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189,000,000 Latin Americans
33% of Latin America's population
|Regions with significant populations|
|Throughout Hispanic America|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Criollos (singular: Criollo) were a social class in the caste system of the overseas colonies established by Spain in the 16th century, especially in Latin America, comprising the locally born people of pure or mostly Spanish ancestry.
The Criollo class ranked below that of the Peninsulares, the colonists born in Spain, but above the other castes — people of mixed descent, Amerindians, and enslaved Africans. According to the casta system, a criollo could legally have some Amerindian ancestry and not lose social place. In the 18th- and early 19th centuries, changes in Spanish policies towards the colonies led to tensions between the Criollos and the Peninsulares. Criollo nationalists were among the main supporters of the wars of independence.
The term Criollo is often translated into English as Creole. However, the word "creole" is also applied to many ethnic groups around the world who have no historic connection to Spain or to any colonial system. Indeed, many of those creole peoples were never a distinct social caste, and were never defined by purity of descent.
The word criollo and its Portuguese cognate crioulo are believed to come from the Spanish/Portuguese verb criar, meaning "to breed" or "to raise". The term came into use in the settlements established by the Portuguese along the West African coast. Originally the term was meant to distinguish the members of any foreign ethnic group who were born and "raised" locally, from those born in the group's homeland, as well as from persons of mixed ethnic ancestry. Thus, in the Portuguese colonies of Africa, português crioulo was a locally born person of Portuguese descent; in the Americas, negro criollo or negro crioulo was a locally born person of pure black (i.e. African) ancestry; and, in Spanish colonies, an español criollo was an ethnic Spaniard who had been born in the colonies, as opposed to an español peninsular born in Spain.
The English word "Creole" was a loan from French créole, which in turn is believed to come from Spanish criollo or Portuguese crioulo.
Most Spanish colonies started with a sizable population of indigenous Amerindians. Because the Spanish colonists were mostly men, they had liaisons with Amerindian women, and their children were mixed race. The population of mixed Spanish-Amerindian ancestry grew large enough to become a rather distinct group. In the 17th or 18th century, some Spanish colonies also imported large numbers of African slaves, who contributed to the racial mix of the population.
In theory, Criollo status could be attained by people of mixed origin who had one-eighth or less (the equivalent of a great grandparent) Amerindian ancestry. Such cases might include the offspring of a Castizo parent and one Peninsular or Criollo parent. This one-eight rule, also in theory, did not apply to African admixture. In reality, officials assigned various racial categories to mix-raced people depending on their social status, what they were told or due to testimony from friends and neighbors.
To preserve the Spanish Crown's power in the colonies, the Spanish colonial society was based on an elaborate caste system, which related to a person's degree of descent from Spaniards. The highest-ranking castes were the españoles, Spaniards by birth or descent. The Penisulares were the persons born in Spain, while the Criollo comprised locally born people of proven unmixed Spanish ancestry, that is, the Americas-born child of two Spanish-born Spaniards or mainland Spaniards (peninsulares), of two Criollos, or a Spaniard and a Criollo. People of mixed ancestry were classified in other castes — such as castizos, mestizos, cholos, mulatos, indios, zambos, and enslaved Africans, called blacks.
While the casta system was in force, the top ecclesiastical, military and administrative positions were reserved for crown-appointed Peninsulares, who also favoured the Cádiz monopoly. Most of the local land-owning elite and nobility belonged to the Criollo caste.
Until 1760, the Spanish colonies were ruled under laws designed by the Spanish Habsburgs, which granted the American provinces great autonomy. That situation changed by the Bourbon Reforms during the reign of Charles III. Spain needed to extract increasing wealth from its colonies to support the European and global wars it needed to maintain the Spanish Empire. The Crown expanded the privileges of the Penisulares, who took over many administrative offices which had been filled by Criollos. At the same time, reforms by the Catholic Church reduced the roles and privileges of the lower ranks of the clergy, who were mostly Criollos.
By the 19th century, this discriminatory policy of the Spanish Crown and the examples of the American and French revolutions, led the Criollos to rebel against the Peninsulares. With increasing support of the other castes, they engaged Spain in a fight for independence (1809–1826). The former Spanish Empire in the Americas separated into a number of independent republics.
The word criollo retains its original meaning in most Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas. In some countries, however, the word criollo has over time come to have additional meanings, such as "local" or "home grown". For instance, comida criolla in Spanish-speaking countries refers to "local cuisine", not "cuisine of the criollos".
In some Latin American countries, the term is also used to describe people from particular regions, such as the countryside or mountain areas: