Humanities 110

Introduction to the Humanities

Humanities 110—Racecraft & Casta Paintings

Laura Leibman Professor of English and Humanities

FEBRUARY 17, 2020

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This lecture was presented by Laura Leibman, professor of English and humanities, on February 17, 2020.

Casta paintings are a form of artwork created in eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Mexico and used by elites to create and assign race to people of various ancestries. Although often offensive, these paintings help us understand the role of art in the history of race and racism in the Americas. The paintings reflect the racist assumption that one’s ancestors impacted one’s appearance, behavior, tastes, and even the clothing and occupations that suited a person. Although the details of the casta system depicted in the paintings were rarely enacted precisely in New Spain, the categories did impact people’s legal rights and social opportunities. Casta paintings did not decrease in popularity until the 1820s when the castas (castes, racial categories) were abolished along with slavery.

In addition to providing insights into how racial categories were defined and created in early Mexico, casta paintings are a good reminder of the diversity of people who have lived in Mexico City throughout its history. By 1646, there were over 35,000 Africans and over 116,000 persons of African descent in New Spain. By 1810, people with African ancestry made up 10% of the population (Bennett, Africans in Colonial Mexico, 1). After the revolution, the legacy of this community was often ignored in favor of a vision of “Mexicanness” in which “the mestizo [a person of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry] . . . was to become the one and only protagonist of the Mexican nation and mestizaje the official ideology of the state” (Manrique, “Dreaming of a Cosmic Race”). It wasn’t until 2016, largely due to the work of the activist group México Negro, that the Mexican government officially recognized that 1.38 million Mexican citizens had African ancestry. This year, 2020, will be the first time when the category “black” appears on the country’s modern census (Varagur, “Mexico Finally Recognized Its Black Citizens”).