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Caste and Class Structure in Colonial Spanish America

Caste and Class Structure in Colonial Spanish America

During most of the colonial era, Spanish American society had a pyramidal structure with a small number of Spaniards at the top, a group of mixedrace people beneath them, and at the bottom a large indigenous population and small number of slaves, usually of African origin. Although the size of these groups varied between regions and fluctuated over the course of three centuries, they comprised the hierarchy of power and social status during most of the colonial period.


The upper echelons of colonial society were dominated by Spaniards, who held all of the positions of economic privilege and political power. However, a sharp split existed between those born in Europe, "peninsulars," and those born in the Americas, creoles. Although the relationship between these two groups was sometimes friendly, as when peninsular men married into creole families, it could also be antagonistic. Peninsulars sometimes perceived creoles as lazy, mentally deficient, and physically degenerate, whereas creoles often saw peninsulars as avaricious. In the sixteenth century rivalries between European-born and American-born friars for control of the religious orders led to violence that resulted in a formal policy of alternating terms of leadership between creoles and peninsulars. The Spanish crown's preference for European-born Spaniards in government and church posts in the eighteenth century provoked deep resentment among elite creole men, who had come to expect positions of influence. Their resentment helped fuel anti-Iberian sentiment in the colonies before the wars for independence.

Creoles attributed greed to peninsulars because it was far more possible to make a fortune in the Americas than in Europe. Opportunities were present in retail and transatlantic commerce, in gold and silver mining, and in bureaucratic posts that offered opportunities to trade in native goods and exchange influence for favors. In the sixteenth century many peninsulars made their New World fortunes in order to retire in comfort in Spain, but by the eighteenth century, peninsulars were apt to enmesh themselves in the communities of the Americas.

The numerous opportunities for enrichment made the Crown tremendously reluctant to grant titles of nobility to creoles who became wealthy in the Americas. Thus, although there were many extraordinarily wealthy creole families, there were comparatively few creole noble titles. This lack of titles created one of the distinctive characteristics of Spanish society in the New World: In Spain a title of nobility clearly indicated an elevated social rank, but in the Americas there were too few titles to identify all the individuals with wealth and power. Nor were all the families that were ennobled by the Crown able to retain their economic positions, and this made noble titles uncertain guides to social status. Power and status depended far more upon the recognition of one's peers than upon the external and readily identifiable labels of nobility, and the absence of noble titles contributed to a sense of shared status among all Spaniards. Although there were clear, though usually unstated, limits to ideas of equality between elite and nonelite Spaniards, the absence of noble titles and the small size of the European population relative to the indigenous population contributed to sentiments of equality.

Despite the common prejudice against laboring with one's hands, many Spaniards did so, though unskilled labor was performed by Indians. Spanish craftsmen were employed for their skills, even when they were hired out on a daily basis. In rural settings Spaniards were likely to be the managers and foremen over Indians, who did the hard physical labor of planting, weeding, and harvesting crops.

Introduced to the Americas by the Spaniards, horses became symbols of European superiority; they represented wealth (for horses were not cheap), a superior physical vantage point, greater mobility and speed, and the superiority of European society. The horse and iron-based arms were the keys to many military successes during the Spanish Conquest, and were broadly considered to be indicators of the superior social status shared by Spaniards, from which all conquered native peoples and slaves were excluded. By Spanish statute, Indians and slaves were forbidden to bear arms, for military reasons. The enforcement of this prohibition was greatly assisted by the popularity of the belief that bearing arms, like riding a horse, was a prerogative of social rank and being Spanish.


Members of the intermediate racial groups were called "castes" or, in Spanish, castas. They included the offspring of black and white parents, called mulattoes; of white and Indian parents, called mestizo; and of black and Indian parents, to whom no single term was ever applied. The mestizos, mulattoes, and black Indians also intermingled and produced descendants of even greater racial mixture—part Indian, part Spanish, part black. No distinctive name was ever applied to these offspring; they were usually called simply castas.

For the first 150 years of Spanish colonial rule the number of castas was relatively small, and racially mixed offspring were usually absorbed into the Spanish, Indian, or black groups. During this time only a handful were categorized as castas, and these were usually divided into either mestizos or mulattoes. About the middle of the seventeenth century, these groups began to develop an identity of their own. Instead of merely being people who lacked either the tribal affiliation of native peoples or the social prerogatives of Spaniards, they came increasingly to constitute groups in their own right. Women of these intermediate groups were more often employed than their Spanish counterparts, whereas the men were apt to be artisans, but journeymen rather than masters.

Racially mixed people were officially banned from positions of influence in colonial society. They could not sit on town councils, serve as notaries, or become members of the more exclusive artisan guilds such as the goldsmiths. They were barred from the priesthood and from the universities. Those designated as mestizos were exempt from the tribute payment owed by their Indian relatives, but no such exemption was granted mulattoes; even when freed, they were subject to the traditional payments of conquered peoples to their rulers.

The dramatic growth of the castas in the eighteenth century was an increase in sheer numbers of castas as well as a proliferation in the number of racial categories. From the simple divisions of mestizo and mulatto emerged categories such as the castizo, an intermediate position between Spaniard and mestizo, and morisco, the equivalent between mulatto and Spaniard. And the steady rise of intermarriages among the racially mixed population itself produced an enormous range of physical types, in turn generating a number of novel, often fanciful names for the sheer physical variety apparent for the first time in large numbers during the eighteenth century.


The Indians were a conquered people, and many of the earliest social distinctions regarding them, such as the payment of tribute, stemmed from their initial relationship to the Crown as conquered subjects. Spanish rulers exempted indigenous elites from payment of tribute and granted them the honorific "Don," characteristic of the Spanish lesser nobility. But whereas such titles and exemptions from tribute were hereditary among Spaniards, these titles were held only by Indians who were incumbents. Because the offices they held were rarely hereditary—instead they were passed among members of the community, often by elections—the exemptions from tribute were rarely permanent.

Indigenous communities in the New World were overwhelmingly agricultural. Indians farmed land, either their own or that of Spaniards. Some resided in communities near Spanish settlements, others were forcibly removed and "congregated" near such settlements. In some regions Indians engaged in fishing or hunting. In the urban areas of the Americas, Indians were more apt to be construction workers (e.g., bricklayers, stonemasons), day laborers, or vendors of agricultural products.

In the mining regions of Central and South America, Spaniards used Indians to mine the gold and especially the silver found in regions located away from major population centers. Spaniards uprooted Indians, temporarily or permanently, and relocated them in communities near the mines. Slaves were rarely employed in the mines, and never in large numbers. Mining was the labor of Indians.


In the early years of the Spanish Conquest a great number of Indians were captured and enslaved on the Caribbean islands and nearby landfalls. Slavery was blamed by many for the devastation of indigenous communities, and the practice was outlawed by the New Laws of 1542, though natives who fought the Spaniards in frontier regions were often enslaved as late as the seventeenth century.

Following the devastation of native peoples in the Caribbean, blacks were introduced as slave labor. The largest number of black slaves arrived in the Spanish colonies between 1550 and 1650, corresponding with growth in the cultivation of sugar in Spanish America. But with the surpassing success of sugar production in seventeenth-century Brazil, the Spanish American industry shrank substantially, along with the number of imported slaves. In the nineteenth century, both the number of imported slaves of African origin and the sugar industry were revived in the Spanish Caribbean. But on the mainland, the numbers of imported slaves fell off sharply after 1650. In addition to the slaves in sugar-growing regions, there were a small number of slaves in the entourages of the wealthy and powerful in Spanish American capitals. These slaves were often pages, working in the urban homes of the well-to-do.

Between the middle of the seventeenth century and the end of the next century, the slaves of African origin disappeared as a readily identifiable social group in Spanish America. In some cities the African presence persisted into the nineteenth century. In the last years of Spanish rule, approximately one-third of the population of Buenos Aires was considered black, but by the end of the nineteenth century the percentage of Afro-Argentines had dropped to 2 percent. Nevertheless, their integration into the racially mixed population was central to the transformation of Spanish New World society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


The longest running debates over eighteenth-century society in Latin America have concerned the nature of its economic and social transformation. Historians have long noted an increase in economic opportunities during the era. Increased silver production, growing domestic markets for agricultural products and textiles, and increased trade, both licit and illicit, produced unprecedented population and economic growth. This growth allowed many outside the traditional economic and social elites to acquire fortunes. There was a marked increase in the number of prosperous elites, accompanied by an unusual rise in the wealth of traditionally lower-status groups, including those of mixed racial ancestry. Historians have disagreed over whether Spanish society barred entrance to those with new wealth, particularly those of racially mixed origin.

Some historians have argued that there was a rigid social structure known as a society of castes (sociedad de castas), and they support their view with reference to the continuing legal and economic disabilities of natives and descendants of African-born people. Furthermore, they point to well-known paintings commissioned in the eighteenth century by wealthy Spaniards showing a proliferation of racial categories. These paintings depict the dress, food, and activity of various racial types in their homes. The paintings are arranged in a series of miniportraits that follow the order of a written or printed page, beginning at the upper left side of the page and depicting a family group sitting down to a meal in a well-appointed home. The label at the top of this miniportrait describes them in genealogical terms: "From Spaniard and Indian comes mestizo." The next portrait portrays in equally favorable terms the intermarriage of mestizo and Spaniard, producing "castizo." The third or fourth portrait begins the sequence all over again portraying a Spanish man and a black woman. But after two or three portraits of Spanish-black unions, reading from left to right, one gradually encounters a profusion of intermediate scenes, depicting various mixtures of Indian and black, often with highly fanciful names, such as "there you are," or derogatory ones, such as "wolf." The final portrait is often one of a poor hut, badly furnished, and depicting a woman with a frying pan chasing her husband. Not only is the lowest caste poor, but the paternalism of the Spanish family is inverted, and the woman dominates the man, thus indicating how far they are from the Spanish norm in the upper left. These portraits reveal the prejudice that accompanied the legal liabilities of various categories, and often have been cited as evidence of the difficulties of social mobility in the eighteenth century. However, newer interpretations have detected more creole pride and identity in these painting: Some scholars have suggested that some of the paintings subtly defend Spanish-American culture against European stereotypes and prejudices.

Other historians have focused on the ways in which rigid legal categories and physical distinctions appear to have been overcome. In some cases racial categories were altered on christening records, and a humble origin could be overcome by reputation and wealth. The regional differences of Latin America appear to have had a bearing on such nobility. Some studies suggest that by the time Mexico achieved independence, several members of the titled nobility were mestizos; in Peru fewer such examples can be found.

The differences between the terms caste and class have been drawn more commonly by U.S. historians than by Latin American scholars. Their use as labels to differentiate open and closed societies was first suggested in the 1930s by the U.S. sociologist William Lloyd Warner (1898–1970). On the basis of his work and U.S. sociology of the 1950s and 1960s, the ways of distinguishing between a caste and a class society have focused on interracial marriage as the key to integration and the definition of an open society. As a result, much of the controversy generated by the dispute has centered on questions such as whether the Spaniards were intermarrying with members of the castes, which racial groups (castes) were marrying members of other groups, and what were the marriage patterns of the black community, which became integrated during the eighteenth century.

Among Latin American historians, class has been addressed in terms of the emergence of a bourgeoisie, or middle class. The question for many Latin American historians has been whether the individuals who profited from or led the economic revival of the eighteenth century should be considered members of an emerging bourgeoisie, and questions of a class society tend to revolve around the economic attitudes and behavior of the emerging economic elites. Latin American historians, and some U.S. historians of Marxist orientation, have been more apt to use the term feudal rather than caste to designate a closed society.

The final transformation of caste and class structure in colonial Spanish America came with independence. Peninsular Spaniards were officially expelled by many resentful creole communities. Tribute payments by native communities were suspended throughout Spanish America, either at independence or shortly thereafter. Slavery was usually abolished by the new republics within the first two decades of independence, except in the remaining Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, where it endured well into the nineteenth century. Men of mixed racial origin had access to arms and became skilled in using those arms against Spanish troops during the wars for independence. Arms and the horse remained symbols of power, but were no longer identified with Spanish rule and the caste system.

Throughout most of Spanish America, the close of the colonial era removed the rigid racial hierarchy that had lasted for three centuries. The legal distinctions of tribute payers and slaves disappeared, and in many regions, the superiority automatically conferred upon Spaniards gradually disappeared. In its place emerged a society also stratified by wealth and power, but one where those distinctions were no longer automatically registered by differences of race.

See alsoCastizo; Class Structure in Modern Latin America; Creole; Marriage and Divorce; Mestizo; New Laws of 1542; Peninsular; Race and Ethnicity; Slavery: Spanish America; Slavery: Indian Slavery and Forced Labor; Sociology.


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                                        Patricia Seed

                                        Byron Crites

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