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The varied Impacts of Casta System on Colonial Latin America
The colonial Latin America was a melting pot of races. The imported slaves from
Africa, European immigrants and Native Americas were primary contributors of such
complicated racial variations. By centuries of intermarriage, the colonial Latin America,
by 18th Century, had varieties of different races, which was defined by their origins and
whiteness. The Casta system thus developed as a social hierarchical system that
determines one’s marriage options, upward mobility, careers so as almost every aspects
of life. It also had legal support from Spanish crown. However, the crown also published
lists of legislations called the Gracias al Sacar. This allows the lower Castas to be able to
be “whitened” by using money and contributing to public services as well as obtaining a
good reputation and personal image in local communities. In fact, the successful Gracias
al Sacar did occur but rarely. In each cases of Gracias al Sacar, decisions were made not
only by considering one’s characteristics and wealth, but also the social dynamics in local
community and possibly consequences could occur in different levels of society once the
person was being whitened. Although the Casta system had fundamental impact on
Colonial Latin America’s social structure, the application of the system and relevant legal
issues varied in different regions and social dynamics. The differences on applications
could be seen in following things: military, marriage and Gracias de Sacar as mentioned
earlier at the beginning of the paragraph.
The Casta system in concept is in opposition of intermarriage of different Castas.
The higher Castas were usually the ones with more “White” blood and tend to be Spanish
descendants with relatively purer “White” bloods. In fact, the tendencies and chances of
intermarriage varied very differently among different Latin American regions. However,
the numbers of intermarriages between lower Castas are always significantly higher than
the numbers of intermarriages between higher Castas and lower Castas. In 1778, the
Spanish crown issued series of legislations that gave parents more rights over their
children’s marriages to prevent the intermarriage between different Castas. This action
decreased the chance of having those “defected” races in the society and thus secure the
social influence of the higher Castas and consolidate their position in the social
structure.1 Ironically, the application of such legislations varied very differently in
different regions. In Mexico (New Spain), a traditional Mestizo country, the
intermarriages between different Castas were more likely to happen due to its
comparatively equalized racial identities among its population. In contrast, in Peru, as
well as other regions with huge numbers of Native population, the Castas seemed more
clearly defined and intermarriage were less likely to happen. We will also have to
consider those so-called frontier regions where the law enforcements were relatively
weak and populations were relatively scarce. People would naturally prefer to marry
based on its practical needs rather than too much on their social identities. Aside from the
“ whites”, the intermarriage of lower Castas were more common throughout entire
colonial Latin America. The Casta painting were developed in 18th century Latin America
to illustrate the combination of different races (Castas) on the land of the Americas. One
famous example was Las castas that showed 16 different types of family combinations
one could possibly have in Colonial Latin America.2 The flexibility went well beyond the
1 Andrien, Kenneth J. “ Pedro de Ayarza.” The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America, no. 5: 194.
2 Anonymous, Las Castas. 1700-99. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Virreinato. Native Heritage Project. http://nativeheritageproject.com/2013/06/15/las-castas-spanish-racial- classifications
strict application of the marriage rules in Casta system. To present day, we can still see
clear difference of races in Latin America among different regions. It is the direct product
of both applications of Casta system and those marriages that didn’t strictly follow the
Casta rules. The Casta system did created an unwritten rules that restricts one’s choices of
marriage, but the applications were varied greatly among different communities and
regions and the rules were not strictly followed in millions of cases that created the racial
variations in Latin America today.
During foreign invasion or revolts, the military of colonial Latin America would
usually increase its number dramatically, and thus enlisted many different Castas in the
military system. Under Spanish law, all Castas except Indians and Negros were required
to be enlisted in the military during the period of emergency. Therefore, the military of
different parts of colonial America became an example to study the changed relation;
great flexibility and different regional applications existed in the system.3 Though most
of the Castas wee required to enlist, the racial tensions still existed in the military. In the
military of Viceroyalty of New Spain, the presence of Pardos, a Casta that was the
mixture of Spanish, African salves and Native Americans, in Mexico City and Puebla
battalion was considered the cause of the lacks of disciplines in the militaries. The Pardos
in military also created the concern over the fact that Pardos could escape from taxes by
taking advantages of racial confusions over their appearances (Some of them could not
be clearly defined as Pardos just by observing their appearance). Because of this reason,
an attempt was made by the local officials and higher Casta soldiers to remove those
Pardos. Consequently, the “Pardos became early casualties of military reform followed
3 Archer, Christon. "Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain: Inter-Relationships and Conflicts, 1780-1810." Journal of Latin American Studies 6, no. 2 (1974): 231-32, http://hapi.ucla.edu.ezp2.lib.umn.edu.
by the disbanding of the battalions.”4 However, in some regions of Mexico, Pardos and
other Castas had to be enlisted all the time due to local demographical disadvantages to
make sure the military had enough man during special period of time.5 As mentioned in
Pardos, Indians, and Army of New Spain: Inter-Relationships and conflicts, 1780-1810,
Christon I. Archer stated “ The policy of excluding pardos units in the interior of New
Spain could not be duplicated in coastal or frontier zones. There African heritage left a
much more indelible imprint upon population.”6 The yellow fever on the Mexico coast
was severe. If the troops were removed from interior to the coast, they would very likely
be devastated by the yellow fever in the region. Although the top officers had to be
whites, but the stationed troops had to be racially mixed because of the reasons listed
above especially during the time when the danger of British invasion presented.7 Such
adjustments based on local conditions could be seen throughout colonial Latin America.
The Casta rules were being enforced as long as it was possible to do so. But it was simply
impossible in some cases. So the flexibility remained.
Last but not the least, nothing could support the concept of adjusting the
application based on local needs better than the cases of Gracias al Sacar. Though
Spanish crown were giving the chances to the lower Castas to move upward by
contributing service to the crown and giving out money. The approval of such changes
rarely happened because of the concerns of consequent disruption on local social
structure. One of the most famous examples was Pedro de Ayarza. Ayarza was a well-
established Panamanian merchant with Padro Casta. He was doing so well locally that the
local officials with higher Castas treated him with respect and stayed at his home freely.
4 Archer, Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain, 238. 5 Archer, Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain, 240. 6 Archer, Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain, 240. 7 Archer, Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain, 240.
It is to be said the disadvantages of his Castas were almost invisible in most of the cases
and he was almost considered a “don” (“white” and the highest casta).8 However, he
would still be considered as Pardo Casta in terms of some legal issues. For instance,
“Ayarza’s eldest son Josef Ponciano attended the university. When he was ready to
graduate, the university register and then the viceroy refused to let him graduate even
though he attended classes for three years because the law of the Indies denies people of
mixed race to receive university degree. Therefore, Ayarza began his quest to whiten his
family and to make his son be able to graduate from the university. However, it wasn’t
just as easy as what the policy stated. Although Ayarza was seemingly qualified for all
the criteria, the decisions of the Council and the Camara of the Indies werenn’t just based
on candidates’ qualifications.9 As noted by the Viceroy Ezpeleta of New Grenada “ If the
case finally go through, this will open the door for all others of the same quality that are
in the same situation.”10 His concern was partially because of one previous case that a
lower Casta successfully graduated from a university from being whitened. But such
things were soon outlawed to prevent the same attempts that would possibly be made by
other lower Castas.11 If Ayarza succeeded in his case, it will inspire many others to do
the same. Ayarza’s case ended with whitening of himself and his eldest son but not his
two other sons, which consequently made the separation of his family.12 At the end, all
the decisions on Gracias al Sacar had to be made based on the local conditions such as
8 Andrien, Pedro de Ayarza, 195.
9 Andrien, Pedro de Ayarza, 196.
10 Andrien, Pedro de Ayarza, 203.
11 Andrien, Pedro de Ayarza, 207.
12 Andrien, Pedro de Ayarza, 195.
how much resentment would the local community because of the whitening of lower
Castas. The policy might be the same, but the applications of the policies could be very
different in different regions.
In conclusion, although the Casta system seemed like a universal thing that
existed in all parts of colonial Latin America, it was still very different among different
regions. However, at the end, some lower Castas with good characteristics were still
treated with respect regardless of their bloods and origins. There was no universal
application of Casta system, but the concept still shaped the history of Colonial Latin
Bibliography Anonymous, Las Castas. 1700-99. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Virreinato. Native
Heritage Project. http://nativeheritageproject.com/2013/06/15/las-castas-spanish-racial- classifications
Archer, Christon. "Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain: Inter-Relationships and Conflicts, 1780-1810." Journal of Latin American Studies 6, no. 2 (1974): 231-55, http:// hapi.ucla.edu.ezp2.lib.umn.edu.
Andrien, Kenneth J. “ Pedro de Ayarza.” The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America, no. 5: 194-210.