Hernan Cortes, his band of merry war criminals, and their Mesoamerican allies completed the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. After taking control of Tenonchtitlan, the Aztec capital, and turning it into Mexico city, the Spanish faced the problem of cementing their control over this vast new territory. Despite their military victories over Montezuma’s troops, and the rampant diseases that ran through indigenous towns, the Spanish remained vastly outnumbered by native Mesoamericans. Indeed, after eight decades of colonization, the Spanish would only make up 10% of New Spain’s population. In order to cement their place as the new ruling class, the Spaniards began implementing policies meant to distinguish them from native Mesoamericans, and, later, imported African slaves. The casta system was one such policy.
What Was the Casta System?
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs had organized their society into a rigid caste system that loosely reflected that of Late Medieval European societies: nobles sat at the top, while indentured servants, serfs, and slaves made up the lowest classes.1 Rather than reinvent the imperial wheel, the Spanish sought to use this caste system and slot themselves in at the top.2
The casta system resulted from the Spanish use of the Aztec caste system mixed with their own notion of “purity of blood,” which they used back in Iberia to marginalize people of Jewish and Moorish descent.3 The casta system organized society into various levels, much as the Aztec caste system had, but race formed the basis of each level.
This image illustrates the extremity of the casta system. Each of the squares represented a different race within the Spanish Empire. And in New Spain, whichever one of these 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 free.
The Categories in the Casta System
At its simplest, the casta system categorized four races; at its most complex, it categorized over 40. The most well-known of these racial categories are españoles peninsulares (Spaniards born in Spain), españoles criollos (white Spaniards born in the Americas), indios (Native Americans), mestizos (people with a Spanish father and Native mother), negros (Africans), and mulattoes (a person with both European and African ancestry).
The peninsulares sat at the top of this new social pyramid, followed by their Spanish cousins born in the New World. The peninsulares were the only group allowed to hold high-ranking positions in the government, Catholic church, and the army – the theory being they felt greater allegiance to the crown.4 Criollos, while sometimes poor, often made decent, if not amazing, livings for themselves as traders or owners of mines, haciendas, and ranches. Criollos also often served as lower-level government officials.5
Several of the other groups of this strange racial pyramid, namely indios, mestizos, and mulattoes, made up New Spain’s large class of legally free but economically poor subjects. And, while examples of free blacks do exist from the colonial era, people of African decscent (categorized as negros) largely lived as slaves.6
But, when you put a group of people together, even with such rigid labels, they tend to mingle with one another in the biblical sense. And so it happened in New Spain. As the decades wore on and Spanish control over their empire became more entrenched, the castas’s racial lines were blurred, causing the Spanish to take their already extreme race-based class system even further.
As racial lines became more and more blurred, people couldn’t always tell which of the categories someone belonged to. So, the powers-that-were in New Spain also differentiated between those that acted Spanish, and those that didn’t. The 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 sin 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.7
Sources on the Casta System:
- “Aztecs,” History.com
- James W. Russell, After the Fifth Sun: Class and Race in North America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994), 32.
- José Cuello, “Racialized Hierarchies of Power in Colonial Mexican Society: The Sistema de Castas as a From of Social Control in Saltillo,” in Choice, Persuasion, and Coercion: Social Control on Spain’s North American Frontiers ed. Jesús F. de la Teja and Ross Frank (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), 202.
- “Las Castas – Spanish Racial Classifications,” nativeheritageproject.com
- Russell, After the Fifth Sun, 35.
- Gloria E. Miranda, “Racial and Cultural Dimensions of ‘Gente de Razon’ Status in Spanish and Mexican California,”