As a recent graduate, I’ve been filling out a lot of job applications lately. And something I’ve noticed is that all these different companies, governm
ent agencies, etc. want you to fill out some weird and often rather subjective racial identification section. And, apparently, there’s like four major races: white, black, east asian, and native american/inuit; and then there’s like three or four kinds of white people: Caucasian, Latino, Arab, and god knows what else. Cards on the table, I’m a white guy from North Carolina, but much to my dismay there’s no bubble that reads “white guy from NC”, so I have to fill in caucasian (a label which is completely a-historical and f-ing annoying).

Casta System

New Spain’s Casta System

Anyway, all these job application racial identification sections got me thinking about an illustration I was shown while in grad school. It was a print of an old, eighteenth-century painting. Laid out in a four-by-four grid, it had paintings of couples or families in each square. Cute right? Well, it is until you’re told what it signifies. Each of the sixteen squares represented a diffe
rent race within the Spanish Empire. And in New Spain, whichever one of these sixteen races you belonged to by and large determined just how much you could accomplish in life. Race determined your occupation, how much money you made, how much you paid in taxes, who you could marry, and whether or not you were legally fee.

Of the many categories of race, and all the consequences that went with them, there existed four main groups based upon the Spaniards’ notions of purity of blood: Peninsulares, white people born in Spain, i.e. the Iberian Peninsula; Criollos, white people born in Spain’s American colonies; Indio, Native Americans, no matter what Native nation they hailed from; and Negro, or people hailing from Africa. Unsurprisingly, people who fell within the Negro category typically lived as slaves in the New World, or, if the fates were a little kinder, as ‘free people of color’ whose ancestors had by some means or another freed themselve
s from slavery. And, again unsurprisingly, the two kinds of white people found themselves on top of this racially-based, social hierarchy, though Peninsulares tended to have greater status conferred upon them as they hailed from the homeland.

Casta system

The casta system categorized sixteen types of race in New Spain.

While New Spain’s system of racial hierarchy started off with just these four categories, somehow, some way, it came to envelope twelve other categories that included whatever combination of the original four you could imagine. And, as you can imagine, since they probably couldn’t always tell which of the sixteen categories someone belonged to, people in New Spain also differentiated between those tha acted Spanish, and those that didn’t. Gente de razón, literally translated as ‘reasonable person,’ were those who, no matter their skin color, had become acculturated to the Spanish way of behaving. Gente si
n razón
, or ‘people without reason,’ were those who had not become acculturated, i.e. those who still acted in accordance to Native American, African, or Creole cultural norms rather than European-Spanish cultural norms. Though, by and large, the gente sin razón were the descendants of African and Native American people.

Gotta love good ole-fashioned racism. And when it came to racism, no one did it quite like the Spanish.


  1. “Casta,” Wikipedia
  2. “Castas,” UC Santa Barbara History Department
  3. “The Spanish Casta System: Definition and Significance,”

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