. Casta painting showing 16 racial groupings, likely not
depicting social reality. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148x104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán
A casta (Spanish: [ˈkasta]) is a term which has been interpreted by certain historians during the 20th century to describe mixed-race individuals in Spanish America, resulting from unions of Spaniards (españoles), Amerindians (Indios), and Africans (Negros). Basic mixed-race categories that appeared in official colonial documentation include Mestizo, generally offspring of a Spaniard and an India; Castizo, offspring of a Spaniard and a Mestiza; Mulatto, offspring of a Spaniard and a Negra; Morisco was the offspring of a Spaniard and a Mulatta. There were a plethora of terms for mixed-race persons of indigenous and African ancestry, some of which appear in official documentation, but many do not.
Racial category labels had legal and social consequences, since racial status was a key organizing principle of Spanish colonial rule. Often called the sistema de castas or the sociedad de castas, there was, in fact, no fixed system of classification for individuals, as careful archival research has shown. There was considerable fluidity in society, with individuals being identified by different categories simultaneously or over time. Individuals self-identified by particular terms, often to shift their status from one category to another to their advantage. For example, Mestizos were exempt from tribute obligations, but were subject to the Inquisition, unlike Indios, who paid tribute and were exempt from the Inquisition. A Mestizo might try to "pass" as an Indio to escape the Inquisition. An Indio might try to pass as a Mestizo to escape tribute obligations.
A number of historians have explicitly questioned the actual existence of this phenomenon, considering it a fabrication of Historians starting from the 1940s. Pilar Gonzalbo, in her study "La trampa de las castas" discards the idea of the existence of a caste society in New Spain, understood as a "social organization based on the race and supported by coercive power». A recent study by Ben Vinson III based on Mexican archives shows how racial diversity operated in Mexico and how it affect both Mexico and imperial Spain. Joanne Rappaport, in her book on colonial New Granada, rejects the caste system as an interpretative framework for that time, discussing both the legitimacy of a model valid for the entire colonial world and the usual association between "caste" and "race".
The process of mixing ancestries in the union of people of different races is known in the modern era as mestizaje (Portuguese: mestiçagem [meʃtʃiˈsaʒẽj], [mɨʃtiˈsaʒɐ̃j]). In Spanish colonial law, mixed-race castas were classified as part of the república de españoles and not the república de indios, which set Amerindians outside the Hispanic sphere. Other terminology for classification is categorization based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture, which distinguished between gente de razón (Hispanics, literally, "people of reason") and gente sin razón (non-acculturated natives), concurrently existed and supported the idea of the racial classification system. Created by Hispanic elites, the sistema de castas or the sociedad de castas, varied largely due to their birth, color, race and origin of ethnic types.
Casta paintings in produced largely in eighteenth-century Mexico have influenced modern understandings of race in Spanish America. They purport to show a fixed "system" of racial hierarchy. These paintings should be evaluated as the production by elites in New Spain for an elite viewership in New Spain and Spain, with pejorative portrayals of mixed-race groupings outside of mixtures with Spaniards. They are useful for understanding elites and their attitudes toward non-elites, and quite valuable as illustrations of aspects of material culture in the colonial era.