The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American/Hispanic Political Thought

The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American/Hispanic Political Thought

The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American/Hispanic Political Thought

The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Latin American/Hispanic Political Thought


The role of race in politics, citizenship, and the state is one of the most perplexing puzzles of modernity. While political thought has been slow to take up this puzzle, Diego von Vacano suggests that the tradition of Latin American and Hispanic political thought, which has long considered the place of mixed-race peoples throughout the Americas, is uniquely well-positioned to provide useful ways of thinking about the connections between race and citizenship. As he argues, debates in the United States about multiracial identity, the possibility of a post-racial world in the aftermath of Barack Obama, and demographic changes owed to the age of mass migration will inevitably have to confront the intellectual tradition related to racial admixture that comes to us from Latin America.

Von Vacano compares the way that race is conceived across the writings of four thinkers, and across four different eras: the Spanish friar Bartolom de Las Casas writing in the context of empire; Sim n Bolivar writing during the early republican period; Venezuelan sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz on the role of race in nationalism; and Mexican philosopher Jos Vasconcelos writing on the aesthetic approach to racial identity during the cosmopolitan, post-national period. From this comparative and historical survey, von Vacano develops a concept of race as synthetic, fluid and dynamic -- a concept that will have methodological, historical, and normative value for understanding race in other diverse societies.


A RECENT BOLIVIAN film by the director Juan Carlos Valdivia, Zona Sur, encapsulates the complex politics of race in some parts of Latin America. In it, a wealthy, “white” family is entangled psychologically with its indigenous domestic servants. Growing up in La Paz, Bolivia, I always felt this kind of racial politics very close. While my family was lower-middle class, I attended a private French school in Achumani, in “la Zona Sur,” one of the wealthier suburbs of the capital. Most of my classmates were “white,” and the few who were not were sometimes treated as outcasts. Racial jokes about indios and cholos were not uncommon, and we—like most middle- and upper-class Bolivians— had empleadas, indigenous live-in maids who worked long, hard hours. The color line that separated Bolivians along racial lines was trenchant and deep. It created a de facto apartheid system that enshrined white privilege.

We eventually emigrated to the United States as political refugees owing to political turmoil in Bolivia in the 1980s. We left behind the racial politics of la Zona Sur, but I found a different kind of racial politics as a young Latino immigrant living in Queens, New York. The better classrooms and teachers were reserved for the white students, while mostly Latino and Asian immigrants were left to their own devices in what were supposed to be English as Second Language classes. I eventually realized that one’s color, appearance, and way of speaking matter a lot in defining the meaning of being a “citizen,” whether in Bolivia, the United States, or elsewhere.

These experiences led me to think about ways that we can theorize the intricate relationship of race to citizenship. This book is the product, and it argues that the Latin American experience—while it does indeed have many negative aspects when it comes . . .

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