Many readers are interested in Afro-Mexicans, so although this post is not directly about food, I’m going ahead anyway.
In the eighteenth century, artists in Mexico (and to a lesser extent in other parts of Latin America) created paintings that depicted the different racial mixtures.
It’s easy to conclude from these paintings that race was even more cramping and fixed in Latin America than in the United States. But in fact there was considerable fluidity.
There was a very good reason for black men to marry indigenous women, as Ann Twinam, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin points out in an important new book, Purchasing Whiteness. Luckily, she summarizes many of her main conclusions in the excellent UT Austin history website, Not Even Past.
The legal recognition that free women always gave birth to free babies had an incalculable impact in the Americas [that is, Spanish and Portuguese Americas], given the potential motherhood of millions of indigenous women. It provided male slaves with the option of automatically freeing sons and daughters borne by Native and later by free casta partners.
That’s certainly what happened in the mining, farming, and ranching state of Guanajuato in north central Texas, as I learned in the 1990s when I attended an excellent graduate seminar on colonial Guanajuato, led by María Guevara Sanguinés of the University of Guanajuato, author of Guanajuato diverso, (1991) a study of Africans there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. African slaves married indigenous women and their children were then free.
As Twinam’s title indicates, if these descendants did well, they could go on and purchase their whiteness from the Spanish crown. Many did. So did many indigenous people in Latin America. To be sure, they remained a minority but their example showed what was possible.
Put another way, these categories that we think of as simply ones of race and color were as much a matter of wealth and class as race or color. If you were wealthy and educated you, with more fuss and effort or less, became Spanish or criollo (Spanish born in Mexico) whatever your ancestry and whatever your color.
In short, when we are talking about Latin America and even more when we are talking about distant northern Mexico, the parts that have now been incorporated in the United States, it’s crucial not to bring to bear on colonial history the assumptions about race current in contemporary American society. It’s anachronistic and it inhibits understanding.
Another University of Texas historian, Susan Deans-Smith, talks about casta paintings in a piece reprinted in Not Even Past, suggesting that the casta paintings have a complex message.
What do these exquisitely beguiling images tell us about colonial society and Spanish imperial rule? As with textual evidence, we cannot take them as unmediated and transparent sources. Spanish elites’ anxiety about the breakdown of a clear socio-racial hierarchy in colonial society–the sistema de castas or caste system–that privileged a white, Spanish elite partially accounts for the development of this genre. Countering those anxieties, casta paintings depict colonial social life and mixed-race people in idealized terms. Instead of the beggars, vagrants, and drunks that populated travelers’ accounts and Spanish bureaucratic reports about its colonial populations, viewers gaze upon scenes of prosperity and domesticity, of subjects engaged in productive labor, consumption, and commerce. Familiar tropes of the idle and drunken castas are only occasionally depicted in scenes of domestic conflict. In addition, European desires for exotica and the growing popularity of natural history contributed to the demand for casta paintings. . . . many contemporaries believed the casta series offered positive images of Mexico and America as well as of Spanish imperial rule. In this regard, the casta paintings tell us as much about Mexico’s and Spain’s aspirations and resources as they do about racial mixing.
A useful roundup of English language discussions on slavery and race in Latin America from Not Even Past.
Carlos Lopez and Vivette Garcia, “Scientific Approaches to the Mexican Mestizo” is a fascinating study of the ways scientists (and politicians) have tried to understand race over the long term by two researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.