What Latinx Means: Mestizx Privilege

Earlier this year, the Census published findings about the increase in Latinxs self-identifying as White. This opened up a much-needed, and still developing, conversation about who is a White Latinx, their privilege, and racism within our community. As a mathematics student, I found it useful to back up and revisit key concepts when attempting to understand a complex situation. Clarity is important because mainstream conversations about Latinidad often exclude race. The goal is to break out of US American centrism that categorizes Latinxs into a monolithic Other, and to highlight the similarities and differences in the racial hierarchies of both Latin America and the US.

Who is Latinx?
Latinx is an pan-ethnic group of US-residing descendents of Latin Americans; that is, as opposed to being descendents of Anglo Americans. For clarification, Latin America is the region colonized by Romance language speaking countries, mainly Spain and Portugal. In contrast, Anglo America is the region colonized by Great Britain, with English as the dominant language. The colonizing language has significant historical and cultural impacts in each region — enough to separate the Americas into two overarching ethnicities. Latinx is the intersection of these two, living on Anglo American soil.

Since both Latin and Anglo America were colonized by Europeans, they share a related history of African and Indigenous slavery, genocide, and mixture. Thus, both areas established similar racial hierarchies, with White, European colonizers at the top and African and Indigenous people at the bottom. Influenced by both Americas, Latinxs operate within these schemas.

‘Are White Latinxs privileged?’ and ‘Are Latinxs racist?’ aren’t the questions we should be asking. As stated above, we are descendents of a colonized region, living in a similarly colonized country, so the answer is unequivocally yes. The questions we should be asking are: Which Latinxs are privileged, and how so? How does Latin American history shape that privilege? How are the racial experiences within Latinx communities different when in the larger US context?

When Latinx = Race
The treatment of Latinx as a race in mainstream US culture is ubiquitous. It hinders us from understanding our racial identity and its relationship to the rest of the community. There are countless examples of ‘Latinx As Race’ in the media. Even when Latinxs are described correctly as an ethnicity, we’re often stacked up in comparison to monoracial groups. Amassing a multiracial group into one category is counterproductive in studies meant to highlight racial differences. This omits the racial diversity of Latin America and Latinxs themselves. In other words, these findings average out the different racial experiences into one, marginalizing Indigenous and Afro-Latinx voices.

This ‘racial averaging out’ effect is more insidious than we may imagine. Think of a Latinx, and you will likely picture a brown-skinned Mestizx, even though the racial diversity of Latin America is similar to that of Anglo America.  We could have thought of an Afro-Latinx, Asian Latinx, or a White latinx, but most of us didn’t.

Mestizx Majority
Mestizx, in most of Latin America, is a person of Indigenous and European ancestry. We make up the racial majority in most countries, affording us privilege by simply being the dominant group. Meanwhile, White European settlers became the majority in the US — a key distinction between Latin and Anglo American racial hierarchies. Not only is Mestizx a racial category, it’s also a socio-political standing with power and position (Spanish settlers gave rights to Mestizxs they wouldn’t extend to Black or Indigenous people). Even an Indigenous person can identify or be considered Mestizx depending on their proximity to mainstream culture. Joining the dominant mixed identity is analogous to the assimilation process in the US engulfing Native Americans and immigrants into the dominant European culture. Even though White Europeans in Latin America are awarded more privileges, they are a minority in most countries. Mestizx dominance has shaped the cultural and national identity we bring with us to the US. In short: the Latinx experience, if unchecked, will tell the story of the Mestizx. This is Mestizx privilege.

Examining the term further we see it isn’t free of privilege. In Spanish, Mestizo literally means mixed. Its use varies regionally throughout the world, but in Latin America it means strictly Indigenous and European ancestry. It’s more realistic for a term describing a mixed-majority to mean someone of Indigenous/African and European ancestry, since many Mestizxs are likely to have African ancestry. However, anti-black racism has upheld the Afro-exclusionary definition. Note the appropriation of a neutral word, as opposed to dehumanizing titles like Mulatto or Lobo for mixed-Black ancestry, as evidence of some of the privileges awarded to Mestizxs.

Mestizx cultural dominance is intertwined with racial privilege. Our genetic mixing centers us closer to whiteness, and even if we’re not quite there, it extends some of its privileges. White Latinxs, on the other hand, have racial privilege in our community much akin to US White privilege — they’re considered beautiful, desired, educated, etc. In Latin America, they’ve been awarded far greater education and economic opportunities, and this historical privilege brought to the US, along with racial privilege, affords White Latinxs positions of power and visibility. Turn on Univision and count how many White Latinxs or light-skinned Mestizxs you see versus Afro-Latinxs or Indigenous people.

Pain & Privilege
It’s confusing to think of Mestizxs having privilege because when we scale back out into the larger US culture we are stereotyped, stigmatized, and oppressed based on both our race and ethnicity. Even White Latinxs may deal with a level of oppression based solely on ethnicity. Since the privileged people within our group deal with systemic oppression in the larger US context, it follows that stereotyping and violence is magnified for Afro-Latinxs and Indigenous people. These experiences are similar to the violent racial oppression of US Blacks and Native Americans, who are often excluded in conversation about US Americans.

Many Mestizxs are quick to reject the reality of racism towards Indigenous, Black, and other Latinxs because in doing so we admit privilege. How can we be privileged when we’re stereotyped as soon as we step out of our homes? To understand our complex position we must disassociate with the idea that oppressing and being oppressed are mutually exclusive. We both endure and impose injustices based on our racial identity. As a Mestiza, I’m asking that we reflect in the ways in which we perpetuate a culture that is racist towards Afro-Latinxs and Indigenous folks. The most useful way is to acknowledge the racist history of Latin America and how it has shaped us. Here are some articles on Mestizx identity helping me understand my position:

Mestizaje and the Mexican Mestizo Self: No Hay Sangre Negra, So There is No Blackness
A long and detailed read about the history of anti-blackness in Mexican (Mestizx) identity, starting from colonial times, through the Mexican-American war, and up to modern times.

Indigenous Nationalities and the Mestizo Dilemma
A brief look at Indigenous identity in the US versus Latin America.

The Reflexivity of Pain and Privilege
On the complexities of being Mestizx in the US. As with any text on Mestizaje, be critical of its exclusion of Afro-Latinxs.

Discussing racial issues within the Latinx community is as important as talking about them in the larger US context. The distinction between race and ethnicity is key to understanding ourselves, other Latinxs, and to pushing against the stereotypes placed on us by US Americans. Talking about Latinxs without acknowledging race upholds the hierarchy established by colonialism — it upholds White and Mestizx privilege and is inherently racist towards Indigenous people and Afro-Latinxs.

While it’s important to reject frameworks established to oppress, it is necessary to employ these same concepts in order to break down the racial hierarchy, as long as we’re consistent and critical of them. If we are consistent with the distinction between race and ethnicity it becomes possible to simultaneously break down stereotypes within our community and in the larger US context.


María thanks Lucy Wong, David Goodman, and Oswald Leon for edits, support, and inspiration.