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Caste Stratification

Colonial Spanish society was dominated by a caste system. As the Spanish conquerors brought few women, there was much mixture of races. Colonial society was stratified by race and wealth although these were not hard and fast distinctions. The three main groups were whites (European- and American-born), castas (mestizos), and native peoples.

Among the pure whites - who were practically all of Spanish extraction - there were two well-defined classes, the Gachupines or chapetones, Spaniards born in Europe, said to be so named in allusion to their spurs, from Aztec words meaning "prickers with the foot," and the native-born or creóles: the former, though a small minority, had almost all the higher positions both in the public services and in commerce. Criollos (American-born whites, also known as creoles) tended to marry peninsulares for reasons of upward social mobility. Nevertheless, many examples exist of race changes after birth.

Power was in the hands of European-born Spaniards and the Creoles. At the top of the hierarchy were people who had been born in Spain (sometimes called Gauchupines). Most administrative officials belonged to this group. The Creoles were people of pure Spanish descent who had been born in the Americas. Creoles did not occupy the top administrative posts, but they dominated the Catholic church and political bureaucracies, owned land and mines, and were often encomenderos. Under the encomienda system, the Spanish government gave rights to Indian labor to its colonists. Land was not part of the encomienda. Encomienda labor might be used for agricultural work or personal service to the encomendero. Besides these there were five well-defined castas: mestizoes (Indian and white); mulattoes (negro and white); Zambos (negro and Indian), who were regarded as specially vicious and dangerous; native Indians and negroes. The mestizos, people of mixed Indian, European, and often Negro descent, were below the Creoles. Mestizos were considered racially inferior, and although "free," they were usually without power. In Mexico, the system was so elaborate that 16 classes of mestizos were distinguished. There were about a dozen intermediate "named varieties," of which the sallo-alras (tending away from white) and tente en l'aire (tending towards white) may be mentioned; and many of the last named eventually passed into the Creole class, sometimes by the decree of a court. The fact that the trade route to Manila passed through Vera Cruz, Mexico City and Acapulco entailed the settlement also of a few Chinese and Malays, chiefly on the Pacific coast.

Each group had specific rights or privileges (fueros ) and obligations in colonial society. The lower classes were a mixture of poor whites, castas, and native peoples who worked in the same occupations as whites or castas but who had different rights and obligations. The major fuero was the right of an individual to be tried by his or her peers. The church, the military, the bureaucracy, and the merchants enjoyed their set of fueros. Membership in the upper classes was open to whites only, particularly peninsulares, whites who were born in Spain and moved to the colonies. Indigenous groups were protected from the Inquisition (the Roman Catholic court designed to combat heresy), paid head taxes, and could not own property as individuals but were the primary beneficiaries of social services in health and education. Mestizos were under the same obligations as whites but were not considered for most of the jobs in the Spanish administration. These jobs were held only by peninsulares. Poor whites and mestizos often competed with native people for the same jobs. The only unifying force in a society that was divided by race and privilege was the Roman Catholic Church. The clergy provided education and social services to the rich and the destitute alike, and clergy also functioned as a buffer in social conflicts.

New Mexico, being on the fringe of things, had a more simplified system. Indians were to be brought into the church and, in theory, should not have been slaves. African blacks were imported and used as slaves in Mexico. In addition, in New Mexico, "barbarous Indians" (those nomadic tribes who had not been baptized) were also enslaved. The only democratic institution was the town council. Each village had its council of elder officials who were responsible largely for internal matters. Most of the Spanish colonists in New Mexico were Creoles or mestizos. In addition, there was a class of people referred to as Genizaros, and membership in this class provided a minimal form of upward mobility for Indians and low-class mestizos.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:01:05 ZULU