Race in Early Latin American History

For a number of historical reasons a unique multinational society has formed in Latin America. This complex mixture of races was created as a result of intermarriages of European inhabitants of Spanish or European origin with Amerindians and Africans. The Royal colonial administration had to look for efficient mechanisms to keep them under control and hold them on a leash. For several centuries race was the main factor which determined prosperity, social status, civil rights and range of occupations of Latin Americans, although socio-economic position and degree of acculturation were quite influential as well.

In Latin American colonies the class-divided society was formed similar to Indian caste social model, although the time showed that borders between castes were mutable. Race is inextricably bound up with the term caste. In the process of colonization a number of miscegenous progeny was growing steadily as well as its variety. To differentiate them in the multinational society and to separate from the ruling class of Spaniards the colonial administration invented the system of castes. It was based upon long-standing racial and social stereotypes of the times. For instance, the documented purity of blood was considered a winning ticket for making career in central and local authorities or church hierarchy in spite of applicant’s personal qualities and skills. Gaurghran analyzes this system on the example of Colonial Peru and emphasizes that it was “designed to pit sections of society against each other and play on the subsequent fear of the overthrow by the lower classes, so that Spain continue to exert its top-down control” (2). The government tried to drive a wedge between different racial groups and, thus, it was easier to keep them within the limits stipulated by the caste system.

At first sight, the existing racial groups could be easily distributed among the castes, but in reality borders between them were quite vague. For example, it can be referred to permanently settling Peninsulares and white Criollos. With the course of years the number of intermarriages and variety of interracial offspring was growing, and new terms and subgroups had to be created to define them. The words “lobo”, “ladino”, “cholo”, “coyote” were used to denominate people with different percentage of Spanish (or European), Indian and African mixtures. They are an example of scornful attitude of Espanole’s authorities to the castes. Most of these words were not used in official documents, but officials and clergymen used them in everyday work.

To understand the role of race in formation of society of those days, it’s worthwhile paying attention to Stephanie Mitchel’s analysis of racial categories on the example of “caste painting” drawn by colonial administration in 18th century. She defines influential factors alongside with racial identity in colonial societies: personal appearance, religious affiliation, legitimacy or illegitimacy of birth, certificates of “blood purity”, if available (Mitchel 2).

Taking into account the multinationality of Latin American society, transculturation was an integral component of its formation. It is associated with common religion, Catholicism, and preservation of own religious traditions, festivities, social interactions, intermarriages. For instance, Chasteen notices that Aztec descendants associated the Virgin of Guadalupe with their goddess Tonantzin (“Born in Blood and Fire” 79). At some religious ceremonies and festivities Africans perform nontraditional un-European rhythms.

The range of professions had been predetermined for the castes since birth. Most of Africans were slaves, that’s why they were working hard on plantations in the country or in the city houses as servants. According to Ann Twinam, people of mixed African descendent had the largest discrimination compared to other races, because none of them could be “physician, notary, lawyer, priest, the holding of public offices, service in the regular military, entrance to universities, and marriages with whites” (Twinam 1). Amerindians and their offspring were not slaves and had larger social opportunities; they were mostly peasants, craftsmen, worked in mines. Spaniards and white Criollos could work in the state administration, hold public offices, and make a military career. Chasteen concludes that “the Whites, whether Creoles or Chapetones, disdaining … follow nothing below merchandise” (‘The Structure of Class and Caste” 77). Nevertheless, being the Spaniard did not always mean a lucky ticket. Although they were expected to be treated as noblemen, most of them were not successful businessmen and merged with the urban poor.

It is necessary to emphasize that race is a dynamic phenomenon of Latin American society. The number of offspring in intermarriages of middle, high middle and high classes was rising steadily, and they strived for large social and professional opportunities. As a result, by the end of 18th century the institution of gracias al casar was approved, which allowed rich pardos, mulattos or mestizos to purchase a status of whiteness officially. Consequently, strict borders of the caste system were partially broken, and the Royal Crown received an additional source of income. Later, the Cortez of Cadiz even allowed them to enter universities. Another option to get a higher social status was so-called “up” marriages with partners with lighter skin.

At present, the system of castes has remained in the past, but consequences of its implementation are still visible in modern Latin American society. Race identity proved to be one of the most important factors to gain success in all spheres of life. At the same time, this system failed to disengage the multinational community and even laid foundation for its amalgamation.

Works Cited

Chasteen, John Ch. The Mestizo: Seed of Tomorrow. Rowman & Littlefied, 2004. Books.google.com. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

Chasteen, John Ch. The Structure of Class and Caste. Rowman & Littlefied, 2004. Books.google.com. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

Chasteen, John Ch. Born in Blood and Fire. W.W. Norton &Company, 2011.

Chasteen, John Ch. & Wood, James A. Problems in Modern Latin American History. Scholarly Resources Inc.,, 2004.

Gaurghran, David. “Colonial Peru, the Caste System and the “Purity” of Blood”. Southamericana 20 March, 2012, https://southamericana.com/2012/03/20/spain-peru-and-the-purity-of-blood/. Assessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Jastes, Roberta. “Las Castas – Spanish Racial Classifications”.

Native Heritage Project, 15 June 2013, nativeheritageproject.com/2013/06/15/las-castas-spanish-racial-classifications/. Assessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Laudan, Rachel. “Slavery, Race and Whiteness in Mexico”. Rachel Laudan, http://www.rachellaudan.com/2015/09/slavery-race-and-whiteness-in-mexico.html. Assessed 20 Feb. 2017.