The obsessive pursuit by the creoles of the outward marks of social distinction, including the title of don, reflected their deeply felt need to mark themselves out as belonging to the society of the conquerors and to place themselves on an equal footing with the upper strata of the colonial social hierarchy. `Any white person,’ wrote Alexander von Humboldt at the end of the colonial period, `even though he rides his horse barefoot, imagines himself to be of the nobility of the country.’ Yet whiteness, like nobility, was to acquire its own ambiguities in a society where nothing was quite as it appeared on the surface.
By the later years of the seventeenth century, although the creoles retained their tax-exempt status and still nominally formed the society of conquest, the old distinctions between conquerors and conquered were coming to be blurred by racial intermingling and were being overlaid by new distinctions thrown up by the confusing realities of an ethnically diverse society. What became known as a society of castas was in process of formation – casta being a word originally used in Spain to denominate a human, or animal, group, of known and distinctive parentage. The mestizos born of the unions of Spanish men and Indian women were the first of these castas, but they were soon joined by others, like mulatos, born of the union of creoles with blacks, or zambos, the children of unions between Indians and blacks. By the 1640s some parish priests in Mexico City were keeping separate marriage registers for different racial groups.
As the combinations and permutations multiplied, so too did the efforts to devise taxonomies to describe them, based on degrees of relationship and gradations of skin colour running the full spectrum from white to black. In the famous series of `casta paintings’, of which over 100 sets have so far been located, eighteenth-century artists would struggle to give visual expression to a classificatory system designed to emphasize and preserve the social supremacy of a creole elite that felt threatened by contamination from below, even as it found itself dismissed as degenerate by officials coming from Spain. The elaborate efforts of these artists to depict in sets of exotic paintings family groups representing every conceivable blend of racial mixture and colour combination look like a doomed attempt to impose order on confusion. In the `pigmentocracy’ of Spanish America, whiteness became, at least in theory, the indicator of position on the social ladder. In practice, however, as time went on there were few creoles to be found without at least some drops of Indian blood, as newly arrived Spaniards (known to the creoles as gachupines) took pleasure in proclaiming.
Colonial society, like that of metropolitan Spain, was obsessed with genealogy. Lineage and honour went hand in hand, and the desire to maintain both of them intact found its outward expression in the preoccupation with limpieza de sangre – purity of blood. In the Iberian peninsula, purity of blood statutes were directed against people of Jewish and Moorish ancestry, and were designed to exclude them from corporations and offices. In the Indies the stigma reserved in Spain for those `tainted’ with Jewish or Moorish blood was transferred to those with Indian and African blood in their veins. In effect, limpieza de sangre became a mechanism in Spanish America for the maintenance of control by a dominant elite. The accusation of mixed blood, which carried with it the stigma of illegitimacy – compounded by the stigma of slavery where there was also African blood – could be used to justify a segregationist policy that excluded the castas from public offices, from membership of municipal corporations and religious orders, from entry into colleges and universities and from joining many confraternities and guilds.
Yet the barriers of segregation were far from being impassable, and were the subject of heated debate within colonial society. In New Spain at least it was possible to remove the taint of Indian, although not African, blood over the course of three generations by successive marriages to the caste that ranked next above in the pigmentocratic order: `If the mixed-blood is the offspring of a Spaniard and an Indian, the stigma disappears at the third step in descent because it is held as systematic that a Spaniard and an Indian produce a mestizo; a mestizo and a Spaniard a castizo; and a castizo and a Spaniard a Spaniard.’ Genealogies could be constructively rewritten to conceal unfortunate episodes in a family’s history, and retrospective legitimation could be purchased for dead relatives. There were other ways, too, of circumventing the rigidities of a social ranking based on the colour of one’s skin.
A royal decree of 1662 relating to the mixed-blood society of Paraguay did no more than recognize realities when it stated that `it is an immemorial custom here in these provinces that the sons of Spaniards, although born of Indian women, should be treated as Spaniards. Where mestizos were both legitimate and white, or nearly white, their chances of being passed off as creoles, with all the social advantages that this implied, were greatly improved. Already from the late sixteenth century it was possible for mestizos of legitimate descent to purchase from the crown a certificate classifying them as `Spaniards’, which meant that their descendants would have access to institutions of higher learning and to the more profitable forms of employment. In the seventeenth century the so-called gracias al sacar permitted even mulattoes to move from black to white. This kind of legalized ethnic flexibility, facilitated by the crown’s perennial shortage of funds, was almost unheard of in Anglo-American colonial society. Only in Jamaica, it seems, was formal provision made for the social ascent of mulattoes, following legislation in 1733 to the effect that `no one shall be deemed a Mulatto after the Third Generation … but that they shall have all the Privileges and Immunities of His Majesty’s white Subjects on this Island, provided they are brought up in the Christian Religion.’
Yet, for all the deceptions and ambiguities, colonial Spanish America evolved into a colour-coded society, although the equation between darkness of skin and social, as distinct from legal, status was by no means absolute. Black servants, the majority of them slaves, were legally inferior to pure-blooded Indians living in their communities, but in social and cultural terms they tended to rank higher, because their occupations in creole households or as hacienda foremen effectively made them members of the Hispanic world. If Spanish American colonial society was fundamentally a three-tier society, consisting of `Spaniards’, castas and Indians, then the black population, unlike that of Barbados or the Chesapeake, occupied an intermediate position by virtue of its inclusion among the castas, even though Indian ancestry was rated superior to black ancestry when it came to contamination of the blood-line.
The complexities of these shades of ethnic difference, imperfectly superimposed on a traditional society of orders, inevitably made for a volatile society, especially in the cities. The poorer sections of the Spanish creole population, whose `pure’ blood placed them above the castas, clung to the status symbols that differentiated them from people of mixed ancestry who might well be better off than themselves. Simultaneously they resented the airs, and wealth, of the creole elite. In spite of attempts by the authorities to end their exemption, mestizos shared with creoles the privilege of paying no direct taxes. This gave them every inducement to differentiate themselves from tribute-paying Indians. Correspondingly, an Indian who could pass himself off as a mestizo stood to gain substantially because he escaped tribute payments. Yet in matters of the faith he was better off if he remained classified as an Indian, since Indians, unlike creoles and mestizos, were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.”