Mexico´s caste system in colonial times

Nov 2016
From 1535 until the Mexican War of Independence at the beginning of the 19th century, 'Mexico' was synonymous with the 'Viceroyalty of New Spain' (Virreanato de Nueva Espana) and was thus one of several Latin American colonial empires in Spain ruled by a Viceroy. In the phase of its greatest expansion (17th-18th century) it included the territories of the present states Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Venezuala, Belize, Palau, Guam, the Caribbean Islands and the present US states California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and partly Wyoming, as well as some Asian territories such as the Philippines and the Mariana Islands. The total area on the American continent alone was roughly the same as that of today's Europe.

In New Spain a precisely defined caste system ('las castas', 16 in number) was formed from the middle of the 16th century, i.e. a social hierarchy of 'racial' levels with descending value. Here are the main categories:

(1) Native Spaniards, (2) Spaniards born in New Spain ('criollos' = Creoles), (3) Children of Spaniards/Creoles and Indians ('mestizos' = Mestizos, usually with Spanish father and Indian mother) with fewer rights than Spaniards and Creoles, (4) Indians and (5) African and African ('Afromexican') slaves ('bozales'). Children of blacks/creoles ('mulattos'), if the mother was a black slave, were also enslaved, so they belonged to (5). With a white (Creole) mother a mulatto stood above level (5). Children of black/Indians ('zambos') had the lowest social status (6). Whether they were automatically enslaved is unknown to me. If so, then only if the black parent was enslaved, which was not the case for all blacks, since many were released by self-purchase. Since the mostly male blacks married more Indian women than black women from the beginning of their import, they were gradually absorbed into the Indian ethnic group in New Spain and from 1821 Mexico; 1.2% of Mexicans are black mestizos ('afro-mestizos') according to their self-assessment (census 2015). Only in Jesuit haciendas was value placed on equal gender distribution and intra-ethnic marriage among slaves, less for humanitarian than for pragmatic reasons ('breeding' of new generations of slaves). To (3): Often a Spaniard or Creole married an Indian or mestiza for calculation, e.g. to get an Encomienda from the crown, which only belonged to married men. Indian women were well treated by their husbands only in rare cases. Orphaned mestizas were coveted by needy Spaniards/creoles because of the dowry the crown gave these women for marriage.

In 1803 Alexander von Humboldt estimated the proportion of whites in the New Spanish population at 20%, that of Indians at 41% and that of mestizos at 38%. The remaining percent goes to the blacks. In 1930, mestizos accounted for 57% of the Mexican population, with an upward trend. In most Mexicans, Creole-Indian 'blood' flows today.

The caste system was declared null and void in the course of Mexico's independence from 1821 onwards, even though a formal distinction was still made between 'castizos' (Creole/Mestizo) and 'moriscos' (light-skinned mulatto).