Interracial Families in 18th-Century Mexico

Interracial Families in 18th-Century Mexico

The Root

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

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

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…

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