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Casta (Spanish: [ˈkasta], Portuguese: [ˈkaʃtɐ, ˈkastɐ]) is a Spanish and Portuguese term used in 17th and 18th centuries mainly in Spanish America and Spanish Philippines to describe as a whole the mixed-race people which appeared in the post-Conquest period. A parallel system of categorisation based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture, which distinguished between gente de razón (Hispanics) and gente sin razón (non-acculturated natives), concurrently existed and worked together with the idea of casta.
The system of castas, or genizaros, was based on the accepted knowledge that the character and quality of people varied according largely to their birth, color, race and origin of ethnic types. The system of castas was more than socio-racial classification. It impacted every aspect of life, including economics and taxation. Both the Spanish colonial state and the Church expected more tax and tribute payments from those of lower socio-racial categories. In Latin America, one's socio-economic status generally correlates with which of the many racial categories they fell into based on their race or racial mixing, their phenotype or just physical appearance, which in most cases defines the final outcome. The whiter someone is the higher in status they are, while perceived African or Indigenous ancestry or even just dark skin is generally correlated with poverty, inferiority, lack of opportunity and social status.
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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.
During the Spanish colonial period, Spaniards developed a complex caste system based on race, which was used for social control and which also determined a person's importance in society. There were four main categories of race: (1) Peninsular, a Spaniard born in Spain; (2) Criollo (feminine, criolla), a person of Spanish descent born in the New World; (3) Indio (fem. india), a person who is descendent of the original inhabitants of the Americas; and (4) Negro (fem. negra) - a person of black African descent, usually a slave or their free descendants.
General racial groupings had their own set of privileges and restrictions, both legal and customary. So, for example, only Spaniards and Amerindians, 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. Access to these privileges and even a person's perceived and accepted racial classification, however, were also determined by that person's socioeconomic standing in society.
Persons of mixed race were collectively referred to as "castas". Long lists of different terms, used to identify types of people with specific racial or ethnic heritages, were developed by the late 17th century. By the end of the colonial period in 1821, over one hundred categories of possible variations of mixture existed.
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:
These were persons of Spanish descent. People of other European descent who had settled in Spanish America and adapted to Hispanic culture, such as Pedro de Gante and the Marquises of Osorno and Croix, would have also been considered Españoles. Also, as noted above, and below under "Mestizos" and "Castizos," many persons 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 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 that 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 moved around the Empire frequently. 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 associate with it.
The first wave were the original settlers themselves, the Conquistadors, who essentially transformed themselves into lords of an area through their act of conquest. In the centuries after the Conquest, more Peninsulares continued to emigrate under different circumstances, usually for commercial reasons. Some even came as indentured servants to established Criollo families. Therefore, there were Peninsulares 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 the Americas, 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 the Americas, 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, known as 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 became extremely wealthy joined the ranks of the high nobility of the Spanish Empire. Still, most were simply part of what could be termed the petite bourgeoisie or even outright poor. As lifelong residents of America, they, like all other residents of these areas, often participated in 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—and with the sale of offices that began in the late 16th century, they gained access to the high-level posts, such as judges on the regional audiencias. The 19th-century wars of independence are often cast, then and now, 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 and considered to be one of the three "pure races" in Spanish America, the law treated them as minors, and as such were to be protected by royal officials, but in reality were often abused 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 and had to deal with the difficulty of existing in a colonial society, but it remained in place until independence. Amerindians could belong to any economic class depending on their personal wealth.
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 and a Spaniard, or a Castizo him- or herself, were often classified and accepted as a Criollo Spaniard.
Persons with one Amerindian parent and one Mestizo parent.
Persons who are the product of the mixing over the generations of the white Spanish, 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.
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 were 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 obviously 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 Mulattos, 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 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. Chino or china is still used in many Latin American countries as a term of endearment for a light-skinned person of African ancestry. 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 terms existed, such as a torna atrás (literally, "turns back") 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.
|Ethnic Mixing in Spanish Colonial 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, Luis de Mena, 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. Spanish artists such as Francisco Clapera also contributed to the casta genre.
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 colonial Spain, the 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, a mestizo (50% Spanish blood) 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.
Oftentimes, casta painting depicted commodity items from Latin America like pulque. 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|
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).
The discussion of Limpieza de sangre makes it appear as if differentiation based upon privileges applied only to the distinction between Christians and Jews and Muslims; this was later extended to distinguish clearly between Catholics and Protestants. (The New World was originally divided between Spain and Portugal, both Catholic countries.) However, certificates of Limpieza de sangre could be bought, and were extended to mulattos, blacks and others in the Americas.
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