In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mestizos

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections on Mestizaje
  • Mestizos and the Sistema de Castas
  • Visual Representations
  • Gender and Mestizaje
  • Metís (Indigenous-French)
  • African-Indigenous Mestizaje
  • Mestizaje as Ideology and Symbol

Atlantic History Mestizos
Jane E. Mangan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0240


This article treats the subject of mestizos, defined as people of mixed-race descent, as well as mestizaje, interpreted both as the process of race mixture and the process of cultural mixing that occurred widely in the Atlantic world during the colonial period. Mestizos are defined as people born to European (Spanish) and indigenous parents. Depending on geographic locale, mestizos were known as métis (French Canada) or mameluco (Brazil). The areas of Spanish invasion had the highest pre-Columbian populations; thus, it is not surprising that scholarship on mestizos is dominated by work on Spanish America. Moreover, work on mestizos in the Andes is particularly developed as a subfield. Influential factors in the geographic foci include source availability about indigenous peoples as well as colonial powers’ usage of the category of mestizo to identify or control their subjects. Beyond Latin America, this article highlights studies of social and sexual intercourse between indigenous women and French men in Canada and their métis children and between indigenous women and European men in the territory of the United States. A flourishing topic for both Latin America and the United States is the study of individuals with mixed indigenous and African parentage. Scholarship on mestizos has grown from a subfield focused almost exclusively on people of mixed-race ancestry to the study of the cultural, social, and political aspects of the process of mixture. These changes reflect the rise of critical race studies and, with it, an embrace of race as a social construction not determined exclusively by biology. This attention to those who fall outside dominant racial categories highlights how categories of race have been manipulated to political end. Several dominant themes emerge on mestizos. Scholars study the family formation of these mixed unions with an eye toward how society accommodated these children and how they were acculturated. Other scholars investigate the term mestizo: who used it and with what purpose (e.g., the Spanish Crown to control). Another important topic of study is how ordinances governed particular aspects of life for mestizos. Often scholarship on mestizos has intersected with debates on race and class. In terms of primary sources, writings by mestizos themselves as well as visual representations provide a unique window onto mixed-race families. Finally, as the Atlantic world moved from colonial to nation in the 19th century, the dynamic process of mestizaje emerges as a source of identity and tension for nations born of Atlantic migrations.

General Overviews

While no traditional general overview exists for the subject of mestizaje, or race mixture, in the Atlantic world, several studies of early Latin America prove instructive on this subject in overview fashion. A good starting point is Schwartz and Salomon 1999, a chapter that introduces the reader to the issue of race mixture while also acknowledging debates about the construction of identity. One early treatment of the subject is Rosenblat 1954. Mörner 1967 builds on Rosenblat to provide a classic study of race mixture in the Spanish Americas with an emphasis on the late colonial era. Other works that help introduce students to the theme include Olaechea 1992 and Esteva-Fabregat 1995. Olaechea is available only in Spanish but is worthwhile for the wealth of information it offers about colonial ordinances from Church or Crown that governed mestizo experiences. Esteva-Fabregat’s work offers a distinct perspective because it includes discussion of Brazil in addition to Spanish America. Students may also find is useful to consult Alvar 1987 to research different terms applied to mixed-race people in Spanish America. Finally, for those who read Spanish, Bernand and Gruzinski 1999 offers a detailed book on mestizos in the two-volume Historia del nuevo mundo.

  • Alvar, Manuel. Lexico del Mestizaje en Hispanoamerica. Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1987.

    Work commissioned by the Real Academia de Española. Dictionary of eighty-two terms used in Spanish America to identify people of mixed race. Includes annotations of references to those terms. Contains introductory essay on the evolution of this terminology. Source is available only in Spanish.

  • Bernand, Carmen, and Serge Gruzinski. Historia del nuevo mundo. Vol. 2, Los mestizajes, 1550–1640. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1999.

    Second volume of an exceptional New World history about the entire Americas. Point of departure is process of mestizaje as it occurred among people of African, indigenous, and European descent with discussion of individuals, language, customs. Includes detailed glossary of many significant mestizo figures from this era. Available in Spanish.

  • Esteva-Fabregat, Claudio. Mestizaje in Ibero-America. Translated by John Wheat. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

    Esteva-Fabregat’s book stands out for its discussion of both Spanish and Portuguese America, thereby emphasizing race mixture among indigenous, Spanish, and African ancestries. Masterful analysis of the secondary literature. Includes many tables of demographic information. Translation from the Spanish original El mestizaje en Iberoamerica, published in 1987 (Madrid: Alhambra).

  • Mörner, Magnus. Race Mixture in the History of Latin America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

    Mörner wrote the classic study of the significance of race mixture in colonial Latin American society. Work emphasizes the increasing complexity of racial classifications by the 18th century. Scholars refined this foundational argument in latter decades. Translation from the Spanish original El mestizaje en la historia de Ibero-America (Mexico, 1961).

  • Olaechea, Juan Bautista. El mestizaje como gesta. Madrid: Colecciones Mapfre, 1992.

    This is an almost encyclopedic treatment of mestizos throughout the Spanish Americas during the entire colonial period. Provides useful information about themes such as service in the Church, functionaries like notaries and scribes, as well as marriage and family. Available in Spanish.

  • Rosenblat, Angel. El mestizaje y las castas coloniales. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Nova, 1954.

    Comprehensive study with chapters devoted to every region (Greenland, Canada, United States, Spanish-, and Portuguese-settled areas). Includes summary discussions of various castes created from indigenous, European, and African unions. Reflective of its time, the work credits the lack of prejudice among Spanish and Portuguese soldiers for mestizaje. Available in Spanish.

  • Schwartz, Stuart, and Frank Salomon. “New Peoples and New Kinds of People: Adaptation, Readjustment, and Ethnogenesis in South American Indigenous Societies (Colonial Era).” In The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. 3, South America, Part 2, Edited by Frank Salomon and Stuart B. Schwartz, 443–501. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Masterful overview of the multiple types of identities which emerged from the cross-cultural unions after Spanish and Portuguese arrival to South America. These discussions of mestizos, Afro-indigenous peoples, and intra-indigenous mestizos provide a good starting point for understanding the complexity of mestizaje.

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