Updated: Oct 4, 2020
Ever since the start of civilization, people have been divided and put into subcategories known as classes. When the Spanish came to North America in the early 15th century, they conquered what is present-day Mexico - and it became known as New Spain. They quickly started to create social classes between the colonial people. As the years passed, they created the system of castes. This system was organized as a hierarchy of race depending on the amount of Spanish blood that each person had.**** This meant that the more Spanish blood a person had, the higher they ranked in the system of castes. The less Spanish blood you had, the lower you were placed on the system. The caste system was much more than a simple order of classes, it was a socio-racial classification. As if this wasn’t inhumane enough, each caste had strict rules that determined their wealth, career, attire, and even the friendships that they were allowed to have. For this reason, the Spanish caste system is a clear example of systemic racism and marginalization towards people of color.
Peninsulares were Spaniards who carried pure Spanish blood. They were also the most powerful group within the caste system. Peninsulares were made up of two very important subgroups that were critical to the success of New Spain. The first group of people was known as the conquistadors, like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, for example. They had a prominent role in the acquisition of present-day Mexico. The second was made up of people who held the utmost important roles such as working within the government, the Catholic Church, and the army.*** To add, they previously held long-term positions within the Spanish government, and, for this reason, they were trusted by Spain to run their new colony. As a result, they often traveled between New Spain and Spain to deliver important information on the status of their newly conquered land. After came the rest of the Spaniard settlers in search of a fresh start and wealthy life in New Spain. Peninsulares were known as the elite of New Spain and were in charge of reconstructing the newly acquired land. However, they were also known for belittling and discriminating against lower classes by abusing their power.
Credit: (The Guardian)
After them came criollos, people born from Spaniard descendants in New Spain. They were regarded as the second class and held low-power positions within the government such as in municipal councils. Criollos were often excluded from reaching higher positions of power compared to peninsulares. As a result, there was often tension between them, because criollos found it unfair that they didn’t have equal power amongst peninsulares. To add, their resentment largely stemmed from the fact that criollos carried pure Spanish blood just as the peninsulares. However, in the eyes of Spain, this wasn’t the case and consequently, criollos weren’t allowed to uphold positions with political power. Meanwhile, peninsulares were able to uphold positions of high political power. Another factor that contributed to their frustration was the reality that criollos could only move up class systems if their daughters married into peninsular families. Time after time, they were discriminated against by their own people. If this was happening between the Spaniards, you can already get a sense of how poorly lower classes were being treated.
Third came mestizos, who were descendants from a Spaniard and Native American. Mestizos quickly became the backbone of society by upholding jobs within the army, as artisans, traders, and local officials. This group was one of the most rapidly growing in New Spain. When mestizo children were born, they were either rejected or accepted by their Spaniard father and this often determined the life of the child. Depending on how the father felt towards their child, he decided if they would grow up as Spaniard or Indigenous.* If the father rejected the child, then the child would end up with his/her mother and become a part of the Indigenous population. On the other hand, if the father accepted the child, he/she would grow up with the father and be inducted into Spanish society. These Mestizo children became a part of the Spanish society and learned Spanish culture. This factor largely depended on the sex of the child, which in turn influenced how the father treated them. For instance, sons either participated in politics or inherited land and were given money to live a good life. Whereas, daughters were placed into arranged marriages to Spanish merchants, sailors, or artisans.* Overall, being a part of the mestizo population came with flexibility. However, this wasn’t necessarily good. As a result, mestizos often left their indigenous culture behind in order to pursue their fortune. Many times, they were out of touch with either their Spanish or Indigenous culture. In the end, their future largely revolved around their father’s decision of wanting them in his life or not.
Next came mulattos, who were of African and Spanish descent. Life was a lot harder for mulattos. To put matters into perspective, if the mother of the child was a slave, the child would be born into slavery.*** From there, they would become a slave themselves unless they were given freedom. On the other hand, if their mother was free, then so was their child. Sadly, this wasn’t always the case. As a result, most mulattos grew up in low-income households with little opportunity for growth or improvement in their daily lives.
Second, to last in the system were pure Native Americans. They have never had it easy because they have suffered through constant mistreatment. From being exposed to deadly diseases like smallpox carried by the Spaniards, to their land being taken away from them. To add, conquistadors used them to learn how to hunt, plant, and to map out the land; and in return, the native population suffered greatly and were forced to leave their culture behind and convert to Christianity. Additionally, “It was illegal to enslave Indians, but Indians could be forced to work on government projects, such as roads, forts, and churches.”** The Encomienda System basically forced Native Americans to work for Spaniards in exchange for money and protection. However, they never received what they were promised. As a result, many Native Americans died from disease and severe living qualities.
Africans & Enslaved Peoples
Last on the system of castes were the African and enslaved people. As we know, they lived a poor quality lifestyle. “Although most of the colonial slave trade was controlled by Portugal, it is estimated that Spain still imported at least 200,000 black slaves into Mexico, most arriving through Veracruz on the eastern coast.”** Spaniards forced them to work in dire conditions by working long hours in extreme heat with minimal breaks. They weren’t allowed to read, much less obtain an education. Furthermore, they weren’t free to practice their own culture or have a life of their own.
To conclude, the system of castes was created by the Spanish in order to maintain racial and social dominance. By creating the system of castes, they ensured that people of color would be marginalized. In turn, by establishing a racial hierarchy, the Spaniards gained control over their workforce, society, and so much more. Overall, the Spaniards were only looking for their personal benefit instead of the well being of all the people. As a result, to this today we can still see the effects of the caste system through the marginalization towards people of color.
*Boggess, G. (n.d). The Construction and Function of Race: Creating the Mestizo. Retrieved
August 02, 2020, from
**Clark, M., & Clark, J. (2020, April 13). The Spanish Colonial Casta System. Retrieved August
02, 2020, from http://www.bellavistaranch.net/genealogy/casta.html
***Las Castas – Spanish Racial Classifications. (2013, June 15). Retrieved August 02, 2020,
****Ruffin II, H. G. (2009, February 04). Sistema de Castas (1500s-ca. 1829). Retrieved August
02, 2020, from https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/sistema-de-castas-1500s-ca-1829/