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5.4.4 Las castas

Reproduction of a painting illustrating a series of men, women, and children of various racial identities, arranged in groups of three. Each racial or ethnic group is identified by corresponding text underneath the image.
18th century
Las castas. Reproduction of painting. 18th century. Courtesy of CONACULTA.-INAH.-MEX. Reproduction authorized by the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia.
The settlers of New Spain (what is now Mexico) were a people who originated from many different parts of the world. There were people from Spain itself, from Africa, from Asia, and from the hundreds of indigenous groups that populated the area. In New Spain these groups mixed with one another much more often than was the case in New England or in the rest of the British colonies. Marriages between people from different ethnic groups was fairly common. The result was that there were many more mixed-race people in this region than there were in British North America. As a result, the Spanish colonial officials tried to develop a system of classifying these different racial mixtures. This set of 16 paintings indicates the ways in which these groups were named. Here are a few:
  • Español: a person born in Spain
  • Mestiza/mestizo: a person who is combination of Spanish and indigenous heritage
  • Castiza/castizo: the child of a Spanish parent and a mestiza/o parent
Compare and contrast each row of people with the next. Notice that the first row of people wear shoes and the last do not. What other patterns do you see between the skin tone of the people, the dress, and the jobs that some represent? For example, when comparing the first image with the last, look at the clothing and materials that the people are holding. What do the patterns symbolize? What does this tell us about settlement in New Spain and the Spanish empire? Who do you think had more choice in their movement? Why?
Racial mixture in Latin America and in the parts of the present United States that originated in Latin America was very pronounced. These "casta" paintings indicated the ways in which colonial authorities attempted to classify various racial groups. The very fact that so many of these paintings were done over the course of the eighteenth century indicates that the system of classification was not as rigid or as widely accepted as the colonial authorities wanted. They constantly commissioned additional paintings to try to showcase both how a society could be organized and the variety of material goods, local resources, and ethnic groups in New Spain. On the far northern frontier of New Spain, in areas such as California, these strict racial classifications were often ignored, and people adopted multiple identities, depending upon a host of factors, including regions, family traditions, hope for advancement, and so forth. Despite all of the fluidity in the system, whiteness still maintained its preeminent place in the racial classification all the way through the Spanish and Mexican eras. The racial classification system also reveals economic motivations for how people in New Spain would serve the economic goals of the colonizers. Ask your students to focus closely on the first row, since they have been given the definitions of the racial classes, and ask them to search for evidence of the jobs that people were expected to do compared to the people pictured in the other rows. Some of the images (like number 16) show people holding food and natural resources, while others show workers with weapons.
1. Español con India, Mestizo, 2. Mestizo con Españolo Castizo, 3.Castizo con Española Español, 4. Español con Mora Mulato, 5. Mulato con Española Morisco, 6. Morisco con Española Chino, 7. Chino con India Salta Atras, 8. Salta Atras con Mulato Lobo, 9. Lobo con China Gibaro, 10. Gibaro con Mulata Albarazado, 11. Albarazado con Negra Ambujo, 12. Canbujo con India Sambiago, 13. Sambiago con Loba Calpamulato, 14. Calpamulato con Canbuja Tente en el Aire, 15. Tente en el Aire con Mulata Note Entiendo, 16. Note Entiendo con India Torna Atras