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Race and Ethnicity in Latin America and the Caribbean

Latin America consists of diverse populations and nationalities so it does not become a raceless area in the world shaped by racial and ethnic differences and cultural variations with distinct values and traditions. Latin America represents racial diversity. Only parts of Asia and Africa show a wider spectrum of ethnic types. Moreover, when compared to South Africa, India, the Middle East, or even the United States, Latin America enjoys a degree of ethnic harmony unique in today’s world. One recalls the often-repeated generalization that in Latin America race is an economic and cultural rather than a physical phenomenon.

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Various ethnic patterns characterize the countries of South America. In Colombia and Venezuela, blacks and mulattoes are an important constituent of the coastal population, unlike the Indians who are in isolated tribal enclaves extending from the Amazon to the Chocó and Guajirá. Consequently, these societies play almost no role in national life. In the Andean countries, slavery and the eradication of African culture, as well as the system, paved the way for segregation and discrimination into the twentieth century. Still, other patterns are visible in South America. Bolivia also had a dual society until at least the 1952 revolution. Indians struggle against an inhospitable physical environment. Also, settlers in the lowlands encroached on their traditional territory (Cahill 341). The degree of indulgence toward racial types bears a regional stamp. The presence of African blood is itself of little interest since discrimination is based on shifting, ambivalent modes of behavior. Transportation reflects the same pattern. The Indian pays the second class fare for standing room on a truck while the ladino for the same fare has a seat on a bus. Wage rates are similarly adjusted downward for Indian labor. All these differences are rationalized according to a hierarchical social order based on supposedly innate superiority and inferiority. It required three generations to transform these Poles into Brazilians (Cadena, p. 327). As with any racial-ethnic stereotype, this dislike of the Pole served those who feared competition in the search for security and upward mobility. Distinctions between individuals are based on the “domination-subordination relationships” surrounding the labor market and access to power, whether in regard to the black, the Indian, the Japanese, or the Pole. As elsewhere in the world, the nonwhite of the lower class is subject to prejudices of a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” As a consequence, Indians often accept the stereotype placed on them by the mestizo or white. Whether or not they rebel, and in rare instances they do, they are unable to change the stereotype (Wade, p. 55).

Race relations might be described as a structure that varies according to locality. Although Indians produce nearly all of Guatemala’s food supply, they have little role in the general economy. The degree to which Indians may alter their status depends on the community, but even more on individual resources. The young are more successful than the old in making this adjustment (Cadena 327). Unlike skin color and physical features, dress and language are relevant factors, since moving into the ladino stratum is accomplished by means of achieved rather than ascribed criteria. Among the value and attitudinal shifts is the degree of acceptance of orthodox Catholicism as opposed to a more syncretized version. Individual personality may count as much as environmental and chance events. Besides being deeply attached to the village and to kinship, Indians are involved in a more or less self-sufficient economy. Consequently, they have little compulsion to enter into the national society toward which they feel somewhat alienated. They are often penalized by the ladino culture; for example, labor legislation offers little benefit and vagrancy laws are enforced against them disproportionately (Andrews, p, 492).

The relationship of social class to color remains fundamental to all multiracial countries, but the relation is not necessarily clear. For instance, Afro-Brazilians occupy the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. In a study of university students, upper — more than lower-class subjects were inclined to have negative stereotypes but were more tolerant in their social norms and reported behavior — possibly a reflection of paternalism in the upper class and competitiveness in the lower class (Andrews. p. 493). As implied previously, in Guatemala the social structure is moving from a dualistic society to a kind of class system as interethnic mobility increases. Today, the relationships between Indians and Ladinos appear like strata within a partially integrated system, even though minimal social interaction occurs between the two groups. It is relevant that ladinos themselves belong to several socioeconomic levels ranging from landowners to workers, and the more affluent Indians are at least equal in status to the lower strata of ladino society (Wade, p. 59).

For Afro-Americans and mestizos, the problem of upward mobility remains, yet the phenomenon of passing would hardly have meaning for a society in which race is subordinate to class criteria. “The use of ‘mestizo’ as a vague cultural marker to describe the upper levels of (especially provincial) urban and rural society has been a major cause of obfuscation and anachronism when projected onto past societies” (Cahill, p. 344). At the same time, a long-term tendency toward whitening of the skin in Brazil is the result of European immigration, greater survival rates of whites over blacks, and multiple sexual contacts of white males with nonwhite females (Andrews. p. 500). According to an analysis of intermarriage, the much higher rate of intermarriage in northeast Brazil may be more the result of propinquity than tolerance. Interracial marriage reflects the restructuring of racial lines. Intermarriage in countries with an Indian population is rare, though white males carry on exploitative sexual activities. Indeed, servant girls of whatever race are vulnerable throughout Latin America. Just as ethnic attitudes inevitably affect, and are affected by, economics and politics, so are they likewise structured by other social institutions. First of all, racial attitudes are acquired in the socialization process within the family. The school setting itself provides a basis for the strengthening of racial attitudes (Wade, p. 54).

The ethnic conflicts of Latin America are rooted in the competition for the limited goods and resources of these various societies. In most countries, descendants of Europeans hold the power but are gradually forced to share their resources with mestizos. With the possible exception of Bolivia, Indians are very marginal competitors for the commodities of the society. In Brazil, blacks and other ethnic groups have an uneven status. Despite these various inconsistencies, Latin America is saved from the worst marks of prejudice when we think of Africa, the Middle East, or even the Western world. Its more severe problems lie in the nature of the economy and the political process (Cahill, p, 344). With a fairly rapid social change in Mexico, Indians are caught between different cultures and subcultures. In the 1950s, members of the Mazahua, a tribe in central Mexico, began searching for work in agricultural areas in order to support their families. As industrialization encroached on these areas they were drawn into work in competition with mestizos. This conflict is reflected in the school as well as in employment. The Mazahuas who are unable to find a niche in the mestizo world return to their traditional occupations in the villages; or they develop a new identity turning to their indigenous roots, including Aztec dances and other rituals performed in greater Mexico City. The varied traditions of these indigenous societies are well known, as costumes and marketplaces are major tourist attractions. However, behind the rich color of these Indian villages are a number of serious problems in medicine, health, employment, and education (Wade, p. 87). “The formulation of a socio-racial breeding calculus to describe the complexity of colonial society in Peru was, even in the eighteenth century, at once baroque and simplistic, not to mention racist” (Cahill, p. 345).

Ethnic cultures are thought of as different. The Indian tends to be group-oriented, whereas the mestizo is self-assertive. Over the last generation, these different social worlds have partially accommodated each other socially and economically. These fundamental differences in beliefs about racial superiority and in institutional values, particularly between Protestantism and Catholicism, are relevant to the different racial ideologies in the two Americas. According to the statistics available on such indexes as a number of beatings and mortality, possibly the Latins were crueler than their Northern counterparts, but the emotional reaction to slavery was more the desire for exploitation and profit than a kind of racial justice. Each region has its own pattern of race relations. No society exists in a static situation. A broad ethnic classification can divide Latin America into at least four groups: (1) countries in which a mestizo population dominates; (2) countries overwhelmingly European in character; (3) countries with conspicuous Indian groupings, generally inhabiting the highlands; and (4) Portuguese America and the Caribbean with their African admixture.

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Works Cited

  1. Andrews, G.R. Black and White Workers: Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1928. The Hispanic American Historical Review, 68 (3), (1988), pp. 491-524
  2. Cadena, M. Reconstructing Race. NACIA. Report on the Americas. 2001, pp. 16-23.
  3. Cahill, D. Color by Numbers: Racial and Ethnic Categories in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1532-1824 Journal of Latin American Studies, 26 (2), (May, 1994), pp. 325- 346
  4. Wade, P. Race And Ethnicity In Latin America (Latin American Studies). Pluto Press, 2007.

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"Race and Ethnicity in Latin America and the Caribbean." StudyCorgi, 16 Oct. 2021,

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StudyCorgi. "Race and Ethnicity in Latin America and the Caribbean." October 16, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Race and Ethnicity in Latin America and the Caribbean." October 16, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Race and Ethnicity in Latin America and the Caribbean'. 16 October.

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