Colonial Mexico had a legal racial caste system that was very complex and detailed. It was a legal caste system, imposed by the Spanish government, and ones caste determined how high in society one could go. The caste system defined three main categories of humans, and then further broke that down into 16 distinct racial subcategories. In fact, the Spanish were so obsessed with race, that they even had the equivalent of posters commissioned by artists to describe the 16 official racial mixtures. Hundreds of these paintings survive to this day.

The three main races were: Peninsulares, who were Europeans, Native Indians, and African Negros.

Peninsulares were further broken down between Gauchapines, who were European born whites and Criollos, who were born in the New World.

Mestizos were mixed blood Spanish-Indian. The term was early on associated with illegitimacy because in the generations after the Conquest, mixed-race children born in wedlock were assigned either a simple Indian or Spanish identity, depending on which culture they were raised in.

Mulattos were mixed blood Spanish-Negro.

There were many terms, like the ones below, used to describe people with varying degrees of racial mixture.

Castizos were people with one Mestizo parent and one Spanish parent. Three parts Spanish, one part Indian.

Cholos were persons with one Indian parent and one Mestizo parent. Three parts Indian and one part Spanish.

Morisco, a person with Mulatto and Spanish parents. Three parts Spanish, one part Negro.

Albino, a person with Morisco and Spanish parents. Seven parts Spanish, one part Negro.

Zambo, a person with Indian and Negro parents.

Chino, a person with Mulatto and Indian parents. One part Spanish, one part Negro, two parts Indian.

Everyone who was not a Guachapine was not only socially inferior but legally inferior as well. At baptism, one was assigned to a caste for life by the priest. Since the caste was based on race one could not “move up” to a better caste. So there was literally no way to improve one’s lot. You, and your children if you didn't manage to marry someone of a better caste, were fated to live a very harsh life if you were Indian or Negro and an inferior life if Criollo, Mestizo, or Mulatto. The caste system was abolished when Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, well at least it was abolished on paper. But that is another story.

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