The Mestizo Symphony of Heaven
When I graduated from Duke Divinity School in 1997, I was appointed to start a United Methodist Hispanic ministry in Durham. In order to gather support for the ministry, I was encouraged to visit and preach at churches all over the Durham area. My biblical text for those visits was Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” I do not remember why it was that I settled on that text, but with the opportunity to reflect years later, I consider the choice providential. Every journey begins with a destination. Indeed, it is the destination that distinguishes a journey from a wandering. How fitting, then, to begin ministry at the end, to preach the gospel from back to front. The goal of my journey of ministry was ultimately not a Hispanic congregation, but that sanctified assembly out of every nation, tribe, people, and language. My destination was and is a mestizo community called heaven.
The Problem and Promise of Mestizaje
The Spanish word mestizo means “mixed.” It was used to describe the children born from the traumatic encounter between Spanish conquistadors and Amerindian women. The biological and cultural mixing that occurred was known as mestizaje. For the Amerindians, the mestizo was a living memorial to a lost way of life. For the Spanish, the mestizo represented an opportunity, a cultural and linguistic bridge that could be exploited to cement the conquest. In either case, the result was alienation; the mestizo did not really fit into either world.
In the 19th century, the concept of mestizaje was enthusiastically embraced by political elites in Latin America in their quest for national identities that would unite the diverse peoples inhabiting the continent. Expanding on its original usage, Simon Bolivar, the George Washington of South America, stretched the concept to include the contributions of Africans to the formation of the Americas. The nationalist appropriation of mestizaje is on display at the Plaza of Tlatelolco in Mexico, the site of a climactic battle between the Spanish and the Aztecs. The monument to the event reads: “August 13, 1521: Heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco fell to the power of Hernan Cortes. It was neither a triumph nor a defeat. It was the painful birth of the mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today.”
Mestizaje became Latin America’s alternative to the vision in the United States of e pluribus unum . As Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos argued, the mestizo (not the Yankee) was the true American, the prototype of a new humanity, the forerunner of a cosmic race that would integrate all other races into a harmonious mixture. Yet for all the popularity of mestizaje in certain intellectual circles, the term and what it represents elicits resistance from others.
Some fear that mestizaje will corrupt the existing ethnic stock. The title of Alfred Schultz’s 1908 treatise says it all: Race or Mongrel? A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Races of Earth: A Theory that the Fall of Nations Is Due to Intermarriage with Alien Stocks: A Demonstration that a Nation’s Strength Is Due to Racial Purity: A Prophecy that America Will Sink to Early Decay unless Immigration Is Rigorously Restricted . Fear of racial mixing has fueled much of the history of immigration policy in the United States. Such fears are by no means a thing of the past. Both Victor Davis Hanson’s 2003 book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming and Samuel Huntington’s 2004 book, Who Are We? The Challenge to America’s National Identity , warn readers of the dangers presented by Hispanic immigration for the integrity of the American story. For some, a United States that is increasingly mestizo is a horror story, a world populated by Frankenstein-like creatures whose bodies and identities are a patchwork stitched together from the corpses of their ancestors.
Others fear that mestizaje is simply another word for whitening. Indeed, in the Latin American quest for national unity, mestizaje privileged whiteness and Europe to the detriment of other forms of identities. In the mind of the political elites of South America, typically the mestizo national identity was constituted by Spanish brains, brown land, and black work. To this day, mestizaje as a means of racial advancement is deeply embedded in the Latin American psyche. Growing up in Puerto