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How The Caste System Shaped Racial Inequality in Latin America

Collaboration with R29 Somos, edited by Raquel Reichard

What is Latin America's colonial caste system? In colonial Latin America, Spanish settler-colonizers introduced a caste system that tied race and color to class and status. The race-based social hierarchy and legal system was use to enforce social power and determined material access to resources, humanity, livelihood, and socio-economic opportunities.

It was rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy. Based on the belief that character and quality varied according to ancestry, color, features, and "purity" of blood, the caste system stratified people of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry. But the system was also gendered; children of people with different ancestries were viewed as distinct from their parents, with exception that favored boys with Spanish fathers.

Casta paintings illustrated this racial domination and subjugation. White Iberian Peninsulares were deemed fully realized humans. Below them were their white Iberian children, criollos, and the "castas" (mixed-race people who are often born out of sexual violence.) Positioned at the bottom were Africans whose blood was considered "unredeemable" in the white imagination.

La casta was the foundation for "mestizaje" and "la raza cosmica." Both "mestizaje" and "la raza cosmica" are ideologies that romanticize sexual violence and glorifies the destruction of African and Indigenous familial and ancestral lines, which were devalued as "primitive," "dishonorable," and void of "respectability."

The Caste System sought to breed out "unfavorable" and "undesirable" characteristics of difference. In doing so, the racist caste system sought to Hispanicize Africans, Indigenous, and mixed-race people. One could be "Hispanicized" by speaking Spanish, practicing the Roman Catholic faith, and adopting Spanish social customs.

Despite acculturation, one's caste position still determined their trajectory in life. The Spanish colonial state and the Catholic Church provided protections to those of a higher socio-racial category, contributing to enduring economic inequality. If you were of identifiable African descent, for instance, you could not access jobs of "honor," wear certain clothing, own or carry weapons, ride on horseback with saddle and reins, or enter into the clergy. (just to name a few)

With enough money, some could "buy whiteness," thus buying their humanity. While success, wealth, resources, and honor were ascribed for whites (and those approximating whiteness), there were some "work-arounds." The "cédula de gracias al sacar" permitted Afrodescendants who paid a large fee to be "exempt" from their status as non-white so they could be granted the right to work in certain labor sectors that was prohibited for their caste.

The legacy of La Casta is alive in Latin America today. La Casta shaped enduring ideologies of the colonial order, characterizing Spaniards as "superior" and African and Indigenous people as "savages" who should aspired to whiteness and Christianity, ideas that are reproduced today in Latin American and Latinx media, dominant culture, and politics.


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