A DIFFERENT KIND OF CASTE: Origins of the Color Complex in Latin America

The Latin American Casta system

“Casta” is Spanish for caste and the “casta paintings” existed in colonial Latin America during the 17th and 18th century. They were race based social hierarchy and established to enforce social power, importance, and control. The system was inspired by the belief that the character and quality of people varied according to their birth, color, race and origin of ethnic types.

There were four main categories of race were Peninsular, a Spaniard born in Spain, Criollo, a person of Spanish descent born in the New World; Indio, a person who is descendent of the original inhabitants of the Americas; and Negro, a person of African descent, usually enslave or their free descendants.

The system also impacted economics. The Spanish colonial state and the Church taxed those of lower socio-racial categories. These are the main classifications with more to indicate first, second and third generation mixing. Casta-painting series usually identify 16 racial taxonomies, including zoologically inspired terms.

Terms such as mestizo (literally meaning 'half-caste) tente en el aire ("hold-yourself-in-midair") torna atrás ("turns back") and no te entiendo ("I don't understand you")—and those based on animals: mulato (mule) and lobo (wolf),chino (derived from cochino meaning "pig") “coyote and “wolf”—, children born of mulatto and mestizo couples are called “lobo tente en el ayre” (Wolf-Hold-  Yourself-in-Mid-Air).  reflect reductive attitudes on those with mixed ancestry. There were ethnic distinctions made between people of African descent such as those born in Africa (negros bozales) and therefore less acculturated, those born in the Iberian Peninsula (Black Ladinos) and those born in the colonies, sometimes referred to as negros criollos. However they were low on the social scale because of their association with slavery.

The Casta paintings were developed to show how racial mixing in Mexico was working and being legitimised by marriage. The first paintings tend to not be numbered and just carried a written description of the individuals included within them, thus avoiding any sense of hierarchy imposed on the viewer.

"One of the first known sets of Casta Paintings commissioned, was painted by Juan Rodriguez Juarez and sent to the Spanish King, Charles III. It is believed that the establishment sent the paintings back, advising that they were showing the dilution of Spanish purity, rather than strengthening the white, Spanish race. Mixed castes were shown in work attire while the Spanish males were always shown as the dominant controller within the paintings,through his position in the family or his military clothing. Many paintings included violent scenes, which show females of mixed black heritage attacking a Spanish male." The casta paintings set a crucial precedence in how color has historically and presently ruled attitudes and society in Latin America and it is always those of african and indigenous ancestry at the bottom end.

Espanoles- Spanish

Peninsulares- European born whites

Criollos- Colonial born whites

Indios- Indigenous

Mestizo- Spanish & Indian

Castizos- 3/4 Spanish 1/4 Indigenous

Cholos- 3/4 Indigenous 1/4 Spanish

Mulattos Mixed blood (Spanish-African)

Zambos- Indigenous & African

Negroes- Blacks/Africans

[Sources: Casta SystemArtnetCasta Paintings]

50SHADESOFBLACK.COM explores issues of race, skin tone, beauty, and the formation of identity from a global perspective.  This is the first of a series of posts to 50SHADESOFBLACK.COM by our featured guest blogger, Dash Harris.

She attended Temple University for broadcast journalism, business & French. Dash is the owner of In.A.Dash.Media, a multi-media & video production company. She is currently working on Negro, a docu-series about Latino identity, the color complex, colonialism & the African Diaspora in Latin America. She is also a travel writer for Examiner.com, founder of Venus Genus, a website that empowers women by examining gender bias and female tropes and the blogger behind Diaspora Dash, a blog about the African Diaspora.