Painting order out of chaos: casta paintings & fictions of race in eighteenth-century New Spain
Haverford College. Department of History
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From conquest, New Spain was stratified along the lines of conqueror and conquered placing Spaniards at the top of society above those of Indian and African descent. A product of centuries of racial mixing, New Spain developed an extensive and complicated racial hierarchy called the sistema de castas, or caste system, which sought to catalog and rank the seemingly countless races that could have existed. At the colony’s inception in the sixteenth century, people were relatively simple to categorize by race, but by the eighteenth century, generations of acculturation and miscegenation had blurred social and racial boundaries, making it difficult to easily classify subjects by sight alone. Even after two centuries of colonial contact, Creoles, or those of Spanish descent born in the Americas, still identified as pure-blooded Spaniards and, as such, asserted their own superiority within New Spain. The eighteenth century, however, was a volatile period characterized by the fall of the Hapsburgs, economic expansion that allowed increased social mobility to all levels of society, and Bourbon reforms. It was at this time when New Spain seemed most in flux and the sistema de castas least able to accurately categorize society that casta paintings emerged. Typically presented in series of 14-16 individual paintings each showing parents of different races with their mixed-race children, casta paintings were the pictorial manifestation of the sistema de castas. In this thesis I will use casta paintings and textual sources written by Creole and Spanish elites to illuminate the fictional nature of the sistema de castas and uncover the changing ways Creoles manipulated these categories to secure their position atop the social hierarchy and reinvent their own communal identity. While artists and authors at the beginning of the century devoted themselves to improving the reputation of New Spain as a whole by portraying all subjects-regardless of race-as wealthy, educated, and mannered, those later in the century chose to link casta designation to socioeconomic standing in order bolster Creole honor and emphasize their status as pure-blooded Spaniards. Casta paintings were self-consciously designed to reconstruct perceptions of the colony and the sistema de castas. As such, I will interpret the changing motifs found in casta paintings within the broader historical context to trace how constructions of race, honor, and the sistema de castas evolved during the eighteenth century.