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Casta Paintings – Defining Race, Class and Identity in Colonial Latin America

Casta Paintings – Defining Race, Class and Identity in Colonial Latin America
MBL Editors

A Further Look at Casta Paintings and the Construct of Race

By Dash Harris

“Casta” is Spanish for caste and “casta paintings” existed in colonial Latin America during the 17th and 18th century. They were color based social hierarchy and enforced social power and control through the construct of “race.”

The system showed that the character and quality of people varied according to their lineage, birth, color, “purity of blood,” and ethnic origin. The paintings were pseudo-scientific racial categorizations and visual representations of the mixing of races that occurred in the Americas for Spain to see. Each racial categorization held meaning in their names. “Casta-painting series usually identify 16 racial taxonomies, including zoologically inspired terms such as “coyote and “wolf.”” Disparaging titles were assigned, as well as names depicting one’s “return” to “purity” or whiteness, Spanish blood was redeemable, African or “Black” was not.


The paintings also depicted social status through clothing, as indigenous clothing was deemed inferior to European garb. “The casta system also impacted economics and taxation. The Spanish colonial state and the Church expected more tax and tribute payments from those of lower socio-racial categories.” A major component of the casta system was ‘calidad’ or ‘quality and especially “purity” of blood. Travelers from Spain to the New World often carried certificates showing their ‘raza pura.’ [pure race]One’s social status was based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture and that was through your lineage. The system distinguished between ‘gente de razon’ people who were the Hispanics, which translates to  “people of reason” and gente sin razon,” non acculturated natives or “people without reason.”


“One of the first known sets of Casta Paintings commissioned was painted by Juan Rodriguez Juarez and sent to the Spanish King, Charles III. It is believed that the establishment sent the paintings back, advising that they were showing the dilution of Spanish purity, rather than strengthening the white, Spanish race. Mixed castes were shown in work attire while the Spanish males were always shown as the dominant controller within the paintings, whether through his position in the family or his military clothing. Many paintings included violent scenes, which show females of mixed black heritage attacking a Spanish male.”

The term “Hispanic” denoted a relationship to Spain and the general descending order of the casta, always placed Hispanics, or “Peninsulares” [people from the Iberian Peninsula] at the top, followed by ‘Criollos’ those who were of Spanish ancestry but were born in the Americas. Mestizo [or ‘castizo’ in some paintings]  followed, someone who is of indigenous and European ancestry, which translates to “half caste,” illustrating how the indigenous component brought that individual from attaining a higher classification. White was the highly coveted class and was centered within the policies of ‘Gracias al Sacar’ or ‘Regla de Sacar,’ one could ‘legally’ be white if they can prove that one relative within the past four generations was white. The casta terms varied in regions and across time periods from Mexico, to Brazil and Peru and so forth. “The Spanish believed that the Indian race could be erased through within three generations, but any mixing with anyone of black orientation could never be removed or diluted back to Spanish.” The paintings were the foundations for white supremacy. Its manifestations carried over into the 19th and 20th centuries and into present day.


During the 19th and 20th centuries many nations were coining their national and racial identity and that usually meant an alignment and identity building through Spain and Europe. Mestizos became the dominant group, most being Criollos and they were very loyal to the Spanish crown. The intellectuals at that time continued the ingrained casta system, not in name, but in practice. Whiteness was a social status to attain and maintain and ultimately improve the inferior and primitive blood of the African and indigenous as Libardo Lopez wrote in ‘La Raza Antioquena’ [LINK:]  in 1910. He cited, French social pyshochologist, Gustavo Le Bons theories that the Nordic races were superior and the degradation of the Colombian nation was due to all those who were not. He claimed the superior race were Antioquenos, those who lived in the Antioquia department of Colombia, the majority are white or mestizo, the most socially and economically prominent group in Colombia. In 1934, Luis López de Mesa Gómez , a Colombian medical doctor, Harvard psychiatrist, Dean of the National University of Colombia, and Minister of National Education, and Foreign Affairs  wrote in ‘Cómo se ha formado la Nación colombiana’ that the only way to pull indigenous people out of their cultural and physiological prostration was to cross them with superior [white] races.

This belief was within national policy, including ‘blanqueamiento’ or ‘whitening,’ the social, political, and economic practice in the 19th and 20th centuries during which European immigration was sponsored and promoted, while immigration from African and Asia was restricted. Race mixing was encouraged and resources were allotted to these new immigrants while limiting and barring economic opportunities for indigenous and Afro-descendants, resulting in little upward mobility in education, property, and employment sectors and little access to fair housing, healthcare and quality of life.

The belief was the waves of white immigration would ‘lighten’ the total population. Social manifestations of this ideology is in the common phrase heard all over Latin America, “mejorar la raza.” The practice and belief of “improving the race” by marrying paler and whiter.  The colonial heritage of white supremacy is thriving in Latin America and is now an operating contemporary colonial hierarchy that still reinforces class and color in exactly the same way the casta system did. The only difference is, it has been internalized and is automatically carried out on a day-to-day local level by the same individuals it oppresses.

Works Cited:,,

Mejoranda La Raza

Mejoranda La Raza – Honduras