three castas

Casta Paintings

On September 21, 2012, the Boston Globe offered the following account of an interchange videotaped at a fund-raiser for presidential candidate Mitt Romney:

 “When he [Mitt Romney] lamented that his father was born in Mexico to American parents—‘Had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this’—a female donor spoke up.

 ‘You can pull an Elizabeth Warren,’ she said.

 Romney explained to the audience, ‘Elizabeth Warren, she’s the woman who’s running for US Senate in Massachusetts who said she’s Cherokee.’

 ‘It turns out that at most she’s 1/32d Cherokee,” Romney added. “And even that can’t be proven. So, in any event, I mean I could put down my dad was born in Mexico and leave it at that.’”

There are several take-aways here for both political pundits and sociolinguists (not to mention prospective voters).  Mr. Romney’s interlocutrix suggests that he could garner a larger share of the increasingly important Latino vote by claiming to have had a Mexican parent.  Presumably the suggestion is facetious, given the considerable negative hay Ms. Warren’s Republican opponent has attempted to make of her assertion of having had Native Americans among her Oklahoman ancestors.  Mr. Romney’s response (presumably equally light-heartedly) acknowledges his father’s Mexican birth to American ex-pats and essentially dismisses the idea of pursuing the matter for political gain, thereby avoiding the possible accusation that his father had actually been an anchor baby.

For the political pundit, how candidates for public office choose to handle the presentation of their and their opponents’ racial and ethnic backgrounds for good or ill is a general subject of interest on which the fund-raiser dialog provides some focused illumination. For the sociolinguist, what is equally of interest are the ways in which the relationship between race (genetics) and ethnicity (culture) is construed by campaigners, the news media, and the general public—as a thought experiment, try substituting, say, “Canadian” for “Mexican” and see how your mental image changes.

 Mexico, like the other New-World Spanish colonies, was originally both multicultural and, as its indigenous population was joined by the arrival of (white) Europeans in the early 1500s and, shortly thereafter, (black) Africans, multiracial as well. And these canonical groups—indios, españoles or blancos, and negros or moros (literally, ‘Indians,’ ‘Spanish’ or ‘Whites,’ and ‘Blacks’ or ‘Moors’)—were themselves culturally heterogeneous groups: Indio could designate a member of any of a variety of quite distinct native societies (Aztec, Mayan, Chichimeca, etc.), españoles or blancos could refer equally to white Europeans (a.k.a. gachupines) or their white New-World progeny (a.k.a. criollos), while a negro or moro could be a black person who was the product of one or another of several African societies or was born in the New World, the word moro in either case having been repurposed from its original sense in (European) Spanish, where (according to Gómez de Silva’s Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española) it referred to “a member of the Muslim community of mixed Berber and Arabian origin chiefly inhabiting northern Africa,” the region known in Roman times as Mauritania (Greek Μαυρουσία).  

 As indios, blancos, and negros mingled and produced multiracial offspring who in turn mingled and reproduced, the Old-World Spanish rulers attempted to pigeonhole the members of the increasingly complex New-World population mix through a system of nomenclature that assigned a name to (theoretically) each of the possible types of offspring of each possible pairing of existing racial types. The system was known as the sistema de castas, your casta (from Latin castus, -a, -um ‘pure, unpolluted,’ whence English chaste as well as caste) being your racial type, an identifier of the percentage of indio, blanco, and negro ancestry which you inherited as your birthright. The definition of a casta had in addition to its genetic component an overlay of associated social attributes that, in theory if not in actual practice, characterized your legal rights (e.g., what part of town you could live in and whether you could carry arms) and the range of professions open to you. Period paintings of parents-cum-child showing idealized casta physical features, dress, and  accoutrements were all the rage as souvenirs to take back to Europe after a trip to the New World, post cards and the Kodak Brownie having yet to be invented.

a colonial family

A Colonial Family

The number of possible castas was obviously considerable: From the six possible indio/blanco/negro X india/blanca/negra pairs, you get six different offspring types (indio X india = indio; indio X blanca = mestizo; indio X negra = zambo; blanco X blanca = blanco; blanco X negra = mulato; negro X negra = negro); from a like pairing of these six, you get 21 different types of offspring; from 21, you get 231; and so on. (Mathematically, we’re calculating the sum of N where N is the number of offspring types—three, six, 21, and so on—the formula for which is X =  N * (N+1) /2 in case you’d like to try this at home.)  The following table shows a portion of the system, where parents appear to the left and right of the X immediately above their offspring:


Family Tree

You do not have to do much of the math to figure that there must have been quite a few empty slots in the system (which was finally abandoned in the early 1800s during the Latin American wars of independence) between those occupied by the first couple and the one occupied by their possible albarazado descendent (who could reckon himself 8/128 indio, 75/128 blanco, and 45/128 negro should he be interviewed on the campaign trail). Part of the explanation for these lacunae involves the way in which the system viewed the “whitening” (blanquesimiento) of the indio population:



Thus, if you were 7/8 blanco and 1/8 indio, you were considered blanco and got to start all over again. Not so if seven of your great-grandparents were blancos and the other was a negro or negra:

family tree variant

Family Tree Variant

In this case, instead of collecting $200 and passing Go, you were as an albino, etymologically “white”—the standard Spanish term for  “white” is blanco, ultimately of Germanic origin, while albo (Latin albus ‘white’) has been largely restricted to poetic use—but socially tainted, however slightly.  The reasons for the disparity were several, genetics and actual physical appearance being, apparently, somewhat less important than the original relative numbers of indios, blancos, and negros and whether they were considered aristocracy, serfs, or slaves: Originally indios, both male and female, far outnumbered the blanco population, which was exclusively male; both societies were based on the estate system consisting of an aristocracy plus everybody else, two factors that facilitated the integration of indios with blancos and mitigated against the enslavement (if not the exploitation) of the former by the latter. Negros were imported as slave labor later to make up for the loss of the indigenous workforce due in large part to disease. Their numbers were relatively small.

The differences between the lineages in Family Tree and Family Tree Variant tell another part of the story.  First, while everybody seems to agree on the meaning of the terms español, negro, mulato, and morisco, terminology starts to vary when it comes to naming the next generation—albino or chino. (The term chino is most probably from china, a Quechua word meaning “female, woman.”) Second, there is some confusion as to the lineage of the salta atrás (literally, ‘jump back’ though perhaps ‘throw-back’ would be more apt), the parents being an albino/chino and either a blanca or an india. In fact, after the third generation, casta terminology tends to get rather fast and loose, suggesting that for all practical purposes nobody (with the possible exception of the souvenir portrait painters) actually kept track of more than three generations of  casta differentiation and probably fewer than that, given the general lack of contemporary genealogical documentation beyond oral tradition, the practice of rounding up (“passing”), and the refocusing of political power from Spain to the eventually independent colonies in which, while as far as skin color goes the light end of the color spectrum is still to some extent advantaged, centuries of intermarriage have rendered the sistema de castas mercifully irrelevant.

extended family

The Extended Family