The colonial era in Latin America (a term usually used to refer to rule by Spain, Portugal, France, England, and the Netherlands) is generally considered as extending from the age of discovery and conquest in the late fifteenth to early 16th century through the wars of independence in the early 19th century. While Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822, it remained a monarchy until 1889; Belize became fully independent from Britain only in 1981. Over several centuries, therefore, social and political organization changed considerably.
Under the Spanish, a system of rule in which indigenous people continued to owe partial allegiance to their own rulers held sway for most of the period, while Spanish governance was applied to the Crown’s subjects. This dual arrangement was known as the “republic of Indians” and the “republic of Spaniards.” In colonies located in areas that had a well-developed administrative system, such as the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Inca Empire in Peru and neighboring countries, royalty and nobles continued to claim their rights to property and political control well into the eighteenth century. The Tupac Amaru Rebellion in Peru in the 1780s, for example, was based on the leader’s claim of descent from the last Incas.
The Spanish aimed to keep tight control over their empire. Only men born in Spain could hold high-level administrative posts. Because Spain is on the Iberian Peninsula, people born there were called “peninsulares.” This identity was so crucial that when elite Spanish women living in the New World learned they were pregnant, they often departed immediately to sail back to Spain so their baby would be born there. Over the centuries, however, the population of American-born Europeans increased; these people were the “criollos” in Spanish and "creoles" in French and English.
Race, religion, and nationality were some of the key dividers in social organization. The ideas of “blood” and “honor” were used to classify people: in the Spanish colonies, white, Christian Spaniards thought they had the purest blood and the most honor. Especially in the eighteenth century, their classifications were organized into the casta (caste) system, which strictly identified people by their parentage and percentage of blood of different races. In the castes, a person of mixed African and European heritage was classed as “mulatto.” Many paintings were made showing the various people’s appearance, often in a grid format with each square showing a different type—usually a man, a woman, and their baby.
Because marriage and property ownership, among other things, were regulated by caste position, people were constantly trying to change their status. A white could only legally marry another white, for example. One mechanism for advancement was petitioning the court to change one’s race, which thousands of people did. Other people had to be witnesses, and there was often a hefty fee involved. This process is often referred to as “buying whiteness” (as discussed in Twinam 2015, among others). By looking at the court records, historians are accounting for large numbers of people who successfully changed their race.
Carrera, Magali M. 2003. Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Twinam, Ann. 2015. Purchasing Whiteness: Pardos, Mulattos, and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.