Interracial Families in 18th-Century Mexico

Image of the Week: A painting captures the multiethnic population in New Spain, now Mexico.

Unknown artist working in New Spain (Mexico), De español y negra mulata, oil on canvas, 36 by 48 cm (Museo de America, Madrid)
Unknown artist working in New Spain (Mexico), De español y negra mulata, oil on canvas, 36 by 48 cm (Museo de America, Madrid)

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

One of the most typical, revealing products of colonial Spanish culture was the casta painting. This Iberian term means “lineage,” or “race,” and in art refers to the comprehensive representation of mixed-race couples and their offspring. Produced in a series usually consisting of 16 family groups, casta paintings categorize the uniquely complex degree of racial variation that arose within the multiethnic population of the viceroyalty of New Spain, now Mexico. These works were produced almost exclusively in the major artistic and governmental centers of Mexico City and Puebla during the 18th century. About 100 sets of casta paintings survive today from what must once have been a considerably larger number.

Casta sets were commissioned primarily by members of the ruling elite of New Spain. Their audience consisted of a fairly limited but discerning group of officials, clergy and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. In some cases the sets were directly presented to the king in Madrid as a visual record of the diversity of his overseas realm. The miscegenation recorded in these series is also reflected in the origins of the artists themselves. With only one known exception, all identified casta painters were born in Mexico, not Spain, and many were themselves of mixed race.

In all casta series, the couples consist of men and women from the three main ethnicities living in New Spain: white, Indian and black. Those represented are types, not specific individuals. All known series begin with the union between a white man, described as a Spaniard (español), and an Indian, producing a mestizo. The sequence then continues with a new category produced by the pairing of a mestizo with another Spaniard, producing a castizo. In the next case a white man is the father as well, and so the complexion becomes lighter, and therefore of greater advantage in the racially ordered hierarchy of colonial life. The child is, in fact, described as español, the same as his or her father.

The union of whites and blacks follows a similar pattern, with the crucial difference being that the ultimate degree of reverse “whitening” can never occur. The example shown here, No. 4 in its series, initiates the process of black and white racial mixing. We see the union of a white Spanish man and a black woman with their mulatto daughter. The scene takes place in the family’s kitchen. A tile stove is seen on the right, with food steaming in large pots. The well-dressed man is being accosted by his wife with a knobbed kitchen implement. Their little girl tries in vain to restrain her mother.

In most series the succession of black-white progeny follows the sequence mulato, morisco, chino (or albino). Where the sequence of unions continues, the names become quite fanciful. They are not part of official colonial racial nomenclature and at times can seem quite poignant: tente en el aire (“hold yourself in midair”), no te entiendo (“I don’t understand you”). These categories refer to the ambiguous nature of the child’s color. In the case of the torna atrás, the complexion actually becomes darker than in its preceding stages. The last part of the casta series deals with the progeny of blacks and Indians, some of whom are also children of various black and white combinations.

The casta sets sprang from the encyclopedic mentality of the Enlightenment and sought both to explain and order the bewildering diversity of the New World population. Along with distinctions of race, the registration of difference in these series includes other externally distinguishing features, such as dress and occupation. Beginning with the dominant, initial position of the white españoles, the sets depict the increasingly humbler stations of mixed-race persons. The series therefore establishes a hierarchical order of wealth and social prominence occupied by the various racial categories. In so doing, the political authority responsible for this scaled arrangement of the “natural” order is implicitly asserted.

The advent of reforms promulgated by the Bourbon monarchy of Spain just after the middle of the 18th century more negatively stressed the stratification of race in New Spain. Rather than seen as a normal aspect of colonial life, miscegenation was blamed for a whole catalog of social ills. This more rigorous imposition of viceroyal authority seems reflected in casta paintings by images of violent mixed-race couples, especially those with a black member, as seen here.

The majority of casta series were produced during this period of reforms and remained popular for the rest of the colonial period. When independence was achieved in 1821 (largely through the efforts of black men), new, more liberal racial policies supplanted the long-standing notion of casta. As with other societies, Mexico still struggles with race matters, but on a very different, and more optimistic, footing than in its colonial past.