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Des catégories et de leurs usages dans la construction sociale d’un groupe de référence : "race", "ethnie" et "communauté" aux Amériques (Mascipo)

Comments on « Comparative Perspectives: Latinos, the Census and Race in the United States »

Chantal Caillavet

Notes de la rédaction

Ce dossier est publié en collaboration avec le Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Le commentaire disponible dès maintenant sur Nuevo Mundo concerne donc un article du n°95-2 (2009) du JSA ( dont le résumé se trouve en annexe.

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1The paper which I have been asked to comment on is by Clara Rodríguez, “Comparative Perspectives: Latinos, the Census and Race in the United States”. I have read this paper with great interest, trying to view it from a certain distance, as though it were a new subject for me - new in such a way as to allow certain impressions and associations, from my knowledge of the archives, to come to the surface. I have drawn on my historical knowledge of Colonial Spanish America, that is, from the making of societies in which there were multiple ethnic components.

2This is a vast subject, which lends itself to a range of extrapolations. It can open up onto an extremely varied discussion, and quite distinct lines of research. I want to limit myself to historical observations which shed light on the main question, which Clara Rodríguez defines as the tension between state classification and self-classification, “the contestation between state visions and popular views”. I interpret this as the divergence between the point of view of the passive “subjects”, and those in power, or the dominant society in a given period.

3My comments are based on historical studies of Andean societies, and especially the Northern Andes (Ecuador and Colombia). I feel that these observations can often - but not of course always - be extrapolated to other societies and areas. They are certainly representative of one of the forms that Spanish colonial societies could take, and of their functioning.

4In my personal opinion, the concept of race is a representation devoid of a scientific foundation, and belongs to a system of beliefs, which I in no way share. I am quite aware that there are other viewpoints, as indeed is perfectly clear from the work of those who have designed and introduced race categories into the US censuses. Their approach is exemplified in the systematic attempts, discussed by Rodríguez, to discourage people (why?) from placing themselves in the least formal “Some other race” category. I thought the concept of race had been long been left behind us in studies of Latin America, yet here we find it updated and thriving in 21st century USA. Back in 1984, the historian Nancy Farriss had already written: “Physical anthropologists tell us that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as race. But for most of recorded history, we must deal with people unaware of this recent finding and for whom race was a palpable reality.”

5This contrast between Ancien Régime modes of thought, and an “enlightened” contemporary approach underlies my observations. For this reason, I find it strange that a scientific reflection on the concept of race is absent from the premises of the US censuses, which treat it as a formal and objective system of classification, quite beyond discussion. In this light, the difference between the modern and contemporary periods, encapsulated in Farriss’s comments, loses much of its meaning, and we actually find continuities between past and present, which I was not expecting to encounter.

6I wish to mention some historical examples, which I feel may help to clarify some differences (or maybe similarities?) with the present-day debate. Here are a series of observations:

7A- In the first instance, with regard to the equivalent of state classification in Spanish and Latin-American history, the way in which the Spanish state and settlers shaped social and racial categories, what can we say about the policies implemented by the Crown handling the physical and cultural characteristics of the native population?

8In the 16th century, I can trace two sharply contrasting approaches, which I attribute to a key factor, namely the demographic balance between the dominant population (whether this is considered a class or an ethnic group), and the dominated population. The pattern is different according to whether the dominant class is autochthonous or immigrant in origin, and predominant or in a minority demographically. Either way, official policies are imposed by coercive means.

91: Where the dominated population is essentially autochthonous (and this is true of colonial Spanish America, and specifically the Andes, the area I am familiar with), the dominant population has an external origin, and is, demographically, in a small minority. The elite, or dominant class, will continue to justify and exercise its domination by accentuating ethnic differences in the most visible and external way, introducing racial classification, and creating hierarchies of these phenotypes.

10Thus, the strongest possible differentiation was sought between the Spanish/White dominant class (“españoles” or “blancos”), and the dominated Indians (“indios”). The Spaniards (who had a Caucasian phenotype), were bearded, and wore their hair short. It followed that the Indians, (whose genetic features makes them beardless), and who had actually had extremely varied hairstyles, which was a reflection of the diversity of prehispanic cultures, were forced to have long, flowing hair. Any kind of headdress was also prohibited, so as to differentiate them completely from the Spaniards. The Spaniards imposed a unification of the image of the Indian, not just through the single, standardised clothing of “manta y camiseta” (poncho and short tunic), but also through a single type of authorised body appearance, and a ban on traditionally distinctive body paintings, and on hairstyles and head adornments. This was designed in such a way as to make this classification visible, and to highlight the contrast between two opposing phenotypes.

11The ever-growing number of mixed-bloods were aligned with the Spanish self-image so as not to contaminate the “purity of race” of the autochthonous Indians, or the ease of classification. Underlying this ideal Spanish classification was the goal of keeping the bulk of the dominated population as a well-defined tax-paying entity, which was obliged to supply the forced labour rota. By exclusion, the Spanish (or White) category also included the non-Indians (both the Mestizos, who were every biological type of mixture, and also the black slaves). This Spanish/White category did not have to pay taxes, or supply forced labour rota. (They had other tasks in society.)

122: Secondly, within Spain itself at the same period, the Spaniards have different strategies of domination. If there is a minority, dominated population of external origin - even a longstanding one - then the dominant Spanish majority population seeks to absorb that minority into the tax-paying plebeians (= the “pueblo llano”, the non-aristocratic and non-ecclesiastical masses). There is a very low tolerance of differences, exemplified in the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims, or the forced imposition of physical types on those who were not expelled, such as the Moriscos, (who were culturally beardless and had formerly attended public bathhouses). These were now forced to have beards like Old Christians (“Cristianos viejos”), and only wash themselves sparingly. Here we have the exact opposite of the Colonial Latin American experience, and the “state policy” on that continent.

13In comparison with the USA, we are talking about a major demographic difference with important implications. The USA is a country which has had different waves of immigration, and where the autochthonous population has long been in a minority. This may account for one difference in concepts of race between the USA and the Andes, which have undergone the impact of Spanish colonisation However, the demographic balance also means that different power relations are at play.

14B- The historical evolution of categories in colonial societies:

15From the 16th to the 19th centuries in the Andes, the dynamics of colonial society, and the ongoing transformations led towards a readjustment of categories,while there were continual changes within categories.

16Formal categories were often but not always retained. For example, the category of Mestizo was not separated from that of White in Quito in the late eighteenth century censuses, but was then introduced or indeed “invented” under the Republic in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, even where formal categories existed, what they signified was now often radically different.

17A first example: while, as I have just said, at the end of the Colonial period in Quito, there was no officially sanctioned distinction in the state censuses, the reality was that there was a splintering in the category of White. There was a growing separation between the white aristocracy, and the biologically diverse category of Whites/Mestizos, which included the lighter-skinned “Montañeses”, and other mixed-race groups such as mulattos. This distinction was put into practice at the level of parish priests, no doubt reflecting developments in the wider society. In this case, the socially exclusive registers of births, marriages and deaths were an accurate record of how a society understood and negotiated official classifications.

18A second example: the nineteenth century census-takers understood the term Mestizo (or mixed-blood), differently from one region to another. When we examined a series of mid-nineteenth century censuses closely, we discovered that a stable, rural Mestizo population in a given area was being classified as white. On the other hand, in other areas very small groups of socially marginalised poor whites were being classified pejoratively as “Mestizo”, even though those who were biologically Mestizo were, of course, far more numerous. I believe that in this context we can again say that, in the context of social networks, race is being negotiated.

19In 20th and 21st century Andean societies, the preceding framework was, and is, being fractured, for example through phenomena such as massive rural-urban migration, and emigration to other countries. In general, we are not here referring to official categories, but to societies which historically have had implied hierarchies. However, specifically racial classifications, based on phenotype, are beginning to disappear. The implicit racial categories, which the Ecuadorians were familiar with in Colonial and Republican times, are different from those proposed in the USA. It is, I think, therefore logical that, by a process of elimination, they chose the least implausible category, “some other race”. They are not offered the most logical category, that of Mestizo, which was a reasonably advantageous one in the colonial censuses, and conferred social prestige and benefits. My feeling is that a newly-arrived Ecuadorian migrant in the USA is extremely unlikely to describe himself as Indian, a pejorative classification, unless conceivably, later on, he discovers that it could confer material benefits in the USA.

20C- Thirdly, despite the imposed character of these classifications in colonial societies, individuals have always had a pragmatic viewpoint, and sought to seek out the most advantageous type of classification.

21For example, gender is often of decisive importance, as males and females often have distinct interests as a result of fiscal criteria. Historically, Andean males benefiting from “whitening”: becoming “white” meant that men and their offspring would no longer suffer from the tax burden which weighed on the Indian population. The opposite was true of females: as petty saleswomen, Indian women did not pay a trade tax which “white” (= Mestizo) women had to.

22If we think in terms of negotiating race, then what was pragmatic in Ecuador in 1700-1800 was a classification which minimised taxes; what is pragmatic in the USA today could be a racial status that facilitates a study grant. Maybe things are not as different as we might imagine!

23Another example: the initial Spanish system of classification was sharply defined in the 16th century, with mutually exclusive if idealised categories. However, subsequently there was an evolution towards a situation in which contradictions did not seem to be a problem, and individuals could claim to belong to two incompatible racial categories. On the coast of Ecuador in the 18th century, for example, the Indians who received benefits as recognised Indians (as acolytes of their village church), also sought to be classified as Mestizos, because this was the most advantageous choice for themselves and for their offspring. The existence of a long lawsuit shows us that this paradoxical claim did have to be fought for, but also that it was considered to be worth the effort!

24This is parallel to the choice made in present-day USA of a category which is not perceived as being more meaningful, but which is nevertheless considered advantageous. DNA tests, which allow individuals to calculate the percentage of each contributing element in their genetic origin, can lead to study grants, social and employment opportunities, and the use of positive discrimination for certain racial categories. This can lead to people defining themselves as white, black and American Indian at the same time.

25Self-classification is invariably used as a strategy for social and economic development.

26In Colonial Andean society, after a couple of generations, from the point at which racial mixture grew in complexity, racial categories took on another dimension, and become an ideal system of classification, which absorbed social categories. In the USA today, my impression is that while there may be movement towards a racially mixed society, the clock is also being turned back towards genetically defined classification.

27D- Switching from disadvantageous categories to more favourable ones was possible under certain conditions.It was widespread in Ancien Régime Europe, and was very common in Spain. With relative ease people could change their identity and social class. This was a period in which people were not registered by the state, and found their place in society through local networks and “fama” (or reputation). In order to improve your position in society, and acquire a more advantageous status, it was necessary to change your place of residence, town, region, name and dress, and invent a new family ancestry. The imposture was continual and widespread, and difficult to track down.

28This was notably true of migrants from Europe towards the Spanish colonies, but it was also a metropolitan practise exported to the colonies, and formed part of the adopted culture.I am thinking of social climbers, individuals with a criminal past seeking a change in their lives, or examples as striking as the frequent cases of bigamy. These were pursued by the Inquisition both in Spain and in the Spanish colonies - you would marry twice or more often in different places and under different names. This meant that members of Colonial society, whatever their phenotype, had the notion and experience of trying to swap identities and switch race categories, in another kind of self-ascription.

29In conclusion, I would like to say that I personally feel that those who are confused are the authorities, which plan and draw up the censuses. Those who have their ideas clear are people like the Hispanics in present-day USA, and many of their counterparts in historical Andean societies! Theirs is a completely logical response to obsolete categories, which can only be inadequate, failing to reflect a society’s dynamism. Do they also feel, like me, that its raison d’être is unjustified, and maybe, unjustifiable?

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Contestations Over Classifications: Latinos, the Census And Race in the United States

Clara E. Rodríguez

The divergence between popular and state classifications of peoples has become increasingly important with the growing migration of peoples around the world. This paper examines this issue by focusing on one group (Latinos in the US) at one historical juncture (the late 20th-early 21st centuries). After examining the evolution of US census « race » categories in the context of shifting political, economic, and scientific trends, it reviews Hispanic/Latinos’ responses to questions of « race » on the US census and the theories that have surfaced to explain why so many Latinos choose the « Some Other Race » category on the census. It also chronicles the US government’s efforts to discourage such responses and force Latinos into more traditional US race categories. The global uniqueness of the US’s « race » concept is also underscored.

race, ethnicity, classifications, social construction of race, census, Hispanics, Latinos, United States, France.

Débats autour des classifications: les latinos, le recensement et la question raciale aux États-Unis.

Les divergences entre les classifications courantes des individus et celles des États ont gagné en importance avec l’augmentation du nombre de personnes immigrées à travers le monde. Cet article ne traite que d’un groupe, celui des Latinos aux États-Unis, à ce point de contact entre la fin du xxe siècle et le début du xxie siècle. Après avoir rappelé l’évolution des catégories de « races » dans le recensement nord-américain, ce dans le contexte politique, économique et scientifique changeant des dernières décennies, on s’intéressera à la réponse des Hispaniques/Latinos à la question de la « race » et aux explications qui ont été données au pourquoi du choix que tant d’entre eux ont fait de la catégorie « autre race ». On fera aussi l’historique des efforts du gouvernement des États-Unis pour décourager une telle réponse et forcer les Latinos à se positionner dans des catégories de races plus traditionnelles. La place du concept de « race », unique aux États-Unis, sera également soulignée.

race, ethnicité, classifications, construction sociale des races, recensements, Hispaniques, Latinos, États-Unis, France.

Divergencias sobre las clasificaciones: los latinos, el censo y las razas en los Estados Unidos.

Las divergencias entre las clasificaciones comunes de la gente y las de los estados ha crecido sustancialmente con el aumento de las migraciones a nivel mundial. En ese trabajo se tratará de un solo grupo, los latinos en los Estados unidos, entre el final del siglo xx y el inicio del siglo xxi. Después de haber revisado la evolución de las categorías raciales utilizadas por los censos de los EU en el marco de las transformaciones políticas, económicas y científicas recientes, se examinarán las respuestas de los latinos a la pregunta sobre la(s) raza(s) y las interpretaciones que se han venido dando al porqué de su elección – tan frecuente – de la categoría « Otra raza ». Se revisarán también los esfuerzos que el gobierno de los Estados unidos ha realizado para controlar este tipo de respuesta y forzar a los latinos a elegir una categoría racial más tradicional. Se discute igualmente el concepto de raza tal como se aplica de forma sin equivalente en los Estados unidos.

raza, etnicidad, clasificaciones, construcción social de las razas, censo, hispanos, latinos, Estados Unidos, Francia.

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Chantal Caillavet, « Comments on « Comparative Perspectives: Latinos, the Census and Race in the United States » »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 27 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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