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Race and Nation-Building in Latin America

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Race and Nation-Building in Latin America.

Race and Nation-Building in Latin America.

Race and Nation-Building in Latin America

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, minority groups such as Afro-Latin Americans and Indians struggled to gain inclusion within their respective countries. In Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, and Brazil, the struggle for equality often proved difficult as governments consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) excluded non-whites from their political, social, and economic affairs. In countries that characterized themselves as “racial democracies,” such as Brazil and Cuba, the exclusion of minority groups was especially troublesome as these proclamations often concealed deep-rooted elements of racism and discrimination that flourished in these regions, despite claims that stressed their supposed egalitarian qualities. In response to these issues, minority groups developed numerous strategies to deal with exclusionist policies throughout the 20th century.

Through an analysis of four separate works spanning Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, and Ecuador this article provides a historical analysis of minority groups and their impact on state structures. It concerns itself with the question: how do Latin American scholars interpret the role of “race” and its impact on the formation of nation-states? More specifically, how did the quest for inclusion affect the political, social, and economic realms of these various countries?

The Cuban flag.

The Cuban flag.


In 2001, historian Alejandro de la Fuente attempted to address these questions in his work, A Nation For All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Through his examination of Cuban society during the 20th century, de la Fuente argues that “race was, and remained, central to the process of national construction” in Cuba (de la Fuente, 23). During the post-colonial era, de la Fuente argues that blacks and Cuban politicians struggled immensely over the issue of racial inclusion, despite claims by Jose Marti that the “new Cuba…would be independent, socially egalitarian, and racially inclusive—a republic ‘with all and for all’" (de la Fuente, 23).

Through the creation of a “racial democracy” myth, de la Fuente argues that white Cubans minimized “the existence of a ‘race problem’ [in Cuba]…and contributed to maintaining the status quo” of discriminatory and exclusionary practices against non-whites (de la Fuente, 25). Despite efforts to “whiten” Cuban society, however, de la Fuente points out that Afro-Cubans overcame racial barriers and “improved their position relative to whites in several important areas, including positions of leadership in politics and the government bureaucracy” (de la Fuente, 7).

In their pursuit of equality, Afro-Cubans incorporated the political rhetoric of “Cubanness”—with its focus on egalitarianism—as a means to achieve social, economic, and political advancement. Because the Afro-Cuban population represented a large percentage of Cuba’s population, the expansion of suffrage rights forced “political competitions for the black vote” (de la Fuente, 63). In response, de la Fuente argues that Black people cleverly used these opportunities “to exercise pressure within the parties,” and made significant gains toward greater political representation, inclusion, and equality across the nation (de la Fuente, 63).

Black Cubans also affected nation-building in Cuba through their creation of Afro-Cuban political parties. As de la Fuente suggests, these parties were “a strategy to gain access to public office” (de la Fuente, 66). Although their representation in Cuban politics remained minimal, de la Fuente posits that “blacks were able to obtain at least token concessions from the state” through electoral processes (de la Fuente, 67).

Through organized labor movements, de la Fuente argues that Afro-Cubans also made considerable gains in regard to economic opportunities that did not exist in years prior. According to de la Fuente, the 1930s witnessed “remarkable progress in all sectors of the Cuban economy in terms of participation [for Black people], with one partial but notable exception: that of professional services” (de la Fuente, 137). Although “highly-skilled” jobs remained outside the grasp of most blacks, de la Fuente points out that the “organized labor movement managed to break some of the barriers” (de la Fuente, 137).

Although Afro-Cubans continued to face great discrimination and racism on behalf of Cuba’s white population, their formation of political movements and organizations, as well as the creation of political alliances with the Communist Party also helped blacks to maintain their social and political gains. Following the rise of Fidel Castro in the mid-twentieth century, de la Fuente argues that Afro-Cubans discovered a new ally in their struggle for equality, as the Communist government forced Cuban society to embark on a course of “gradual” integration (de la Fuente, 274).

Although these gains were short-lived, and largely reversed in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union (“the special period”), de la Fuente suggests that the Communist revolution “had been fairly successful in eliminating inequality” (de la Fuente, 316). The failure of integrationist policies in the 1990s stemmed from the government’s inability to continue educational and social programs designed to advance Cuban society towards egalitarianism.

Despite these shortcomings, de la Fuente stresses the importance of Afro-Cubans and their impact on social, economic, and political issues that occurred in Cuba across the twentieth century. Their participation and activism, as he argued, helped to shape (and spark) political and social debates regarding the proper place of Afro-Cubans in society. In turn, de la Fuente points out that Afro-Cubans played a tremendous role in the formation of a modern Cuban state (de la Fuente, 7-8).




In a manner similar to de la Fuente, historian Gerardo Renique’s article, “Race, Region, and Nation: Sonora’s Anti-Chinese Racism and Mexico’s Post-revolutionary Nationalism, 1920s–1930s,” also explored the fundamental role that minorities played in nation-building. Through an analysis of Chinese immigrants in Sonora, Mexico, Renique argues that “the Chinese—as well as other nonwhite, non-Indian, and nonblack communities…played an important role in the reconstruction of Latin American nationalism” (Renique, 211).

In contrast to de la Fuente’s analysis of Afro-Cubans, however, Renique’s article argues that the Chinese made few gains in regard to integration and racial inclusion throughout Mexican society. Rather, their primary contribution to nation-building in Mexico stemmed from their unintentional development of a unified and cohesive Mexican identity.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican society remained largely fragmented and disjointed under the “Maximato regimes” (Renique, 230). As Renique argues, one of the distinct features of Mexican society during this time was its “lack of consensus,” particularly between the central and outer peripheries of the country (Renique, 230). Sonora’s racial composition contributed significantly to these divisions. According to Renique:

“Since the mid-nineteenth century, blanco-criollo Sonorans had come to form the ‘majority’ population in the [Sonoran] state. As a result, the ‘average’ or ‘protoytpical’ Sonoran came to be represented in Mexican literature and the popular imagination as a tall, ‘white’ male with a racial identity and phenotype that differed from those of the mestizo and Indian populations of central and southern Mexico” (Renique, 215).

As a result of these differences with the center, Renique argues that Sonoran attitudes on “mestizaje broke from commonsensical understandings of a racial mixture and cultural synthesis to propose instead the exclusionary incorporation of the Indians” into their society (Renique, 216). As a consequence of these attitudes, Renique suggests that Sonoran society bore the imprint of localized perspectives that contrasted sharply with the rest of Mexican society and hindered the development of a unified and cohesive national identity.

Yet, as Renique’s findings suggest, the massive upswing in Chinese immigration—following the California gold rush of 1846—helped to eliminate this divisive relationship as Mexicans from all sectors of their society formed a “common front” against Asians, whom they viewed as both “bizarre” and a direct challenge to their economic well-being Renique, 216). According to Renique, Mexicans, from all regions, blamed the Chinese for “low salaries, poor labor conditions, and lack of employment” due to large scale “competition from [the] cheap and supposedly servile [nature of] Chinese workers” (Renique, 216). As Renique argues, these resentments contributed to a growing “anti-Chinese feeling” across Mexican society that was “expressed through jokes, insults, and prejudiced behavior” (Renique, 216).

As a result, Renique suggests that “the national/racial appeal of anti-Chinese rhetoric provided a language of consensus within the highly conflictive projects of state and nation-building” (Renique, 230). As he states, the “moral demonization of the Chinese” served as a rallying cry for nationalist identity across Mexico, as anti-Chinese sentiment formed a sense of camaraderie and unity amongst the country (Renique, 230). As Renique argued, “racism materialized as a factor of integration between the northern frontier and a central state immersed in the redefinition of both its own process of state formation and Mexico’s national identity” (Renique, 230). As such, the issue of race played a tremendous role in Mexican nation-building across the twentieth century. Although minority groups, such as the Chinese, failed to garner social and economic equality in Mexican society, their mere presence served to transform the Mexican nation in an irreversible manner.




In 2007, Kim Clark and Marc Becker’s edited collection of works, Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador, also explored the connection between “race” and nation-building through an analysis of Indian movements in Ecuadorian society. In a manner similar to de la Fuente’s interpretation regarding the Afro-Cuban movement, Clark and Becker argued that “highland Indians have been central to the processes of Ecuadorian state formation, rather than simply the recipients of state policy” (Clark and Becker, 4). According to their introductory essay, Indians contributed significantly to nation-building due to their use of “political openings to press their own concerns” (Clark and Becker, 4).

Through the use of political and electoral processes, Clark and Becker argued that Indians increased not only their “organizational experience” but also increased their overall “capacity” to inflict political and social changes in Ecuador; a society largely characterized as one that excluded non-whites both socially and politically during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Clark and Becker, 4). Thus, according to this interpretation, Indians played a significant role in the formation of a modern state in Ecuador, as their activist pursuits prompted government officials to reluctantly acknowledge Indian demands and desires in day-to-day politics.

Marc Becker’s article, “State Building and Ethnic Discourse in Ecuador’s 1944-1945 Asamblea Constituyente,” expanded on these points through his analysis of the Constituent Assembly in 1944 and 1945. Following the May Revolution, and the end of elite “domination over state structures,” Becker argues that “Indians and other subalterns increasingly agitated for their concerns” through the formation of the Federacion Ecuatoriana de Indios (FEI) (Becker, 105). Through political organizations, such as the FEI, Becker argues that Indians protested for improved “living and working conditions for Indigenous peoples in Ecuador” (Becker, 105). Becker argues that Indians accomplished this feat through their clever use of political openings that allowed them to gain representation in Ecuadorian politics (Becker, 105). Although these efforts were short-lived, following the rise of Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra and his dictatorial regime that eliminated constitutional reforms, indigenous efforts to “engage the state in the electoral realm” served to promote their political agenda on the national stage (Becker, 106).

Historian Amalia Pallares’ article, “Contesting Membership: Citizenship, Pluriculturalism(s), and the Contemporary Indigenous Movement,” also explored Ecuador’s Indian movement and its impact on nation-building. Through an analysis of the post-1979 political climate, Pallares argues that Ecuador’s indigenous population increasingly relied “on their distinction from non-Indians as a route to empowerment” (Pallares, 139).

In their pursuit to “be recognized as nationalities” in the 1980s and 1990s, Pallares points out that Indians challenged the “pluriculturalist” approach of state reforms—which provided the indigenous population with “unprecedented political opportunities and institutional mechanisms through which they could channel their demands” (Pallares, 143). According to Pallares, natives sought to expand this agenda as they argued that “land and rural development issues had to be incorporated into discussions of literacy” and education (Pallares, 143).

Moreover, Pallares argues that Indian activists also pressed for greater autonomy and control over state policies in the 1980s, and even demanded to be defined as “nationalities, not merely ethnic groups” (Pallares, 149). By arguing for these reforms, Pallares points out that Indians hoped to gain “a special place at the negotiating table with state officials and nonindigenous political actors” as a group that differed from “socially subordinate groups” such as blacks and peasants (Pallares, 149).

According to Pallares, the limited gains made from this activist approach to politics prompted a surge in “uprising politics” throughout the 1990s as Ecuador’s indigenous movement sought to replace pluriculturalism with a plurinationalist model that advocated for “self-determination, autonomy, and territorial rights” (Pallares, 151). Although many of these concepts were rejected by the state, Pallares argues that by the late 1990s, indigenous groups succeeded in legitimizing “the role of Indians as collective actors in the political arena” as their challenge to state policy forced Ecuador’s government to recognize their unique identity (Pallares, 153). Thus, as Pallares’ article concludes, “indigenous struggles in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [successfully] used state rhetoric and practices to their advantage, emphasizing the special status of Indians to defend their land, identity, and livelihood” (Pallares, 154). In a similar manner to de la Fuente’s account of Afro-Cubans in Cuba, Pallares argues that Indians across Ecuador played an instrumental role in shaping state politics across the twentieth century. Although their social, economic, and political gains remained small for much of the century, their reliance on the electoral process, activism, and direct protest against the state forced Ecuador’s government to modify many of its former policies in order to remedy problems with integration and inequality.




Finally, race also played a significant role in nation-building throughout Brazil. Following years of exclusionist policies under a false “racial democracy,” historian George Reid Andrews argues in his book, Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600-2000, that Afro-Brazilian identity virtually disappeared in Brazil during the 20th century. Andrews attributes this notion to “the silencing, denial, and invisibility of the region’s black and African heritage (Andrews, 1).

Through “race mixture and official doctrines of racial democracy,” Andrews points out that the “economic, social, political, [and] cultural life of blacks” was largely ignored by society at large (Andrews, 1). Despite these problems, Andrews argues that Afro-Brazilian activists in the 1970s and 1980s brought awareness to Brazil’s exclusionist policies and argued that “racial data” was “absolutely necessary to determine whether Latin American nations had achieved genuine equality, or whether racial differentials persisted” (Andrews, 27).

Through their combined efforts, “Afro-Brazilian activists successfully lobbied” the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica to “restore race to national population counts” (Andrews, 29). As a result, censuses in the latter half of the twentieth century displayed large gaps in inequality, while also showcasing increases in the number of individuals that claimed Afro-Brazilian status (Andrews, 28-29). The findings of the national census, according to Andrews, “provided much of the motive force for the eventual adoption in the early 2000s of national affirmative action policies in education and employment” (Andrews, 29).

Although efforts to include “race” in the national census provided only minimal benefits for Brazilians, Andrews argues that “activists can rightly claim to have put issues of race, discrimination, and inequality on national political agendas,” thus, “forcing their explicit discussion and…ending, or at least reducing, black ‘invisibility’” throughout Brazil (Andrews, 15-16).

Howard Winant’s article, “Racial Democracy and Racial Identity” also discusses the issue of race and its impact on nation-building within Brazil. However, in contrast to Andrews, Winant argues that black movements have prompted little change “in terms of general racial inequality, as well as the stratification of education, employment, health, [and] mortality" (Winant, 111). Instead, Winant makes the argument that the most impressive change in Brazil derives from “the existence of a [permanent] modern Afro-Brazilian movement” (Winant, 111). This is important to consider, he argues, because the movement “also appears to be linked to the consolidation and expansion of democracy in Brazil” (Winant, 111). Thus, as Winant points out, race (even in limited forms) has played a tremendous role in nation-building throughout the Brazilian state, particularly in more recent years.

Modern-Day Latin America


In closing, Latin American scholars have devoted significant attention to the issue of race and its impact on nation-building. Throughout Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, and Brazil, the demands for greater inclusion, equality, and basic rights (on behalf of minority groups) have played a significant role in government policies and reforms throughout the twentieth century. Although the reforms instituted by Afro-Cubans, Afro-Brazilians, and Indians have sometimes been minimal (Brazil serving as an excellent case in point), the demands made by activist groups have resulted in both a deeper understanding and recognition of minority groups across Latin America.

As racial issues continue to play a tremendous role throughout Latin American society in the twenty-first century, the efforts of minority groups in the 1900s remain more important than ever before. Their contributions to nation-building have been both profound and long-lasting, as Latin American governments continue to struggle with issues of equality, inclusion, and identity. Without the contributions of minority groups (through their political efforts and social activism), Latin America would likely be far different than it is today; resembling more of its exclusionist and discriminatory practices of the past, all under the pretext of being a supposed “racial democracy.”

Thus, an understanding of subaltern movements of the 1900s is crucial for understanding the impact of “race” on nation-building across Latin America. Not only did these movements successfully redefine state policies to reflect the interests of minorities more, but they also aided in the development of racial identities that whites (and government entities) sought to ignore and disregard through exclusionary practices. Thus, the findings of Latin American scholars in regard to race and state-building are important for gaining a complete and holistic view of Cuban, Mexican, Ecuadorian, and Brazilian societies. Their work, in turn, also sheds light on the potential impact of minority groups in other areas of the world, such as the United States.

Works Cited


Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600-2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Becker, Marc. “State Building and Ethnic Discourse in Ecuador’s 1944-1945 Asamblea Constituyente,” in Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador, edited by A. Kim Clark and Marc Becker. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.

Clark, A. Kim and Marc Becker, Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.

De la Fuente, Alejandro. A Nation For All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Pallares, Amalia. “Contesting Membership: Citizenship, Pluriculturalism(s), and the Contemporary Indigenous Movement,” in Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador, edited by A. Kim Clark and Marc Becker. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.

Renique, Gerardo. “Race, Region, and Nation: Sonora’s Anti-Chinese Racism and Mexico’s Postrevolutionary Nationalism, 1920s-1930s,” in Race & Nation in Modern Latin America, edited by Nancy P. Applebaum et. al. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Winant, Howard. “Racial Democracy and Racial Identity: Comparing the United States and Brazil,” in Racial Politics in Contemporary Brazil, edited by Michael Hanchard. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Larry Slawson