Las Castas – Spanish Racial Classifications


Las castas” – Painting containing complete set of 16 casta combinations. An 18th century socio-racial classification system used in the Spanish American colonies.

The European conquest of Latin America beginning in the late 15th century, was initially executed by male soldiers and sailors from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The new soldier-settlers fathered children with Amerindian women and later with African slaves. These mixed-race children were generally identified by the Spanish colonist and Portuguese colonist as “Castas”.

The subsequent North American fur trade during the 16th century brought many more European men, from France and Great Britain, who took North Amerindian women as wives. Their children became known as “Métis” or “Bois-Brûlés” by the French colonist and “mixed-bloods”, “half-breeds” or “country-born” by the English colonist and Scottish colonist.

Casta is an Iberian word (existing in Spanish, Portuguese and other Iberian languages since the Middle Ages), meaning “lineage”, “breed” or “race.” It is derived from the older Latin word castus, “chaste,” implying that the lineage has been kept pure. Casta gave rise to the English word caste during the Early Modern Period.

The term Castas was a Spanish and Portuguese term used in 17th and 18th centuries mainly in Spanish America to describe as a whole the mixed-race people which appeared in the post-Conquest period. A parallel system of categorization based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture, which distinguished between gente de razón (Hispanics) and gente sin razón (non-acculturated natives), concurrently existed and worked together with the idea of casta.

The system of castas, or genizaros was inspired by the assumption that the character and quality of people varied according to their birth, color, race and origin of ethnic types. The system of castas was more than socio-racial classification. It impacted every aspect of life, including economics and taxation. Both the Spanish colonial state and the Church expected more tax and tribute payments from those of lower socio-racial categories.  Even baptismal records includes your designation.

This complex caste system was used for social control and also determined a person’s importance in society. There were four main categories of race: (1) Peninsular, a Spaniard born in Spain; (2) Criollo (feminine, criolla), a person of Spanish descent born in the New World; (3) Indio (fem. india), a person who is descendent of the original inhabitants of the Americas; and (4) Negro (fem. negra) – a person of black African descent, usually a slave or their free descendants.

General racial groupings had their own set of privileges and restrictions, both legal and customary. So, for example, only Spaniards and Amerindians, who were deemed to be the original societies of the Spanish dominions, had recognized aristocracies. Also, in America and other overseas possessions, all Spaniards, regardless of their family’s class background in Europe, came to consider themselves equal to the Peninsular hidalgía and expected to be treated as such. Access to these privileges and even a person’s perceived and accepted racial classification, however, were also determined by that person’s socioeconomic standing in society.

Persons of mixed race were collectively referred to as “castas”. Long lists of different terms, used to identify types of people with specific racial or ethnic heritages, were developed by the late 17th century. By the end of the colonial period in 1821, over one hundred categories of possible variations of mixture existed.  I’m guessing that no one could keep up with them.

The terms for the more complex racial mixtures tended to vary in meaning and use and from region to region. (For example, different sets of casta paintings will give a different set of terms and interpretations of their meaning.) For the most part, only the first few terms in the lists were used in documents and everyday life, the general descending order of precedence being:

  • Españoles (Spanish)

These were persons of Spanish descent. People of other European descent who had settled in Spanish America and adapted to Hispanic culture would have also been considered Españoles. Also, as noted above, and below under “Mestizos” and “Castizos,” many persons with some Amerindian ancestry were considered Españoles. Españoles were one of the three original “races,” the other two being Amerindians and Blacks. Both immigrant and American-born Españoles generally shared the same rights and privileges, although there were a few cases in which the law differentiated between them. For example, it became customary in some municipal councils for the office of alcalde to alternate between a European and an American. Spaniards were therefore divided into 2 categories:

  1. Peninsulares (Spaniards)

Persons of Spanish descent born in Spain (i.e., from the Iberian Peninsula, hence their name). Generally, there were two groups of Peninsulares. The first group includes those that were appointed to important jobs in the government, the army and the Catholic Church by the Crown. This system was intended to perpetuate the ties of the governing elite to the Spanish crown. The theory was that an outsider should be appointed to rule over a certain society, therefore a New Spaniard would not be appointed Viceroy of New Spain. These officials usually had a long history of service to the Crown and moved around the Empire frequently. They usually did not live permanently in any one place in Latin America. The second group of Peninsulares did settle permanently in a specific region and came to associate with it. The first wave were the original settlers themselves, the Conquistadors, who essentially transformed themselves into lords of an area through their act of conquest. In the centuries after the Conquest, more Peninsulares continued to emigrate under different circumstances, usually for commercial reasons. Some even came as indentured servants to established Criollo families. Therefore, there were Peninsulares of all socioeconomic classes in America. Once they settled, they tended to form families, so Peninsulares and Criollos were united and divided by family ties and tensions.

2.  Criollos (Spanish Americans)

A Spanish term meaning “native born and raised,” criollo historically was applied to both white and black non-indigenous persons born in the Americas. In the contemporary historical literature, the term usually means only people who in theory were of full direct Spanish ancestry, born in the Americas. In reality white Criollos could also have some native ancestry, but this would be disregarded for families who had maintained a certain status. As the second- or third-generation of Spanish families, some Criollos owned mines, ranches, or haciendas. Many of these were extremely wealthy and belonged to the high nobility of the Spanish Empire. Still, most were simply part of what could be termed the petite bourgeoisie or even outright poor. As life-long residents of America, they, like all other residents of these areas, often participated in contraband, since the traditional monopolies of Seville, and later Cádiz, could not supply all their trade needs. (They were more than occasionally aided by royal officials turning a blind eye to this activity). Criollos tended to be appointed to the lower-level government jobs—they had sizable representation in the municipal councils—and with the sale of offices that began in the late 16th century, they gained access to the high-level posts, such as judges on the regional audiencias. The 19th-century wars of independence are often cast, then and now, as a struggle between Peninsulares and Criollos, but both groups can be found on both sides of the wars.

  • Indios (Amerindians)

The original inhabitants of the Americas and considered to be one of the three “pure races” in Spanish America, the law treated them as minors, and as such were to be protected by royal officials, but in reality were often abused by the local elites. After the initial conquest, the elites of the Inca, Aztec and other Amerindian states were assimilated into the Spanish nobility through intermarriage. The regional Native nobility, where it existed, was recognized and redefined along European standards by the Spanish and had to deal with the difficulty of existing in a colonial society, but it remained in place until independence. Amerindians could belong to any economic class depending on their personal wealth.

  • Mestizos (Amerindian and Spanish mix)

Persons with one Spanish parent and one Amerindian parent. The term was originally associated with illegitimacy because in the generations after the Conquest, mixed-race children born in wedlock were assigned either a simple Amerindian or Spanish identity, depending with which culture they were raised. The number of official Mestizos rises in censuses only after the second half of the 17th century, when a sizable and stable community of mixed-race people with no claims on being either Amerindian or Spanish appeared.

  • Castizos (Spanish with some Amerindian mix)

One of the many terms, like the ones below, used to describe people with varying degrees of racial mixture. In this case Castizos were people with one Mestizo parent and one Spanish parent. The children of a Castizo and a Spaniard, or a Castizo himself or herself, were often classified and accepted as a Criollo Spaniard.

  • Cholos (Amerindian with some Spanish mix)

Persons with one Amerindian parent and one Mestizo parent.

  • Pardos (Spanish, African, and Amerindian Mix)

Persons who is the product of the mixing over the generations of the white Spanish, Black African, and Amerindians. This mix may come about from a white Spaniard mating with a Zambo, a Mulatto mating with Mestizo, or a Black African mating with a Mestizo.

  • Mulattos (African and Spanish mix)

Persons of the first generation of a Spanish and Black/African ancestry. If they were born into slavery (that is their mother was a slave), they would be slaves, unless freed by their master or were manumitted. In popular parlance, mulatto could also denote an individual of mixed African and Native American ancestry. Further terms to describe other degrees of mixture included, among many others, Morisco, (not to be confused with the peninsular Morisco, from which the term was obviously borrowed) a person of Mulatto and Spanish parents, i.e., a quadroon, and Albino (derived from albino), a person of Morisco and Spanish parents, i.e., an octoroon.

  • Zambos (Amerindian and African mix)

Persons who were of mixed Amerindian and Black ancestry. As with Mulattos, many other terms existed to describe the degree of mixture. These included Chino and Lobo. Chino usually described someone as having Mulatto and Amerindian parents. The word chino derives from the Spanish word cochino, meaning “pig”, and the phrase pelo chino, meaning “curly hair”, is a reference to the casta known as chino that possessed curly hair. (Since there was some immigration from the Spanish East Indies during the colonial period, chino is often confused, even by contemporary historians, as a word for Asian peoples, which is the primary meaning of the word, but not usually in the context of the castas. Chino or china is still used in many Latin American countries as a term of endearment for a light-skinned person of African ancestry. Lobo could describe a person of Black and Amerindian parents (and therefore, a synonym for Zambo), as in the image gallery below, or someone of Amerindian and Torna atrás parents.

  • Negros (Africans)

With Spaniards and Amerindians, this was the third original “race” in this paradigm, but low on the social scale because of their association with slavery. These were people of full Sub-Saharan African descent. Many, especially among the first generation, were slaves, but there were sizable free-Black communities. Distinction was made between Blacks born in Africa (negros bozales) and therefore possibly less acculturated, Blacks born in the Iberian Peninsula (Black Ladinos), and Blacks born in the Indies, these sometimes referred to as negros criollos. Their low social status was enforced legally. They were prohibited by law from many positions, such as entering the priesthood, and their testimony in court was valued less than others. But they could join militias created especially for them. In contrast with the binary “one-drop rule”, which evolved in the late-19th-century United States, people of mixed-Black ancestry were recognized as multiple separate groups, as noted above.

Other fanciful terms existed, such as a torna atrás (literally, “turns back”) and tente en el aire (“hold-yourself-in-midair”) in New Spain or a requinterón in Peru, which implied that a child of only one-sixteenth Black ancestry is born looking Black to seemingly white parents. These terms were rarely used in legal documents and existed mostly in the New Spanish phenomenon of Casta paintings (pinturas de castas), which showed possible mixtures down to several generations.

The overall themes that emerge in these categories and paintings are the “supremacy of the Spaniards,” the possibility that Indians could become Spaniards through miscegenation with Spaniards and the “regression to an earlier moment of racial development” that mixing with Blacks would cause to Spaniards. These series generally depict the descendants of Indians becoming Spanish after three generations of intermarriage with Spaniards (usually the, “De español y castiza, español” painting). In contrast, mixtures with Blacks, both by Indians and Spaniards, led to a bewildering number of combinations, with “fanciful terms” to describe them. Instead of leading to a new racial type or equilibrium, they led to apparent disorder. Terms such as the above-mentioned tente en el aire and no te entiendo (“I don’t understand you”)—and others based on terms used for animals: mulato (mule) and lobo (wolf), chino (derived from cochino meaning “pig”)—reflect the fear and mistrust that Spanish officials, society and those who commissioned these paintings saw these new racial types.

Different paintings depicted different combinations.  In general, the Spanish-Indian combinations were in agreement between them, but the categories for black admixture are quite different.

About robertajestes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Mexico, Spanish, West Indies. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Las Castas – Spanish Racial Classifications

  1. hausa says:


  2. Jarrett Chase McKinnie says:

    Thank you for the information it has helped me a lot for school

  3. In my genealogical research I found that in some places Indian, Mulatto and Lobo children not being listed with their last name in baptismal records, even when the parents names are known. Within the same record Mestiza and Espanol children were always listed with their last names. So one of my ancestors record reads only “Ylario Indio” even though his parents are listed in the record and he is listed as a “hijo legitima.” His own children’s names are only sometimes included his correct name De La Cruz, though they are always listed as the child of Ylario. Ylario and his wife’s first son was baptized under her last name alone. In the next generation some are identified as Indians, one Mulatto and one Coyote. Thank you for the informative article!

  4. Pingback: 2014 in review | Native Heritage Project

  5. BCGJ says:

    Hello, I’ve read a great deal of your article over and over, and I can’t figure out if there’s a word for me. Please help. My paternal grandmother (my father’s mother) is a native to Madrid Spain. My paternal grandfather (my father’s father) is 45% black 3% french and 2% unknown but presumed to be amerindian because his family derives from Nachitoches, Lousianna. My mother was born in the Phillipines, on an American naval base, making her a citizen, however-both her parents are from the islands (Illocos Norte Region). This is very confusing and I find that I (or my peers) are using the wrong words or at least rubbing elders the wrong way..if there is a single or specific set of words that might describe my race, even if it is no longer appropriate or irrelvant I’d like to know an equivelant if one exists.

  6. derekwood says:

    Very good article, I will use this for my AP World History class.

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