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Depiction of casta system in Mexico from the Museo Nacional del Virreinato.

Casta is a Portuguese and Spanish term used in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mainly in Spanish America to describe as a whole the mixed-race people which appeared in the post-Conquest period. In English, the term casta also refers to the colonial Spanish American system of social stratification based on a person's racial heritage that evolved along with the rise in miscegenation. A parallel system of categorization 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.



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.[1] [2]


De español y mulata, morisca. Miguel Cabrera, 1763, oil on canvas, 136x105 cm, private collection.

Long lists of different terms, used to identify types of people with specific racial or ethnic heritages, were developed by the late seventeenth century. General groupings of castas had their own set of privileges or restrictions. So for example, only Spaniards and Indians, who were deemed to be of "pure race," 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 hidalgos. These restrictions and even a person's perceived and accepted racial 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 in the lists were used in documents and everyday life, the general descending order of precedence being:

  • Spaniards (Españoles)
These were persons of Spanish descent. People of other European descent who had settled in Spanish America and adopted 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 Indian ancestry were considered Españoles. Españoles were one of the three original "races," the other two being Indians 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 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 the Latin 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 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 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.
De Mestizo y d'India; Coyote. Miguel Cabrera, 1763, oil on canvas, Waldo-Dentzel Art Center.
The second of the original "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 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."
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.
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 Indian parent and one Mestizo parent.
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.
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. (Since there was some immigration from the Philippines during the colonial period, chino is often confused, even by contemporary historians, for Filipino, Chinese or Asian, 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. For a term used to describe the Chinese in the Philippines, see Sangley.) 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.
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 (negros bozales), and therefore, possibly less acculturated, Blacks born in the Iberian Peninsula (Black Ladinos), 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.[3]. (See tornatrás for use of this term in the Philippines.)

Miscegenation in Spanish colonies
Mulatto Criollo Mestizo Zambo

Pintura de castas

Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148x104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

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.[4]

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.[5]


Sample 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.

Miguel Cabrera, 1763[6] Anonymous (Museo del Virreinato, above)[7] Andrés de Islas, 1774[8]

1. De Español y d'India; Mestisa
2. De español y Mestiza, Castiza
3. De Español y Castiza, Español
4. De Español y Negra, Mulata
5. De Español y Mulata; Morisca
6. De Español y Morisca; Albina
7. De Español y Albina; Torna atrás
8. De Español y Torna atrás; Tente en el aire
9. De Negro y d'India, China cambuja.
10. De Chino cambujo y d'India; Loba
11. De Lobo y d'India, Albarazado
12. De Albarazado y Mestiza, Barcino
13 De Indio y Barcina; Zambuigua
14. De Castizo y Mestiza; Chamizo
15. De Mestizo y d'India; Coyote
16. Indios gentiles (Heathen Indians)

1. Español con India, Mestizo
2. Mestizo con Española, Castizo
3. Castiza con Español, Española
4. Español con Negra, Mulato
5. Mulato con Española, Morisca
6. Morisco con Española, Chino
7. Chino con India, Salta atrás
8. Salta atras con Mulata, Lobo
9. Lobo con China, Gíbaro (Jíbaro)
10. Gíbaro con Mulata, Albarazado
11. Albarazado con Negra, Cambujo
12. Cambujo con India, Sambiaga (Zambiaga)
13. Sambiago con Loba, Calpamulato
14. Calpamulto con Cambuja, Tente en el aire
15. Tente en el aire con Mulata, No te entiendo
16. No te entiendo con India, Torna atrás

1. De Español e India, nace Mestizo
2. De Español y Mestiza, nace Castizo
3. De Castizo y Española, nace Española
4. De Español y Negra, nace Mulata
5. De Español y Mulata, nace Morisco
6. De Español y Morisca, nace Albino
7. De Español y Albina, nace Torna atrás
8. De Indio y Negra, nace Lobo
9. De Indio y Mestiza, nace Coyote
10. De Lobo y Negra, nace Chino
11. De Chino e India, nace Cambujo
12. De Cambujo e India, nace Tente en el aire
13. De Tente en el aire y Mulata, nace Albarazado
14. De Albarazado e India, nace Barcino
15. De Barcino y Cambuja, nace Calpamulato
16. Indios Mecos bárbaros (Barbarian Meco Indians)



  1. ^ "Caste," Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition. (Springfield, 1999.)
  2. ^ "Caste," New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition. (Oxford, 2005).
  3. ^ Katzew, "Casta Painting," 5.
  4. ^ Katzew, "Casta Painting."
  5. ^ Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination and Seed, To Love, Honor, and Obey, in passim.
  6. ^ Katzew (2004), Casta Painting, 101-106. Paintings 1 and 3-8 private collections; 2 and 9-16 Museo de América, Madrid; 15 Elisabeth Waldo-Dentzel, Multicultural Music and Art Center (Northridge California).
  7. ^ Gracia, J. E. and Pablo De Greiff, eds. Hispanics/Latinos in the United States: Ethnicity, Race and Rights. New York, Routledge, 2000, 53. ISBN 9780415926201
  8. ^ Katzew, Ilona. Program for Inventing Race: Casta Painting and Eighteenth-Century Mexico, April 4-August 8, 2004. LACMA


  • 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
  • Martínez, María Elena. Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Stanford, Standford University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780804756488
  • Seed, Patricia. To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts Over Marriage Choice, 1574-1821. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988. ISBN 9780804714570

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