How the myth of multiracial mestizos harmed science in Latin America (2023)

Nicea Quintino Amauro always knew who he was.

He was born in Campinas, the last city in Brazil to outlaw slavery in 1888. He grew up in a black neighborhood with a black family. And much of his childhood was spent in endless meetings organized by the Movimento Negro Unificado, Brazil's most notable black civil rights organization, which his parents helped found to combat centuries-old racism in the country. She knew that she was black.

But in the late 1980s, when Amauro was about 13, he was told at school that Brazilians weren't black. They weren't white either. No other race either. were taken into accountmestizo, obraun, terms rooted in colonial caste distinctions denoting a tapestry of European, African and indigenous origins. And as a mixed people, they were all equal to each other.

The idea seemed strange. In fact wrong. "It seemed very strange to me," says Amauro, now a chemist at the Federal University of Ubêrlandia in Minas Gerais and a member of the Brazilian Association of Black Researchers. “How can everyone be the same when there is racism? Has no sense.

Amauro's concerns resonate throughout Latin America, where generations of people have learned that they are the result of a long history of miscegenation from various ancestors who came to the region or were forced to live there.

How the myth of multiracial mestizos harmed science in Latin America (1)

In Mexico, for example, most people also consider themselves mestizos, a term that arose during the colonial era to explain the mixing of ethnicities, particularly between indigenous peoples and Spanish colonizers. The melting process known asmultirracialIt was so intense that many Mexicans say it no longer makes sense to talk about race or racism. The idea of ​​a post-racial society has received important support from the early genetic research of the 20th century and from modern studies of the human genome, which show that most humans come from a mixture of different ancestors. This unifying vision prevailed in Latin America and shaped public policies and ideas about race.

But like all other race-based designations, mixed race is a social construct, not a clearly defined scientific category of people with similar genetic traits. And many researchers have begun to question mestizo ideology, which they see as a source of pain for many people and an overshadowing, sometimes troubling influence on science.

“The mestizo is everything and nothing. He is not very graphic,” says Ernesto Schwartz-Marín, a Mexican anthropologist who studies the links between genomics and racial ideas at the University of Exeter in the UK. "Why do we consider these categories, which arose from the arbitrariness of colonial conquest, to be biologically significant?"

The mestizo narrative suggests the absence of racism, although there is ample evidence that skin color is a powerful factor in determining wealth and educational level in Latin America.

and the concept ofmultirracialIndeed, it suppressed the visibility and recognition of the region's indigenous and black peoples, while at times emphasizing European ancestry. The concept is another pernicious holdover from colonial rule, says Jumko Ogata, who studies Latin American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. She is also an anti-racist educator and identifies as Afro-Japanese Mexican. "She romanticized and misrepresented many stories of dispossession, exploitation, violence and colonization," she says. "It was and still is deeply violent."

His thoughts are part of a broader discussion in Latin American society and in the research community. Critics say the mongrel myth has had a worrying impact on science. The way the mestizo label has been used in many genetic studies has misrepresented or ignored the stories of people of indigenous or African descent, according to some researchers and activists. Furthermore, they argue that these and other categories used in human genetics represent outdated or even racist perspectives.

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Some ask that the hybrid designation of human genetics be prohibited and that much more specific terms be adopted, alien to colonial concepts. Others say the idea of ​​mixed races isn't as problematic as critics argue.

One thing is certain, says Vivette García Deister, a research ethnographer at UNAM who has studied how mestizo ideology has influenced genetic studies in Mexico. "There is no easy solution."

birth of an idea

the idea ofmultirracialhas come full circle since its inception. In the early 1900s, politicians in Latin America began to see that this concept could be a powerful tool for creating a national identity. Back then, “scientific” racism was rampant in the United States, where the pseudoscientific theory of eugenics was used to justify disenfranchisement; This included the forced sterilization of thousands of African Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans, which continued into the 1970s. Proponents of eugenics believed that race mixing could lead to "degeneracy" and "decay." And they referenced events south of the border to support their ideas.

The political turmoil that has plagued Latin America after independence has often been blamed on widespread mixing since colonial times, and US politicians saw this as an opportunity to intervene, says Juliet Hooker, a Nicaraguan political scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode. isla “The idea was that Latin American peoples are prone to chaos because of their racial heterogeneity,” she adds. "They couldn't really govern themselves, so they needed the intervention of the United States."

But some Latin American intellectuals have responded with the idea that miscegenation is really positive. And they formulated theories that encouraged Latin Americans to adopt the mestizo identity, which they believed combined the best qualities of each group. His message was one of social cohesion, which many of these countries used to resist US rule and unite people under nationalist sentiment.

"The mestizo myth was a Latin American project to dispel the idea that everything hybrid, everything mixed, is inferior," says Schwartz-Marín. "It was born as a response to the racist purism of the time."

This multiracial ideology has prevailed since the 1920s and 1930s, though not without its pernicious aspects. Ethnic mixing was seen by privileged members of society as a way to "enlighten" the nation in the long run. And he spread the belief that the scourge of racism could not exist where the lines of human difference were so blurred.

How the myth of multiracial mestizos harmed science in Latin America (3)

“Historically, these ideas have served to deny the presence of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. To say that they no longer exist, that they have been absorbed in the process of unravelingmultirracialsays Hooker, who experienced this as a child when her family moved from the Afro-Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, where she grew up, to the capital's largely multiracial population. People rarely identified as black, even those who looked like her, and were repeatedly asked why she identified that way. In 2017, Hooker explored the origins and history of the mixed-race myth in his bookTheorizing the race in America.

In the 1960s, the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO recognized that there was no genetic evidence for the existence of human races. Nonetheless, scholars were interested in studying racial mixing, sometimes in ways that supported the racist ideas of the time. And Latin America was seen as the perfect real-world laboratory for doing just that.

Brazilian geneticists have been particularly prolific in this area, publishing a large number of papers attempting to explain the "trihybrid" origin of Brazilians with black, white, and indigenous ancestry; and the researchers looked for "racial markers" to calculate levels of racial admixture.

In Mexico, doctor-turned-geneticist Rubén Lisker used genetic markers to map enzyme deficiencies and abnormal hemoglobins, the body's proteins that carry oxygen, in what he called "Native Americans, the descendants of the Spanish, and their mix." Their approach followed the dominant ideology in Mexico, which emphasized mixing between indigenous and European peoples, and largely ignored the contributions of people of African descent, although their results suggest that in certain parts of the country between 5% and 50% of genetic inheritance. Heritage variations found in indigenous populations have also been found in African populations.1. (During the colonial slave trade, millions of Africans were enslaved and forced into Latin America against their will.)

Many years passed before Mexico recognized the African connection. In 2015, after a long struggle for recognition, more than 1 million Afro-Mexicans were able to identify themselves in the national census as those who had not previously recognized them. In 2020, the number increased to 2.5 million people, or 2% of the country's population.

crossing genomics

Until May 2007, Luiz Antônio Feliciano Marcondes never imagined that his identity would be dismantled throughout Brazil. But this month, the media coverage surrounding his genetic ancestry exploded. As one of the country's most prominent sambistas and composers, his blackness has never been questioned. People just needed to see his stage name, Neguinho da Beija-Flor; "neguinho" refers to his dark skin color and, for Brazilians, it can mean an expression of affection, racism, or both.

After examining 40 regions of Marcondes' genome, a team of researchers led by human geneticist Sérgio Pena of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte concluded that Marcondes was 67% predominantly of European ancestry. The result was a surprise. "The Europeans, me?" He said in an interview. "I go by the color of my skin."

Addressing injustice in genomics

The ancestry test was part of a project commissioned by BBC Brazil to reveal the genetic profiles of nine black celebrities, which revealed that many of them have a mix of different ancestors. These findings are part of a larger body of research that since the 1990s has strongly portrayed Brazil as a diverse, raceless nation, where everyone is so confused that it is now impossible to genetically differentiate people into different groups or populations. But the idea of ​​a raceless society contradicts the lived experience of many Brazilians, particularly those who do not identify as white.

The thought about miscegenation has developed in different ways in Latin America. In Colombia, although the prevailing vision projects the country as a mestizo nation, there is a strong tendency to divide it into multiple regions, each with different types and degrees of miscegenation. In the Antioquia region, where Spanish settlers established their first settlements, some people are promoting an almost mythological narrative that exalts their European and white origins, says María Fernanda Olarte-Sierra, a Colombian science and technology ethnographer at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. .

As a 2006 article revealed that Antioch's ancestry is 70% to 80% European2, the highest in the country, many people welcomed the results, which basically reinforced their view of themselves as largely non-indigenous and non-black, Olarte-Sierra says. However, she notes that the scientists only collected samples from people in the highlands who identify primarily as mestizo, omitting Afro-Colombian communities living in the coastal region of Antioquia and the river valley. "I thought it was a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Olarte-Sierra. "I had consequences that were not questioned."

Another prophecy was fulfilled in 2009 when the National Institute of Genomic Medicine of Mexico (INMEGEN) revealed the results3the government-administered Mexican Genome Diversity Project. After a four-year effort to collect and analyze blood samples from people living across the country, scientists revealed that the majority of Mexico's population came from a mix of indigenous and European peoples, with the two groups generally intermingling. I thought they were almost exclusively mestizos. . . “This confirmed at the molecular level what the ancestral populations of the majority of Mexicans were,” says Gerardo Jiménez Sánchez, a geneticist who supervised the project and was the founder and first director of INMEGEN.

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The discoveries were a major event in Mexico, largely because multi-ethnic populations have not been included in any global efforts to map genetic variation among humans, such as the HapMap project, which aimed to map shared variations in the human genome. Jiménez Sánchez announced the results in a state act at the President's residence and presented them as "the book of life" for Mexicans.

The event concerned some researchers. “It was problematic for me that the mestizo ideology was not questioned,” says García Deister. Although the project was designed to measure diversity in Mexico, the study first took a limited sample of 300 people identified as Mestizo and compared them to 30 people identified as Zapotec, who represented indigenous ancestors. The geneticists also took samples from individuals from other indigenous groups, but many were considered significant genetic admixture and ruled out "genomic noise," says García Deister, who interviewed several INMEGEN researchers. “Here, too, the indigenous were in some way at the service of the nation,” she says, “because we needed them to tell us something about the mestizos.”

The INMEGEN project had a strong focus on genomic medicine, and Jiménez Sánchez says it has provided a wealth of data that has since helped geneticists understand how Mexican mestizos respond to pharmaceutical drugs and which genetic variants, many of which they with indigenous ancestors, are linked to complex diseases such as diabetes or hypertension. “Studying this combination of genes with different ancestors can reveal disease risks, or better yet, the possibility of protecting oneself from them,” says immunogeneticist Julio Granados Arriola, from the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Health Sciences and Nutrition in the city from Mexico.

However, some are concerned about this attempt to find risk alleles and link them to specific populations of indigenous ancestry. This essentially blames indigenous people for the health problems of Mexican mestizos, says Jocelyn Cheé Santiago, a Zapotec genomics scientist who studies philosophy of science at UNAM. They stigmatize an entire population.

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These studies can be considered to support the idea that diseases such as diabetes and obesity, which affect millions of Mexicans, are due in part to diet or lifestyle, but mainly to genes inherited from their indigenous ancestors, says Peter Wade, a social anthropologist at the University. from Manchester, UK, who has studied racial issues and mestizo genomics in Latin America. "It kind of [implies] that these health problems are somehow the fault of indigenous people or indigenous ancestors."

Jiménez Sánchez did not answer specific questions about this criticism. “It's always very useful to get other points of view,” he said. “But the concerns that were genuine at the beginning have not been raised. They have not realized themselves. I do not see her.

The medical focus on cross-breeding can also lead to false hope. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Granados Arriola publicly stated that the mosaic genome of Mexicans would act as a barrier to stop the spread of the virus. The hypothesis, explained in May 2020, is based on the existence of protective variants inherited from indigenous ancestors that survived the plagues introduced by European colonizers. He also supported this hypothesis this year. “What I hope is that the majority of Mexicans with indigenous genes have greater protection against serious diseases regardless of other factors,” Granados Arriola said.Naturein June.

So far, there is little evidence that specific genetic ancestors are responsible for lower or higher rates of coronavirus infection.4. Today, Mexico has one of the highest COVID-related death rates in the world, with a total of more than 295,000 deaths.

Back in Brazil, Marcondes' ancestry test, which indicates a strong European component, played a role in heated public debates over who counts as black. And the previous genetic data created by Pena and his colleagues took center stage.

Don't Ignore Minority Data

Since he began researching paternity testing in the 1980s, Peña has been struck by the "tremendous" genetic diversity he saw in the samples he examined. Peña Studios for more than two decades5have repeatedly shown that the genome of every Brazilian is a unique collage of three ancestral groups: Europeans, indigenous peoples, and Africans. In colonial times, this was typically the result of European men raping women of indigenous and African descent.

Pena's research also showed that interbreeding was slowly but surely unlinking genetic ancestry from physical traits such as skin pigmentation, a finding confirmed by other research groups.6. This means that you cannot reliably predict another person's skin color from their genetic ancestry, or vice versa.

The evidence convinced Peña that "there are no human races and that racism is stupid." She adds that her work has been guided by an anti-racist agenda. "My idea is that if Brazilians realize how much they owe to their Amerindian and African ancestry, we can end racism in Brazil."

Others have joined his findings, mainly those that support the biological non-existence of the race and those that show general racial mixing among Brazilians. In 2009, these studies were used by the centrist Democratic political party to support a federal court petition seeking the removal of racial quotas for admission to public universities. Peña's genetic data also inspired an anti-quota manifesto. The document, signed by 113 geneticists, social scientists, politicians, lawyers and citizens, argued that such policies represent a model imported from the United States and are inappropriate for a country like Brazil. This was despite evidence that people of African descent (i.e., people of African heritage) in Brazil and other Latin American countries generally face greater inequalities in health, education, employment, income, and housing (see “Inequality in Latin America”).

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Peña himself signed the manifesto and attended the federal court hearings, testifying about the non-existence of race at the genetic level. But he defends his position as neutral. "Our work on genomics in Brazilians is essentially descriptive, so it is imperative that we understand who we are."

Finally, in 2012, the court ruled that genetics were irrelevant when it came to affirmative action legislation, but some researchers believe the legacy of that event was damaging. "Our problems are not genetic," protests the Brazilian chemist Amauro. "To be discriminated against in Brazil, you just have to have a certain skin color, a certain hair texture, a certain jaw, a certain nose, a certain mouth."

a way forward

As genomics in Latin America grappled with the legacy of mestizo ideology, some scholars decided to analyze this relationship and suggest a way forward. "We were interested in how science engages with, challenges, amplifies, and transforms ideas about the nation and ideas about miscegenation," says Wade.

In 2010, he joined 13 collaborators in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia to start a project examining how concepts of race influenced genomics research and vice versa, sometimes in problematic ways. The researchers spent more than two years interviewing scientists and following them around their labs, examining the methods and language they used, and examining how the results were disseminated. Their findings, compiled in a 2014 book titledmixed genomics, they speak with lingering concerns.

When scientists in the second half of the 20th century abandoned the racial categories used by their predecessors, they did so because the data showed that these artificial boundaries simply did not exist. They concluded that the race has no biological basis and doesn't even come close to representing the complicated history of our species. Instead, genetics used a wide range of genetic markers and statistical methods to more accurately reflect the differences and similarities stored in our genes, finding that the resulting patterns broadly matched geography in many cases, resulting in clusters. of European or Asian descent (the term Indian, also widespread, was originally created as a linguistic category).

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But according to Wade and his team, these age-old designations still evoke arbitrary and racist ideas and categories invented in the colonial era. The mixed-race label, mentioned countless times by geneticists in their articles, also inadvertently resurfaces the concept of race that science has worked so hard to eliminate, Wade says.

"When you talk about mestizo, you're definitely talking about race," Wade says, adding that as a concept, mestizo has always symbolized a mix of white settlers, indigenous communities, and sometimes African slaves and their descendants. "Every time you talk about mestizos, you automatically invoke the existence of these categories."

Ethnographers and anthropologists also wonder how geneticists tend to use indigenous or Afro-Latino populations, considered essentially homogeneous, as outgroups or benchmarks against which to compare mixed-race samples. Sometimes this is done to understand how the shuffling was done. But critics say the practice reproduces the nationalist divide that has defined these groups as separate, and say genetic studies are wrong to assume that genetic admixture has not occurred in unmixed populations.

"It drove me crazy," says Schwartz-Marin. "Who is a half-blood? Well, it depends on who you consider more or less of a half-blood.

However, change is not a quick process. “Sometimes it's hard to get rid of the term overnight,” says Andrés Moreno Estrada, a population geneticist at the National Biodiversity Genomics Laboratory in Irapuato, Mexico. In 2014, he and his colleagues began mapping the genetic blueprint of Mexicans, only to find staggering diversity across the country, with some indigenous groups in Mexico as different from each other as Europeans are from East Asians.7. His results also suggested something else: Mestizo and indigenous groups are pretty much the same at the DNA level.

“If you take a mestizo and an aboriginal from the same region, they are genetically indistinguishable,” says Moreno Estrada. "This dichotomy has no biological basis."

Half-breeds are not the only category that has remained relatively unexplored in human genetics. An analysis of biomedical papers since 2010 found that nearly 5,000 of them used Caucasian, an 18th-century term deeply entrenched in racism and genetically meaningless, to describe certain populations.

Many scientists still say that Caucasians

"How we label the [genetic] groups we see affects how people understand race," says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. In June, she co-authored a preprint8about how some widely used categories like Caucasian contain scientifically misleading or even racist perspectives. The goal, Raff says, is to spark a much-needed conversation about the language of genetics. "We're really going to dig in, we're really going to talk about what we're doing and how we're doing it," he says, "and what that means."

Although the mestizo category is still used, some geneticists have chosen to replace it with other terms such as "mixed population", "mixed population", or "cosmopolitan population". Moreno Estrada says that this is at least the historical and political baggage and the social implications of themultirracial. But others have developed entirely new taxonomies.

When Colombian geneticist and statistician William Usaquén traveled to the Colombian desert of La Guajira in the far north of South America to describe the genetic makeup of the people there, he soon realized that standardized, defined categories of genetic ancestry would not do. .. enough . He found that the region is home to the Wayúu indigenous people, but also to other communities that do not consider themselves indigenous, such as theGuajiros, also lived there for generations. Additionally, the area has been a smuggling route since the 18th century, attracting immigrants from other parts of Colombia to settle. Usaquén discovered that some people had multiple ancestors and others belonged to families that always identified themselves as Wayúu orGuajiro.

“At that time, the Amerindian or mestizo categories did not fit anywhere,” says Usaquén, who works at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá. He and his team decided to try something new. They created a system of seven different categories that accurately reflected the genealogy, history, and demographics of the population, and were able to determine how each of them genetically interacted with each other.9. "There is no standard category that you can use," adds Usaquén, who discovered that the Wayuú are a very diverse group, but different from other peoples. Thinking about which category to use, he says, "The big advantage for us is that every time you study a population, you have to create it."

That is much easier said than done. Even as geneticists get together to rethink their language, "so what?" says Schwartz-Marin. “Each new category we create will have its own impact.”

In Latin America, the myth ofmultirracialit has gained a foothold in various aspects of modern society, including science. And some researchers think it might be time to ditch the idea, especially those who don't see themselves fitting into the mixed-race narrative.

Amauro is one. He resents the message that all Brazilians are a diverse but even mix. “When I put myself in this group where everyone is equal, my qualities are lost,” he says. "I can be anyone else. And if I am someone, I am not."

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