The caste system that the Spanish imposed centuries ago still influences Mexicans today. Images of skin color have always mattered. While the "Las Castas" paintings were intended to create social order, the appearance of the Virgin Mary with brown skin helped the Europeans to control indigenous people and convert them to Catholicism. Nonetheless, modern images and art remind us of how Mexican people still grapple with a hurtful legacy of racist ideals and social inequality.
Ross Chambless: During the Spanish colonial period in the 1700s, the Spanish were very interested in pigeonholing people according to their racial background.
Susan Vogel: The Spanish and Spain were fascinated by all the different racial combinations in "New Spain."
Ross: "New Spain" was what the Spanish were calling Mexico at the time.
Susan: So they commissioned artists in the new world to create these Castas paintings.
The "Las Castas" series of paintings were painted by different artists from the mid 1700s to the early 1800s. This particular work was done by Miguel Cabrera. Displayed in public venues, they were intended to instruct people on racial hierarchy. They were most commonly presented in a series of sixteen individual canvases or in sixteen compartments on canvas. They illustrated different racial mixtures and their offspring. For example, Spaniards and Indians gave birth to mestizos. Spaniards and Blacks birthed mulattos, and Blacks and Indians birthed zambos.
Ross: Often these consisted of 16 separate paintings, depicting 16 different racial combinations, and the offspring that they reproduced.
Susan: The most well-known set are these. They’re by Miguel Cabrera. He was an artist from Oaxaca, and considered one of the greatest painters from New Spain. He was commissioned to create religious artwork by the Catholic Church and social elite.
Ross: He painted these on large scrolls. Some of them are life-size. They were intended to be a manual to explain to people their racial hierarchy, and social ranking.
Susan: They had a caste system. So, it was a hierarchy of where you stood socially, politically, economically, job wise, everything. And it went from the very highest - of course, the people born in Spain - and it went down from there. And it got really awful, the lower you went.
Luis López: As Susan mentioned, if you were Spanish from Spain, you had the top spot. From there you could have a mix, they called Castizo. Typically, there really isn’t a way to go up the chart. If you had a Spanish mix you could kind of get back to whiteness, if you will. Anything down lower on that chart, you’re stuck. There’s nothing you can do. So based on the color of your skin, and what they identified as racial mixes, it predetermined what your life was going to be. Society was based on that system and we still see it today, as how racism plays out, and in this country as well.
Ross: This is Nuevas Voces part 6 and in this episode, we’re talking about how Mexican art reveals much of the racist legacy left behind by the Spanish. During the colonial period, the conversion of Mesoamericans to Catholicism also played a role in the caste system.
Susan: The pope, Pope Paul III, in 1537 promulgated a document that stated that the Indians were rational beings and should be brought peacefully to the faith. So, one thing that happens in Mexico, rather than decimating the native populations which had happened in other areas, the conquerors were told to baptize people. And they were allowed to participate in society. Some people feel that was a wonderful thing, because it gave people a role, albeit a low one, which we see in the Castas paintings. When I‘ve interviewed people, one of the diplomats I interviewed, said that was a huge factor in shaping Mexico’s history, as a country of Mestizos, and where everyone can participate in the society.
Ross: But the indigenous peoples didn’t just want to go along with the European domination, and their biblical stories about Christ and the Virgin Mary. A new story needed to be told to bring the native peoples along.
Fanny Blauer: the conquest, there were enough rebellions, the Aztecs didn’t stay quiet. There was a war and the Catholic Church and the Conquistadors were worried about how would they convince the people. So, they, with respect of the Catholic people, they created this story that this woman had appeared to this Indian. And this woman represented Virgin Mary. When the Indian Juan Diego went back to the church and explained to the priests what he had seen, it was a revelation of the "true Church", manifested to the Indians.
Official Catholic account is that the Virgin Mary appeared before Juan Diego, an indigenous man, following the Spanish Conquest. His vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe became the basis for the successful spread of Catholicism across Mexico.
Ross: Up until then, the Virgin Mary appeared in old European paintings as a white, finely featured woman. But the Virgin Mary that supposedly appeared in Mexico City, looked like a native woman.
Fanny: Dark skin, indigenous features. The elements of her outfit all based on the cosmovision – the moon, the sun, the stars, everything.
Ross: Cosmovision, of course, was the worldview that the Aztecs held before Christianity was imposed on them.
Fanny: And she was named Guadalupe. Now the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most honored figure in Mexico. In Mexico City, we have a specific cathedral for her, and millions and millions of pilgrims come to see her every year. And what is surprising is the majority of the pilgrims are indigenous people.
Post- and Pre-Hispanic Mothers-in-Lore. The figurine on the right is believed to be of Tonantzin, the Aztec mother goddess. She is preserved in the National Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City.
Ross: So, when you think of how the Aztecs had had everything taken away. Their worldview was quashed. Their gods were defeated.
Fanny: They had this need to embrace something. And this image was created. They embraced this Tonatzin.
Ross: Tonatzin was the name of the Aztec mother earth god from before.
Fanny: Now called Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin of Guadalupe. And they embraced that. That’s our mother, she’s taking care of us. If Catholicism is true, well, there is Virgin Mary appearing in a skin color which is our color.
Luis: Yeah, well, growing up in a Catholic household, this resonates with me. To me, the color of her outfit, the green is how we recognize Our Lady of Guadalupe. I connect her to the feathered serpent, and Coatlicue, that green serpent full of quetzal feathers, right. So, even if the name is different, even if the ideology is different, you’re going to recognize your mom when you see her. I think the Catholic Church was extremely smart, and whether they didn’t speak Spanish or not, they recognized their mother, and it got them to submit. And recognize, if our mom is telling us this is the way, let’s go ahead. She knows best.
"Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo," attributed to Juan Rodríguez Juárez, c. 1715, oil on canvas (Breamore House, Hampshire, UK)
Ross: The art of the colonial era was all about teaching people Catholicism.
Susan: And the Spanish had the indigenous craftsman and artists take their materials like feathers and mother of pearl, and use these in Catholic art. So we see lots of indigenous materials, designs and patterns being transferred into Catholic art. So there was this heavy influence and effort to get people to be religious, loyal Catholics. And also to stay within the bounds of their Castes system. That was extremely rigid. So we see the Castas paintings and the religious art. It was to keep people in their places. For what purpose? Basically, this was fueling a huge trade war in Europe. Thanks to the Americas, Europe was able to succeed Asia as the biggest trade partner in the world. Thanks to all these people who are faithful Catholics now who are performing in the encomienda system, where they were serfs. And they were producing products and mining for the Spanish. All these raw materials were going to Europe, and Europe had become the biggest trade source in the world. So this is a huge economic project.
El Suplicio de Cuauhtémoc, was painted in 1893, by Leandro Izaguirre, a Mexican painter.
Ross: Another image that touches the raw nerves of race relations in Mexico and Latin America, is 'El Suplicio de Cuauhtémoc', painted in 1893.
Susan: It is really, really big. It was painted for the Universal Columbus exhibition held in Chicago in 1893 celebrating 400 years since Columbus came to the Americas. It’s based on the torture of Cuauhtémoc and his cousin by the Spanish.
Ross: This painting is about 10 feet wide by 8 feet tall, and it was painted as part of celebrating Spanish dominance of the Americas.
Susan: What would that be like in 1893? People looking at this painting in 1893...It seems political. But it might have appealed to intrigue about native topics. What does it mean to you?
Luis: Anger. Both of these cultures are part of who I am and so there's a part of me that says, they’re burning the feet of an indigenous person. For what reason? I just don't see that kind of torture necessary in any way. It’s kind of a hard image to see because I can only imagine the pain. There is the flame under his feet. This is the king and his cousin. Another thing that comes to mind, when the Spanish came in they completely took over these civilizations. There were already preexisting hierarchies. They all had to do is to control the king, and they could control the whole system. That's essentially what they were doing, they were breaking down the king to take over.
Fanny: Something very important that I find in this painting is that the art was able to produce a communication through the eyes. I actually read an article about this. When you look at the painting, look at the eyes of every character. The way Cuauhtémoc is looking at Cortés. He’s not giving up. Cuauhtémoc's cousin sitting on the right side is saying, "just tell them so they don’t kill you." But he’s challenging. The way he is looking at everyone here is challenging. "If you think by killing me I’m giving up, it’s not going to happen." Everyone in the room is looking at him with a surprised face. He isn’t reacting to how they’re burning his feet. I find it extremely powerful. Also, his features are not dark, they’re almost white. This was something that was predominant during the art of colonialism. European artists were making sure that they would paint indigenous people with fine features because they considered them unattractive. The image they wanted to send was, they are nice people, and we’re going to make them more attractive. This is still an aspect of racism and not recognizing who we are. We still face this in Latin America. The darker you are, the less opportunities you have. The more indigenous features you have make you not very attractive. This is the reality.
Images of an exhibit titled "Castas" shown in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Susan: In the castas painting, the children of the people who are the darkest are called animals, they are called 'lobos' (wolves). Some others are called like jumping backward ('salta pa´ tras'). Pretty horrendous.
Ross: So, we talked earlier about the caste system and the established hierarchy of people in that society imposed by the Spanish. How much do these ideas persist now in Mexican culture?
Luis: Oh, they’re very much alive now. And internalized. You’ll hear people say, “you have the face of an Indian,” and that’s an insult. Or, "you have a cactus on your forehead." That's how we can tell how Mexican indigenous you are. That’s meant to hurt. I know recently we’ve reclaimed those things. Yeah, my family is from Zacatecas, we eat lots of cactus. It used to be survival, now it’s a tradition. My son's middle name means "little cactus". We’ve taken these terms meant to be offensive and reclaimed it. But at its root, it comes from this caste system, the more indigenous you look, the darker you look, the less value you have in society.
A typical advertisement in a Mexican magazine that caters to a desirable, white-skinned privileged class.
Susan: There was an ad in Mexico, for flight attendants, that basically said they wanted to hire people who were white, from the fancy neighborhoods of Mexico City.
Fanny: My grandfather was a quarter Aztec. And he married a blonde, blue-eyed woman. And my mother’s family is mostly European, no trace of indigenous background. I grew up with both sides. My grandfather defended the Nahuatl language, but it was prohibited for him to speak that when he was little. My mother’s side, everyone was white. And when I was dating a guy from Oaxaca, my mom’s family was very concerned. They said we have to improve the race. When I dated my husband, it was an opportunity. It was a great thing I was dating a gringo, an American. It was really strong. In my own family, 450 years later.
Ross: So, the idea that you were marrying a white person, was advancing you, and the family?
Fanny: I would have attractive children. Because they don’t look like me, they look like their dad. I have been called the babysitter of my children.
Untitled photo from Ricas y Famosas, 1999, by contemporary Mexican artist Daniela Rosell. Rosell spent time capturing the lives of youth in Mexico's most privileged class.
Fanny: You see that. What is the mental model we have established here for ethnicity and race? I really dislike the word race. When we think about the human race, we are one human race. One. That’s it. We are of different ethnicities. (But) there is no such thing (as different races). We have taken the political right to use race to establish all of these powerful distinctions in terms of economics, politics and social disabilities or abilities and this is very real in Mexico, and I would say in most of Latin America.
Luis: I hear some people say, "improving the race". Moving back up that chart, the more white you have in your family, the more you can "improve" your condition and your quality of life.
Ross: Let me just stop the tape for a second. Let me tell you that I had no idea that our discussion of these paintings from centuries ago, would cause such a visceral emotional response from everybody. I had no idea how much these racist, European-introduced ideas of White Supremacy – embodied in these paintings -- still linger in our modern world and afflict people of Mexican decent today. OK, I just needed to say that. Let’s back to the discussion.
Mexican magazine covers, all with handsome white-skinned people.
Susan: You can look at television, the ads, and magazines, and movies. Most of the main characters look just like me. White, blonde hair, very European. Often the people that are the household help or gardeners are indigenous. And there are characters that come with them, like being not very intelligent, doing silly things. It’s very ingrained in society in Mexico.
Luis: I would argue even here as well. My experience growing up in the California public school system, moved to Utah for my senior year, and growing up I would hear things like you could be a construction worker, or if you work hard you can own your own landscaping company. I thought that’s really not helping. You’re just reinforcing the idea that my brown ethnicity is only good for labor. Earlier, especially after high school, I did take those jobs to get by, but it’s why education is so important. In my family, we push so hard for it. We never really had access to it. I'm a first-generation college graduate, the first generation to work in an office environment. Most of my family has worked labor jobs their whole lives. My grandfather was a 'bracero', who worked the land. I still connect myself to the land and have pride in knowing how to work it, how to work with maíz and how to make my own tortillas at home. But we constantly fight to break those stereotypes today.
Fanny: For me, as an immigrant, I came here because I married a white American, not as an immigrant. Not to diminish that idea. But I have been asked, did you marry for the papers? You are Mexican, but you are different from all those Mexicans. I’ve been asked, how do you know all this stuff? Do they have universities in Mexico? You have to be confronted just because of how you look. Based on these charts. How did you make it there?
Ross: These are questions you get here?
Fanny: We get them from everyone, even other Mexicans.
Luis: I’m going back to Mexico in December, to visit my family, a cousin of mine is getting married. And even back home, Luis works in higher ed. “Oooo! You think you’re better than us?” Even my cousins still critique me based on these systems and maybe where they see themselves on this chart as well.
An advertisement for a children’s festival in Mexico.
Susan: I think one of the things we all face here in the U.S. is (my daughter is half Mexican), is raising our kids to be proud of being Mexicanos and to identify. Is a real struggle, is not going to happen naturally. I had to work really hard to make my daughter proud to be Mexicana. She can pass. Sometimes she looks Mexicana, sometimes she doesn’t. It depends on how she dyes her hair and how she puts on her makeup. Fortunately, I had resources to take her to Mexico and spend summers there with her cousins and to bring her grandmother from Mexico to spend a lot of time with us, where like Fanny, she was assumed to be the nanny, rather than the grandma. It’s a struggle here in the U.S. to raise our kids to be proud to be Mexicanos. And part of what we do all of us in Artes de Mexico en Utah is trying to do that, try to help people get a sense of pride. Luis has worked in gang prevention in school systems and part of what he does is to show people they should be proud of this great heritage and the history. He can talk more about what effect it has to feel proud of being of both cultures.
Luis: My experience in gang prevention was in the Provo school district, with Antonio Castillo and Cokie Klein, Quirino Valladolid as well. One of the things we focused on was empowering students through their culture. We found that when students know who they are, and are proud of it, the chances of someone else in recruiting them into their gang is less likely. Because they are going to show up with 'hey, we got love for you, we are going to look out for you, you are not going to worry about anything'. When those needs are already fulfilled, by their own culture and their own family, they don’t need that. They know who they are and when they face other challenges in their life they’re more resilient and persistent. I grew up in Southern California, and we saw it. My parents were always there. My father always pushed our heritage. Be proud, wear your 'guaraches'. But I had family members who were ashamed. So by the time I hit my teen years, I knew who I was. I was very Mexicano, and the Chicano identify. My culture is well rooted and because of that, I think I've done well in my life and it has allowed me to help others.
Ross: I think that’s fascinating. I don’t know about gang prevention, but the idea that we should encourage understanding of other cultures will prevent violence is very interesting.
Luis: I’ll put it to you this way, if I have limited financial resources, and I’m not embraced by my culture here, they see me as a foreigner even though I'm from here, I go to Mexico, they don’t see me as Mexican because I'm raised in the States. So you don’t really have a home, you don’t have support, you don't have money. What do you do? You survive. If there’s a group of people offering support, you’ll latch on. That's why for me culture and education are huge, otherwise, people get caught up on other things. If people know who they are, they can push back against those other things that attract them to live a lifestyle that’s dangerous for their health.
Ross: Go to the Artes de Mexico en Utah website to see the images we discussed in this episode.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: Leo Sanchez, Frida Lopez, Gustavo Santaolalla, Elliot Goldenthal, the Latin Playboys. This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.
Engage with Us:
Tell us what you think? How do social attitudes about race or social class or beauty affect your life? Do you think ideas of racial hierarchy, similar to the "Las Castas" ideas, are still around today -- either in Mexico, or the U.S., or elsewhere? Have you ever heard others talk about "improving the race" in regard to who they might marry or have children with?