- Introduction: Constructing Difference in Colonial Latin America1
What differences mattered to the majority of inhabitants in colonial Latin America? How did subaltern people conceptualize their identities and those of neighbors, co-workers, and strangers? Who did indigenous villagers consider to be members of their communities? How did rural Indians and urban slaves use their locations within Spanish American society to advance their communal and individual claims? How did free and enslaved African descendants exploit Spanish cultural expectations and colonial legal regulations to their benefit? What new, non-official colonial categories did Spanish Americans employ to identify the distinctions of migration, origin, and skills that mattered most to them?
The authors in this special edition of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History respond to these questions. In doing so, they expand a continuing conversation in colonial Latin American history regarding the nature of the categories and the categorization of casta, or colonial terms such as mulato or “Indian” that historians have glossed as a combination of race and class. More importantly, the authors point to the legal and cultural structures that defined the location of individuals or their communities in colonial society. As Joan C. Bristol argues, Afro-Mexicans capitalized on cultural expectations about their magical powers in order to secure Spanish clients, but their racial locations also made them suspect in Inquisitorial inquiries. Likewise, Rachel Sarah O’Toole exposes how religious women of Trujillo’s Santa Clara convent had daily domestic interactions with indigenous men, but intimacy did not erase the suspicions of these nuns who targeted indigenous and Atlantic African people, and others, as likely suspects of witchcraft based on their casta. The contributors describe the ways that subaltern peoples, whether enslaved or free, rural or urban, were able to seize on the colonial categories of difference to make a living, defend their land, or argue for freedom. In some cases, casta categories designated legal rights for colonial populations, as Andrew B. Fisher demonstrates for the indigenous communities of tierra caliente in Guerrero, Mexico. For others, the casta categorization was only one of many designators. María Eugenia Chaves discusses the case of Maria Chiquinquirá who argued for her freedom based on her understanding of the colonial laws governing slavery and manumission. Laura Matthew reveals how inhabitants of colonial Guatemala, indigenous and otherwise, shaped the cultural categories of ladino and mexicano to articulate a right to parish membership. These authors move beyond designators of race and class to demonstrate that legal recognition and cultural perceptions are central to the ways in which academics must historicize the meaning of casta in colonial Latin America.
For the past three years, Leo Garofalo and Rachel Sarah O’Toole have organized the Workshop on Constructing Difference in Colonial Latin America, which brings together a wide variety of international scholars for a spring weekend at Connecticut College. Having received the conference papers in advance, participants gather at the “College House” on campus for a discussion and critique of each paper over the period of two days. Interests range from Incas to Angolans, the Andes to Mexico, and cover the Spanish American colonial period of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The central theme of the conference and the underlying question addressed by each paper is the issue of “difference” and how it was constructed in this vast region under the rubric of Spanish colonialism? How did colonized and colonizers imagine their identities?
This special issue of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History includes contributions by alumni of the Workshop and by others who have engaged these questions. In the following articles, authors explore how colonizers and colonized defined, enacted, and appropriated categories of difference in Spanish America. Although previous scholarship focused on Spanish colonial categories such as race, caste, or class, new work emphasizes the creation of local ethnicities, cultural expressions, and African Diasporic identities.2
These articles show that inhabitants of colonized Latin America forged their identities from the very structures of Spanish colonialism. Taken as a group, these specific case studies suggest comparative themes in the study of colonization. The authors argue that religious, military, economic, social, and cultural structures of...