Casta is a 17th century term used in Spanish America, which refers to the institutionalized system of social stratification based on a person's racial heritage. The term "las castas" also came to be used to describe mixed-race people as a group.


"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. ["Caste," "Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary", 10th edition. (Springfield, 1999.)] ["Caste," "New Oxford American Dictionary", 2nd edition. (Oxford, 2005).]


Different terms were used to identify types of people with specific racial or ethnic heritage. General groupings of "castas" had their own set of privileges or restrictions. So for example, only Spaniards and Indians had a recognized nobility. Also, in the Americas and Philippines, all Spaniards, regardless of their family's class background in Europe, claimed the right to be considered "hidaldos". These restrictions and even a person's perceived and accepted "casta" classification, however, were also determined by that person's socioeconomic standing in society. ("See Passing (racial identity) for a discussion of a related phenomenon, although in a later and very different cultural and legal context.") 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 were used in documents and everyday life, the general descending order of precedence being:

*Spaniards ("Españoles"):These were persons of Spanish descent, or European descent who had adopted Hispanic culture. Generally they 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::*"Peninsulares" or "Españoles europeos"::Persons of Spanish descent born in Spain (i.e., from the Iberian Peninsula, hence name). Generally there were two groups of "Peninsulares." 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 though 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.:*Criollos, "Españoles criollos" or "Españoles americanos"::People of Spanish ancestry, but born in America. As the second- or third-generation of Spanish families, some Criollos owned mines, ranches, or haciendas. Many of these were extremely wealthy and belonged to 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 life-long residents of the Americas and the Philippines, 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 frequently 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 sixteenth century, they gained access to the high-level posts, such as judges on the regional "audiencias". The nineteenth-century Wars of Independence were often cast, then and now, as a struggle between "Peninsulares" and Criollos, but both groups can be found on both sides of the wars.
*Indians ("Indios"):Legally they were to be treated 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 Indian 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 remained in place until independence. Indians could belong to any economic class depending on their personal wealth. This term was also applied to the natives of the Philippines, who were, after all, indigenous to the "Indies."
*Mestizos:Persons with one Spanish parent and one Indian parent. The term was early on associated with illegitimacy because in the generations after the Conquest, mixed-race children born "in wedlock" were assigned either a simple Indian 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 seventeenth century, when a sizable and stable community of mixed-race people with no claims on being either Indian or Spanish appeared.
*"Castizos":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 were often classified and accepted as a Criollo Spaniard.Fact|date=July 2008
*Cholos or "Coyotes":Persons with one Indian parent and one Mestizo parent.
*Mulattos or "Pardos":Persons of the first generation of a Spanish and Black mix. 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. 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; and "Albino" (derived from albino), a person of "Morisco" and Spanish parents.
*"Zambos":Persons who were of mixed Indian and Black ancestry. As with Mulattos, many other terms, existed to describe the degree of mixture. These included "Chino" and "Lobo". "Chino" usually described as someone of Mulatto and Indian parents. ("Chino" is often confused, even by contemporary historians, for Chinese or Asian, which is the primary meaning of the word, but not in this context. "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" variously could describe a person of Black and Indian parents (and therefore a synonym for "Zambo"), as in the image gallery below, or someone of Indian and "Torna atrás" parents.
*Blacks ("Negros"): With Spaniards and Indians, 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, and therefore, possibly less acculturated, and Blacks born in the Indies, sometimes referred to as "negros criollos". Their low social status was enforced legally. They were prohibited by law from many things, 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-nineteenth-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. [Katzew, "Casta Painting," 5.] . ("See tornatrás for use of this term in the Philippines.")

"Pintura de castas"

The interest of the Spanish Enlightenment in organizing knowledge and scientific description, resulted in the commission of 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.

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 Spaniards 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, lead to a bewildering number of combinations, with "fanciful terms" to describe them. Instead of leading to a new racial type or equilibrium, they lead 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)—reflect the fear and mistrust that Spanish officials, society and those who commissioned these paintings saw these new racial types. [Katzew, "Casta Painting."]

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. [Cope, "The Limits of Racial Domination" and Seed, "To Love, Honor, and Obey", in passim.]

ample sets of Casta Paintings

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, 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.



*Soong, Roland. [ Racial Classifications in Latin America] . 1999.


*Carrera, Magali M. "Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings". Austin, University of Texas Press, 2003. ISBN 9780292712454
* Cope, R. Douglas. "The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720". Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. ISBN 9780299140441
* Cummings, Thomas B. F. ["Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico"] (Book review). "The Art Bulletin" (March 2006).
* Katzew, Ilona. [ "Casta Painting: Identity and Social Stratification in Colonial Mexico,"] New York University, 1996.
* Katzew, Ilona. "Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico". New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780300109719
* MacLachlan, Colin M. and Jaime E. Rodríguez O. "The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico", expanded edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. ISBN 0-520-04280-8
* Seed, Patricia. "To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts Over Marriage Choice, 1574-1821". Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988. ISBN 9780804714570

External links

* [ "Casta Paintings"] An example of one of the many things that can be found in Breamore House that has attracted a lot of interest over the years. This collection of Casta paintings is believed to be the only collection in United Kingdom. The collection of 14 paintings, was commissioned for the King of Spain in 1715 and painted by Mexican artist, Juan Rodríguez Juárez.
*Safo, Nova. [ "Casta Paintings: Inventing Race Through Art/Mexican Art Genre Reveals 18th-Century Attitudes on Racial Mixing."] The Tavis Smiley Show. June 30, 2004.

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