history 8A- chapter question

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Discussion Question(s)

The reading and the lecture for this week talk about race and class a lot– the reading breaks down the different classes in colonial Latin America, while the lecture talks about how racial divisions developed. The reading and lecture also spoke to the ways in which people could use race and class to their advantage. 

Using both (and your reading will help you with both), which do you think is more important? From the perspective of a person from the “lower class”, which do you think was more important? Were both equally important?

Lecture 8

But to maximize profits in the Americas, the Spanish had to create a stable government, one that represented– or claimed to represent– everyone living in the colonies. This, the two republics (which we have already discussed previously). It is within these institutions that indigenous peoples and people of mixed race backgrounds were able to take advantage of the system to make a better life for themselves. As your reading demonstrates, “race” was not always about “race.” For instance, check out this excerpt, which I think is really enlightening: 

“But distance from Europe; the mixture of races, ethnicities, and cultures; and sometimes-tumultuous performance of the colonial economies created more fluid and complex “societies of caste.” In these societies Indians, Africans, and their American-born descendants, and racial mixtures, castas,  were defined as inferiors by law and discriminated against in practice.”

What this excerpt is saying is that there were many ways in which the racial order in Latin America was more than the Spanish crown could handle. The distance from Europe created identities that the Spanish crown couldn’t always adequately deal with. As a result, it led to the oppression of people who were A) Indian, B) Mestizo, C) mixed race, D) African, and E) even Spanish people born in the Americas (not to mention Muslims, Jews, and other non-Catholic Christians– however few there were so close after the Reformation (Links to an external site.)).

HOWEVER, check out the rest of the paragraph (p. 192):

“But these were also societies where men and women with substantial property were commonly presumed to be white even if their color or appearance might suggest otherwise. In the first decades of settlement, for example, numerous mixed children and grandchildren of conquistadors and Indian women moved in elite circles and married Europeans.”

Now here is the really important part:

“Race was therefore defined largely by wealth, lineage, and power or, alternatively, by poverty and tributary status, rather than biology. Yet culture, mastery of Spanish or Portuguese, Christianity, mode of dress, and diet also contributed to contemporary attribution of race and ethnic identity.

You see what this is getting at? So far in this course we have been talking about the Indians and Spanish as a simple binary. However, as time went by and the colonial government became established, not only did the population get much more diverse, but people were able to slide in and out of different racial categories! I know what you are thinking:

But seriously, they did!

However, at the same time, although the Spanish and Portuguese had a tough time keeping a handle on the day to day workings in the colonies, the elites in Spanish America in particular set to work, trying to make those fluid categories of race more rigid. A little bit later in the colonial period– the 18th century (the 1700s), the elite commissioned artists to create casta paintings. These casta paintings were not so subtle ways of creating a racial order– a racial hierarchy in a system that was already hierarchical (there was a pecking order), but had a ton of loopholes, as you read in the example from the text above. Generally, casta paintings consisted of a large painting with many individual squares with smaller paintings. Here is an example of a large casta painting:

Now, you may not be able to see the details, but if you take a good look at the way people are dressed at the top and the color of their skin, you will notice a big difference between that and the people in the bottom squares. Now here are some squares from a totally different casta painting:

If you’ll read the caption (I typed it on top with a bigger font), it says, “De Español e India produce Mestizo” (“a Spaniard and an Indian make a ‘mestizo'”). This is pretty straightforward, right? They are showing what happens when there is intermixing, and the picture itself is telling. The male, the head of the household, is white. He has his kind, Indian wife, and she is holding their offspring, the “Mestizo.” You might also notice how white the baby looks in this picture. Interesting, right?

How about this picture: 

Again, you see very little contrast (even less than in the previous picture, since the woman is not an Indian, but rather is a mestiza– a little bit lighter skinned). Now let’s jump down a few frames on this casta painting:

Alright, this one is a little more serious: “De Chamizo e India sale Cambuja” I don’t really think I need to translate this, since the picture gets the message across quite well (the drama playing out in the above scene directly speaks to what happens when mixing happens on the lower end of the “color spectrum”).

In response to what some of you must be saying right now, yes– this is incredibly racist. But setting aside how distasteful this is, let’s think about it as intellectuals for a second:

1) the purpose of such paintings was to establish a racial hierarchy, or a pecking order of which races were more important, more affluent– more civilized than others. This implies that the previous racial hierarchy was either insufficient, or at the very least, difficult to maintain in practice.

2) such paintings also made clear (by design) who was on the top, and who was on the bottom of the social world in Latin America (these paintings were done in Mexico, however), and even though they did more clearly establish the racial hierarchy, it did not erase the fact that people of all races were able to take advantage of laws and the church to basically change their own race legally to fit their needs. Again, despite the efforts of the elites and the colonial governments, native folks and people of mixed race backgrounds were able to slide in and out of racial categories. However, as you will find out later in this class (as well as in History 8B, should you take it), the general marginalization of Indians and mestizos continues throughout the colonial period, through Independence, and to this very day throughout much of Latin America, despite efforts of some governments in Latin America to promote equality.

The chapter for this week talks about problems big and small in the Americas– international issues (war with other European powers), and how the colonial governments and elites sought to maintain their power and wealth, through trade, institutions, and the creation of a racial and class hierarchy. What do I mean by class? 

For those who might not know, when someone says “class”, or in sociology, “social class”, they are speaking to the socio-economic position of a given person– their income, their job, the types of people that they associate with, etc. So, for example, in your reading for this week, the author calls one such “class” the “elites.” Usually it can be broken down to the “elites,” the “upper class,” the “middle class,” and the “working class.” But when it comes to specific situations and contexts, sometimes it can get more complicated. For example, in your reading for this week, Burkholder breaks it down a little differently , calling them the “rural middle groups,” and “the broad base of colonial society” (which can be broken down even further to the “free urban poor,” “free rural poor,” and “indigenous,” etc.).  But at the end of the day, when you are talking about “class,” it always breaks down in similar ways: upper/middle/lower– just with little twists here and there, additions and subtractions (like “slavery,” for instance), depending on who or where we are talking about.

The reading for this week will give you a good sense of all of these different classes. And while you are reading, I would like you to think about the ways in which race and class intersect, and the ways that, maybe in colonial Latin America, sometimes they don’t!


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