- The Disappearing Mestizo: Configuring Difference in the Colonial New Kingdom of Granada by Joanne Rappaport
Even if aware of the historical fluidity of racial categories, we live in such race-conscious contemporary societies, that it is hard to detach ourselves from the epistemological assumptions that inform such labels. No matter the ease with which ethnoracial categories were subverted, we often assume that an essential racial truth could still be found beneath the equivocation of historical circumstance, that no matter the contingent difficulties in labelling individuals they still were part of an underlying racial group. In effect, the figment of phenotype as reflective of racial truth still haunts historical works on race, especially those on the diverse world of colonial Latin America. In The Disappearing Mestizo, Joanne Rappaport weaves a skilful ethnography across the everyday experiences of Latin American men and women who were at various times, classified as mestizos, to ultimately break apart the underlying category and lay bare the local contingencies that shaped it.
Based on intensive archival research, Rappaport’s work examines ethno-racial classification in the Spanish imperial jurisdiction of the New Kingdom of Granada with a careful eye to process and social context. Drawing from judicial records and employing a thick description that aims to strip away the meanings accrued to ethnoracial categories in later centuries, Rappaport contributes innovative and novel perspectives to our understanding of colonial labels of difference. In effect, she goes well beyond [End Page 553] merely problematizing ethnoracial categories as ambivalent: her evidence actually strips away the fig leaf that mestizo was representative of any sort of group identity. Granted, mestizo was applied and used by bureaucrats, judges, and everyday people, including accusers and defendants, but this label appeared only under very specific contexts. Furthermore, mestizo was not connected to a broad sense of belonging and did not depend on the perception of phenotype that is so crucial to racial classification. Mestizo was thus disappearing as category because it served as an exclusionary label that expressed mixture in terms of lineage and its associated rights as opposed to an objective assessment of an individual’s physical characteristics and essential qualities.
Rappaport presents her arguments through a series of chapters that reinforce her findings from a variety of perspectives. Thus, while chapter one deftly shows how honour and lineage, as opposed to phenotype, permeated categories, including those historians have deemed to be racialized as in the case of mestizos, chapter two delves deeply into how local social networks created the conditions necessary for the classification of rural individuals as mestizos and mulattos. Likewise, while chapter three explores the ambivalent construction of mestizaje and spanishness as a gendered process, chapter four provides a first-person perspective of the meaning of classification through the narrative of two mestizo caciques. Chapter five once more shifts the perspective to that of colonial bureaucrats whose physical descriptions of the subjects they encountered revealed the instability of physiognomic perceptions of labels like mestizo. Finally, chapter six takes the reader into a broader historiographical and chronological context by examining the problem of using casta as a classificatory model in an imperial context.
Throughout, Rappaport exemplifies a detailed ethnography, attention to nuance, and an excellent grasp of both the scholarship on the subject and the difficult theoretical underpinnings to the study of such slippery concepts as race. Granted, readers may have some reservations. For example, structurally the book sometimes reads as a series of stand-alone articles. Likewise, one might object that Rappaport too easily groups together mestizos and mulattos under one conceptual umbrella that hammers phenotype as too inconclusive for meaning in a colonial context. Considering that, unlike mestizo, the word mulatto functioned as both category of being and colour denoting phenotype, one could argue notions of blackness as inherently barbaric were already becoming racialized in the early modern era, both within and beyond Latin America.
But, such critiques do not suggest analytical problems on Rappaport’s part: on the contrary they emerge as...