Every 12th of October many countries in the Spanish-speaking world celebrate Columbus Day as el Día de la Raza (the Day of Race). The dark side of military conquest and colonization aside, the encounter of the Old and the New Worlds marks the beginning of a new Latin American culture resulting from the fusion and intermarriage of the three large human groups: the original Amerindians, who are Asian in origin, the colonizing Europeans, and Black Africans who were first brought as slaves.
Significant percentages of the population in most Latin American countries are mixed race mestizo (Caucasian-Amerindian), e.g. El Salvador 90%, Honduras 90%, Panama 84%, Nicaragua 69%, Ecuador 65%, Mexico 60%, Colombia 58%, Belize 55%, Peru 37%, Bolivia 30%. *
In a broad sense however, the term mestizaje goes beyond the mix of Amerindian and White it also includes Black Africans. The Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy currently defines the concept as “the intermarriage of different races.” Amerindians, who in large part were also persecuted by European settlers, understood the plight of escaped slaves and offered them shelter and food. Intermarriage likely occurred as, throughout Latin America, there are many cases of Amerindians and Africans uniting in settlements to defend themselves against European colonists.
Mestizaje was especially frequent in topographies resembling West Africa: Brazil and the coastal regions of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, southern Mexico and the Caribbean coast of Central America. The largest Hispanic advocacy group in the nation, the national Council of La Raza (NCLR) acknowledges this coming together of races in Latino culture.
Ironically, the American Southwest had less mixture of cultures than the rest of Latin America because Coronado found no gold in his 1540 expedition. The area was sparsely colonized as it was considered more of an arid wasteland and the vast expanse permitted tribes like the Apache and Navaho to carry on with their lives far from Spanish interference.
Of all the European nations, the Spanish and Portuguese were also the most inclined to intermarry with other cultures. Intermarriage with black North African Moors had begun to take place close to 700 years earlier, in the 8th century.
In 1925, Mexican philosopher and statesman José Vasconcelos published the book La Raza Cósmica (the Cosmic Race) introducing the concept of a futuristic race where the mixture of races would bring together the cultures of the world’s continents. Thus, el Día de la Raza celebrates the mixture that gave birth to a remarkable cultural experiment integrating the world’s peoples.
* 2011 CIA World Factbook