A casta (Spanish: [ˈkasta]) was a term to describe mixed-race individuals in Spanish America, resulting from unions of European whites (españoles), Amerindians (indios), and Africans (negros). Racial categories had legal and social consequences, since racial status was an organizing principle of Spanish colonial rule. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European elites created a complex hierarchical system of race classification. The sistema de castas or the sociedad de castas was used in the 17th and 18th century in New Spain, a vast area of land starting just below Alaska stretching all the way to the Isthmus of Panama, plus the entire Caribbean, the Floridas and Spanish Philippines, to formally rank the mixed-race people who were born during the post-Conquest period. The process of mixing ancestries in the union of people of different races was known as mestizaje (Portuguese: mestiçagem [meʃtʃiˈsaʒẽj], [mɨʃtiˈsaʒɐ̃j]). In Spanish colonial law, mixed-race castas were classified as part of the república de españoles and not the república de indios, which set Amerindians outside the Hispanic sphere. Other terminology for classification is categorization based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture, which distinguished between gente de razón (Hispanics, literally, "people of reason") and gente sin razón (non-acculturated natives), concurrently existed and supported the idea of the racial classification system.
Created by Hispanic elites, the sistema de castas or the sociedad de castas, varied largely due to their birth, color, race and origin of ethnic types. The system of casta was more than socio-racial classification. It had an effect on every aspect of life, including economics and taxation. Both the Spanish colonial state and the Church required more tax and tribute payments from those of lower socio-racial categories. Related to Spanish ideas about purity of blood (which historically also related to its reconquest of Spain from the Moors), the colonists established a caste system in Latin America by which a person's socio-economic status generally correlated with race or racial mix in the known family background, or simply on phenotype (physical appearance) if the family background was unknown. From the colonial period, when the Spanish imposed control, many wealthy persons and high government officials were of peninsular (Iberian) and/or European background, while African or indigenous ancestry, or dark skin, generally was correlated with inferiority and poverty. The "whiter" the heritage a person could claim, the higher in status they could climb; conversely, darker features meant less opportunity.
Casta paintings were a new, secular art form primarily produced in eighteenth-century Mexico. A notable exception to the secular nature of the genre is Luis de Mena's 1750 painting of Virgin of Guadalupe with castas.
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Casta is an Iberian word (existing in Spanish, Portuguese and other Iberian languages since the Middle Ages), meaning "lineage", "breed" or "race". It is derived from the older Latin word castus, "chaste", implying that the lineage has been kept pure. Casta gave rise to the English word caste during the Early Modern Period.
The idea of "purity of blood", limpieza de sangre, originating under Moorish rule, developed in Christian Spain to denote those without the "taint" of Jewish (or, later Muslim/Moorish) heritage ("blood"). It was directly linked to religion and notions of legitimacy, lineage and honor following Spain's reconquest of Moorish territory. It was institutionalized during the Inquisition. The Inquisition only allowed those Spaniards who could demonstrate not to have Jewish and Moorish blood to emigrate to Latin America. Both in Spain and in the New World crypto-Jews (converts who continued to secretly practice Judaism) were aggressively prosecuted. Some emigrated as Portuguese merchants to Mexico City and Lima, following the successful revolt of Portugal in 1640 against the Castillian Crown. Several spectacular autos de fe in New Spain in the mid-seventeenth century featured the public punishment of those convicted of being "Judaizers" (judaizantes).
In Spanish America, the idea of purity of blood was in a complex fashion linked to ideas of race, particularly pertaining to mixing of whites ("españoles") and non-whites (Indians and mixed-race castas). Spaniards had become obsessed with lineage, following the expulsion of Moors and Jews, and forced conversion of those who chose to remain. Evidence of lack of purity of blood had consequences for marriage, eligibility for office, entrance into the priesthood, and emigration to Spain's overseas territories. Having to produce genealogical records to prove one's pure ancestry gave rise to a trade in the creation of false genealogies.
When the concept of purity of blood was transferred overseas, it retained the concerns about tainted ancestry of Jews or Muslims in a family line. During the early colonial decades, the Spanish in the New World had unions and marriages with indigenous women, resulting in generations of mixed-race children. In the late sixteenth century, some investigations of ancestry classified as "stains" any connection with Black Africans ("negros", which resulted in "mulatos") and sometimes mixtures with indigenous that produced Mestizos. While some illustrations from the period show men of African descent dressed in fashionable clothing and as aristocrats in upper-class surroundings, the idea that any hint of black ancestry was a stain developed by the end of the colonial period. It was illustrated in eighteenth-century paintings of racial hierarchy, known as casta paintings.
The idea in New Spain that native or "Indian" (indio) blood in a lineage was an impurity may well have come about as the optimism of the early Franciscans faded about creating Indian priests trained at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, which ceased that function in the mid-sixteenth century. In addition, the Indian nobility, which was recognized by the Spanish colonists, had declined in importance, and there were fewer formal marriages between Spaniards and indigenous women than during the early decades of the colonial era. In the seventeenth century in New Spain, the ideas of purity of blood became associated with "Spanishness and whiteness, but it came to work together with socio-economic categories", such that a lineage with someone engaged in work with their hands was tainted by that connection.
Indians in Central Mexico were affected by ideas of purity of blood from the other side. Crown decrees on purity of blood were affirmed by indigenous communities, which barred Indians from holding office who had any non-Indians (Spaniards and/or Blacks) in their lineage. In indigenous communities "local caciques [rulers] and principales were granted a set of privileges and rights on the basis of their pre-Hispanic noble bloodlines and acceptance of the Catholic faith." Indigenous nobles submitted proofs (probanzas) of their purity of blood to affirm their rights and privileges that were extended to themselves and their communities. This supported the república de indios, a legal division of society that separated indigenous from non-Indians (república de españoles).
In the mid to late eighteenth century, the pace of race mixture (mestizaje) increased in New Spain, political changes of the Bourbon Reforms privileged peninsular Spaniards over American-born Spaniards, and casta paintings began to be produced in great numbers in Mexico. It was also the period when the power of the sistema de castas declined significantly.
In Spanish America (and many other places), racial categories were formal legal classifications. Initially in Spanish America there were three racial categories. They generally referred to the multiplicity of indigenous American peoples as "Indians" (indios), a Spanish term applied to, but seldom used by Amerinds themselves. Those from Spain called themselves españoles, which in the late colonial period was further refined to those born in Iberia, called politely peninsulares, while American-born españoles were called criollos. The third group were black Africans, called negros ("Blacks"), brought as slaves from the earliest days of Spanish empire in the Caribbean. There were fewer Spanish women than men who immigrated to the New World and fewer black women than men, so that mixed-race offspring of Spaniards and of Blacks were often the product of liaisons with indigenous women. The process of race mixture was termed mestizaje.
In the sixteenth century, the term casta, a collective category for mixed-race individuals, came into existence as the numbers grew, particularly in urban areas. The crown had divided the population of its overseas empire into two categories, separating Indians from non-Indians. Indigenous were the República de Indios, the other the República de Españoles, essentially the Hispanic sphere, so that Spaniards, Blacks, and mixed-race castas were lumped into this category. Official censuses and ecclesiastical records noted an individual's racial category, so that these sources can be used to chart socio-economic standard, residence patterns, and other important data.
General racial groupings had their own set of privileges and restrictions, both legal and customary. So, for example, only Spaniards and indigenous, who were deemed to be the original societies of the Spanish dominions, had recognized aristocracies. Also, in America and other overseas possessions, all Spaniards, regardless of their family's class background in Europe, came to consider themselves equal to the Peninsular hidalgía and expected to be treated as such.
Long lists of different terms found in casta paintings do not appear in official documentation; only counts of Spaniards, mestizos, Blacks and mulattoes, and indigenous (indios) were found in censuses. By the end of the colonial period in 1821, over one hundred categories of possible variations of mixture existed.
In his analysis of the 1790 census of Mexico City and its surrounding area, Dennis Nodin Valdés shows that the major colonial metropolis had a higher proportion of Spaniards and castas than Indians. In addition, there were higher rates of persons of mixed race, or mestizaje, than in the surrounding countryside, which was dominated by indios. He compared the population of the capital of New Spain with the census of the Intendancy of Mexico in 1794. The total number of Mexico City residents counted in 1793 was 104,760 (which excludes 8,166 officials) and in the intendancy as a whole 1,043,223, excluding 2,299 officials. In both the capital and the intendancy, the European population was the smallest percentage, with 2,335 in the capital (2.2%) and the intendancy 1,330 (.1%). The listing for Spaniard (español) was 50,371 (48.1%), with the intendancy showing 134,695 (12.9%). For mestizos (in which he has merged the castizos), in the capital there were 19,357 (18.5%) and in the intendancy 112,113 (10.7%). For the mulatto category, the capital listed 7,094 (6.8%) with the intendancy showing 52,629 (5.0%). There is apparently no separate category for blacks (Negros). The category Indian showed 25,603 (24.4%) in the capital, with the intendancy having 742,186 (71.1). The capital had the largest concentration of Spaniards and castas, and the countryside was overwhelmingly Indian. The population of the capital “indicates that conditions favoring mestizaje were more favorable in the city than the outlying area". In the 1811 census of Mexico City by residential sectors, there is no evidence of absolute segregation by race, an important finding. The highest concentration of Spaniards was around the traza, the central sector of the city where the civil and religious institutions were based and where there was the highest concentration of wealthy merchants. But non-Spaniards also lived there. Indians were found in higher concentrations in the sectors on the fringes of the capital. Castas appear as residents in all sectors of the capital.
Although the system could contain in excess of thirty categories, practical necessity reduced this number to seven groups ranked as follows : Spaniards, castizos, moriscos, mestizos, mulattoes, Indians, and Africans. The terms for the more complex racial mixtures tended to vary in meaning and use and from region to region. (For example, different sets of casta paintings will give a different set of terms and interpretations of their meaning.) For the most part, only the first few terms in the lists were used in documents and everyday life, the general descending order of precedence being:
The main divisions were as follows:
These were people of Spanish descent. People of other European descent who had settled in Spanish America and adapted to Hispanic culture, such as Pedro de Gante (from Ghent) and the Marquises of Osorno and Croix, would have also been considered Españoles. Also, as noted above, and below under "Mestizos" and "Castizos", many people with some Amerindian ancestry were considered Españoles.
Españoles were one of the three original "races", the other two being Amerindians and Blacks. Both immigrant and American-born Españoles (criollos) generally shared the same rights and privileges, although there were a few cases in which the law differentiated between them. For example, it became customary in some municipal councils for the office of alcalde to alternate between a European and an American. Spaniards were therefore divided into:
Persons of Spanish descent born in Spain (i.e., from the Iberian Peninsula, hence their name). Generally, there were two groups of Peninsulares. The first group includes those who were appointed to important jobs in the government, the army, and the Catholic Church by the Crown. This system was intended to perpetuate the ties of the governing elite to the Spanish crown. The theory was that an outsider should be appointed to rule over a certain society, therefore a New Spaniard would not be appointed Viceroy of New Spain. These officials usually had a long history of service to the Crown and were moved around the Empire frequently, as in career civil service positions. They usually did not live permanently in any one place in Latin America.
The second group of Peninsulares did settle permanently in a specific region and came to be associated with it. The first wave were the original settlers, the Conquistadors, who became lords of an area through their act of conquest. In the centuries after the Conquest, more Peninsulares continued to immigrate to New Spain under different circumstances, usually for commercial reasons. Some came as indentured servants to established Criollo families in order to gain passage. Peninsulares were of all socioeconomic classes in America. Once they settled, they tended to form families, so Peninsulares and Criollos were united and divided by family ties and tensions.
A Spanish term meaning "native born and raised", criollo historically was applied to both white and black non-indigenous persons born in America, in addition to animals and products. Because of the lack of white people in the Spanish colonies, during the first generations after the conquest, legitimately-born biological criollos were simply considered españoles criollos (see, Hyperdescent). In today's historiography, the term "criollo" means only the white people Born in America, who had unmixed Spanish or European ancestry both matrilineal and patrilineal. In the reality of the period, as noted, many criollos ended up interbreeding with the financially successful mestizos and castizos, who physically appeared white, but had some native ancestry. The knowledge of mixed ancestry was usually disregarded for families that had maintained a certain status and they were accepted as criollos.
Many of the second- or third-generation criollos became wealthy from the mines, ranches, or haciendas they owned. Criollo families who became extremely wealthy joined the ranks of the high nobility of the Spanish Empire. Still, most were part of what could be termed the petite bourgeoisie and some were poor. As lifelong residents of America, they, like all other residents of these areas, often participated in trading contraband, since the traditional monopolies of Seville, and later Cádiz, could not supply all their trade needs. (They were more than occasionally aided by royal officials turning a blind eye to this activity).
Criollos tended to be appointed to the lower-level government jobs—they had sizable representation in the municipal councils. But, with the sale of offices that began in the late 16th century, they gained access to high-level posts, such as judges on the regional audiencias. The 19th-century wars of independence have often been characterized as a struggle between Peninsulares and Criollos, but both groups can be found on both sides of the wars.
The original inhabitants of the Americas were considered to be one of the three "pure races" in Spanish America; under Spanish colonial law, they were classified and regulated as minors, and as such were to be protected by royal officials. In practice, they often suffered repression and abuse by the local elites. After the initial conquest, the elites of the Inca, Aztec and other Amerindian states were assimilated into the Spanish nobility through intermarriage.
The regional Native nobility, where it existed, was recognized and redefined along European standards by the Spanish. It had to deal with the difficulty of existing in a colonial society, but it remained in place until independence in 1821. Amerindians could belong to any economic class depending on their personal wealth, but most were peasants and poor.
Persons with one Spanish parent and one Amerindian parent. The term was originally associated with illegitimacy because in the generations after the Conquest, mixed-race children born in wedlock were assigned either a simple Amerindian or Spanish identity, depending with which culture they were raised. (See Hyperdescent and Hypodescent.) The number of official Mestizos rises in censuses only after the second half of the 17th century, when a sizable and stable community of mixed-race people with no claims on being either Amerindian or Spanish appeared.
One of the many terms, like the ones below, used to describe people with varying degrees of racial mixture. In this case Castizos were people with one Mestizo parent and one Spanish parent. The children of a Castizo with a Spaniard or another Castizo, were often classified and accepted as a Criollo Spaniard.
Persons with one Amerindian parent and one Mestizo parent.
People who are the product of the mixing over the generations of the European, Black African, and Amerindians. This mix may come about from a white Spaniard mating with a Zambo, an Amerindian mating with a Mulatto, or a Black African mating with a Mestizo. The term is in current use in Brazil, where they form slightly less than one-half the population (although pardo in Portuguese merely means brown and is used for any sort of mixed-race ancestry other than the mix of white and Asian). Pardos in Spanish America were common in the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico (see here), Dominican Republic, and Cuba.
Persons of the first generation of a Spanish and Black/African ancestry. If they were born into slavery (that is their mother was a slave), they would be slaves, unless freed by their master or manumitted. In popular parlance, mulato could also denote an individual of mixed African and Native American ancestry.
Further terms to describe other degrees of mixture included, among many others, Morisco, (not to be confused with the peninsular Morisco, from which the term was borrowed) a person of Mulatto and Spanish parents, i.e., a quadroon, and Albino (derived from albino), a person of Morisco and Spanish parents, i.e., an octoroon.
Persons who were of mixed Amerindian and Black ancestry. As with Mulattoes, many other terms existed to describe the degree of mixture. These included Chino and Lobo. Chino usually described someone as having Mulatto and Amerindian parents. The word chino derives from the Spanish word cochino, meaning "pig", and the phrase pelo chino, meaning "curly hair", is a reference to the casta known as chino that possessed kinky or curly hair.
Since there was some immigration from the Spanish East Indies during the colonial period, chino is often confused, even by contemporary historians, as a word for Asian peoples, which is the primary meaning of the word, but not usually in the context of the castas. Lobo could describe a person of Black and Amerindian parents (and therefore, a synonym for Zambo), as in the image gallery below, or someone of Amerindian and Torna atrás parents.
With Spaniards and Amerindians, this was the third original race in this paradigm, but low on the social scale because of their association with slavery. These were people of full Sub-Saharan African descent. Many, especially among the first generation, were slaves, but there were sizable free-Black communities. Distinction was made between Blacks born in Africa (negros bozales) and therefore possibly less acculturated, Blacks born in the Iberian Peninsula (Black Ladinos), and Blacks born in the Indies, these sometimes referred to as negros criollos.
Their low social status was enforced legally. They were prohibited by law from many positions, such as entering the priesthood, and their testimony in court was valued less than others. But they could join militias created especially for them. In contrast with the binary "one-drop rule", which evolved in the late-19th-century United States, people of mixed-Black ancestry were recognized as multiple separate groups, as noted above.
Other fanciful or derogatory terms existed, such as a torna atrás (literally, "turns back", but equivalent to the English term "throwback") and tente en el aire ("hold-yourself-in-midair") in New Spain or a requinterón in Peru, which implied that a child of only one-sixteenth Black ancestry is born looking Black to seemingly white parents. These terms were rarely used in legal documents and existed mostly in the New Spanish phenomenon of casta paintings (pinturas de castas), which showed possible mixtures down to several generations.
|Casta terms for miscegenation in Spanish America|
The interest of the Spanish Enlightenment in organizing knowledge and scientific description, resulted in the commission of many series of pictures that document the racial combinations that existed in the exotic lands that Spain possessed on the other side of the world. Many sets of these paintings still exist (around one hundred complete sets in museums and private collections and many more individual paintings), of varying artistic quality, usually consisting of sixteen paintings representing as many racial combinations. Some of the finer sets were done by prominent Mexican artists, such as Miguel Cabrera, José Joaquín Magón (who painted two sets), José de Ibarra, and Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz. These artists worked together in the painting guilds of New Spain. They were important transitional artists in 18th-century casta painting. At least one Spaniard, Francisco Clapera, also contributed to the casta genre. In general, little is known of most artists who did sign their work; most casta paintings are unsigned.
The overall themes that emerge in these paintings are the "supremacy of the Spaniards", the possibility that Indians could become Spaniards through miscegenation with Spaniards and the "regression to an earlier moment of racial development" that mixing with Blacks would cause to Spaniards. These series generally depict the descendants of Indians becoming Spanish after three generations of intermarriage with Spaniards (usually the, "De español y castiza, español" painting).
In contrast, mixtures with Blacks, both by Indians and Spaniards, led to a bewildering number of combinations, with "fanciful terms" to describe them. Instead of leading to a new racial type or equilibrium, they led to apparent disorder. Terms such as the above-mentioned tente en el aire and no te entiendo ("I don't understand you")—and others based on terms used for animals: mulato (mule) and lobo (wolf), chino (derived from cochino meaning "pig")—reflect the fear and mistrust that Spanish officials, society and those who commissioned these paintings saw these new racial types.
At the same time, it must be emphasized that these paintings reflected the views of the economically established Criollo society and officialdom. Castas defined themselves in different ways, and how they were recorded in official records was a process of negotiation between the casta and the person creating the document, whether it was a birth certificate, a marriage certificate or a court deposition. In real life, many casta individuals were assigned different racial categories in different documents, revealing the fluid nature of racial identity in colonial, Spanish American society.
In New Spain, one of the Viceroyalties of the Spanish Empire, casta paintings illustrated where each person in the New World ranked in the system. These paintings from 18th and 19th centuries were popular in Spain and other parts of Europe. They reflected the Spaniards’ sense of racial superiority by illustrating an orderly hierarchical society where socio-economic status depended on skin color and limpieza de sangre (purity of blood).
Some paintings depicted the innate character and quality of people because of their birth and ethnic origin. For example, according to one painting by José Joaquín Magón, a mestizo (mixed Indian + Spanish) was considered generally humble, tranquil, and straightforward; while another painting claims from Lobo and Indian woman is born the Cambujo, one usually slow, lazy, and cumbersome. Ultimately, the casta paintings are reminders of the colonial biases in modern human history that linked a caste/ethnic society based on descent, skin color, social status, and one's birth.
Often, casta paintings depicted commodity items from Latin America like pulque, the fermented alcohol drink of the lower classes. Painters depicted interpretations of pulque that were attributed to specific castas. Pulque abuse was shown in some casta paintings as a social criticism of the lower castas, and the Spanish desire for regulation over pulque consumption and distribution.
Presented here are casta lists from three sets of paintings. Note that they only agree on the first five combinations, which are essentially the Indian-White ones. There is no agreement on the Black mixtures, however. Also, no one list should be taken as "authoritative". These terms would have varied from region to region and across time periods. The lists here probably reflect the names that the artist knew or preferred, the ones the patron requested to be painted, or a combination of both.
|Miguel Cabrera, 1763||Anonymous (Museo del Virreinato, above)||Andrés de Islas, 1774|
Miguel Cabrera "From Spaniard and Mulatta: Morisca"
"from Mulatto and Mestiza, produce Mulatto, he is Torna Atrás" by Juan Rodríguez Juárez
De mestizo e india, sale coiote (From a Mestizo man and an Amerindian woman, a Coyote is begotten).
De negro e india, sale lobo (From a Black man and an Amerindian woman, a Lobo is begotten).
[I]n the New World all Spaniards, no matter how poor, claimed hidalgo status. This unprecedented expansion of the privileged segment of society could be tolerated by the Crown because in Mexico the indigenous population assumed the burden of personal tribute.
The Spaniards generally regarded [local Indian lords/caciques] as hidalgos, and used the honorific 'don' with the more eminent of them. […] Broadly speaking, Spaniards in the Indies in the sixteenth century arranged themselves socially less and less by Iberian criteria or frank, and increasingly by new American standards. […] simple wealth gained from using America's human and natural resources soon became a strong influence on social standing.
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