Race and Classification: The Case of Mexican America

By Ilona Katzew; Susan Deans-Smith | Go to book overview

1 The Language, Genealogy,
and Classification of “Race”
in Colonial Mexico

María Elena Martinez

DURING THE PAST THREE DECADES, studies of race have tended to stress that the meanings and uses of the concept have varied across time, space, and cultures.1 Indeed, the notion seems to derive some of its power from its very epistemological and historical instability, from what the historian Thomas C. Holt calls its chameleon-like and parasitic nature: “chameleon-like” because of its ability to transmute, “parasitic” because of its tendency to attach itself to other social phenomena.2 Despite Holt's emphasis on the cultural and historical specificity of racial ideologies, he and a number of other scholars anchor modern notions of race in the sixteenth century, if not before.3 During this period, the term began to appear with some frequency in the Romance languages and in English as European expansion to the Americas, the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade, and other “global” processes forged the Atlantic world—that metaphorical and physical space of cultural interactions and hybridity4 But if the emergence of modern notions of race and the rise of the Atlantic world went hand in hand, the racial ideologies that surfaced in that “world” also differed in significant ways due to the particularities of European colonizing projects and the ways in which they confronted local conditions, peoples, and change in the Americas. In certain regions of Spanish America, for example, these particularities produced a system of classification based on African, European, and Native American descent, the sistema de castas, some of the underlying principles of which were depicted in the eighteenth-century Mexican pictorial genre now known as casta painting.5

This essay focuses on three sets of questions that the casta pictorial genre raises about the nature and history of classification in New Spain and more

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