30 January 2010

by Julián Gutiérrez Castaño

The first time that I heard about Métis people, I thought, “Hey, wait a second, that’s me.”  Métis are a group of people in North America who recognize Indigenous and European origins, and I belong (like most Latin-Americans) to a group of people called Mestizos, which also recognizes Indigenous, European and African origins.  However, I admit sadly, we are not as proud of the African and Indigenous origins as we are of the European.

What struck me about Métis was the fact that they proudly identify as a distinct group with a different culture and language, in a context dominated by white English speakers.  Mestizos, on the other hand, have tried unsuccessfully to melt into white culture for centuries, ignoring two of the three different origins that I mention above.  Another big difference is that Mestizos have become the dominant group in Latin America, although this power did not come without sacrifice.  Mestizos practice a culture that has some characteristics different from European culture, but which has been shaped predominantly by Western influences.  Mestizos speak Spanish, maybe different than that which Spaniards speak, and maybe with variations according to the country and region, but still, Spanish.

The explanation of these differences can be found in history.  Métis were the result of the early mix between European trappers (mostly French and Scottish) and Indigenous people on Turtle Island (North America).  Many European trappers married Indigenous women—a move advantageous to their needs since the Indigenous women had a deep knowledge of the land, the animals, the plants and the languages found on Turtle Island.  In this context, Europeans recognized the wisdom of Indigenous cultures and respected them.  The children of these marriages inherited a legacy where their people considered Indigenous culture more appropriate than Western culture in the regions where they lived.  Of course, this blending of cultures happened before European settlers, lead by nationalist and corporate ambitions, overpowered Indigenous people on Turtle Island, and fell into the colonial, racist and oppressive practices that shape what Canada is today.

Mestizos in Latin America have a totally different history.  From the beginnings of their presence there, Europeans showed that their intention was to conquer and dominate the land, and the resources and the Indigenous people that populated it.  Indigenous cultures were enslaved, assimilated and, in many cases, completely exterminated.  Nowadays, Mestizos in Latin America are a perfect example of how internalized racism works.  Most of the time, we do not recognize our Indigenous and African ancestors, and racism is present in our daily life (e.g. “Negro tenía que ser”—he/she has to be Black; “no sea Indio”—don’t be an Indian—are common phrases used when a person is doing something stupid).

These similarities and differences between Métis and Mestizos make me think about how much we, the Mestizos, could learn from the Métis.  We are still living in the same land, so we should try to relearn the Indigenous knowledge that was more appropriate for the land.  Our culture, even when we are not aware of it, is full of Indigenous and African contributions.  We speak Spanish, but Latin American Spanish is a lot more diverse than the original Castellan.  Our vocabulary can be traced to its Indigenous, African, Moorish and Spanish roots.  Christianity is the predominant religion, but our churches and religious practices are full of elements that belong to African and Indigenous religions.  Relearning the land, recognizing the influence of African and Indigenous languages on our Spanish, and giving credit to our religious syncretism, would be big steps in the struggle against the internalized racism that dominates Latin America and would help us to reclaim an identity more accurate to our roots.