Deconstructing the Casta System: 10 Antiquated Ways Latinos Used to Be Classified

Today, we call ourselves Latinos, Latines, and/or Latinxs, but historically, we as a people have been classified and categorized into all kinds of racial boxes. This was most prevalent during the colonization of what is now Latin America, by the Spanish and Portuguese.

BeLatina Casta System
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They created the ultimate racist and ethnocentric hierarchy, with the minority — white Europeans — at the top, and the majority — the indigenous and African — at the bottom. Since then, we have continued to be classified in ways that don’t fully capture who we are, or what serves us best. The following 10 titles represent perfect examples.

10Indios (Amerindians)

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These were the first people of the Americas and thought of as one of the three “pure races” in Spanish America. The law viewed them as minors, so although they were to be protected by royal officials, they were often abused by the more elite. The elites of the Inca, Aztec and other Amerindian states assimilated into the Spanish nobility through intermarriage, post conquest. The regional Native nobility was acknowledged along European standards by the Spanish and faced the challenge of existing in a colonial society, but remained in place until independence. Personal wealth was the variable that would determine which economic class an Amerindian would fit.

9Mestizo  (Amerindian and Spanish mix)

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A lot of the first classifications put upon the indigenous peoples of what is now Latin America had to do with how Spanish they were. According to the European colonizers, the more Spanish a person was, the better, in terms of status and privilege. Because of this, people were separated by castas, or castes. Mestizos were considered to be people who had mixed European and Amerindian ancestry.

8Pardo (Spanish, African, and Amerindian Mix)

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Pardo is a term given to people who are of white European, black African, and indigenous ancestry. Both the Spanish and Portuguese settlers used this term to classify people in colonial times. From the 18th century on, it has been used to describe someone with brown skin, and is still used today in Brazil’s census.

7Criollo (Spanish Americans)

Criollo Casta System BeLatina
Image Credit “Free Women of Color With Their Children and Servants in a Landscape,” by Agostino Brunias.CreditCreditNytcredit Brooklyn Museum

Criollo is the Spanish word for “creole.” People categorized as such were almost full Spanish, or those who were Spanish (or other European), but born in what is now Latin America. On the Spanish hierarchy, they were right under the peninsulares, who were born in Spain. Criollos were allowed to have up to ⅛ indigenous ancestry without losing their place in society.

6Zambo (Amerindian and African mix)

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If you were of African and indigenous ancestry, the Spanish would refer to you as zambo; in Brazil, the Portuguese would say cafuzo. While the U.S. version of the word, sambo, is seen as offensive, zambo is still used in Latin America.

5Mulatto (African and Spanish mix)

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The term mulato (mulatto in English) was used to describe people who were of African and European descent (in the U.S., it is someone having one black parent and one white parent). The racist term is believed to have come from the word mula (“mule”), an animal that is half donkey and half horse. In the 1790s, and 1800s, people of mixed African heritage (pardos and mulatos) could pay to receive a decree erasing their blackness, which would give them white privileges.

4Castizos (Spanish with some Amerindian mix)

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Castizo is another antiquated term. It was used to describe people who had one white Spanish parent and one mestizo parent, or someone who is European and ¼ indigenous. It comes from the Spanish word casta, which means “chaste.”

3Españoles (Spanish)

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Historically, in the United States, things haven’t been much better. In the past (and there are those who still do this), Latinos were referred to as Spanish, because that is the language we usually speak.

However, Latinos come from Latin America, not Spain, so it’s an incorrect term that lumps Latinos from 20 or so countries under the identity of their colonizers.


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Hispanic is another term that puts the focus on Spain, and not on Latin America. It’s also incorrect for describing all Latinos. People from Spain are Hispanic, not Latino. There are Latinos that come from countries with Spanish ancestry, but people from Latin American countries, like Brazil, are not Hispanic at all, but are Latino.

1Cholos (Amerindian with some Spanish mix)

Cholitas Casta System BeLatina
Photo Credit Dephine Blast, National Geographics, These Women Rock Indigenous Clothes to Reclaim Their History Nov 22, 2016

In Bolivia, the word cholitas is used to describe indigenous women in traditional Bolivian garb.

Cholos is not just at term to describe a subset of Chicanos in America. It was (and still is) applied to those in Latin America who are mestizo and indigenous. The Spanish used the word, which historically, in the Windward Islands meant “dog,” in a derogatory way. However, in Peru, it has been reappropriated as a source of pride by some, and a nickname among friends by others (that said, there are those who still find the term offensive). 

Casta System Cholitas Belatina
Photo Credit Dephine Blast, National Geographics, These Women Rock Indigenous Clothes to Reclaim Their History Nov 22, 2016
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