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Social Order and Mobility in 16th- and 17th-Century Central Mexico

Summary and Keywords

Mexico had an exceptionally diverse population during the 16th and 17th centuries, including Indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who related to one another in complex ways. Society—a group of people living in a community—was configured differently in each place, based on geographical location, local customs, property distribution, and a myriad of other factors. Faced with such different contexts, historians have tended to generalize about social organization (the way people interacted) from the perspective of the men who produced the most sources. Colonial statutes and official correspondence convey the attempts of Hapsburg officials to maintain a hierarchical social order, but property records reveal a more fluid reality. The acquisition of wealth and achievement of social status by non-Spaniards frustrated colonial ideals for a stratified society that correlated to ethnicity. The success of imperial governance, to the degree it was achieved, depended on its flexibility and how it allowed people to benefit from the colonial economy and to achieve social mobility.

Keywords: Social organization, categories, mobility, hierarchy, Hapsburg Crown, sumptuary laws, enslaved people, New Spain, Mexico

Archetypal Social Organization

The archetypal social organization of 16th and 17th century Mexico is triangular, with Spanish men on top, Indians (legal name for Indigenous vassals) in the middle, and foreign slaves at the bottom.1 This pyramidal symbol of “colonial” society is based on a certain narrative, which says that Spanish “conquistadors” established a “colony” in Mexico called New Spain that served to benefit the “mother country.” Their descendants, joined by new Spanish immigrants, created a stratified social order to reap the benefits of colonialism. Indians and foreign slaves labored for the benefit of the royal treasury and wealthy men. This characterization of society might read like a straw man generalization, but it is a model that has retained remarkable currency in the historiography of the social organization of “Colonial Mexico.” Archetypes simplify complexity.

The endurance of the archetype partly derives from the definition of the term “social organization” and the assumptions made about the “social order.” Social organization, a concept borrowed from sociology, refers to how people in a group (a society) interact. To study these interactions social scientists mainly examine the family (smallest unit of social organization) and the state (larger unit). The family influences social interactions, for example, by inculcating gender roles and other learned behavior. The state organizes interactions through laws and military power. Culture (beliefs and ideas) shapes interactions between people as well. This definition of social organization exalts the power of institutions to regulate people’s lives and assumes that “the family” and “the state” control society.

Applied to Mexico, these assumptions about social organization have led some historians to suggest that family patriarchs, the state (the Spanish crown), and religion (the Catholic Church) determined people’s interactions and their place in the social order. Under this formulation of how society functioned, the state manifested its power, for example, by establishing exclusionary laws that supported the ideal pyramidal society. These laws distinguished between people based on their ancestry (related to religion, ethnicity, and geographic origin), sex, and legal standing as free vassals versus human chattel. Spanish men of “old Christian” blood were supposed to have the greatest rights and privileges, and slaves the least. Enforcement of this kind of legislation, however, only succeeded in the highest corridors of Spanish political power in Mexico City, and most of the population ignored Spanish classifying schemes.

Mexico had an extraordinarily diverse population, including Indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who mixed and interacted with one another in complex ways. People followed innumerable life trajectories and faced diverse challenges, most of which had little to do with the constraints of the colonial government. To think that Spanish social and legal constructs shaped the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in Mexico after Spanish contact is to overlook historical contingency and to exaggerate Spain’s imperial perspective. Mexico had many societies, which consisted of people with diverse family structures (the Iberian patriarchal household was one of many) and under different states (the majority of the population lived beyond the reach of imperial government). Familial and governmental structures surely influenced people’s interactions, but individuals also looked to their personal relations to determine their social identity and understand their membership in society.

Historical reckonings about geographic scope, periodization, and perspective reveal a need for specificity. First is place: the term “Colonial Mexico” implies that Spain “conquered” Mexico, which is a historical fabrication.2 Over the course of the 16th century, the Crown of Castile and then the Hapsburgs came to wield sovereignty over certain regions of Mexico. The Hapsburg Dynasty established a sizable governmental presence in the viceregal capital Mexico City and in postcontact urban areas (most associated with mining) and ports linked to the metropole. The vast territory beyond these towns and military outposts (presidios) remained in the hands of Indigenous peoples, who maintained their independence to varying degrees. Their varied forms of social organization and governance are not included in this analysis. These considerations about geographical scope mean that “colonial society” only refers to those places where the Spanish government wielded some degree of power over people’s interactions.

Second is change over time. The historiography has typically maintained that the history of “colonial Mexico” spans from 1519 (third Spanish expedition to Mexico from Cuba) to 1810 (declaration of Independence). This periodization is ahistorical. Even if we periodize history according to political regimes, colonial governance under the Hapsburgs bore little semblance to the Bourbon administration of the 18th century.

The classification of three centuries as the “colonial period” obscures the impact of historical processes, such as demographic shifts and environmental occurrences, that transformed society. The social organization of central Mexico described by the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in the early 1800s bore little resemblance to the society of Tenochtitlan-Mexico City in the 1530s. The arrival of African and Asian slaves and recurring eruptions of epidemic disease were but some of the events that reconfigured colonial society. This point about change over time calls for a shorter periodization, so the focus of this essay is the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period, Hapsburg officials instituted legislation for social control as part of their governing practices, which ultimately failed to maintain an ideal colonial society based on ethnicity and race. The success of imperial governance, to the degree it was achieved, depended on its flexibility and allowance for people to benefit from the colonial economy.

Third is perspective, which ties to the previous two points, and to our sources. Social organization—its shape, functioning, and purpose—all depend on the viewpoint of the person who envisions it. A historian who studies society based on royal decrees (reales cédulas) will have a different perspective than someone who utilizes property records or Indigenous annals. Men with very different backgrounds acquired the kind of social standing and community appreciation that belied Spanish efforts to exclude them.

From the perspective of the few, having high social status meant: holding a colonial office (be it in a municipal council, an ecclesiastical court, or a military post); residing in Spanish cities; owning enslaved people; and accruing wealth to bequeath to their families and to the Catholic Church. Below them were all those whose sex, ethnicity, legal status, and other factors excluded them from the upper strata. Scholars need not replicate this top-down perspective, nor replace the archetype with different models to explain social interaction. It will suffice for us to be more precise in our reconstructions of the past to account more meaningfully for the social world of people in specific communities, starting with an expansion of our evidentiary base.

Ethnic and racial categories, for example, require an analytical lens that accounts for the distinct perspective revealed in different kinds of documents. Property records (notarial documentation) from the 16th and 17th centuries—such as bills of sale, apprentice contracts, wills and testaments, and dowry agreements—relating to enslaved people contain terms that appear to correlate skin color and geographic origin to bondage: “black” (negro) or mulato for people of African descent; “chino” for people of Asian descent.3 Slave owners likely employed these categories in property transactions to underline the physical differences that, to their mind, separated enslaved people from themselves. Documents relating to the social lives of enslaved people, such as marriage license petitions, also contain terms related to skin color, but different ones, such as “brown” (moreno) or “tan” (pardo). Scribes tended to ask people to self-identify in social transactions, so it is likely that individuals living in bondage and freed people of African descent employed these alternative categories. Enslaved people also tended to identify themselves by their place of birth, pointing to their life trajectory, rather than to their legal status. Ethnogeographic categories were sometimes pejorative, sometimes circumstantial, and rarely understood universally. This observation about the words and categories used in different kinds of documents suggests that scholars need to continue to investigate why and how people employed skin color to identify a person’s legal and social status.

The following microhistories employ different kinds of documentation—letters, bills of purchase, license petitions, and loan agreements—to narrate revelatory life stories. Each caste study challenges the idea that the social organization of colonial society was extremely hierarchical and that only men who claimed Spanish heritage had a spot at the top of the social hierarchy.

Social Status and Wealth in the 16th Century: Reading Personal Letters

People experienced social mobility in ways that belie easy generalizations about race and class. A young Spaniard could arrive as a servant and rise to become an influential member of his community through an advantageous marriage, financial shrewdness, and political savviness. Andrés García, a middling trader (tratante) and resident (vecino) of Mexico City, experienced such fortune.4 As García narrated in a 1571 letter to his nephew Pedro Guiñon back in Spain, he had been “near death” and penniless upon arrival at the port of Veracruz, but Inés Núñez, an older woman “with brown skin” (de color morena), had come to his rescue, “giving him gifts” to start his life anew. The letter was an invitation for Guiñon to join him in Mexico, so García advised his nephew to pay Nuñez a curtesy visit when he disembarked at the port, as he “owed her more [gratitude] than to his own mother.” Nuñez may have had African ancestry (implied with the term morena) but she was clearly an influential person known to welcome newcomers. Neither her sex nor skin color had prevented Nuñez from achieving a position of some authority in Veracruz (an official port for the transatlantic slave trade).

García was equally indebted to his devoted wife María Hernández, described as a “good willed” Indian woman. Marrying into an established merchant clan had facilitated his rise as a successful trader. His wife’s family had incorporated García into their long-standing trade networks. García explained to his nephew that marriage to an Indigenous woman was “honorable in this land,” and that his wife’s “nation” was held in “high regard.” Hernández’s family was likely from Tlatelolco—the precontact stronghold of the merchants (pochtecas) of the Mexica Empire, who had procured goods from every corner of the realm and beyond, and whose descendants continued to do so.

García and his wife had a stand in the Indian market (tiánguez) of San Juan, where they sold “cotton blankets and wax,” which he acquired in Campeche, along with cacao from Chiapas. Colonial decrees mandated that Indigenous people were the only ones allowed to trade such commodities, known as “fruits of the earth” (frutos de la tierra). Spaniards like García, however, could circumvent these rulings by utilizing their Indian wives’ trading rights. The origin of the products indicate as well that the couple depended on her family’s business contacts in the south of the country, who would have facilitated the acquisition and transport of these heavy commodities from faraway locations to the capital.

In his letter, García expressed a desire for Guiñón to migrate to Mexico, so that he and his wife could name him “as legitimate son and heir.” They had no children of their own and needed someone “to do right for their souls.” García had told his wife Hernández about his nephew, “whom he had raised as a little boy,” and the he “loved him as if he were his own child.” Hearing this endearment, Hernández had allegedly urged her husband to write the letter. García’s affective ties were central to this exchange. The couple could surely have adopted someone from her own family, but they had set their hopes on Guiñon because García cared for his nephew like a son. The choice need not imply that the couple’s social circle expected a Spanish man to inherit.5 The ongoing success of their business would have depended on the wife’s Indigenous family, so it would have behooved the nephew to ingratiate himself on arrival.

García’s letter to his nephew Guiñón suggests that Spaniards certainly noted differences and employed categories, but not necessarily in a prejudicial way. Words could simply be descriptive. García evidently held his patroness Nuñez, a “morena,” and his wife, and “Indian,” in the highest esteem, and he acknowledged his debts to both. Categories could also be beneficial. “Indian” denoted a civic status with legal rights, which, in the case of García and his wife, had enabled them to prosper from trading native goods. Seen from this light, García’s references to these two women’s ethnicity and physiognomy in his letter simply points to the complexity of Mexican society in the 1560s and 1570s, when both “Spanish” men and “Indian” women relied on family networks and the kindness of strangers to make their way through life.

Social Status and Wealth in the 16th Century: Reading Sumptuary Licenses

The experience of Juan de Briones, a vecino of Acapulco, offers another example of social mobility, which points to the limitations of legislation that sought to enforce a stratified social order based on people’s physiognomy.6 The economic activity of the port of Acapulco, like Veracruz, provided opportunities for the acquisition of social standing. Acapulco received ships from the Philippines (it was the official port for the Manila Galleon trade route), Peru, and further afield. The ships came to Mexico laden with rich goods, and they left filled with silver coins. Processing their arrivals and departures necessitated significant infrastructure and services, including security. English and Dutch pirates constantly endangered the port. The Hapsburg royal treasury, however, remained uncommitted beyond funding a small garrison. Instead, royal officials encouraged the town’s residents to protect the port as their due service to the Crown. Briones embraced the responsibility of securing Acapulco for varied reasons; enjoying the corresponding social status that came with the position was surely one of them.

In 1591, Briones traveled to Mexico City to acquire from Viceroy don Luís de Velasco an individual license “to support the defense of the port.” He knew that previous viceroys had given such licenses to Acapulco residents to serve in this military capacity. In Briones’s own words, “he had been of service to His Majesty at every occasion that had arisen,” employing his “arms and horses” to ensure the security of his community and visitors alike. Viceroy Velasco readily granted the license, confirming that “Briones was freely allowed to own and carry a harquebus in the port of Acapulco,” and that “no official” had the power “to embargo” the weapon, or “to prevent him” from serving the king.

Local ordinances prohibited armed “blacks and mulatos, free and enslaved” in the port city because the privilege of bearing arms was supposed to be the reserve of Spaniards. Yet, the license Briones acquired categorized him as a “free mulato” (“mulato libre”)—a reference to the physical features that marked him as a person of African descent, as well as to his legal status as a free person (formerly enslaved). The viceroy did not make an exception in the case of Briones. The registers of the viceroys of New Spain demonstrate that granting such licenses was an everyday occurrence. Slave owners acquired dispensations for their enslaved guards, and many more free men acquired their own licenses to bear arms. Prohibitions against non-Spaniards were regularly reissued, but officials, including the viceroy, largely ignored this kind of socially restrictive legislation.

If such ordinances were easily circumvented, why did Briones decide to make the days-long and relatively expensive trip (some 260 miles) to acquire a license to bear arms? An overzealous guard at the Acapulco garrison may have disrespected Briones by confronting him with the prohibitions. Or, he may have had other business in Mexico City. Regardless, Briones surely valued the social standing that came with bearing arms, and he refused to submit to laws that sought to diminish his status based on his physiognomy. By acquiring a license, Briones ensured that he would be ready to respond to a future affront to his person. The same legal apparatus that upheld slavery also protected the rights of free men to defend their property and themselves.

Briones was not alone; over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, hundreds of men of African, Asian, Indigenous, and mixed descent asked for the same kind of licenses. Many more people simply disregarded sumptuary laws. Ordinances may have dictated that only Spaniards could bear arms, ride horses, and wear luxurious clothing, among other external markers of privilege, but bureaucratic records and notarial documentation, like wills and testaments, reveal the high social status and wealth of non-Spaniards. Briones may have been born a slave, but by 1571 he was a free man with a changed fortune—made visible in his bearing and ownership of arms.

Social Status and Wealth in the 17th Century: Reading Credit Agreements

A similar pattern of social mobility emerges from 17th century documentation. Juan de la Cruz had a business selling swine in Mexico City, which he ran alongside his wife. Their shop was on a busy street (calle Tacuba) that ran into the main plaza—the location of 17th century Mexico’s biggest cathedral and market. Cruz’s customers would have been residents who raised pigs in pens to sell to butcher shops, and with gardens in need of animals for manure. His credit arrangements demonstrate that Cruz’s business model, based on urban horticulture, was quite successful.

Cruz took out several loans that testify to his standing as a creditworthy businessman who handled very large sums of money. In early December 1646, he agreed to pay Francisco de Arellano 150 pesos within three months for a loan of an unspecified amount.7 Cruz was obviously confident that he would be able to repay the said amount in a relatively short timeframe. The following December, Cruz agreed to pay 650 pesos within four months to two different creditors, having already paid a down payment for the price of “90 piglets at 9 pesos per head.”8 Over the next years, Cruz signed similar credit arrangements with other people, pointing to the ongoing profitability of his business.9 Bills of sale offer further evidence of Cruz’s relative wealth; he owned two enslaved people from Angola, Juan (valued at 400 pesos) and Maria (valued at 350 pesos).10 Upon his death, Cruz’s wife Ana de Aranda carried on his business.11

The workings of Cruz’s business, pieced together through accounting records, were like those of most shopkeepers and traders in Mexico City, who relied on extensive credit networks to access capital and make investments. Historians have often assumed that such businesses were the purview of Spaniards.12 Cruz, however, was a “free chino” (chino libre). His story shows that Mexico City’s social organization at the middling level included people who were once enslaved. The word “chino” denoted slavery and the geographic origin of Cruz’s birth; the word libre represented his legal status as a manumitted man.

Elite Spanish officials who issued restrictive decrees to keep men like Cruz from running businesses and acquiring wealth imagined being part of an exclusive class in a hierarchical society. Upon closer inspection, it is evident that the urban economy provided social and economic opportunities. Cruz belonged to a diverse social network that enabled him secure a certain degree of liquidity to grow his business. His former legal status and ethnicity may have mattered in some circles. Cruz, for example, would never have been able to acquire a position in the viceregal court. He did, however, reside in his own house in Mexico City; he was a slave owner; and he accumulated enough capital to pass on a profitable business to his heirs. Cruz, in other words, had almost all the markers of high social status, however unsavory these may have been.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish urban areas in Mexico had exceptionally diverse populations. Society—a group of people living in a community—was configured differently in each place. People interacted with one another in distinct ways, based on geographical location, local customs, property distribution, and a myriad of other factors. Faced with such different contexts, historians have tended to generalize based on the place with the largest archives (i.e., Mexico City), and from the perspective of the men who produced the most sources, like laws. Scholars have thus tended to speak about the social organization of Mexico from the perspective of Spanish colonists, seeing a hierarchical world, where the reality on the ground was much more complicated.

The tendency to speak about three hundred years of history as one “colonial” period has similarly encouraged simplifications. Shorter time frames allow for historical nuance. The “casta paintings” of the 18th century have mesmerized a number of scholars who see them as real depictions of society. Scholars have been inspired to look backward into time to find evidence of the same kind of orderly “system” that the paintings portray. Art is often fiction. And history means change over time. We need new sources and interpretive tools to discuss Mexico’s many societies. We do well as historians to emphasize context (place, time, and perspective), rather than looking for social science models to explain the past.

Discussion of the Literature

Historians of Mexico have focused on ethnic and racial categories since the 1920s if not earlier, with heightened interest among social historians starting in the 1960s and through the 2000s.13 The goal has been to understand the factors that shaped colonial society—generally categorized as hierarchical. With some exceptions, this scholarship has argued that ethnic and racial labels generally correlated to social standing and economic class: the powerful were Spaniards; the less powerful were Indians and people of mixed decent; and the least powerful were Africans. Those at the top of the social pyramid categorized those below to exclude them from their privileges. This perspective derives from reading certain kinds of archival documentation, printed sources, and paintings, and also from accepting the formulation that the state controls social relations. While acknowledging that the uses and meanings of these categories changed over time, the scholarly consensus has largely remained rooted on the idea that a system for categorizing and differentiating people (the “casta system”) existed in “colonial” Mexico. Mexican society was hierarchical because Spanish colonial legislation successfully prevented non-Spaniards from acquiring political power, wealth, and social standing. Such fancies inspire repetitive and tedious history.

Scholars have employed various methodologies to explain Mexico’s social organization. In the 1960s and early 1970s, scholars discussed social organization as consisting of “estates” and “corporations,” with some acknowledgement of economic classes.14 Social historians in the late 1970s shifted the conversation to discussions about the correlation between economic status and ethnic and racial categories. These scholars employed quantitative methods to analyze social stratification based on “class” and “race.”15 The archetypal social organization derives in part from this line of analysis. The studies, primarily on the 18th century, found that the “casta system” had some strict boundaries, such as the division between Spaniards and Africans, but that people of mixed descent, especially mestizos, experienced social mobility.16 R. Douglas Cope took this argument a step further in the 1990s; from his view, class trumped race. Focusing on the 17th century, Cope argued that society consisted of “subalterns” (who ignored ethnic categories) and elites (who failed to institute a race-based hierarchy).17 Understanding Mexico’s social hierarchy and its ethnic diversity continued to engage scholars in the 2000s who employed gender and cultural analysis.18 Linda Curcio-Nagy, for example, argued that fears about ethnic diversity induced officials to organize celebrations that promoted a hierarchical social order based on loyalty to the crown.19 Most of this scholarship assumes that the state determined the social order. Some historians may have stressed individual agency, but still in relation to Spanish domination.

The scholarship on slavery in Mexico has addressed race and social organization more directly. Anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán’s pathbreaking scholarship on people of African descent initiated a long conversation about racial categories and racialization in Mexico.20 According to the Aguirre Beltrán, colonists created a myth about African’s physicality to justify their enslavement and low social position.21 Subsequent scholarship has similarly examined the role of racial prejudice in sustaining social hierarchies. Scholars have shown, however, that Afro-Mexicans created strong social ties that transcended legal attempts to disempower them. Afro-Mexicans also appealed to the courts when laws could be used to their advantage.22 Historians of other places in “Spanish America” like Peru and the Caribbean have also examined agency within the legal system, but this essay is about Mexico, and place matters. Local culture and environmental conditions are but two of the factors that influence people’s interactions. Generalizations about “Colonial Latin America” only serve to replicate the notion that Spain “conquered” the entire continent and that Spanish institutions shaped the lives of everyone who lived there.

A more detailed review of several studies published between 2008 and 2018 shows that the social order remains a central concern among scholars. A few authors have disputed the easy correlation between social organization and the “casta system,” but the conversation regrettably remains rooted in Spanish classifications. In the background is an older transatlantic historiography about Iberian precedents for isolating people based on their religious identity as new converts to Christianity from Islam and Judaism (measured through blood lineage), which marked them as possibly traitorous to the Catholic Kings of Spain.23 According to this scholarship, the determinants for social segregation in “Spanish America” changed, so that people with mixed Indigenous or African ancestry lacked purity of blood (limpieza de sangre); they were “castas” who could not be trusted with political office or admitted to high society.24

María Elena Martínez contended that the casta system in Mexico was based on the purity of blood idea, which became a classification system that ranked people by “race” by the late 17th century.25 The casta system, according to Martínez, supported a social hierarchy based on asymmetrical gender relations and a racialized ideology of power. Based primarily on ecclesiastical (especially Inquisition records) and printed sources, Martínez charted a conversation that took place at the highest echelons of Spanish colonial governance, where people with Spanish ancestry charted their genealogies to be included in the halls of state power. “Purity of blood” statutes certainly required that familiars of the Holy Office have Old Christian genealogies, for example, but these were numbered men. The perspective of people unconcerned with colonial governance was largely absent in the discussion.

Chloe Ireton modified the conversation about purity of blood by focusing on the lives of free men of African descent who immigrated to Mexico during the 16th century, where they became propertied residents (vecinos) with social standing.26 To begin this journey that resulted in social mobility, they acquired travel licenses from the House of Trade based on their lineage as Old Christians. Their skin color, they argued, made it visibly evident that they had pure blood (in the religious sense) and were good Catholics rather than being new converts. Ireton’s findings about the social lives of individuals challenge historiographical assumptions about black skin denoting a stain of purity of blood, and hence a lack of social mobility.

Other historians have shifted away from the conversation about purity of blood to discuss ethnic and racial categorization more directly. Robert C. Schwaller examined the articulation of different groups or kinds of people (géneros de gente) in the long 16th century.27 According to the author, colonists early on instituted a “system of governance” based on excluding people whom they perceived as inferior (as being of a different quality or calidad).28 Colonists’ stereotypes, however, did not prevent people of mixed ancestry (mestizos and mulatos) from pursuing their own interests, often by ignoring those laws that circumscribed their lives.

Ben Vinson’s book on castas is a longue-durée study of how people negotiated categories of difference in their everyday lives.29 He shows that Mexico’s ethnic diversity allowed people to have high degrees of flexibility in how they defined themselves, which became a precursor for the ideal Mexican in the modern period: someone of mixed descent (a mestizo or mestiza). For Vinson, this state ideology of racial mixture—mestizaje—had its foundation in the “colonial” period.

Scholars from Mexico have taken the lead in questioning the utility of continuing to study ethnic and racial categories to understand society. Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru’s forceful rejection of the casta system as a historical fact stands on the apt criticism that scholars have uncritically accepted the idea that race explains the social organization of Mexico for three hundred years.30 She problematizes as well the easy equivalence between the meaning and purpose of purity of blood statutes and those of casta categories. Spanish elites certainly sought to defend their social privileges based on family genealogy, but their beliefs about racial superiority, which only emerged in the 1670s, were not widely accepted. Using parish registries from the 17th and 18th centuries, Gonzalbo showed that people in Mexico City were unconcerned with identifying themselves according to their calidad until the 18th century, and then only selectively in accordance with Bourbon dictates like the 1776 Royal Pragmatic on Marriage (Pragmática sanción para evitar el abuso de contraer matrimonios desiguales).31 Overall, Gonzalbo called on historians to avoid “the trap of the castas,” which amounts to accepting the perspective of a few powerful men in the 1700s who insisted on differences, and then assuming that the rest of society believed them.32

Pablo Sierra Silva is part of a new scholarly trend that examines the strategies of enslaved people, rather than focusing on the categories ascribed to them.33 The author acknowledges the racial and legal connotations of categories like mestizo and mulato, but rightly emphasizes that people challenged bondage by means of familial networks that purposely ignored the divisions intended in words employed by the slave-owning class.

The field is ripe for new analytical perspectives anchored in the lived experience of people in the past, when being categorized a chino slave, for example, did not necessarily constrain that person from becoming an Indian vassal. The accumulation of capital made social mobility possible in urban centers. The acquisition of wealth and achievement of social status by non-Spaniards frustrated colonial ideals for a hierarchical society that correlated to ethnicity. People at all levels of the social order made use of categories, adopting, or ignoring them, according to their circumstances. An overall questioning of the existence of “systems” would provide a richer reckoning of societies (defined as a group of people living in a community) at specific times and places.

Primary Sources

Archival Primary Sources

Archival sources are the most important evidentiary basis for studying social relations in the early modern period. In Mexico, archives tend to be organized by type of documentation, so scholars must be conscientious and consult different collections to acquire a balanced view of how society worked. A viceregal decree tells a different story than an account book.

The Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) is a good place to begin, as many of the collections are catalogued. Though national in scope after Mexican Independence, the archive is primarily the official record of central governance for the sixteenth through 18th centuries. Scholars interested in regions outside of the capital need to work at state and local archives. The Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México is an example of a local municipal archive.

The AGN has important collections for the history of the Catholic Church, but primarily in terms of its governing role, with collections (ramos) like Inquisición (court records and correspondence of the Holy Office) and Matrimonios (marriage licenses granted in Mexico City); these two have been popular among historians of the casta system. Church records produced at the parish level, which have also been used to examine ethnic and racial categories, are typically held in the archives of archbishoprics. Parish records can also be accessed through the Genealogical Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints.34 Historians interested in economic matters need to spend time in notarial archives, which are always administered by city and state governments. The Archivo General de Notarías de Puebla is an example of a city notary archive.

The Archive of the Indies in Seville holds the records of colonial governance, which mainly provide the perspective of the Spanish Dynasties. The online catalogue is available through the Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES). For instructions on usage, see

Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, “Forum: Spanish Online Resources for Spanish and Latin American History,” Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies 41, no. 1 (2016): 92–122.Find this resource:

    Primary Sources Available in Libraries in the United States and Catalogue Guides

    The Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley.

    The Benson Latin America Collection, University of Texas-Austin.

    Garner, Jane. Archives and Manuscripts on Microfilm in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection: A Checklist. Austin, Texas: University of Texas at Austin, General Libraries, 1980.Find this resource:

      The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, RI.

      The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

      The Newberry Library, Chicago, IL.

      Angulo, Gabriel. Colonial Spanish Sources for Indian Ethnohistory, The Newberry Library.

      Butler, Ruth Lapham, comp. A Checklist of Manuscripts in the Edward E. Ayer Collection. Chicago: The Newberry Library, 1937.Find this resource:

        Printed Primary Sources

        García Gallo, Alfonso, ed. Cedulario Indiano Recopilado por Diego de Encinas. 4 vols. Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispanica, 1945–1946.Find this resource:

          Konetzke, Richard, ed. Colección de documentos para la historia de la formación social de Hispanoamérica, 1493–1810. 3 vols. Madrid: CSIC, 1953.Find this resource:

            Muro Orejón, Antonio, ed. Cedulario americano del siglo XVIII: Colección de disposiciones legales indianas desde 1680 a 1800, contenidas en los cedularios del Archivo General de Indias. 3 vols. Sevilla: Archivo General de Indias, 1956.Find this resource:

              Vasquéz, Genaro V, ed. Legislación del trabajo en los siglos xvi, xvii y xviii: Relación entre la economía, las artes y los oficios en la Nueva España. Mexico City, Mexico: D.A.P.P., 1938.Find this resource:

                Zavala, Silvio A., and María Castelo, eds. Fuentes para la historia del trabajo en Nueva España. 8 vols. Mexico City, Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1939–1945.Find this resource:

                  Printed Primary Sources Available Online

                  Bejarano, Ignacio, ed. Actas de Cabildo de la ciudad de México. 53 vols. México: Municipio Libre, 1889–1912Find this resource:

                    Cuevas, Mariano, and Genaro García, eds. Documentos inéditos del siglo XVI para la historia de México. Mexico: Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnología, 1914.Find this resource:

                      García Icazbalceta, Joaquín, ed. Colección de documentos para la historia de México. Mexico: J.M. Andrade, 1858–1866.Find this resource:

                        Recopilación de leyes de los reynos de las Indias mandadas imprimir y publicar por . . . Carlos II. Madrid: Viuda de Joaquín Ibarra, 1791.Find this resource:

                          Further Reading

                          Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzalo. La población negra de México, 1519–1819: Estudio etnohistórico. 2nd ed. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1972 (1946).Find this resource:

                            Alberro, Solange, and Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru. La sociedad novohispana: Estereotipos y realidades. México: Colegio de México, 2013.Find this resource:

                              Bennett, Herman L. Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570–1640. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                Böttcher, Nikolaus, Bernd Hausberger, and Max-Sebastián Hering Torres, eds. El peso de la sangre: limpios, mestizos y nobles en el mundo hispánico. México: Colegio de México, 2011.Find this resource:

                                  Cope, R. Douglas. The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660–1720. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                                    Garavaglia, Juan Carlos, and Juan Carlos Grosso. “Criollos, mestizos e indios: etnias y clases sociales en Mexico colonial a fines del siglo XVIII.” Secuencia: Revista de historia y ciencias sociales 29 (1994): 39–80.Find this resource:

                                      Germeten, Nicole von. Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.Find this resource:

                                        Ireton, Chloe. “‘They Are Blacks of the Caste of Black Christians’: Old Christian Black Blood in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth-Century Iberian Atlantic.” Hispanic American Historical Review 97, no. 4 (2017): 579–612.Find this resource:

                                          Israel, Jonathan I. Race, Class, and Politics in Colonial Mexico, 1610–1670. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

                                            Kellogg, Susan. “Depicting Mestizaje: Gendered Images of Ethnorace in Colonial Mexican Texts.” Journal of Women’s History 12, no. 3 (2000): 69–92.Find this resource:

                                              Lewis, Laura A. Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                                Martínez, María Elena. Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                                                  Masters, Adrian. “A Thousand Invisible Architects: Vassals, the Petition and Response System, and the Creation of Spanish Imperial Caste Legislation.” Hispanic American Historical Review (2018).Find this resource:

                                                    Mcalister, Lyle N. “Social Structure and Social Change in New Spain.” Hispanic American Historical Review 43, no. 3 (1963): 349–370.Find this resource:

                                                      Mörner, Magnus. Race Mixture in the History of Latin America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.Find this resource:

                                                        Restall, Matthew. The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                                                          Schwaller, Robert C. “Géneros de gente” in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                                                            Schwartz, Stuart B. “Colonial Identities and the Sociedad de Castas.” Colonial Latin American Review 4, no. 1 (1995): 185–201.Find this resource:

                                                              Seed, Patricia. “Social Dimensions of Race: Mexico City, 1753.” Hispanic American Historical Review 62, no. 4 (1982): 569–606.Find this resource:

                                                                Seijas, Tatiana. Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                                                  Sierra Silva, Pablo Miguel. Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico: Puebla de los Ángeles, 1531–1706. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

                                                                    Sweet, James H. “The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1997): 143–166.Find this resource:

                                                                      Vinson, Ben, III. Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.Find this resource:


                                                                        (1.) “Archetype” refers to textbook explanations of “colonial” society. Lockhart and Schwartz, for example, refer to this social order in their discussion of the “mature colonial period,” which they describe as the “heyday of the ethnic hierarchy devised by Spaniards to span and articulate a two-sector society.” See James Lockhart and Stuart B. Schwartz, Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 122.

                                                                        (2.) For a review of the debate about the fall of the Mexica Empire, see Matthew Restall, “The New Conquest History,” History Compass 10, no. 2 (2012).

                                                                        (3.) The word mulato was a derogatory term for people of mixed European and African descent. The word chino referred to enslaved people from Asia, with China standing in for the continent. Tatiana Seijas, Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

                                                                        (4.) Letter transcribed in Enrique Otte, “Die eoropaïschen Siedler und die Probleme der Neuen Welt,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas VI (1969): 28–29. For an English translation, see James Lockhart and Enrique Otte, eds., Letters and People of the Spanish Indies, Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 143–146.

                                                                        (5.) The Laws of Toro (1505) accorded women the same legal rights to inherit as men. Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett, eds., Indian Women of Early Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 133–143.

                                                                        (6.) Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) General de Parte 4, exp.531, f.147v (1591).

                                                                        (7.) Archivo Histórico de Notarías de la Ciudad de México (AHNM) Martin Sariñana 4362 f.302v-303v (1646).

                                                                        (8.) AHNM Francisco de Olalde 3237 f.499 (1647).

                                                                        (9.) AHNM Toribio Cobian 726bis f.53-v (1651).

                                                                        (10.) AHNM Pedro Sanchez Quijada 4369 f.49-v (1652); and AHNM Pedro Sanchez Quijada 4369 f.92v-93 (1652).

                                                                        (11.) AHNM Fernando Veedor 4605 f.513-v (1661).

                                                                        (12.) Louisa Schell Hoberman, Mexico’s Merchant Elite, 1590–1660: Silver, State, and Society (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); and Jay Kinsbruner, The Colonial Spanish-American City: Urban Life in the Age of Atlantic Capitalism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).

                                                                        (13.) Nicolás León, Las castas del México colonial o Nueva España (México: Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía, 1924).

                                                                        (14.) Lyle N. Mcalister, “Social Structure and Social Change in New Spain,” Hispanic American Historical Review 43, no. 3 (1963); Magnus Mörner, Race Mixture in the History of Latin America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967); David A. Brading, “Government and Elite in Late Colonial Mexico,” Hispanic American Historical Review 53, no. 3 (1973); and Jonathan I. Israel, Race, Class, and Politics in Colonial Mexico, 1610–1670 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

                                                                        (15.) John K. Chance and William B. Taylor, “Estate and Class in a Colonial City: Oaxaca in 1792,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 19, no. 4 (1977); Robert McCaa, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Arturo Grubessich, “Race and Class in Colonial Latin America: A Critique,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 21, no. 3 (1979); Patricia Seed, “Social Dimensions of Race: Mexico City, 1753,” Hispanic American Historical Review 62, no. 4 (1982); Robert McCaa, “Calidad, Clase, and Marriage in Colonial Mexico: The Case of Parral, 1788–90,” Hispanic American Historical Review 64, no. 3 (1984); and Juan Carlos Garavaglia and Juan Carlos Grosso, “Criollos, mestizos e indios: etnias y clases sociales en Mexico colonial a fines del siglo XVIII,” Secuencia. Revista de historia y ciencias sociales 29 (1994).

                                                                        (16.) The word mestizo was a term for people of mixed European and Indigenous descent.

                                                                        (17.) R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660–1720 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).

                                                                        (18.) Susan Kellogg, “Depicting Mestizaje: Gendered Images of Ethnorace in Colonial Mexican Texts,” Journal of Women’s History 12, no. 3 (2000).

                                                                        (19.) Linda A. Curcio, The Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City: Performing Power and Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004).

                                                                        (20.) Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, La población negra de México, 1519–1819: estudio etnohistórico, 2nd ed. (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1972); Ben Vinson III and Bobby Vaughn, Afroméxico: el pulso de la población negra en México, una historia recordada, olvidada y vuelta a recordar (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2004); and María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez, Afrodescendientes en México: Una historia de silencio y discriminación (México: INAH; Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación, 2012).

                                                                        (21.) Aguirre Beltrán, La población negra, 180.

                                                                        (22.) Herman L. Bennett, Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570–1640 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); Laura A. Lewis, Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Nicole von Germeten, Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006); María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez, Mujeres de origen africano en la capital novohispana, siglos XVII y XVIII (México: INAH, 2006); Joan C. Bristol, Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches: Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice in the Seventeenth Century (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007); Matthew Restall, The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Frank T. Proctor III, “Damned Notions of Liberty”: Slavery, Culture, and Power in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2010); Ramón A. Montoya, El esclavo africano en San Luis Potosí durante los siglos xvii y xviii (San Luis Potosí, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, 2016); and Colin Palmer, Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570–1650 (Cambridge, CA: Harvard University Press, 1976).

                                                                        (23.) Albert A. Sicroff, Les controverses des statuts de “pureté de sang” en Espagne du XVe au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Didier, 1960); and James H. Sweet, “The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1997).

                                                                        (24.) “Iberian Roots.”; Nikolaus Böttcher, Bernd Hausberger, and Max Sebastián Hering Torres. El peso de la sangre: limpios, mestizos y nobles en el mundo hispánico (México: Colegio de México, 2011).

                                                                        (25.) María Elena Martínez, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

                                                                        (26.) Chloe Ireton, “‘They Are Blacks of the Caste of Black Christians’: Old Christian Black Blood in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth-Century Iberian Atlantic,” Hispanic American Historical Review 97, no. 4 (2017).

                                                                        (27.) Robert C. Schwaller, “Géneros de gente” in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016).

                                                                        (28.) Schwaller, “Géneros,” 7.

                                                                        (29.) Ben Vinson III, Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

                                                                        (30.) Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, “La trampa de las castas,” in La sociedad novohispana: estereotipos y realidades, ed. Solange Alberro and Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru (México: Colegio de México, 2013).

                                                                        (31.) The Royal Pragmatic on Marriage (1776) was a late Bourbon decree that sought to empower fathers to make marriage choices for their children. The Catholic Church previously insisted on the legal right of individuals to choose their spouses freely, regardless of ethnicity, race, or class. The classic work on the topic as it relates to social relations is Patricia Seed, To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts Over Marriage Choice, 1574–1821 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988).

                                                                        (32.) Gonzalbo Aizpuru, “La trampa,” 154.

                                                                        (33.) Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva, Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico: Puebla de los Ángeles, 1531–1706 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

                                                                        (34.) Roger M. Haigh and Frank J. Sanders, “A Report on Some Latin American Materials in the Genealogical Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints at Salt Lake City, Utah,” Latin American Research Review 10, no. 2 (1975); and David M. Mayfield, “The Genealogical Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” Library Trends 32, no. 1 (1983).