I have been photographing mixed-race American families off and on for a while now, as part of a collaboration with Brian Owensby (professor of history at the University of Virginia). The main question that we were tossing around is this: How is our understanding of what it means to be an American changing as a consequence of mestizo processes?
America is heralded as the land of immigrants — the land of people from the far corners of the Earth. The idea of the plucky, industrious immigrant embarking from Europe on a new life is a celebrated American image. And yet there is another side to the story, for people came not only from Europe, but also from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. They came for different reasons and with varying degrees of enthusiasm — some came riding in on the bright hope of promised freedoms and others came weighed down by chains, destined for a life of slavery. This early spectrum of reasons for coming to America provided the mold for a greater prevailing social identity of all Americans.
Assimilation in the traditional way Americans have thought of it is a simplifying assumption, an illusion of linear progress in which cultural difference is permissible in the first generation, but is assumed to vanish after that. In fact, the children of immigrants, the first and second generations, tend to accept aspects of the wider American culture, reject others, and retain a kind of enabling ambivalence with respect to the rest. Increasingly, this approach to diversity, difference, and change is being accepted in mainstream society, especially among the young. In short, Americans are beginning to learn to understand their world through mestizo processes.
The photographs reference the genre of painting known as Pintura de Casta (Casta Paintings) that emerged in Mexico following the arrival of the Europeans to the New World. Usually in a tableau of 16 portraits, the casta paintings depicted a nuclear families, with the mother and father (often of differing ethnicities) along with their offspring, the novel curiosity and centerpiece of the painting. On one level the casta paintings represented an attempt at social taxonomy as interaction and intermarriage among Spanish, Indians, and Africans in Mexico resulted in a population that was approximately one-quarter interracial in the eighteenth century.
America is a land of hyphenated identities and of self-proclaimed hyphenated people — African-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American — the list is endless. American Mestizaje looks at how a larger American identity is taking shape out of all of the hyphenated parts — at the heart of this project lies the question of what it means to be American.
Among democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself. As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them, its members become undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link to it.
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America Volume II