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Multicultural Persuasion in Mexico and the United States

Multicultural Persuasion in Mexico and the United States

La persuación multicultural en México y Estados Unidos

José Antonio Aguilar Rivera

Translated to English by Shelby D. Vincent

In a speech given in Washington, D.C. almost a quarter of a century ago, Octavio Paz transfixed the North Americans listening to him, “in order to overcome its enemies, the United States must first overcome itself: return to your origins. Not to repeat, but rather to rectify. The other and the others: internal minorities—as certainly as external peoples and nations— exist.” Paz repeated a common cliché: our countries were separated by “profound social, economic, and psychic differences.” Mexico and the United States were two different versions of Western civilization. The history of our relationship was one of mutual and persistent deception, generally— although not always—unintentional. Perhaps Paz is right, though these types of civilizing explanations are less persuasive each time. Here, however, I am interested in highlighting the coincidences, not the differences, between the Mexican and American national experiences. Both countries find themselves in a simultaneous process of introspection and redefinition of their identities. Multiculturalism has become, as much in Mexico as in the United States, a central theme of public debate. Does this term have the same meaning in both countries? Theoretically, it would appear to have semantic differences. The word “multiculturalism” is more often used in Anglo-Saxon countries, although in Mexico it is beginning to replace the expression “cultural pluralism,” which was used, according to García Canclini, during a good part of the twentieth- century. Nonetheless, the word “continues to have different applications. Americans use it to designate the—separate— coexistence of ethnic groups. Despite having preached cultural mixing and consecrating it with the expression ‘melting pot,’ identities essentially tend to elevate themselves, and community membership has changed the principal guarantee of individual rights.” According to this notion, in Latin America, “modern nations don’t form using the model of membership in ethnic communities because in many countries extensive foreign migrations intermingle. Integration of American and European ethnic groups was carried out in the model of the French Republic, and adapted more or less to historic Latin American processes.” According to García Canclini, in the Latin American countries there was an older social arrangement and more varied politico-cultural strategies to make it possible for heterogeneity to be achieved with mestizos. While in the United States, blacks were first kept as slaves and later in segregated neighborhoods, schools, and other public spaces and indigenous peoples were marginalized on reservations; in Latin American countries the extermination and the pushing aside of blacks and Indians coexisted with the politics of miscegenation and the recognition of (unequal) citizenship until the nineteenth-century, arriving at the symbolic exaltation of its patrimony in the indigenous Mexican. Racism was everywhere, but the alternatives to racism had to be differentiated… while in the United States miscegenation and hybridization had been predominately viewed as scandalous, in many areas of the Latin American and Caribbean countries, alongside the political and daily actions of discrimination, there was a positive valorization of those of mixed-race as an impulse toward modernization and cultural creativity. And “even the ‘Black American,’ just like the ‘Mexican Indian,’ were the other of the normative citizen of their respective countries; the Indian in Mexico was put in the position of being the subject of nationality, a subject that could be transformed through education and racial mixing.”

This history, that epitomizes the dominant vision, is unsatisfactory and thus needs to be revised. The comparison between Mexico and the United States highlights it’s deficiencies. To begin with, it’s inconsistent: if in Mexico the paradigm of integration was a secular republican idea, how can the ideology of miscegenation, as central to the discourse about national identity, be explained? Far from being a question of informal understandings, miscegenation was a full-blown racist theory relied on by the theorists who standardized it. This is not a minor variation of the French model. The central figure was the mestizo, not the citizen. Even though many of the noted differences are very real, others are only a matter of degree. After all, in the colonies, just as in many of the states of the American union, there was a complex system of racial classification that sought to codify the various possibilities and degrees of racial mixing. The colonial auditors wanted to know who was what and in what proportion in order to determine which rung on the social ladder they should occupy. The nineteenth century tried to eliminate that odious legacy but was in many respects only a brief interlude in our racist past. In a short time—by the end of the Porfiriato—the notion of race was back and became firmly established during the post-revolutionary period. Miscegenation, which as a social phenomenon is beneficial because it presumes that insurmountable ethnic and religious barriers do not exist for individuals who merge, is pernicious as a national ideology. In other respects, the emphasis on the cosmic race has obscured important phenomena, such as the continuation over time of minorities that don’t mix—indigenous peoples, Mennonites, Jews, etc.—and has skewed how we think about and analyze the processes of integration.


In March 2004, the journal Foreign Policy published an article written by Samuel P. Huntington, the famous political scientist from Harvard. The essay, “The Hispanic Challenge” was the teaser for Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Quiénes somos, Paidós, 2004), a book that came out a bit later about the supposed danger, for North American Society, represented by Mexican immigration. “By the midtwentieth century,” Huntington wrote “America had become a multiethnic, multiracial society with an Anglo-Protestant mainstream culture encompassing many subcultures and with a common political creed rooted in that mainstream culture. In the late twentieth century, developments occurred that, if continued, could change America into a culturally bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages. This trend was in part the result of the popularity of the doctrines of multiculturalism and diversity among intellectual and political elites, and the government policies on bilingual education and affirmative action that those doctrines promoted and sanctioned. The driving force behind the trend toward cultural bifurcation, however, has been immigration from Latin America and especially from Mexico.”

Years before, in “The Clash of Civilizations,” the controversial essay that appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs, Huntington deemed Mexico a country whose “civilization” was not Western and, moreover, critically different from that of the United States. Mexico was, like Turkey, a country “torn” between two civilizations: the “Latin American” and the “North American.” Thirty years earlier, in The Disuniting of America, one of the key books in the cultural wars of the nineties, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. warned his fellow citizens, “The separatist impulse is by no means confined to the black community. Another salient expression is the bilingualism movement, ostensibly conducted in the interests of all non-English speakers but particularly a Hispanic-American project… In recent years the combination of the ethnicity cult with a flood of immigration from Spanish-speaking countries has given bilingualism new impetus.”

In his book, Huntington declares himself, without compunction, to be a patriot and further asserts that: “All societies face recurring threats to their existence, to which they eventually succumb. Yet some societies, even when so threatened, are also capable of postponing their demise by halting and reversing the processes of decline and renewing their vitality and identity. I believe that America can do that and that Americans should recommit themselves to the Anglo-Protestant culture, traditions, and values that for three and a half centuries have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions and that have been the source of their liberty, unity, power, prosperity, and moral leadership as a force for good in the world.”

In Mexico the statement elicited fiery responses. Enrique Krauze combined criticism of Huntington’s xenophobia with an uncritical appreciation of Mexican virtues, “Mexicans understand very well the advantages of racial mixing because, for centuries, their culture has been inclusive. Miscegenation is the particular genius of Mexico, a country where the Indian and the Spaniard, with their many variants, have mixed with admirable results of coexistence. Thus, with some exceptions, Mexico hasn’t had racial wars.” On the other hand, “Huntington’s obsession to preserve an identity leads to the idea of purity, and we have already seen that film: Serbes, Hutus, Tutsis, ETA, KKK. Identity fanatics.” Paidós, the publishing house that published the book in Spanish, commissioned an anthology of essays from Mexican academics in response to Huntington’s statement. More than a response to Huntington—and to the audience the Harvard professor had in mind—the book was a vehement denial directed at the convinced: the Mexicans themselves. The tone of the majority of the essays, although erudite, was not reasonable. Huntington’s book, the editor said in the first lines of the prologue, “doesn’t have the least importance as an academic work.” The majority of the authors didn’t understand two indisputable points about the book. The first is that the characteristics of Mexican immigration identified by Huntington (illegality, dimension, etc.), are evident, unlike their presumed consequences. Secondly, although the nativist statement was critically received by the academy, it gave voice to a far-reaching sentiment in North American society, hence its importance. Few of the authors understood the place Huntington’s jeremiad had in the history of the discourse on North American identity. Some texts, however, went further than indignation as they concluded that, “Huntington is above all a political strategist, a little Machiavelli dressed up as preacher.” Although few texts offered alternatives to Huntington’s reasoning and statistics, Mauricio Tenorio’s essay proposed a different interpretation for the understanding of ¿Quiénes somos? in his suggestion that Huntington didn’t invent the discourse of ideological difference, and that the philosophers of the “Mexican” and the Consejo de la Raza activists were accomplices in that symbolic maneuver.

Even critics who generally admire Huntington’s academic work recognized that the statement lacked the proverbial realism of his other books. Rather than a solid interpretation of the history of the United States, the author offered a “romantic nostalgia for Anglo-Protestant culture.” Nonetheless, Huntington’s argument seemed untimely. The nineties was the decade of the cultural wars in the United States, when fiery debates over multiculturalism consumed thousands of liters of ink and tons of paper over ten years. Meanwhile, Huntington remained silent, preoccupied with the clash of civilizations that was the world’s backdrop. Now, in his mind’s eye he believes that he finds that same clash in his own backyard. Just as the echoes of the cultural wars were dying, Huntington revives them with his academic authority. Why this tardy response?

Some clues can be found in Huntington’s unusual response to the critic Alan Wolfe in Foreign Affairs. In addition to accusing Wolfe of erroneously interpreting his work, Huntington makes some revealing clarifications. His book, he adduces, does not deal primarily with immigration. It’s central concern is “the salience and substance of American national identity.” Huntington’s angst is that of a nationalistic ideologue. Huntington recognizes that North Americans have not always accorded the same importance to their national identity relative to other identities. Before the civil war, national identity, compared to regional and local identities, was weak. On the other hand, the twentieth century was the century of “American Nationalism.” Huntington believes that the legacy of the cultural revolutions of the seventies was the weakening of national identity. Since the seventies and the civil rights movement, the importance of racial, sexual, and ethnic identities has increased relative to the national. Nonetheless, the terrorist attacks of 2001 “dramatically brought national identity back to the fore. As the profusion of flags demonstrated, Americans quickly rediscovered their nation.” Huntington is not alone in praising the useful effect of fear on patriotism. Several months after the terrorist assaults, Robert Putnam, another Harvard political scientist, wrote in The American Prospect journal, that “the closing decades of the twentieth century found Americans growing ever less connected with one another and with collective life. We voted less, joined less, gave less, trusted less, invested less time in public affairs, and engaged less with our friends, our neighbors, and even our families.” The terrorist assaults seemed to revive patriotic sentiment in the United States. “The unspeakable tragedy of September 11,” wrote Putman, “dramatically interrupted that trend. Almost instantly, we rediscovered our friends, our neighbors, our public institutions, and our shared fate.” Like Huntington, Putman celebrates this civic revival. Huntington, however, realizes that the catalyzing effect lasted didn’t last long, and after the nationalistic catharsis, North Americans have apparently gone back to bowling alone. Indeed, in the aftermath of the terrorist assaults, the salience of national identity, “has eroded; its future will depend in part on whether Americans experience or perceive major threats to their country.” National identity needed a new and lasting revitalization. This suggests a Machiavellian theory: the necessity of an exterior threat and a war in order to preserve the civic virtue of the republic. Huntington then identified a more significant threat, although its nature was more ambiguous than the assaults of the Islamic fundamentalists: the Hispanic challenge to the historic culture of the United States. Why did the culture of invading Mexican immigrants concern Huntington? The answer is that he had found there the source of a new threat. According to Huntington himself,Who Are We? is the product of the same inspiration behind his previous works, “All these books have their origins in my moral concern with major political and social problems, which often have been neglected. I then try to analyze them in strictly realist fashion.”


Ironically, Samuel Huntington and Octavio Paz share a similar idea of national identity. Paz, for his part, magisterially described the dialectic of oppositions: North Americans are credulous, Mexicans are believers. They love fairytales and detective stories, we love myths and legends. They “are optimists; we are nihilists…North Americans want to understand, we want to contemplate. They are active, we are quietists; we enjoy our afflictions like they enjoy their inventions.” Both attitudes are, it is presumed, “irreconcilable.” How did Paz outline the contours of this difference? By comparing. Here, accuracy regarding the ontological distinction is the least of it. The important thing is that in order to arrive at it Paz pursued the dialectic of the mirror, as he suggests, in the first pages of El laberinto de la soledad [The Labyrinth of Solitude]: “I have to confess that many of the reflections that form this essay originated outside of Mexico, during a two year stay in the United States. I remember that every time I inclined toward North American life, yearning to understand it, I came face to face with my own questioning image. This image, conspicuous above the glittering depths of the United States, was the first and perhaps the most profound of the responses that country gave to my questions.

According to Roger Bartra, the myth of the national character, “would appear be without history; it would seem as if national values had fallen from the native sky to merge with the unifying substance in which the souls of all Mexicans bathe equally and forever. Essays about the Mexican national character are translations and reductions—and frequently grotesque caricatures—of innumerable artistic, literary, musical, and cinematographic works.” Huntington, on the other hand, is obsessed with the “substance” of North American national identity. That substance refers to that which North Americans believe they have in common and that which distinguishes them from other people: the English language, Christianity, religious commitment, the English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, the rights of individuals and the value of individualism, the work ethic and “the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a city on a hill.”

It is significant that the counter-point to these common clichés that paint the two nations as intrinsically different is the similarity of the identities that Mexico and the United States forged for themselves in the twentieth century, and that are now in crisis. Both processes of ideological construction pursued, in essence, the same objective: to integrate different groups into a coherent union. In Mexico and in the United States the twentieth century recorded the rise and the fall of two powerful imaginary nations: the cosmic race and the melting pot. Both were metaphors of integration and amalgamation. Since their founding, the Mexican and North American national states confronted the same dilemma: cultural diversity. The predicament of both nations is similar and the “master images” of national identity that they forged for themselves represent different responses to similar questions.

Faced with the dilemma of what to do with the original inhabitants, Spain and Portugal appear to have to offered a less exclusive solution than England. In the United States, from the colonial period until the end of the seventies, interracial unions were prohibited. In the Spanish colonies this strict separation didn’t exist. For Anglo Americans miscegenation represented the threat of racial contamination, whereas for many criollos, it was a way to “whiten” their countries. Contrary to what Krauze believes, racism has not been absent from Latin American nations: the Indian was always seen as inferior. Nevertheless, it’s true that this Hispanic variety of prejudice was more tolerant and less rigid than the obsession with racial purity and the strict separation between the races in North America.

To complete the comparison, it is appropriate to first point out the similarity of origin. The ideological matrix of Mexico and the United States is, with nuances, the same: liberalism. A civic principle was affirmed in the foundation of both countries. As David A. Hollinger asserts, “Civic nationalism is the variety of nationalism developed most conspicuously by the United States and France following the revolutions of 1776 and 1789, and also by the countries of Latin America who declared their independence early in the nineteenth century.” The builders of those states professed a “civic nationalism,” because the nation they were imagining was formed by citizens who were equal before the law, united by adhesive patriotic ties to a set of practices and shared political values. The political community was formed by individuals regardless of race, color, or religion.

In both cases this universalistic ideology was inadequate to suppress national identities. Mexicans and North Americans couldn’t imagine themselves simply as citizens. They required an ethnic, historic, and civic tale that would serve as the vertebral column of nationality. The civic and ethnic dimensions obeyed opposing principles and thus, from the beginning, were in conflict. In the United States, first slavery and later racial segregation denied the self-proclaimed principles found in documents such as the Declaration of Independence. In Mexico the effort to abolish race as the axis of nationality didn’t last long. The twentieth century was, almost in its entirety, a racist century and the ideology of miscegenation existed until its decline. It is evident that both nations have had difficulties of assimilating their original sins.

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