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Caste Paintings

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Images from Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Questions | Bibliography

Chapter Reference: Colonial Crucible

Colonial Latin America had an overt caste system whereby an individual's social identity as white, indigenous, African, or mixed was officially assigned in the baptismal register. In fact, the possibilities were many more than these four. Usage varied in different parts of colonial Latin America, and the system became more complex over time. "From Spanish and Indian, Mestizo." "From Spanish and Black, Mulatto." Such are the titles of paintings that were commissioned by colonial functionaries in the 1700s, often as souvenirs to be sent back to Spain, and frequently assembled in complete sets that were supposed to explore all the possible combinations. Caste paintings were partly reflections of colonial realities—that is, the fact that gene pools were merging—and partly an attempt to organize the imperial grip on those realities. Categorizing individuals in caste terms was important to colonial administration because different castes had different privileges and obligations. Some crosses were denigrated with animal names like Lobo (Wolf) and Coyote. One, Moorish, was a Spanish attempt to relate American realities to Spanish historical experience. While the number of sixteen theoretical caste categories is often represented, no more than four or five were commonly applied in practice.

Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. Representing the differences implicit in the caste system was one of many ways to let people know "where they stood" on the social hierarchy. In the caste paintings you have been able to observe, what are other signs or marks represented that make evident caste differences?

  2. The caste system as a form of social hierarchy was present throughout colonial Latin America. What were some ways in which social hierarchy was established, and did these change after independence?

  3. In the U.S. today, racial diversity is much more openly celebrated than it was say around 1900. Yet of the hundreds of different ethnic backgrounds, only a handful of these are "officially" recognized categories people can check on census forms, university applications, and so on. The simple point is that race is an idea or set of ideas than can be manipulated to serve a certain purpose or end. This is particularly true when it comes to the question of who makes up a nation or who has the right to be a citizen of a nation. After thinking briefly about how race has played a part in defining who and what the U.S. is made of, reflect on how race was used in nineteenth-century Latin America to justify and organize the construction of new nations following the wars of independence.

Bibliography: (Titles with ** are good starting places.)

Carrera, Magali Marie. Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial
           Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Farmer, John A., and Ilona Katzew, eds. New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin
New York: Americas Society, 1996.

** Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven:
           Yale University Press, 2004.

This study should be consulted by any student exploring caste paintings. Its narrative is clear and concise, and it has beautiful color illustrations of caste paintings.

Other Resources:
Slavery and Abolition
African Background
Arts and Literature