Arts & Culture

‘Passing’ in colonial Colombia

5 min read

Scholar studies race, status in colonial Latin America

Racial categories today are self-evident — part of what social scientists might call “socially constructed discourse.” Contemporary people of one race are aware of what other races look like, as well as where they themselves belong in the racial scheme of things.

But racial categories were not so firm or reliable while being created centuries ago, in particular in early colonial Latin America. It’s this historical crucible of racial identities that anthropologist and Radcliffe Fellow Joanne Rappaport has chosen to study.

She gave a glimpse of her work last week (Feb. 4) during a talk at the Radcliffe Gymnasium, where 80 listeners were drawn in by her intriguing title: “Mischievous Lovers, Hidden Moors, and Cross-Dressers: The Meaning of Passing in Colonial Bogotá.”

“Spaniard or a mestizo, mulato, indio, or negro,” said Rappaport to begin. “What did these categories mean?”

Or to put it another way, she added, what did race mean to these early modern people?

For one, it wasn’t a matter of black and white, said Rappaport — that is, it was more subtle than “the genetic metaphor of bounded populations that has characterized the (pseudo) scientific discourse of race since the 19th century.”

The word “white” seldom appears in the 16th and 17th century Latin American and Spanish documents she has pored over, she said. Europeans were instead identified by where they were from — Spain, France, or England, for instance. And in what is now present-day Colombia, people were identified not so much by racial categories but more often as citizens — vecinos — of a particular town or city.

More important than “white” was the designation “noble,” said Rappaport, who teaches at Georgetown University. “It takes us out of a narrowly racial mindset.”

More important than overt racial difference, she said, was the concept of calidad, or “quality.” Rappaport described it as a system of social classification that put racial markers together with other distinguishing factors, including residence, spoken language, religion, moral status, and “rights and obligations in society.”

Rappaport, a frequent scholarly traveler to old archives in Spain and Latin America, is using many ways to study the emergence of racial identity in early colonial societies. She’s looking at phenotype and physiognomy as they were used in legal documents 400 years ago and more; at how the moral attributes of racially mixed groups were described; and how these attributes were challenged by the literature of the day.

Images of racial categories from so long ago and far away are scant. So during her talk, Rappaport filled in the blanks with illustrations from the 18th century known as “caste paintings” — representations of racial mixing “produced in the Americas for viewing Spain,” she said.

Pictured were placid couples or family groups in colorful clothing. The children vividly represented how coloring and features cascade mutably from one generation to the next, creating a range of mestizo, mulato, idio, or zamba progeny.

Calidad was largely inherited, but some of the factors within it had a fluid character. Personal appearance — color, clothing, and accent — had bearing, said Rappaport. So did the religious affiliation of one’s ancestors — so much so that if a grandparent was a convert to Christianity, that “could be as problematic as being an indio zambo,” said Rappaport. (Indio zambo described a person who was a mix of African and Amerindian blood.)

“New Christians,” she said, “could not demonstrate ‘purity of blood,’ an invisible attribute enjoyed in particular by those of noble lineage.” Travelers from Spain to the New World sometimes carried certificates of “blood purity” as proof of their lineage.

Calidad also depended on a person’s status as a legitimate or illegitimate child. It could also vary according to “the context of social interaction,” said Rappaport, “so that someone could be identified as indio by one speaker and as a mulato by another.”

To confound things even more, a person’s calidad could be modified legally.

The “mischievous lovers” of the lecture’s title were Doña Catalina Acero de Vargas, a 16-year-old Spanish noblewoman from Santafé (today, Bogotá) and her erstwhile suitor Francisco Suarez, a self-proclaimed nobleman from Lima.

But Suarez was a case of “racial passing,” with a 16th century colonial twist. He won over de Vargas by letters alone, in a world that Rappaport said “fetishized … literate communication.” But Suarez’s appearance — his coloration, clothing, and accent — gave him away for what he was: a zambo.

The “hidden Moor” was Diego Romero, a Spanish conquistador in 16th century Santafé. His political ambitions and loudmouth reputation led to an investigation: He was likely a Moor — or even a mulato — passing as a Spaniard and (worse) a New Christian passing as an Old Christian.

As for cross-dressers, Rappaport talked about “the elusive mestizas en hábito de indias,” poor women of mixed descent who wore Amerindian clothing. That was a “vexing” problem in colonial-era Colombia, said Rappaport, since clothing was “a fundamental marker of caste” — something that, along with adornment, not only reflected identity but contributed to it.

But this apparently deliberate downward movement on the social scale, among women who could have “passed” as a higher caste, was just part of a fluid, shifting unfolding of race awareness in colonial-era Latin America.

If so, said Rappaport, it’s another warning to modern readers not to impose upon the past modern notions of race.