Cuadros de Casta: Mexico’s Caste System

Casta Painting

By Blanca Chavez

In choosing my cultural artifact, I knew I wanted to discuss a part of the slave trade that is often overlooked, and that is the presence of African slaves in Mexico. Because this fact is so commonly overlooked, it is not surprising that many people do not acknowledge Mexico’s “third root”. African presence in Mexico has never been monolithic. Although most slaves were brought from West Africa, they represented many ethnic groups (the Cafi, the Arara, the Carabali, the Wolof, and the Mandinga, to name a few), each with a different culture and world view. Today, after five hundred years of blending with the traditions of Indigenous peoples and Europeans, it has become nearly impossible to trace the specific contributions of any of these groups; which is another reason African presence often goes unrecognized. My cultural artifact is the casta or caste paintings that emerged in Spanish America (although overwhelmingly produced in Mexico) that depicted the hierarchal Mestizaje (racial mixture) of Spaniards, Indians, and Africans.

I have come across casta paintings in various class lectures, articles, and textbooks and was intrigued by them. However, I did not know that they composed their own genre of artwork, and did not think to research them until now. The most common presentation style used for casta paintings was a series of sixteen individual canvases or a single canvas divided into sixteen compartments. The series usually depict a man, woman, and child, arranged according to a hierarchies of race and status, each compartment labeled with a number, and an identification of the racial mixture depicted in that painting. The casta painting depict a dominant hierarchy with the elite class composed of all the Spanish mixes at the top, labeled 1-4, and have the subjects with the best clothing and occupations in them. The ones at the bottom, labeled 13-16, depict the racial mixes with the most African background, and portray the working class. (Smith, 2005)

The people who produced casta paintings were mostly Mexican artists. Although many remained anonymous, there are still many known notable casta painters such as Miguel Cabrera, Juan Rodríguez Juárez, José de Ibarra, José Joaquín Magón, and Francisco Vallejo. These paintings were primarily made in the 18th century, with the oldest known one dating back to 1711. Although the majority of casta paintings were produced in Mexico, most of them were displayed in Spain. The casta paintings were displayed in official public spaces, such as museums, universities, high ranking officials’ residences and palaces, as well as in unofficial spaces when some private collections would be opened up to limited public viewing (Smith, 2005). Because the majority of casta paintings still in existence were found in Spain rather than Mexico, it has also been suggested that these were meant as souvenirs. These may have been mementos that captured the newness of the “New World”, showing native plants and diverse peoples of Spanish America.

Casta paintings were produced throughout the 18th century, before the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Spain had already been rooted in a slave holding society (Pittman, 2015), which is why there was already a diverse mestizaje documented by the mid-1700s in the casta paintings. Slave trade in the United States grew more with the internal slave trade after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807.

The casta paintings reflect how the Spainiards viewed Africans, which differed greatly from the United States racial slavery system. One key difference was that Africans were allowed to marry; because in Spanish America they were considered human and not viewed purely as property. Free blacks were treated more equally in Spanish America for three reasons: First, Roman law of slavery which saw slavery as a possibility for almost anyone, not just Blacks. Second, the Catholic Church’s advocacy of equality of people within the church. Third, romans had a lengthier history of interacting with darker skinned people than the British. These marriages also included interracial relations. The Roman Catholic Church presence in South America insisted that slaves be allowed to marry and forbade promiscuous relationships between slaves and masters, so they were encouraged to marry instead of informal mating. This was how the mulato was commonly produced in Latin America and they lived among the Indians, mestizos, creoles (Spanish Americans), and Spanish (So, 2015).casta_992

Although Blacks were given better treatment in Spanish America than in the British colonies, they were not given the same treatment that the Spanish gave to indigenous communities of the Americas. The Spanish had an ideology of Limpieza de Sangre, or Purity of Blood that they instilled throughout the Americas. It was a divine hierarchy incorporated into their social caste system and functioned on the basis that since the Indigenous people had not been exposed to Islam or Judasim, their soul could still be saved and their Mestizo offspring could be successful Spaniards. Blacks were linked with Islam Moorish people that the Spanish had encountered, as well as supposedly having “the curse of Ham” in the bible, which is why they were at the bottom of the sistema de castas (caste system) (Martinez, 2004). This hierarchy is still present in Latin and South America. Colorism has been pounded in the minds of Latinos over several centuries to produce a society that has an elitist mentality based on skin color, and European standards of beauty where lighter skin is often preferred.

The Spanish colonists took full advantage of technology that Africans had developed for work in the tropics and adapted and improved in the New World. Yet today, many African contributions to advancing the technologies of fishing, agriculture, ranching, and textile-making in Mexico remain unappreciated (Martinez-Montiel). Similarly in the United States, contributions of African Americans go uncredited. In both the United States and Mexico there is a presence of ethnic enclaves were free and enslaved Blacks created new forms of music that influenced an entire country. Significantly, the presence of drums in music and other instruments such as the banjo in the United States, and the Marimbola (African hand piano) in Mexico (Pitman, 2015)(Martinez-Montiel).  Although strongest in black enclaves, the African presence pervades Mexican culture. In story and legend, music and dance, proverb and song, the legacy of Africa touches the life of every Mexican.

One of the positive outcomes of the casta paintings was their progressive view of Blacks as functioning people of society. They are portrayed as hard working people, Casta paintings aren’t solely a simple eugenics chart. They often showcase environments of the new world with luxurious clothing, piles of fertile fruits 3and some of the most attractive humans depicted in art.

The casta paintings themselves represent what stage one of the developments of Africana studies aimed to do which was document, record, and analyze the status of African people during, and post colonization.


Works Cited

Smith, Susan Dean. “Casta Paintings.” Not Even Past. Taylor & Francis. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Martínez, María Elena. “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza De Sangre, Racial Violence, and            Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico”.The William and Mary Quarterly 61.3 (2004): 479–  520. Web…

Martinez-Montiel, Luz Maria. “Africa’s Legacy.” Africa’s Legacy. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.           <;

Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Introduction to African American Studies.” AFRM 101 Lecture.   University of        Washington, Seattle. 2015.

So, Connie. “Introduction to Comparative American Ethnic History.” AES 150 Lecture. University of           Washington, Seattle. 2015

One thought on “Cuadros de Casta: Mexico’s Caste System

  1. 1. The title explains perfectly what the blog post will be about and I like how they relate to the title.
    2. There is a picture of the caste system in Mexico which gives a great depiction of institutions of oppression that Black bodies are forced into.
    3. I would have wanted to know if this caste system was also in other Latin American countries given that most slaves were sent to the Caribbean and Brazil.
    4. The author discusses about coming across paintings in classes and books, but does not personally relate to it.
    5. I wished the author would have had a deeper connection to the caste paintings and possibly discussing their personal expereince with racism.


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