The Chilean Exception: Racial Homogeneity, Mestizaje, and Nationalism

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Sarah Walsh, University of Lisbon
Scholarship on race in Latin America has overwhelmingly focused on the interaction and mixture of different racial and ethnic groups since the colonial era. In particular, histories of race in the region characterize racial mixture as a unique feature of the political, social, and cultural landscape. Studies of eugenics as conceptualized and practiced in Latin America especially highlight the relative pragmatism regarding race mixing in contrast to eugenics practiced elsewhere. However, this paper will argue that an acceptance of race mixing among Latin American racial theorists, eugenicists, and physicians contributed to a reframing and reinstatement of racial hierarchy. By examining the development of eugenic science and racial theory in Chile, this paper will reveal how notions of racial plasticity existed alongside notions of racial superiority. Specifically, this paper will argue that Chilean racial exceptionalism in the early twentieth century was predicated on the idea that some types of racial mixture were better than others. Conveniently for Chileans, their racial heritage of mostly indigenous and European ancestry was one such preferred combination. Yet, racial mixing was only desirable insofar as it resulted in a homogeneous national population. This combination of ideas led to the attempt to erase the existence and contributions of Indigenous Chileans in both the past and present. Chileans insisted on their own blended racial homogeneity, which functioned much like purity of origin in other parts of the world, as a means of differentiating themselves from other Latin American nations associated with undesirable histories of racial mixture. Using medical texts, popular periodicals, and visual images produced between 1900 and 1950, this paper will demonstrate how race science in Chile reconciled the nation’s history of racial mixture with its claims to racial homogeneity and Indigenous “disappearance.”
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