Friday, July 4, 2014

Down the Curiosity Rabbit Hole

Sometimes you run across something particularly fascinating, and even though it doesn't have anything to do with your research, it piques your curiosity enough that you have to follow up on it.  That's what happened to me at an exhibit at the California Historical Society.

The exhibit, which recently ended, was about Juana Briones, a resident of California who lived under the control of Spain, Mexico, and the United States.  In an era when women had few rights, she procured a separation from her abusive husband, ran a successful business, was a well known and respected healer and midwife, and defended her property against multiple attempts to take it, all while remaining illiterate.

While I found the story of Briones very interesting and learned quite a bit, the item in the exhibit that truly captured my attention was a reproduction of a painting of sixteen couples, each with a child.  Each group was identified with the race of the father, the mother, and the child.  It was a well defined list of racial classifications that reminded me of New Orleans, with its mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, and more.  But this list was of successive combinations of different "races" and was amazingly detailed.  It was called a pintura de castas ("casta painting").

The California Historical Society has created an online exhibition with most of the information from the Briones exhibit.  After searching through several sections of the site, I found the pintura de castas and was able to look at it close-up.  These are the combinations it shows:

Español con India = Mestizo
Mestizo con Española = Castizo
Castizo con Española = Español
Español con Mora = Mulato
Mulato con Española = Morisco
Morisco con Española = Chino
Chino con India = Salta atras
Salta atras con Mulata = Lobo
Lobo con China = Gibaro
Gibaro con Mulata = Albarazado
Albarazado con Negra = Canbujo
Canbujo con India = Sanbaigo
Sanbaigo con Loba = Calpamulato
Calpamulato con Canbuja = Tente en el Aire
Tente en el Aire con Mulata = Noteentiendo (No te entiendo)
Noteentiendo con India = Tornaatraz (Torna atras)

When I translated the Spanish, some of it didn't exactly make sense.  How do you get a Moor from a mulatto and a Spaniard?  How do a Moor and a Spaniard produce a Chinese child?  And if the intention was merely to describe the child's complexion, what does it mean to have a Chinese and an Indian "jump back?"  And how do a "jump back" and a mulatto have a wolf?

So then I decided to Google some of the terms from the combinations.  I discovered that Wikipedia has a page explaining castas, which were an attempt by the colonizing Spanish to classify mixed-race people in the Americas.  (The page even shows the same painting from the exhibit.)  It mentions that some of the terms used were a little "fanciful."  It also explains that chino was not Chinese but came from the word cochino, "pig."  (Of course, that now means that a Moor and a Spaniard produce a pig for a child, but remember the word "fanciful.")

So I ended up learning quite a bit by attending the exhibit and then following the trail of that painting.  And a fascinating journey it was.

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