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Sistema de Castas (1500s-ca. 1829)

Mestiza, Mulatto and Mulatto, ca. 1715
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Sistema de Castas (or Society of Castes) was a porous racial classification system in colonial New Spain (present-day Mexico). It was a “hierarchal ordering of racial groups according to their proportion of Spanish blood.” In this system, notable categories with significant meaning were espanol (Spaniard), castizo, morisco, mestizo, mulatto, indio (Indian), and negro (black). At the sistema de castas most extreme, there were more than forty classifications, with espanol being the most desirable and negro being the least desirable for sociopolitical purposes. Race, color, physical features, occupation, and wealth in this society mattered as Spanish officials attempted to control every aspect of a person’s life from employment to regulating dress codes and friendships.

Within the Castas, most persons of African descent were categorized between Spaniard and Negro, and identified as mulatto or racially intermingled hispanicized citizens of predominant African heritage. Socially, blacks were marginalized in Colonial Spanish affairs and were systematically victimized by an institutional discrimination designed to quell civil unrest through assimilating them as ladinos (Spanish speakers) and integrating them into a feudal caste society.

This pattern of customary and legal oppression led to many persons of African descent choosing to move to the frontier of New Spain (what is now Northern Mexico and the Southwest United States). From 1531 to 1800, Afro-Mexicans came to the Southwest from Mexican states on the Northern frontier like Vera Cruz and Coahuila and, after 1700, from states on the Pacific Coast such as Sinaloa and Michoacán de Ocampo. The initial recruits for frontier settlements like San Jose, California, were lighter-complexioned Spanish colonists, many of whom declined to participate because of “low pay, poor uniforms, antiquated weapons, insufficient housing, extended absences from families, and the overall unattractiveness of the Spanish military” and settlement.  Bearing the brunt of what awaited on the frontier were mestizos/as and mullatos/as who served in the place of these lighter-complexioned colonists usually identified as espanoles and criollos (i.e., persons of near-Spanish descent born in the Americas). As a result, multiracial settlements from San Antonio to Los Angeles had large black populations ranging from 20 to 55 percent.

Moreover, because of the scarcity of Spanish-speaking women on the frontier, racial intermingling with Native American women and smaller numbers of African women was a widespread practice, which populated the newly conquered region with a new race of people identified as Latin American.

The fluid nature of the Castas did allow for a few persons of African descent to attain a socioeconomically elevated status more frequently on the Colonial Spanish frontier than in the United States at the end of the 18th century.  Mulatto Pedro Huizar, for example, was able to become a Don (Spanish nobleman) at Mission San Jose and thus change his status to espanol in 1793. Huizar was born and raised at Aguascalientes, Mexico, acquiring many skills in the arts and building trades. Around 1778, he journeyed north, first to San Antonio de Bexar, and finally, el Pueblo de San Jose, where he worked as a sculptor, mission carpenter, and surveyor.  As Huizar's changed racial status shows, racial lines became so blurred through biological and occupational miscegenation that they became useless to Spanish census takers and other Iberian officials by 1800.

The Castas was officially dismantled by the 1830s, following the wars of independence raging throughout Latin America in the 1810s-1820s.

Sources:
R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994); Lawrence B. De Graaf, Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylor (et al.), Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001); Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); Douglas Monroy, Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Leslie B. Rout, The African Experience in Spanish America: 1502 to the Present Day (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976); Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the West, 1528-1990 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).

Contributor:

Syracuse University

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