The Spanish cared about skin color. Whether on the European continent, or throughout the Spanish colonial world, ancestry, and the proscribed skin colors thus attached, mattered. Long before the formation of the United States, and even before the French recognized the light-skinned “mulâtre” (mulatto) in colonial censuses during the 1690s, the Spanish attached specific social and racial values to particular skin tones, and the degrees of mixture each one implied. As early as 1533, a debate arose in Madrid, Spain’s capital, over whether or not children of Spanish men and Indian or African women should be recognized by the Crown and educated as vassals of the empire. After some debate, King Charles I decided that any child with Spanish blood “to the half” belonged to the empire, and must receive “education and some training.” Those with less than half Spanish blood “belonged to the land,” and received nothing.
There was no word for mixed-race people in the Spanish language in the mid-sixteenth century; there was only an official measurement of blood mixture. Because the Spanish based their definitions of race and social belonging on limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”), these “half-blood” vassals were not, strictly speaking, pure-blooded Spaniards. So Spanish administrators designated them “American Spaniards” (Españoles Americano). This term is important, as it established the precedent upon which later, more color-specific terms were based. It recognized the in-between, or combined, nature of these people. Neither purely Spanish nor “of the land,” as the king declared, these mixed-race offspring were very much both “American” and “Spaniard” at the same time. Importantly, though, the term also recognized that these people were different than both their parents. The parent with pure Indian or African blood was not a member of the Spanish colonial community. His or her lack of Spanish blood, as evidenced by a darker complexion, kept him or her out of society. But the other parent, the pure Spanish mother or father, also stood apart from the children. These parents were European, the most telling sign of which was white skin and “Roman features,” according to colonial law. As a result, they were full members of the colonial community, capable of holding office, owning land, and representing themselves in court. The “American Spaniards” were an amalgam of the two. They were “brown” or “swarthy” in color, and fundamentally impure of blood. They could hold land but not political office. They could sue white settlers; but they could not testify against them in court. Simply put, they did not fit comfortably in either group.
At the time, Spanish settlers had lived in the New World for less than a full generation. The idea of a child with Spanish blood “to the half” was the only realistic combination possible in the colonies. It would take at least another generation for more complex mixtures to appear in the population. But that did not necessarily matter. For the first time in North American history, a colonial government had recognized, and placed specific value upon, distinctions in skin tone and ancestry beyond the standard black-white split. This was the first ripple of colorism in North American society.
And it only got worse from there. In the 1680s, Spanish authorities implemented what was called the Sistema de Castas (“Casta System”) in all North and South American colonies. The Casta System, which differed slightly from colony to colony, separated all inhabitants into two primary groups: Españoles, or pure Spaniards, and Castas, meaning anyone with less-than-pure European blood. The Españoles stood atop the social and racial hierarchy. They were white, pure-blooded Europeans, and could prove it—usually by detailed family trees, baptism records, or birth certificates. The Castas, on the other hand, broke into between 5 and 15 calidads (“qualities”—think blood purity) progressively based on the percentage of European blood in a given category’s ancestry.
This was the first true example of colorism in North America. In fact, many of the standard terms used to express color distinctions in modern society emerged from the Casta System nearly 350 years ago. The standard Casta System hierarchy, developed in Mexico City in the 1680s, contained two general groups, each broken into between two and three more specific sub-categories. The term pardo (“brown”) described all mixed-race people with at least half European blood. Those with less-than-half European blood were called morenos (“colored,” or “dark”). The sub-categories within the pardo group may sound familiar to the modern reader. At the bottom was the mulato (“mulatto”) who had exactly one-half European, one-half African ancestry. Above the mulato sat the cuarterón (“quadroon”) with three-quarters European and one-quarter African blood. At the top of the pardo group stood the octavón (“octoroon”) who claimed just one-eighth African ancestry. Later, the Spanish king would add the catchall category of albino, which described anyone with provable African ancestry to any degree (essentially the same thing as the “one-drop rule” practiced in many southern states during the Jim Crow era) to the top of the hierarchy. Many people designated by law as albinos were physically indistinguishable from a pureblooded European. In some cases, courts traced their African ancestry to a great-great-great grandparent, giving them 1/32 African blood.
All of these ancestral (and color) categories fell into the same basic social position. They were considered members of society, and given certain rights and protections from the government. But they still could not hold office, testify in court against a white person, or inherit property from a white relative or friend. Perhaps most interesting, though, white officials tended to ignore these legal barriers for members of the cuarterón and octavón groups (and later albinos). This was because most of the wealthiest pardos were extremely light-skinned, and either had familial or commercial connections within the white upper class. These connections caused many lighter-skinned pardos to attach themselves to the white community, essentially rejecting the mulatos, and even some cuarteróns, from their commercial and social circles. In other words, a color-based hierarchy developed not only within the Casta System, but also in society as a whole. Although Spanish law made no distinction between the rights and privileges of any of the mixed-race groups, the groups themselves slowly developed prejudices toward each other, rejecting or accepting individuals as friends, partners, and spouses based largely on skin color and the Casta category to which that individual belonged.
Part II of “The Historical Roots of Colorism” will explore how the Casta System, and the color terms attached to it, entered the North American racial mold. Most importantly, we will see how the Casta System differed from the way the British colonists on the east coast conceived of racial mixture and distinctions in skin tone.