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A drop of bleach in the gene pool

10 February 2018

A Redenção de Cam (The Redemption of Ham), Modesto Brocos y Gómez (1895)

This 1895 painting by Brazilian artist Modesto Brocos, quite effectively illustrates the difference in how elites in the United States and Latin America tried to deal with their questions of race and national identity. At the time, both in the Anglo north, and Latin south, Social Darwinism was accepted science: there was an assumption that the more European the population (and in the United States and Canada, the more north European at that), the better off the nation as a whole.

At the time of this painting, the “one drop” theory was prevalent in the United States — the idea that a person with a single black ancestor was black. Given the then fashionable eugenics theories of the day, the “one drop” theory combined with “Jim Crow” laws, sought to — if not eliminate — at least isolate non-whites from the general population. At the same time, the elites in overwhelming non-white Latin Americans were trying the exact opposite aproach, encouraging European immigration, in hopes of “whitening” the population. In the United States, what was condemned “miscegination” was here celebrated as mestiaje (mixing).   Needless to say, the Social Darwinist thinking behind both approaches was caca, but with recent discussion of mestiaje here in Mexico, one interesting development has been both a political and social movement for people who have for a century been considered mestizo to”reclaim” their heritage as Afro-Mexican, Indigenous, or even Jewish, while at the same time, in the United States, there’s an opposite trend by people of multi-racial heritage to celebrate their mixed ancestry.

Writing Gods, Gauchupines and Gringos 2.0, I’ve been wrestling on how to write about the “whitening” era in the late 19th and early 20th century here … when there was a concerted effort to attract European (or at least “white”) immigrants. I’m still stumped about what exactly to say about the whole, still maddening, question of racial identity in Mexico.

(An excellent critique of the painting by Barbara Weinstein:  How does the painting, ‘The Redemption of Ham’, by Modesto Brocos illustrate ideas of whitening?” is here.)


Sombrero tip to Isaac Hunter for bringing this Brazilian painting to my attention.


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