Atlantic History Castas
Rachel O'Toole
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0097


Lower-status people and people of color in colonial Latin America, or the castas, as well as casta categories or terms that connoted a combination of race, class, gender, and sexuality and formed the basis of colonial hierarchies in colonial Latin America, have generated a great deal of scholarship. The term “castas” was employed by colonial authorities to describe working people and people of color and in contemporary usage can connote a colonialist perspective. First, in an effort to reclaim this term, this bibliography focuses on scholarship regarding the lives, religions, families, politics, and struggles of indigenous and African people and their descendants. While most work focuses primarily on either indigenous or African people, more recently historians have attempted to understand the relations between these (presumed) distinct populations. Second, this bibliography explores the so-called “caste” system that scholars have argued was not systematic or based on “caste.” Following the caste–class debates regarding how to quantify colonial distinctions according to race or class, Cope 1994 (cited under Cultural Approaches to Racial Hierarchies) has brought renewed scholarly attention to the constructed nature of colonial racial hierarchies. Recent publications focus on the distinctions of class, gender, and sexual practices to articulate boundaries between and among colonial Latin Americans. In addition to new scholarship on urban Indians and ethnic Africans in colonial Latin America, historians (and others) are attempting to understand the mechanics of colonial racism (Wade 2009, cited under General Overviews) that remain at the root of Spanish (and Portuguese, to a lesser extent) attempts to classify colonized and enslaved people into distinct categories while collapsing a wide range of differences into the hegemonic label of “castas.”

General Overviews

The overviews can be divided into past and present interventions. Bronner 1986 provides a clear summary of the historiographical debates over differences in colonial Latin America—whether they were measured by race, estate, or class. Lockhart 1984 explains how social historians understood colonial hierarchies and Esteva Fabregat 1995 emphasizes the impact of biological distinctions from an anthropological perspective. More recent approaches include Wade 2009, a spirited overview of how sexual activity and sexual identity (or reputation) impacted colonial racial and class hierarchies, while the narrative of racial difference as a social construct in Garofalo and O’Toole 2006 is further elaborated in Burns 2007, which explores the 16th century (a previously unexplored period in the debates on caste). Mignolo 2005 places colonial hierarchies and identities into a wider frame of global colonialism and European racism.

  • Bronner, Fred. “Urban Society in Colonial Spanish America: Research Trends.” Latin American Research Review 21.1 (1986): 7–72.

    Provides a thorough review of the debate regarding estate, caste, and class from the 1980s and a clear explanation of the statistical aspects, with additional historiographical examples from Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala.

  • Burns, Kathryn. “Unfixing Race.” In Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires. Edited by Margaret Greer, Walter Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan, 188–202. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    The ways in which early colonial Latin Americans categorized themselves and others encompass practices connected with fixed terminology and origin, but not color. Colonial inhabitants articulated diverse terms; some we may call “racial” today, “while grounding colonial racism in very particular circumstances” (p. 197) that included notions of descent, appearance, and the supposition of illegitimacy.

  • Esteva Fabregat, Claudio. Mestizaje in Ibero-America. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

    With a hemispheric definition of the Americas and an emphasis on biological markers, Iberian America emerges as an acculturated, syncretic society with clear organization of status. As a result, Spanish culture dominated even while racial mixture was widespread, with variation across region and collective versus individual adaptations.

  • Garofalo, Leo J., and Rachel Sarah O’Toole. “Introduction: Constructing Difference in Colonial Latin America.” In Special Issue: Constructing Difference in Colonial Latin America. Edited by Leo J. Garofalo and Rachel Sarah O’Toole. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 7.1 (Spring 2006).

    DOI: 10.1353/cch.2006.0027

    In their introduction to a special edition dedicated to case studies regarding caste, Garofalo and O’Toole explain the historiographical shift from defining casta as designations of race and class within a caste system to more recent publications regarding cultural manifestations of colonial categories as well as alternative boundaries of community.

  • Lockhart, James. “Social Organization and Social Change in Colonial Spanish America.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 2, Colonial Latin America. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 265–320. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Urban Spanish society was characterized by hierarchies based on lineage and nobility and corporate organization of colonial indigenous communities, which were the foundations for a racial hierarchy with flexibility at “the edges of the categories” (p. 288). Spanish demand for indigenous labor and Spanish immigration brought populations in contact.

  • Mignolo, Walter. “The Americas, Christian Expansion, and the Modern/Colonial Foundation of Racism.” In The Idea of Latin America. By Walter Mignolo, 1–50. Blackwell Manifestos. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    The acts of Spanish colonization—resource extraction, labor exploitation, political dominance, restructuring of gender and sexuality, and the control of knowledge—erased indigenous perspectives and African-descent worldviews from official narratives. Colonial racism was (and is) embedded in the idea of Western Europe’s superiority, producing internalized inferiority of others.

  • Wade, Peter. “Race and Sex in Colonial Latin America.” In Race and Sex in Latin America. By Peter Wade, 61–109. London: Pluto, 2009.

    Honor and sexuality based on active versus passive partners shaped Spanish conquest and colonization to define colonial hierarchies based on descent. Regulation of sexual practices and family structures controlled indigenous, African, and mixed-descent people while maintaining white privilege, but allowed for interracial mobility and appropriation of honor by nonwhite communities.

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