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Racism and Ethnicity in Latin America Essay

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Updated: Aug 14th, 2021

The problem of the relationship between races, the interaction of different nations in a complicated multicultural and multiracial society has always attracted the attention of scientists and ordinary people. The issue is so important to understand because it not only concerns relations in the international community but touches every human being in particular. I mean that everyone can be involved in a racially-based conflict if he or she does not know the basic principles of human ethics and respect towards others. Lots of armed conflicts around the world are consequences of the lack of such knowledge and reluctance to go into details of the issue.

Especially vividly this is illustrated by the conflicts in the countries where, historically or because of other reasons, several nations happen to live together. For instance, today’s Pakistan-Indian conflicts, clashes inside of Iraq community between Sunnis and Shiahs, and war between Israel and Palestine.

Ethnic minorities, their status in this or that society, the issue of their relationships with the dominant parts of certain communities – these are all burning problems of today’s world that have no less important for the peaceful coexistence of various nations on Earth.

The countries of Latin America seemed to be exceptions from this rule when they fought together against the Spanish rule in the 19th century and nothing predicted the situation to change so drastically with the flow of time. Nowadays ethnic problems and various kinds of discrimination based upon race, for instance, problematic access to jobs, education, conveniences, and scornful social attitude towards ethnic minorities, became one of the most important factors undermining the stability in this region.

This essay aims at seeing and analyzing the ethnic and racially-based issues in the countries of Latin America in order to understand the problems mentioned above and an attempt to suggest a way out for the nations and ethnic groups confronting each other. To achieve the setup goals we are going to exemplify our statements and thoughts with the excerpts from scientific (“Americas: the changing face of Latin America and the Caribbean” by Peter Winn) and literary (“I, Rigoberta Menchu, an Indian woman in Guatemala” by Rigoberta Menchu) works which constitute the best creations giving information about the state of things in Latin America.

To start the essay, we should provide some background on the topic of Latin American countries, so that to realize the cultural, historical, and political reasons for race and ethnicity problems existing in the region nowadays. Latin America is quite a peculiar region in concern of ethnicity as its history has always been a mix of cultures.

It includes indigenous people of Latin American countries (Indians Maya who inhabited the area long before the white people came to know about its existence), the European conquerors who came in the Middle Ages to take the land and freedom of this people, people of African origin whose ancestors were brought to this area as slaves to serve the white conquerors, and, finally, the creoles (or mestizos) – the children of mixed marriages between white and indigenous or black inhabitants of the region.

The enumerated groups were always situated on different layers of the local society that is why conflicts between them were a usual thing. The whites, who positioned themselves as the highest class, suppressed other social groups; emancipation of people of African origin gave them relief but worsened the state of the indigenous people as they left to be the only subordinated and the lowest class of the society bound to do the less prestigious work and to exist in the atmosphere of contempt and suppression, they had “nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a decent roof over our heads; no land, no work, no health care, no food, no education” (Winn, 575).

The mestizos were thought to lose their roots, they were considered neither Indians nor Europeans and were not liked by both races: “…their beliefs, their traditions and customs, and the adoption of the culture of their ancient masters. After one generation they become mestizos. They are no longer Indians.” (Winn, 256). Mayan (Indian) families were afraid of becoming assimilated with the culture of their suppressors, they neglected everything that might relate them to the Spanish culture, especially the language. Parents did not allow their children to study at schools where the subjects were taught in Spanish as it was supposed to be the thing that would “take away their indigenous culture” (Menchu, 169, 190).

The attitude towards people who adjusted to the Spanish culture was scornful, especially towards those who used the advantages of belonging to a higher level of the society in order to benefit from his or her former compatriots. Rigoberta Menchu speaks, in this case, about “the moral degradation of “Latinized Indians” who use their knowledge of Spanish to exploit other Indians” (Menchu, 37).

The situation with the conflict of cultures, Mayan and Spanish, seems to be the leitmotif of the whole history of almost all Latin American countries, and Rigoberta Menchu uses this conflict as the main idea of her work. It starts about four hundred years ago with the arrival of Spanish conquerors and ends with the scene of the main character’s father’s death in the Spanish embassy in Guatemala. The stylistic means of allusion helps to demonstrate the vital importance of ethnic identity – the father is the person Rigoberta loves more than anyone other in the world and the Spanish take away his life like they took the most significant for her whole nation – freedom and right for self-identity.

A situation like this arose lots of uprisings and guerrilla revolts, particularly in Guatemala, and Menchu’s heroine herself participated in them, although with certain problems connected with sexist prejudice, and contributed to the struggle of Indian people. Indian community itself did not approve of women’s active role in such affairs but Rigoberta was sure that she was right. “The community is very suspicious of a woman like me who is twenty-three but they don’t know where I’ve been or where I’ve lived” (Menchu, 61). As we can observe, ethnicity has always been a burning issue, and struggle against it has been the business of everyone irrespective of his or her age, sex, or social position.

In the 20th century, the situation seemed to start improving when the movements for ethnic minorities’ rights turned out to be very influential. But then people saw that the state of thing, which was formed during centuries, is not so easy to change as it seemed. At present, statistic reports say that positions of ethnic minorities are very bad in Latin American countries. Not to operate with general statements we should provide this statement with specific examples and data which is impossible without sticking to particular countries. Let us analyze the state of things with racial discrimination specifically in Guatemala and Brazil.

The examples of the real state of things for ethnic minorities in these countries are very pessimistic – people of Indian origin in Guatemala earn about 60% fewer wages than white people do. Over 50% of white families have access to sewerage in Guatemala and only 30% of Indian families. In Brazil the situation is not much better – about a half of white families have conveniences at their disposal, while among indigenous people the part having access to the sewerage constitute nearly 40% of the ethnic group.

Although gender discrimination nowadays tends to decrease, racially and ethnically based controversy still leaves a lot of points for open discussion and solution. No access to education and further career development prospective for the representatives of ethnic minorities is another point that does not allow to settle all the contradictions at this stage of the development of the society.

All the above said makes evident the fact that racial ideologies influence greatly all other spheres of human life in the countries of Latin America. It has an impact on the political, economic, and social areas of this or that country. The examples of Brazil and, especially, Guatemala prove that the social distinction is still based on ethnic principles – the level of income of a person can not be high if he or she belongs to an ethnic minority, like Maya Indians in Guatemala.

Such people do not have educational opportunities and, as a result, no chances for successful career development. These conditions create a lack of qualified workers, as only a small part of the Guatemalan population can afford a University or College education. At the same time, these dual standards make the average living standard much lower, and, finally, the international image of Guatemala or any other Latin American country with the same problems is being greatly damaged by issues of this kind.

The information analyzed in this essay leads us to the logical conclusion that the issues of race and ethnicity are still of primary importance for the whole world, and Latin American countries are not an exception. Due to historical, cultural, and political reasons these problems here are very significant because Latin America is characterized by the variety of peoples, it is inhabited with and the variety of relations between them.

And as a final thought of this essay, I would like to cite lines from “Americas” by Peter Winn who offers “to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of… a new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude, will have, at last, and forever, a second opportunity on earth (Winn, 464).

Works Cited

Menchu, Rigoberta. I Rigoberta Menchu, ed., Elisabeth Burgos-Debray; trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1984.

Winn, Peter. Americas: the changing face of Latin America and Caribbean. Los – Angeles: The University of California Press, 2006.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Racism and Ethnicity in Latin America." August 14, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/racism-and-ethnicity-in-latin-america/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Racism and Ethnicity in Latin America'. 14 August.

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