as slave labourers from 1518 to the beginning of 19th century, there are estimations of 4 million for Brazil, 3 million for Spanish America, mainly the Atlantic coast in the so-called Plantation America as a labour force on the plantation of sugar cane, coca, cotton and tobacco in NE Brazil, French Guyana, Surinam and the Caribbean. Fifteen million reached the New World, whereas 50 million might well be the figure of lives lost to the African continent as a result of slavery. Besides that, also Indian and Chinese "coolies" were brought in for the plantations (74,000 between 1847 and 1874 to Peru and Cuba) (2).

From the middle of the 16th century until the end of the 18th century, this region received literally millions of Negroes, mainly from West Africa. The story of miscegenation (race mixing) of the European slaveowners with their female slaves is so well known that it need not be described here. Such unions were probably most frequent in Brazil and in the West Indies between Spanish, Portuguese and French males and Negro women. This has been attributed, particularly in the case of the Portuguese, to a lack of prejudice - even considerable attraction - toward women of darker complexions (in 7). But the men from these Latin countries were not alone in being attracted to Negro women. Although the laws and social pressure against miscegenation were stronger in the English colonies (and later in the United States) than in the colonies of other European powers, there is no doubt that miscegenation was almost as frequent. This is attested by the large mulatto population which took form in the British Islands and in southern United States. By 1850, for example, about 1/12th of the slave population of the United States and over a third of the "free" Negroes were said to be of mixed Negro-Caucasoid ancestry (in 7).

Miscegenation took place also on a large scale even in those regions which are today predominantly European. In Canada during the 18th century and early 19th century, the so-called "metis" - the offspring of French fur traders and Indian women - outnumbered Europeans in western Canada. In Argentina, mestizos (Indian-Europeans) greatly outnumbered people of European ancestry until after the middle of the 19th century. In both Uruguay and Argentina, there was an appreciable number of mulattoes and Negroes during the first half of the 18th century - it was essentially a mixed population (in 7). There have been numerous explanations for the disappearance of these people of Negroid ancestry and of the large number of mestizos in Argentina and Uruguay. For example there is an explanation that they were killed off in the various wars (in 7). However, it should be obvious that they were almost totally physically assimilated by the great wave of European immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Social Relations

Intermediate Groups

Throughout the Americas the process of miscegenation between the Caucasoids, Amerindians and Negroes produced hybrid populations. It also produced a complicated social hierarchy in which racial appearance or ancestry was perhaps the most important criterion of rank. At first this social-racial hierarchy was simple. Everywhere the European whites dominated the American Indians and African slaves by force. In the social hierarchy the European whites were on top, and the Indians and Africans were on the bottom. Caucasoid physical features were symbolic of membership in the "superior" social group, and Amerindians and Negroid physical features were symbolic of membership in the "inferior" groups. But within a generation the process of miscegenation produced intermediate groups who were intermediate not only in their physical appearance, but also in social status. During the early colonial period, it was usual to attempt to describe such people in terms of their mixed ancestry, their intermediate physical appearance, and their intermediate social position. In order to account for these groups of mixed ancestry and the intermediate social status accruing to them, it was necessary to develop a profusion of categories of SOCIAL RACE, especially in those regions where intermixture of the component racial stocks was greatest.

Attempts to Define

In Brazil, in addition to the "brancos" (whites), "Indios" or "Indigenas" (Indians), and "pretos", there were mamelucos (Indian-Portuguese), mulattoes (Portuguese-Negro), "cafusos" in Brazil (Negro-Indian), "cabras" (Portuguese-mulatto), as well as terms for other mixtures (in 7).
Aguirre Beltran brought together a series of systems of social race classification in Mexico, or in other terms, the system of "castas" that took form in the 17th century - in each of these systems a long ancestral types and degrees of intermixture, each with its relative position in accordance with "closeness" to full Spanish ancestry, are listed. In one system described by Beltran, in addition to "bermejos" (that is whites or Spaniards) and "indios" (Indians), there are: "negros" (Negroes) divided into two categories, mulattoes divided into seven categories, and mestizos divided into five categories. Although these were color categories, they were also based on other anatomical characteristics such as hair, lips and nose. Ancestry was often specified, for example a "mulato morisco" was specifically "the offspring of a Spaniard and a mulata" (7). "Zambos" in Spanish America was offspring of Africans and Indians (Spanish crown was opposed to this particular mixture, but their attempts to discourage concubinage failed because Africans proved extremely attractive to Indian women) (1).
Likewise, throughout the Carribean region there was a proliferation of social racial categories based primarily on skin color but also ancestry. Perhaps the most elaborate of these is the system ascribed to Haiti in the 18th century by Moreau de Saint Mery, who explained the system by attributing 128 parts (almost like genes) to all men. A "blanc" (white) has 128 parts white, a Negre (Negro) 128 parts black, and the offspring - a mulatre (mulatto) - 64 parts white and 64 parts black. In addition he listed "sacatra" (8 to 23 parts white), "griffe" (24 to 39 parts white), "marabou" (40-48), "quateron" (71-100), "metif" (101-112), "mamelouc" (113-120), "quateronne" (121-124), and finally a sang-mele (125-127) (7).
Even within the southern United States the slaves were often differentiated according to ancestral types such as mulatto, quadroon (one-quarter Negro ancestry), octaroon (one-eight Negro ancestry), and mustie (near white). Although still slaves, these people of intermediate ancestry were considered by their owners to be more intelligent, they brought higher prices in the slave market, and they received preferred occupations on the plantations. Furthermore, they were more often freed (sometimes by their white fathers), and the "free Negroes", who were relatively numerous, especially in Charleston and in New Orleans, were mainly of mixed ancestry.

Classification Failure and its Reasons

Everywhere in the Americas these early systems of classification of people emphasized ancestry as well as physical appearance as their dominant criteria. They also represented a preoccupation with the intermediate social position of such groups between the dominant Caucasoids, the Negro slaves and the sibjugated American Indians. But for several reasons such elaborate systems of classification soon became unworkable and impossible to maintain.

a) First, they could not possibly be extended in complexity to account for all possible mixtures. As mating was taking place also between individuals of the growing variety of race mixtures, the number of categories theoretically had to be amplified. One system for Mexico reported the type called "Ahi-te-Estas" individuals, an illustration of the absurd lengths to which such classifications could be extended. Those were persons born of one "coyote-mestizo" and one mulatto parent. A coyote-mestizo, in turn, was a person born of one "chamizo" and one Indian parent, and a chamizo was the offspring of a "coyote" and a mulatto... Obviously, as mixing between the various types continued, such systems became even theoretically close to impossible to maintain.

b) Although most of the systems described ancestry, they also implied that individuals of a given category would probably share a similar phenotypical appearance. That is, a person who was a mulatta of one white and one Negro parent would have a physical type intermediate between Caucasoid and Negroid. This was roughly so as long as it involved mating between individuals of two original racial stocks. But as soon as the situation involved the mating between the intermediate types themselves, physical appearance - due to uneven sorting of genes in the succession of generations - no longer was so indicative of ancestry.

c) But perhaps the most important reason that such complex schemes were destined to fall out of use was the fact that socio-cultural criteria were not only implied by a term for a category but soon came into play in placing an individual in such groups. Already in the 16th century there originated terms describing with relative certainty not only a physical type but also the occupation, wealth, education, and language of a group. Similarly, "preto" (Negro) in Brazil in the early period implied slave status and "branco" the status of a free man. But throughout the Americas, in greater or lesser degree, a conflict began to develop between classification of an individual by either ancestry or physical appearance and these social and cultural criteria. Soon there was anomaly of those individuals who were Indians and mestizos in terms of ancestry and physical appearance, but who were Spanish "whites" in terms of language, dress, education, religion, wealth and other social and cultural characteristics. Or there were free people of Negroid ancestry and physical appearance who by socio-cultural criteria should be mulattoes or even whites. Clearly a Spanish speaking individual who was educated and wealthy could not be classed with the people living in an isolated and primitive village despite his Amerindian physical appearance and ancestry. Similarly a black professor could not be classed with the black workers on a plantation.

Slavery Abolition and Change of Approach

In the 19th century, with the abolition of slavery, there appeared an acute conflict between the classification of people simultaneously by physical appearance, ancestry and socio-cultural status. Numerous intermediate types based on ancestry and color disappeared from official usage, but not entirely from the popular vocabulary in many regions and countries. In Spanish America as well as in Brazil all of the intermediate types of the so-called "castas" fell out of general use and broad categories such as mestizo, ladino and cholo or (in Brazil) "pardo" (literally means "brown") and "caboclo" (any lower class rural person of mixed ancestry) were established instead.

United States of America

The United States stood apart from most of the Latin America in making use of ancestry almost exclusively in defining who is Negro and who is white. The dominant whites were able to establish a rule of descend based on ancestry which stated that anyone who had a known Negro ancestor was a Negro. This rule became a law in many of the southern states. Thus the system of classification of people was reduced to a twofold caste-like system of "Negroes" and "whites". Everyone having any far or close Negro ancestor was a "Negro" - despite they could be thoroughly adapted in occupation, education, social graces and economic position to middle or upper class status. This resulted into large number of such people "passing" as white, i.e. assuming the status of a white by migrating to a locality where one's ancestry is unknown. This twofold stucture was brought about a system of segregation in schools, housing, public conveyances, restaurants and other public meeting places, and created a tension between these two groups that was so typical for the U.S. society.

Spanish America

In the region of the Americas which consists of Mexico and Guatemala - and this is probably true also about Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia - the classification of people by social race took another form in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this region the emphasis has been placed mainly on the criteria of social and cultural status, almost to the point of ignoring the criterion of physical appearance. Furthermore, except within certain local communities, ancestry as a criterion for membership in a social race has little or no importance. In each of these countries there continues to be a relatively large segment of the population classified as "indigenas" or Indians, an intermediate social race called mestizo in Mexico and ladino in Guatemala, and finally a social race which we might call the whites. The answer to this lack of emphasis upon physical appearance as a criterion for classifying individuals as to social race is that there is an almost imperceptible gradation of physical appearance from Amerindian to Caucasoid running from the Indians to the whites. This is the natural result of a high frequency of miscegenation between Indians and Europeans in the colonial period as well as post-colonial and present time. Sometimes, however, ancestry is still an important criterion for membership in the group of "aristocratic" families who claim "pure" European descent (sometimes conveniently forgetting an Indian ancestor in the colonial times). Yet such aristocratic families form but a small segment of the whites. Exceptional is also the case of some regions of e.g. Guatemala, where local community creates a twofold tension betwenn Indians and non-Indians not unsimilar to the case of the United States.

So as the caste-like system of the United States, the system of social race of Mexico and Guatemala reflects the kind of relationship that has taken form between the various groups. Indians are looked down on and discriminated against by non-Indians. But while in the United States the misgenation between Negro and white only adds to the numbers of the Negro group, in Mexico and Guatemala intermarriage between Indian and a mestizo, mestizo and a white, or Indian and white generally adds to the mestizo group. The offspring of such unions are usually raised within the mestizo culture and thus become mestizos. This system further promotes continued racial intermixture and theoretically it is only question of time until such populations may be entirely classed as mestizoby social race, and social differentiation will be entirely in terms of socio-economic classes.

Brazilia and the Carribean

Finally, in Brazil and in the Caribbean region of the Americas, the system of classification of people by social race has taken still another turn. Here emphasis has been placed on physical appearance rather than on ancestry or social and cultural criteria. This is due to the fact that in this region of the Americas there are no striking cultural contrasts comparable to those between Indians and non-Indians in Mexico and Guatemala. There are religious beliefs and rituals of African origin in some localities such as Haiti and northern Brazil. And, in some parts of the Caribbean a creole language, partially derived from Africa, is spoken by peasants. These cultural and linguistic traits are often identified with the Negro, but they are hardly limited to those classed as Negroes, for they are shared by a wide variety of people regardless of social race. The criterion of ancestry seems to be important in the Caribbean and Brazil - as it is in Mexico and Guatemala - only among those minor segments of the populaton who seek to prove the purity of their European-derived lineage. However, the indelible marks of physical appearance, with the highest prestige accruing to Caucasoid features and the lowest to Negroid features, remain important criteria by which to classify people in social races. Throughout this whole region features as color, the shape of the lips, hair texture, and the shape of the nose are closely analyzed in order to place an individual in the proper social race. Obviously, in populations such as those of Brazil and the Caribbean where mixture between the racial stocks had been so extensive, there is a tremendous variety in physical appearance. Although such terms as mulatto ("people of color") and pardo ("brown") are used to describe a wide range of physical types intermediate between Negro and white, in popular usage there are many more precise terms describing people of intermediate social races.

What is distinctive about these Brazilian and Caribbean systems of social race is that they are actually a continuum from Caucasoid through the various degrees of mixed physical appearance to Negroid. They do not in themselves form social groups that interact between each other as do Indian and mestizo in Mexico, and Negro and white in the United States. They are a way of describing a classifying individuals according to physical appearance, but this is just one way that these societies classify people. The proper rank is derived from the position of an individual in the hierarchy of social race combined with education, economic status, occupation, family connections and even manners and artistic abilities. Neither Negroes, mulattoes, pardos, whites, nor any other social race acts as a group or attempts to improve their situation as a group. Therefore this situation is less conducive to discrimination and segregation on the basis of social race. Yet given the presence of relatively rigid socio-economic classes deriving from the colonial period, class discrimination and segregation often function in a manner superficially similar to racial discrimination and segregation.

In addition, these Brazilian and Caribbean systems of social race provide a situation favorable to individual mobility. An individual does not have to "pass" from Indian to mestizo nor from Negro to white. Rather by means of improving one's education, financial position, and other qualities capable of modification within a lifetime, he may move up in the class structure. An exaggerated statement says that "A rich Negro is a white man and a poor white is a Negro." (7).

Race Relations in Respective Regions

Each of these systems of classifying people by social race produces a very different structural situation for race relations. Each defines social races in different terms. In Mexico and Guatemala (and elsewhere in the Indian countries) an Indian is defined in socio-cultural terms. In the United States, a Negro is defined in terms of ancestry alone. In the Caribbean and in Brazil, social racial types are defined on the basis of physical appearance as modified in their perception by the total social status of the individual. These different definitions of social race have different consequences and thus so-called "race problems" are different problems in each of the three regions.

The race problem of the United States has been the struggle between the Negroes as a group to achieve equality of opportunity with the whites. But even though the equality of opportunity has been achieved by the Negroes in the United States, the continued presence of the self-perpetuating caste-like social races provides a situation conducive to continued competition and conflict.

In Mexico and Guatemala, it might be said that there are also two self-conscious groups - Indians and non-Indians - and that the Indians act to improve their position as a group in compare with the non-Indians. Yet by defining Indian in cultural terms, the way is always open for individuals and whole communities to transform themselves from Indians into non-Indians.

In the Caribbean and in Brazil, the situation is highly permissive to individual mobility. Social races do not form self-conscious groups, and "race relations" do not take the form of interaction between "racial" groups. Despite low position in the hierarchy of social races, individuals can improve their total position in society by achievement in other ways. Yet rigid barriers of socio-economic classes operate to reduce the mobility of all people of low socio-economic status and thus the "race problem" of this region is to a large extent a problem of socio-economic classes.


Yet in all of the American societies, classifications of social race, whatever defined, remain a basis for formal or informal social, economic, and even legal discrimination, and often these classifications are bases of prejudice against whole groups. In view of the extensive miscegenation between people of all three major racial stocks and between the various intermediate types, and especially in view of the criteria used to define these social races, it is clear that nowhere do such categories as mulatto, Negro, Indian, mestizo, and white have genetic validity. But in the course of the American experience such racial terms have become entangled with social and cultural meanings and they remain to be unhealed symbols out of the past time of insensitive colonization, domination by force, slavery and peonage.


  1. Collier, Simon: From Cortes to Castro, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York 1974
  2. Devisch, Rene: World Ethnography II, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven 1996
  3. Hanke, Lewis (ed): History of Latin American Civilization, vol. I, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London 1969
  4. Hoberman, Louisa Schell & Susan Migden Socolow (ed): Cities & Society in Colonial Latin America, University of Mexico Press, Albuquerque 1986
  5. Morner, Magnus: Race Mixture in the History of Latin America, Little, Brown & Company Inc., Boston 1967
  6. Toplin, Robert Brent (ed): Slavery and Race Relations in Latin America, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut 1974
  7. Wagley, Charles: The Latin American Tradition, Columbia University Press, New York 1968

Author: Ing. Tomáš Fülöpp (Master of Anthropology student, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven 1996-97). This paper has been prepared as a presentation for examination taken from the course of Latin American History given by professor E. Stols. Date of the examination: June 30th, 1997.

Tomáš Fülöpp
Leuven, Belgium
June 30, 1997
Tomáš Fülöpp (2012)

Tagslatin americasocial raceracismracehistoryanthropology
LanguageENGLISH Content typeARTICLELast updateMARCH 2, 2024 AT 23:15:28 UTC