Casta or “caste” paintings depict, in more explicit terms than almost any other colonial objects, the effects of inter-cultural mixing. Typically casta paintings comprise sixteen scenes that register, through the presentation of family groups, the progressive dilution of ‘pure’ Spanish, Indian, and African blood. Inscriptions set within or near to each painted panel identify the names assigned each new “caste” created thus. In so doing, these works reinscribe two colonial presumptions: that such inter-cultural (inter-racial) mixing would manifest itself visually and socially, and that such a process demanded commentary.
In this painting, just below the first scene in the upper left corner, a well-dressed Spanish man extends his arms to receive his child from his indigenous mate; the text reads, “De Español, y Indio, Mestizo o Cholo” (From Spaniard and Indian, Mestizo or Cholo). Tracing across the top from left to right and then down the caste hierarchy, we see the generations of castizo, español criollo, and mulatto children. And in the lowest compartment of all, the painter presents “barbarian” indigenous people, called mecos.
Casta paintings link purity of blood to status. In these painted settings, Spaniards have the highest social standing, usually appearing in the first panel of each series; across successive scenes, the pairs become darker and increasingly poor. Those in the lowest rungs are either those of the most mixed blood or those so ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilized’ as to be beyond the realm of mixing.
This desire to classify the people of the New World has many origins. One intellectual source can be found in Enlightenment teachings that sought to find (or create) order and rational explanations for both the natural and social world. These were popular in Spanish America in the latter part of the 18th century. Another source was social anxiety about a person’s place in the increasingly complex and heterogeneous world of the colonies. These paintings were made in both New Spain and Perú in the 18th century. The few names of patrons currently known indicate that collectors of these paintings included Spanish administrators in the Americas. In this case, Ignacio María Barreda created this oil-on-canvas painting for a friend, one Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Rafael de Aguilera y Orense, a military man who spent part of his career in New Spain.
Whether or not paintings such as this one did, in fact, represent “order” or “reason” for 18th-century viewers, is not known. But they do give visual expression to the complex process of mestizaje among groups that inhabited New Spain.
Carrera, Magali. 2003. Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings. Austin. University of Texas Press.
Deans-Smith, Susan. 2005. “Creating the Colonial Subject: Casta Paintings, Curiosities and Collectors in Eighteenth-century Mexico and Spain.” Colonial Latin America Review 14 (2): 169-204.
García Sáiz, Concepción. 1989. Las castas mexicanas: Un género pictórico americano. Milan: Olivetti.
Katzew, Ilona. 2004. Casta Painting: Images of Race in 18th-century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Majluf, Natalia. 1999. Los cuadros de mestizaje del virrey Amat: la representación etnográfica en el Perú colonial. Lima: Museo de Arte.