Friday, October 11, 2013

Casta Paintings From Mexico

Happy Columbus Day weekend!
Here are some pictures from Mexico to reflect upon.

They are casta paintings, intended to explain the Spanish colonial government's policy of dividing the population into categories based on race and on degrees of miscegenation.

Columbus' arrival in the Americas in 1492 was (according to Karl Marx) the beginning of the global economy.  The Genoese navigator's blunder into continents mentioned nowhere in the ancient classical literature, and even more disturbingly nowhere in Holy Scripture, brought the Americas into intercontinental commerce.  The first import was conquest.  The Spanish brought dominion, the Gospel, gunpowder, horses, industrial slavery, and smallpox.  The native populations were quickly subdued and decimated.  The first exports from the Americas were gold and silver.  Later they would be mostly sugar, rum, tobacco, coffee, cotton, fruit, and cocoa.  Soon, people from around the world would begin pouring into the Americas (most willingly, others unwillingly).  That traffic never stopped.

The casta paintings from 18th century Mexico graphically illustrate what would be a central issue in the Post Conquest history of the Americas, race.
The Spanish colonial government used race as a means to divide and control the American population.
As my friend James Middleton, a scholar in Spanish colonial art in the Americas, points out, those dreaded Spanish dons, after they got through massacring the natives, frequently married them.  We Anglos are in no position to feel superior.  Our ancestors who arrived in the New World rarely touched the natives, let alone married them.  The Spanish saw the natives as souls to be saved, future subjects of the Spanish crown, and very cheap labor.  The Protestant Anglos usually saw the natives as part of the wilderness to be cleared.

Miguel Cabrera, 1763*

Jose de Alcibar, circa 1770*

Anonymous painter, possibly from Mexico, working in Peru; 1774.  Part of a series painted for the 
Viceroy of Peru for presentation to King Carlos III*

*Thanks to James Middleton for identifying these pictures for me.

An icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe showing the joining of European and American races

The Conquest begun by Columbus ended the native cultures of the Americas.  Pre-Columbian America was no Eden.  It had as much aggression and history as any other part of the world, though that in no way justifies what happened to it.  Despite the savagery and violence of that conquest, it cannot now be undone.  The world displaced by the Conquest is now beyond recovery.  The arrival of Columbus was definitely an end.  And yet for others, it was a beginning.  As one Mestizo author from Mexico (whose name I cannot remember) said about Columbus Day, "for us it is our birthday."


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dancon said...

Love these. thanks for posting, Doug.

Tristan Alexander said...