Mestizaje: Mexico's Reception of Refugees

What is Mestizaje?

In practice, Mexican immigration policy throughout the 1930s was based largely on admitting foreigners deemed desirable and refusing entry to those considered undesirable. Based on the number of Jews that were allowed into the country, it is evident that Jews fleeing Nazism were immediately designated as undesirable, but how did the Mexican government determine who fit the desirable criteria? According to Gleizer, “[t]he condition of being “desirable” was tied directly to the ability, real or imaginary, of the foreigner to be assimilated into the national population.” In order to determine which foreigners would best assimilate into the Mexican population, the Mexican state drew on an ideology that was constructed during the colonial era: Mestizaje. Mestizaje refers to the intentional cultural and racial mixing and has a long history in Mexico as a racial ideology. Amid the strict racial classification system imposed by colonial powers, Mestizaje formed as an inverse ideology that placed the mestizo on the top rung of the social hierarchy as the ideal social and ethnic fusion and “the polished synthesis of Spanish and Indian heritage.” Following the instability and divisions brought on by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Mexican leadership turned to Mestizaje as a way to promote unity among the Mexican people.

Many scientists, anthropologists, demographers, and intellectuals who contributed to the systematization of Mestizaje took part in the post-revolutionary administrations, in the fields of public health, education, and social work, and of course in all fields related to population policies. While Mestizaje was intended to be a unifying ideal, it was not an inclusive ideology, but quite the opposite, since “it assumed a limited number of constituent elements: the Indian and the Creole,” and since it left those who did not belong to either of these two original branches outside of the national project. Thus, in the 1930s Mestizaje evolved from an ideology to a political and national project of the Mexican state. Meanwhile, a similar  significant rearticulation occurred with the idea of raza. Emerging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Mexican intellectuals began to grapple with the question of national identity, raza generally referred to a sense of shared heritage and cultural traditions among Mexicans of different racial backgrounds. During the Mexican Revolution, the term raza took on new meaning as it became a rallying cry for the working-class and peasant masses who were fighting against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.  According to historian Alan Knight, raza was used during the revolution to emphasize the shared cultural identity of the indigenous and mestizo people who made up the majority of the revolutionary forces. The concept of raza was closely connected to Mestizaje, as it emphasized the shared cultural heritage of indigenous and mestizo peoples in Mexico. According to historian Jaime Pensado, raza was an important tool in the state's efforts to promote Mestizaje, as it emphasized the cultural and racial blending that had occurred in Mexico over the centuries. Having observed that the spontaneous mechanisms of unification had not had the desired results, the post-revolutionary Mexican state decided to stimulate Mestizaje with a direct policy. Immigration was an essential part of this direct policy because although the mestizo race was “already perfect”, the government pushed the narrative that the process of Mestizaje was incomplete, and it was the state’s job to complete it. 

Immigration therefore became a crucial method of completing the national project. Alfredo M. Saavedra, the director of the Mexican Society of Eugenics, became one of the principal promoters of this idea. Saavedra encouraged the government as well as families to be vigilant about biological reproduction: “Not all races [can] mix compatibly; from the biological or social point of view not all can fuse into a desirable mixture; there are families who degenerate with mixing or cross-breeding, while others improve.” It was the goal of the Mexican state to ensure the population improved through reproduction, and maintaining control over which populations were allowed to immigrate to Mexico would do just that. The rejection of “nonassimilable” foreigners, however, affected not only immigration policies, but also excluded those groups of foreigners from historical accounts and memories of the conformation of Mexican society. Thus, populations that existed outside of these confines, such as Jews, symbolically did not exist because they cannot be explained by the originating fusion of Indians and Spaniards. Foreigners only existed at the moment they disembarked in Mexico. From then on, there were only mestizos.

A Brief History of Immigration in Mexico 

Mexico’s immigration policy did not always allow for restrictive prohibitions based on race or religion. In fact, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mexican immigration was open and essentially unregulated. Mexico’s first immigration law, which went into effect in March 1909, outlined this open policy, restricting only those sick or unable to work, fugitives of the law, prostitutes, and anarchists. In other words, while Mexico’s early immigration policy was relatively open, there was an expressed preference for people able to integrate economically into society and follow religious norms. After the loss of nearly a million lives during the Mexican Revolution and a drop in birth rate, the post-revolutionary governments encouraged immigration with the aim of national reconstruction. Presidents Álvaro Obregón (1920–1924) and Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–1928) instituted opening-up policies since, for economic development as well as modernization in agriculture and industry, the country required foreign investment and a greater population. 

However, Álvaro Obregón’s policies in the 1920s, made clear an expressed objective to have greater control over people coming into Mexico, and to filter out certain foreign populations Álvaro Obregón deemed undesirable. Álvaro Obregón stated this objective clearly in a Project for a Law of Immigration that submitted in 1923: “Public Authority to be in the position of selecting immigrants and excluding those who [. . .] were not desirable elements or who might bring about the physical degeneration of our race or the moral depression of our people, or put our political institutions at risk of dissolution.” Therefore, the early 1920s marked a specific connection between Mexico’s immigration policy and the construction of race. It is evident that Álvaro Obregón’s government had a clear idea of which races should compose the Mexican populace and which ones should not. Further documents detailing Mexican immigration policy illustrate that these types of legislation were part of a greater national project, which I will discuss further later on.