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How Colonial New Spain Created a Racialized Society and Its Social Consequences

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Since Douglas Cope’s seminal study The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City 1660-1720 was published in 1994, historians have understood the caste system, or sistema de castas, that categorised New Spain’s multiracial population as an elite construct to impose order on a disordered plebe, rather than a discourse that reflected existing, clearly defined racial boundaries

Cope overturned the idea that racial identity in colonial Mexico was “fixed permanently at birth” and argued that race was a versatile identity that could be “reaffirmed, modified, manipulated, or perhaps even rejected.” The unfixed nature of identities assumed and performed by individuals and groups in colonial Latin America beyond Mexico City is the subject of the collection of essays edited by Andrew Fisher and Matthew O’Hara recently published as Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America.

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The painting displays a simple composition, with a mother and father flanking two children, one of whom is a servant carrying the couple’s baby. The indigenous mother, dressed in a beautiful huipil (traditional woman’s garment worn by indigenous women from central Mexico to parts of Central America) with lace sleeves and wearing sumptuous jewelry, turns to look at her husband as she gestures towards her child. Her husband, who wears French-style European clothing including a powdered wig, gazes down at the children with his hand either resting on his wife’s arm or his child’s back. The young servant looks upwards to the father. The family appears calm and harmonious, even loving. This is not always the case, however. Often as the series progresses, discord can erupt among families or they are displayed in tattered, torn, and unglamorous surroundings. People also appear darker as they become more mixed. Casta paintings from the second half of the eighteenth century in particular focus more on families living in less ideal conditions as they become more racially mixed. Earlier series, like Rodríguez Juáre’s, often display all families wearing more fanciful attire. But who commissioned these works and why? The existing evidence suggests that some of these casta series were commissioned by Viceroys, or the stand-in for the Spanish King in the Americas, who brought some casta series to Spain upon their return. Other series were commissioned for important administrators

However, little is known about the patrons of casta paintings in general. Yet, we can infer to a degree who might have commissioned such paintings. Because casta paintings reflect increasing social anxieties about inter-ethnic mixing, it is possible that elites who claimed to be of pure blood, and who likely found the dilution of pure-bloodedness alarming, were among those individuals who commissioned casta paintings.

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At their core, these terms reflect the confusion between cultural, specifically religious belief and practice, and biological differences

As will be shown later this confusion would continue in the Americas with terms of socio-racial difference. In Iberia this confusion was institutionalized through the belief in limpieza de sangre.‘ This phrase encapsulated the view that religious impurity, specifically descent from Jews, Muslims, and later Protestants, was transmitted biologically from generation to generation. Broadly, speaking the emphasis on limpieza de sangre evolved as a means to exclude new converts from positions of power restricted to Christians. From the late fourteenth century through the sixteenth century, periodic violence against Jews, including massive pogroms in 1391, had led to large numbers of converts who by virtue of their new faith became newly eligible for civic and religious offices and posts (Thornton, John K., 1998). Historically, Castilian law made no distinction between cristianos nuevos and cristianos viejos. In the thirteenth century, the Siete Partidas specifically stated that they should be honored as all other Christians and be eligible for all posts similarly to other Christians. The attitude contained within the Siete Partidas was not upheld during the course of the fifteenth century (Sylvest, Edwin Edward, 1975).

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All in all, The most important aspect of how Spaniards went about colonizing Latin America is that the factor of religion played a crucial role in the process. In fact, the ‘Christianization’ of native populations represented the official agenda of Spanish conquistadors in the New World.

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Sylvest, Edwin Edward. Motifs of Franciscan Mission Theory in Sixteenth Century New Spain Province of the Holy Gospel. Washington: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1975.

Terraciano, Kevin. The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Ñudzahui History, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Valdes, Dennis Nodin. ―Decline of the Sociedad de Castas in Mexico City.‖ Ph.D., University of Michigan, 1978.

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