This page is mainly about racial terms in Mexican records, particularly Catholic church sacramental records, such as christenings & marriages. However, there is also some suggested reading and a short list of common racial descriptions seen in the documents I’ve transcribed.
Race in Early Mexico
Although most people have an image of Mexicans as a half & half mixture of Spanish and Indian, the reality is somewhat different. In fact, the ancestors of most Mexicans were Spanish, Indian, and African, with the overwhelming majority being that middle group, the indigenous Meso-Americans. Throughout most of the colonial period, which lasted almost three hundred years, people of primarily European or African descent were about equal in number, but no more than a tiny minority compared to those belonging to native cultural groups. Eventually, though, the majority was none of those, but rather people of mixed ancestry — the mestizos — with a predominantly indigenous heritage, but with a little Spanish and a little African here and there in the family tree.
One might ask how the descendants of African slaves became so thoroughly incorporated into the gene pool, when in the U.S. they are still so visibly seperate. The answer lies in the fact that while slavery did exist in Mexico from the very beginning, there was a critical difference from the United States: People of African descent, even slaves, shared the same legal rights and protections as all citizens. Especially significant was the fact that they could marry the person of their own choosing, and many enslaved men chose native women as legal wives so that their children would be born free, which led quite early on to a large mixed-race population. At the same time, the mixed European & indigenous population expanded just as rapidly, and naturally there were generations of continued intermarriage between all of the different groups.
Though everyone may have had certain rights, Spanish culture entertained no notion of the equality of all people, and colonial Mexico was a society rigidly ordered by class and race. Social advancement was something that took place not in one ambitious person’s lifetime, but over the course of generations. However, even early in the colonial period, racial mixing had become so widespead among all classes that government and church bureaucracies began to record people in documents with their race, right down to describing the specific mixture, in an attempt to maintain a certain “purity” of blood among the ruling classes.
Looking over the Mexican documents transcribed on this blog, you’ll see words such as “mulatto,” “mestizo,” “lobo,” or “tresalba,” all of which describe a very specific type of racial mixture. However, do not be fooled into thinking that because they are specific, that they are corespondingly accurate. In fact, even as soon as the early 1700s, such descriptions were largely guesses based on looks or social status. It is not at all unusual to see the very same person described as anything from Español to mulatto to Yndio and everything in between in different documents over his lifetime. It is even more common for the children of one couple to be described at their christenings as a variety of different racial mixtures, depending either on how the baby looked or on the changing respectability of the parents.
So for research purposes…
The bottom line is that racial descriptions in the church documents seen here should be approached with a certain amount of skepticism. A person described as a lobo probably did have some visible African ancestry, but might also have had a significant European contribution as well. Or maybe not. It’s impossible to know for sure because of hundreds of years of complex racial mixing. Almost certainly, however, anyone described as anything other than Español (“Spanish”) had mostly native ancestors, and even the so-called Spaniards probably had an Yndia granny or two in their gene pool.
Mexican’s today think of themselves as mestizo, “mixed,” and they are. But really they are a predominantly indigenous people with just a dash of everything else thrown in. It’s no wonder then that they are also called La Raza Cósmica, The Cosmic Race, the universal people, the ultimate synthesis of all the qualities and graces of all peoples everywhere. It’s kind of a nice way of looking at it, in my opinion, and probably more accurate than those descriptions in the documents. So as you read, when you see a racial term, keep in mind that it was actually just a guess and that the person in question was, in reality, everything.
An excellent book on this subject is The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico, by Colin M. MacLachlan & Jaime E. Rodriguez O.. It’s readable and a manageable length, but fully supported by factual data. It is also mercifully free of the romanticizing and psychologizing so rampant in books supposedly about “the Mexicans.” You’ll come away with a full understanding of your Mexican ancestry and how and why it happened that way.
If you need to get up to speed on Mexican history, try A Traveller’s History of Mexico, by Kenneth Pearce. It’s a thorough but easy to understand overview of the nation’s history, including pre-conquest times.
Terms & Definitions
The Spanish authorities in Mexico made every attempt, at least at first, to describe a person’s race very specifically, with a word that indicated percentages of one racial addition to another. Consequently, the list of terms is very long. However, most of them are never actually encountered. So for the sake of simplicity, I am only including definitions of words that I’ve actually seen.
(If you would like a more complete list, try here.)
Just for entertainment, I’m also posting four “Pinturas de Castas,” which reveal just how preoccupied people were back then with racial mixing. This type of painting was fairly common and almost a kind of souvenir that a Spaniard visiting colonial Mexico might take home with him.
Mestizo – “mixed” – Originally meaning half European & half Indian. Eventually it came to mean all mixed people, or anyone of half Indian origin.
Yndio – “Indian” – A person of more or less all indigenous ancestry. This term was also loosely used for anyone who looked mostly like a native and lived with native peoples in their community. I have also seen the expression “de calidad yndio” used to describe such a person. There is a strong cultural element to this description, since native people often lived in their own communities and spoke their own languages, even right up until today.
Coyote – “coyote” – A person who is 3/4 Indian and 1/4 European. The child of a Mestizio & an Indian. Again, I’ve seen this term used quite often and quite indiscriminately. I think it is probably used to indicate a person who looks mostly Indian and lives like an Indian, but who clearly has some white ancestry.
Español – Spanish – This actually means someone of all European ancestry, whether Spanish or not. However, I have often seen it used with people of mixed ancestry, but who had reached a certain level of respectability. It is as much a socio-economic label as anything, especially in the later colonial years. Just like “Yndio,” it meant someone who lived a particular way at a particular place in society.
Mulatto – “mule” – Half European, half African. However, it is very commonly used to describe people who are not half & half at all. It seems to be used to suggest very substantial black ancestry, eventually including anyone who looked mostly African, whatever the other additions may have been.
Morisco – “moorish” – In Mexico it meant 3/4 European and 1/4 African. In other words, the child of one white parent and one mulatto (half white, half black) parent. It might have meant a mostly white person with evident African features. I have not seen this term used often.
Tresalba – “three white” – Same as Morisco. I’ve only seen this term used twice, for two people in the same family. Even less common than Morisco.
Lobo – “wolf” – A person with 3/4 Indian & 1/4 African ancestry. In other words, an Indian with one black grandparent. In the real world, however, I have seem this term used somewhat indiscriminately to describe someone who, I would assume, is essentially Indian but with some features hinting at African blood.