The Construction and Function of Race:
Creating the Mestizo

       * Origin of Race*

People most often consider race a biological difference between groups.  Although it is true that humans are born with a variety of skin colors, the concept of race cannot be dismissed simply as a difference in DNA.  Although it has no biological basis, the social construction and function of race has a distinct purpose for those in power.   As Peter Wade states, “Phenotypical variation poses an obvious biological fact when in fact it is a highly socially constructed one that has become salient in long term colonial encounters” (Weismantel and Eisenman 122).   Simply stated, biology is an excuse for racial division.  So, it was beneficial for the Spanish conquistadors to create racial distinctions within their new society.  The concept of a mestizo, a person of mixed blood, displays the arbitrary divisions placed between different segments of the population in order for the Spanish to maintain their power.  The flexible nature of the term mestizo during the Spanish colonial period of 1530-1750, along with the varying treatment toward these people, defends the idea that race is not biological.  Instead, it is a socially constructed concept developed by those who wish to maintain power and organization.

    Historians Wiesmantel and Eisenman argue, “The origins of race, then, lie in history and not in biology” (Weismantel and Eisenman 122).   The concept of race allows one group to disregard the rights of another group for the sake of its own selfish goals.  In fact, race was developed in order to transfer the guilt onto the victims instead of blaming those who are truly guilty of mistreatment such as the conquistadors.  Thus, assumptions about the Indians' ignorance or barbarity gave the Spanish an excuse to abuse the native people.  The Spanish were able to develop their own racial superiority based upon these assumptions.  Doing so established social organization and control while creating a reliable workforce (Weismantel and Eisenman 122-23).

           *Spanish Application of Race*

    After creating such a system, the Spanish had to considered the epitome of human civilization and achievement in order to remain superior.  Being Western, white, and Christian were characteristics considered “natural” and “universal” by the Spanish.  It seems that the Indians were unable to become “white” enough in order to achieve this level of sophistication.  Whether it was due to lax morals, poor education, or genetics, Indians were not designed to power because of their inferiority (Weismantel and Eisenman 122-23).

    While the Spanish were confident in their religion, culture, and racial superiority, their powerful status in South America was the result of their own insecurities in Europe.  Most Spaniards who arrived in South America were hoping to have a more prestigious and wealthy life.  The development of a capitalist economy and culture in Europe had created a new bourgeoisie class, who was traveling to the New World to obtain wealth and power.  In order to feel more important these people needed to place others below their own status.  The Indians, being different, were the perfect group to build the egos of the new arrivals (Weismantel and Eisenman 124).

    The concepts of racial division and superiority were established quickly between the Indian and Spanish populations.  Because the divisions and roles were so strict, the development of a mestizo population left many questions for this newly developing society.  There was a new group of people that did not fit easily into the narrow racial categories developed by the Spanish to maintain power.  The varying treatment and acceptance of mestizos demonstrates their unique status in society.

*Origins of the Mestizo*

    The first generation of mestizos in the Andean region was almost exclusively the product of a Spanish father and an Indian mother.  Due to the limited numbers of Spanish men and contact between groups, it took seventy-five years for a significant mestizo population to develop (Kicza 14).   The first mestizo children were born in 1533, but a significant number of mestizo babies were not born until 1537 after the Indian rebellions had died down (Lockhart 186).  Over the course of the colonial period, the increased amount of documentation has allowed researchers to observe the increasing mestizo population.  Under the Bourbon reforms, a census was taken in order to determine the taxable population.  These statistics show how many towns experienced an increase in their mestizo population.  For example, directly following the colonial period in 1760, the town of Callanca did not have a mestizo population, but by 1789 there were sixteen people of mixed heritage.  Also, the town of Chicalayo experienced a 123% increase in the mestizo population during the eighteenth-century (Ramirez 81-82).

Not only did the mestizo population develop slowly, but the first generation also faced other problems.  Ninety-five percent of the first generation was illegitimate.  With two issues to deal with, it is difficult to conclude whether being illegitimate or being of mixed heritage was worse according to society’s standards.  Historian James Lockhart believes the Spanish might have considered illegitimacy to be a more serious problem than racial mixing because of their strong Catholic beliefs (Lockhart 188).

*Economic Role of Mestizo*

    Iit is obvious that the mestizos held a unique position, suspended between the elite Spanish and the abused Indian peasantry.  Despite their superior status over the Indians, their economic situation was limited.  Job opportunities, along with financial success, were not guaranteed for mestizo men.  In order to make a living, and with the hope of joining Spanish society, many were willing to become an artisan or Spanish servant.  A positive sign for mestizo artisans arrived in 1561, when the city of Cuzco decided that they should be allowed to operate their own shops.  This was a sign that some mestizo men escaped the oppressive, direct power of the Spanish by creating their own businesses (Lockhart 190).

    As depicted in the novel, Huasipungo, written by Jorge Icaza, the mestizos did not perform the same menial labor as the Indians on the haciendas.  Instead, the mestizos were often in a supervisory position such as a mayordomo, or they were independent villagers working as skilled laborers (Icaza, Ramirez 62).   Although the mayordomo, who managed the hacienda, was under the direct control of the Spanish owner, he acted as the mediator between the owner and the Indians.  There were also cases of mestizo workers replacing Indian workers in traditional settings such as the mines.  With the development of new methods and technology, mestizo workers often received positions requiring a certain degree of skill and managerial duties (Kicza 10).

    The inheritance of land and property by mestizo children was another troublesome economic issue..  Because so many of the mestizo children were illegitimate, few of them received any type of inheritance.  The limited number of legitimate children were treated equally.  They were able to inherit encomiendas and property as any Spanish son would.  Also, if there was not a legitimate Spanish heir, the father would often give his property to an illegitimate mestizo son.  Although the son could not legally own the land, he could unofficially control it (Lockhart 188-189).

*Family Issues*

    According to Lockhart, "There was no one standard treatment or fixed social evaluation of the thousands of mestizo children" (Lockhart 188).   Instead, the individual treatment of a mestizo child was determined by the Spanish father, who accepted or rejected the child.  Depending on the attitude of the father, many mestizo children grew up  either exclusively Indian or Spanish. (Kicza 13).   Many of the children, who were never recognized, grew up with their mothers and were reabsorbed into the Indian population.  On the other hand, some Spanish fathers went to great lengths to provide their mestizo children with the advantages of being Spanish (Lockhart 188).

    The attempt by some Spanish fathers to integrate the mestizo children into their Spanish families was a source of tension.  It was not unusual for a Spanish wife to teach and care for their husband’s illegitimate mestizo child along with her own.  Although it is obvious that such a situation could lead to awkward relationships, the women often developed an unavoidable connection with these children.  Spanish women felt it was their duty or obligation to spread the Spanish language and culture to the indigenous people in order to bring them civilization (Lockhart 190).   Thus, these children grew up with only knowledge of their Spanish background.

    The mestizo children of privileged Spaniards benefited social and economically from the position of their parents.  This was particularly true if the mother belonged to a family of high Inca nobility.  These children often received a Spanish education through the use of a private tutor or priest, who would travel to the home of a wealthy family in order to teach the sons.  Others, such as chronicler Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, received an education of superior quality in Spain.  The decision to send the child home to be raised by the family in Spain was not an uncommon practice.  This solution led to less confrontation within the immediate family and ensured that the child would learn Spanish culture and ideas (Lockhart 187-88).

    Upon adulthood, the mestizo children of prominent Spaniards continued to profit from their well-known parents and family name.  Along with inheriting land, the mestizo children were often provided with enough money to live in a certain style and level of comfort.  Many were able to acquire and maintain the fashionable styles and lavish homes comparable to those of the Spanish.  Some of the mestizos were able to overcome the obstacles against them because of their wealth and prominence.  For example, the legitimate son of one Spaniard was appointed to the city council of Lima, which was a position usually reserved exclusively for the Spanish.  In particular, the illegitimate children of Pizarro and Almagro were treated well by the Spanish because of their famous fathers.  According to Lockhart, these children “were lifted by their exalted parentage right out of the mestizo category into positions of leadership among Spaniards, while still at a tender age” (Lockhart 198).  It is easy to see that the restrictions on being mestizo could be flexible, depending upon the economic and social standing of the individual.

    The experience of mestiza daughters was often different from that of their male counterparts.  Instead of participating in politics or inheriting land, the women were able to take advantage of their status in order to marry.  Unlike their brothers, it was acceptable for mestiza girls to marry into Spanish Peruvian society.  To a Spanish father, this arrangement had financial and social benefits.  Often the alliances between fathers were good for support and the dowries provided new wealth for the family.  Even if a mestiza girl could not marry a Spanish man of equal status of her father, it was still possible for her to marry a respectable man of slightly lesser means.  For example, the women often married a Spanish merchant, sailor, or artisan (Lockhart 189-90).   Particularly wealthy mestiza girls, such as the daughter of the famous captain Lorenzo de Aldana, were able to marry rich Spanish gentlemen and encomenderos (Lockhart 189).

    When the first mestizo generation became adults, a problem arose in Peruvian society.  There were many mestiza girls growing up Spanish, yet they did not have enough money to find a husband.  It was a favorite form of charity to donate dowries for orphaned mestizas.  Also, philanthropic groups established shelters for the young women in cities such as Lima and Cuzco (Lockhart 190).

    It is interesting that the marriage of two mestizos was nonexistent during the beginning of the colonial period.  Thus, there was no such thing as a mestizo family or community; instead, they simply tried to attach themselves to the lower edge of the Spanish culture.  One reason researchers speculate that mestizo marriages did not exist is because in Spanish culture the men get married at an older age than the women, but there were no older mestizo men.  So, the women, who came of age first, were married to older Spanish men (Lockhart 190-91).

    One might wonder why a Spanish man would take such an interest in a mestizo child, illegitimate or not, that could bring so much tension or shame to the family.  Many Spanish fathers did not feel love for these children; instead, it was a sense of duty.  Although the Spanish were often surprised to see the strong resemblance the children had to them, the reasons for supporting and accepting these children were much deeper.  First, these wealthy and ethnocentric Spaniards could not bear the idea of their children being raised in an “inferior” way by the barbaric Indians.  So, rather than let them deteriorate among the Indians, they accepted the mestizo children into their lives, homes, and culture.  Secondly, a strong feeling of family lineage caused the Spanish to integrate the children into the family.  According to Spanish custom, there was a strong emphasis on the solidarity and unity of a family.  Also, carrying on the family name was extremely important to these people, who derived their power through tradition and reputation along with economic wealth (Lockhart 191).   A sense of obligation because of the strict system of Spanish guardianship and the culture’s emphasis on the older, wiser individuals holding power (Lockhart 186, 191).   Lastly, like many of the Mediterranean cultures, the Spanish felt a certain sense of responsibility for the protection of females.  Thus, a father felt it was his duty to protect his daughter despite her racial identity.  Also, the females were accepted more easily because the proportion of Spanish men was significantly higher than that of women in South America.  So, the women, although only half Spanish, were needed in order to sustain a viable Spanish population (Lockhart 191).

*Push and Pull of Society*

    Due to their isolation from Spanish and Indian society along with the lack of their own culture, the mestizos often felt pushed and pulled by different segments of society.  The Indians did not fully trust the mestizos because they took the land in the same fashion as the Spanish.  They declared ownership without reason, dominated the water resources, and often never paid the Indians for the land they took over.  According to authorities developing laws to prohibit illegal annexation of land, the mestizos along the Spanish, harmed the natives “because if one foot entered [native lands] they exceed and enlarge their holdings and take their [irrigation] water causing them harm with their cattle[;] and [royal officials] rarely make due restitutions” (Ramirez 77).   Along with the economic betrayal, Indians felt that many of the mestizos had abandoned their culture and heritage in order to pursue their own individual fortune.  According to John Kicza, it was possible for prosperous mestizos to successfully be considered “Spanish” (Kicza 14).  These people often lived without any contact with their Indian mothers and did not have relationships with the Indian side of the family (Kicza 13).  So, it is easy to see how Indian society and family members could feel anger toward the mestizos.  At the same time, the mestizos were never fully absorbed or treated equally by Spanish society.  Lockhart states, “the mestizos were long to be more the lower fringe of the Spanish grouping than a group themselves” (Lockhart 191).

    The narrow definition of adulthood according to Spanish standards made it even more difficult for the first generations of mestizos to assert any type of opinion or voice within society.  By 1560, only a small minority of the mestizo population was over the age of twenty.  Spanish society generally did not trust young people with significant responsibility.  The law stating that people were minors until the age of twenty-five.  So, young people in general had little power within society, and the mestizos were no exception (Lockhart 186).

*Prominent Figure: Garcilaso Inca de la Vega*

    One individual, who represents this push and pull between two identities, is chronicler Garcilaso Inca de la Vega.  This illegitimate son of a Spanish conquistador was sent to Spain as a young child in order to receive a proper education.  As a result, he returned to Peru with a refined writing style and abundant knowledge (Lockhart 188).   Despite his writing abilities, Garcilaso had to continually prove himself as a writer and translator because of his Indian background.  As stated by Margarita Zamora, “The blood of both conqueror and conquered flowed through his veins, which made him subject to the additional suspicion which that dichotomy aroused” (Zamora 47).   Although some viewed his work skeptically, Garcilaso always took pride in his mixed heritage.  Unlike other mestizo writers, such as the Mexican Diego Munoz Camargo, he celebrated being mestizo through his opinions and writings.  Also, his self-created name reflects his cultural pride through the use of the term “Inca” (Miller 41).   In fact, he used his status as a mestizo to promote his writing by saying he was more qualified to write an accurate history with loyalty to both sides, rather than being extremely biased one way.  He also tried to present an equal portrayal of the conquistadors and the Indians through his writings, instead of presenting an inferior, incompetent Indian (Miller 43).   Zamora states, “the figure of the mestizo becomes a metaphor for the translator as mediator between two languages, two cultures, the Old and New Worlds” (Miller 59).

    Despite his success, Garcilaso Inca de la Vega did experience some frustration over the Spanish misinterpretation of the native language, Quechua.  He uses the example of the word huacca in order to demonstrate the ignorance of the Spanish concerning the subtleties of the language.  The term had a variety of religious meanings including temple, burial, something extraordinary, or something of great beauty.  On the other hand, the Spanish thought it simply meant idol.  So, they thought anything called huacca was considered a god.  Garsilaso Inca de la Vega explained how this inaccurate translation caused the Spanish to completely misunderstand the indigenous religion (Ramirez 143-44).   As a man knowledgeable of both languages and cultures, he was frustrated by the simplistic and condescending attitude of the Spanish..


    The construction and function of racial categories in colonial Spanish society created a unique situation for those considered mestizo.  The classification of mestizo was fairly flexible because one was able to move in or out of this category as a result of economic or social standing.  For example, if an Indian gave up enough of the characteristics, which labeled the individual “Indian”, he or she could be considered mestizo.  At the same time, the mestizos were often trying to integrate themselves into Spanish society.  Despite these attempts, this was rarely completely possible because the racial distinction was too beneficial to the Spanish elite.  The term mestizo allowed the Spanish to differentiate between those with Spanish blood and the Indians.  At the same time, it allowed them to maintain a certain distance and socially superior status over the mestizos.  The socially constructed and organizationally functional development of a mestizo racial category affected the economic and social opportunities of its members and was created to maintain the power of the Spanish through a hierarchy of control.

Additional Sources Used for Mestizo Section (not in annotated bibliography):

Icaza, Jorge.  Huasipungo.  Translated by Bernard Dulsey.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,

Ramirez, Susan Elizabeth.  The World Upside Down: Cross-Cultural Contact and Conflict in Sixteenth-
    Century Peru.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Weismantel, Mary and Stephen Eisenman.  "Race in the Andes: Global Movements and Popular Ontologies."
    Bulletin Latin American Research 18 (1998): 121-142.

Zamora, Margarita.  Language, authority, and indigenous history in the Comentarios reales de los incas.
    New York: Cambridge Press, 1988.

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