Monday, December 5, 2011

That's Right, I'm Posting . . . My Homework

So Casey has asked me to contribute. I have about three different topics I have wanted to tease out in an essay format as I am wont to do; however time has not permitted such an exercise. As a compromise between time and abstention, I have decided to share something I worked on this semester: a review of a book I read for my Latin American history class. I think this should prove interesting.
“Race as Religion”: Martínez’s Genealogical Fictions as an Historicized Abstraction of Race in the Early Modern Era
In Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico, María Elena Martínez traces how the Iberian beliefs and practices surrounding limpieza de sangre contributed to the formation of the colonial sistema de castas. Martínez argues that when the religious discourses surrounding the notion of blood purity transferred to the American colonies, they shaped how a racial and caste system was perceived and experienced. At the heart of her project is the contested historical use of the term “race.” Because racial discourses took on a definitive shape connected to biology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, efforts to describe identities prior to that century as racial have been criticized as either anachronistic or teleological. Using the term in alternate ways also threatens to leave the term bereft of meaning. Basically, if “race” is not recognized in its eighteenth and nineteenth-century particularities, the term becomes meaningless. The definitive contribution of Genealogical Fictions is its response to this criticism, demonstrating how “race” can be used if diligently framed within the specific dynamics and circumstances of an historical moment.[1]Ultimately, rather than furthering the Black Legend by contending that Iberian colonialism in the Americas created race and racism, Martínez offers a measured way to conceptualize one specific form of racism forged in the colonies.
When addressing former arguments from historians who “fear equating notions of lineage, blood, and descent with race,”[2] Martínez references a number of essays and articles including one by Verena Stolcke.[3] In “A New World Engendered,” Stolcke also looks at the issue of blood purity and blood proofing, but she indicates the two main objections to discussinglimpieza de sangre in terms of race: (1) anachronistic misusage of the term which actually “sidesteps the fundamental question of how American peoples understood social and identity and exclusion in their own time;” and (2) the risk that interpreting any ideology connected with descent along racialist terms would lead to “the untenable conclusion that all premodern societies were organized along racial lines.”[4] Specifically on the first point, Stolke concludes that the social hierarchy shaped by a cultural-religious form of social placement and discrimination was no better or worse than modern racism, but still it cannot be discussed as racism.
Martínez, while acknowledging the necessity of historical specificity, disagrees. By arguing that singling nineteenth-century constructions of race as biological ignores the flexibility of racial discourse, she builds on Stuart Hall’s call for “a more concrete, historicized level of abstraction” in regard to racisms. Racial discourses have what Hall calls “general features” which are “modified and transformed by historical specificity.”[5] Genealogical Fictionsindicates a well-defined and excellently researched effort to propose that racial discourse operated on a “grid of knowledge” that was not constituted by scientific but rather religious discourses.[6] “Race as religion,” as it was manifested in the Spanish American colonies, had its beginnings in the Iberian peninsula; however, Martínez documents that while the transatlantic process altered the implementation of limpieza de sangre, the use of specific terms like razaand casta perpetuated a religious-racial discourse in the colonies.
One of Martínez’s strengths is the detail she subscribes to the terms she investigates and uses. In her Introduction, after mentioning debates concerning anachronistic usage of the term race, she writes,
The debate is important but frankly less pressing than analyzing the historical significance of those concerns—the social tensions that produced them, the terms people used to express them, and the ways in which they were reproduced or rearticulated over time and across geocultural contexts.[7]
At first, it appears that she avoids the implications of the debate and the use of “race” to describe early modern practices, sidestepping the debate. However, her emphasis on “terms people used” is central to her recognition of “race as religion” and it directly addresses critics opposed to this approach, like Stuart Schwartz whose work informed Stolcke’s essay.
The first endnote in the book not only defines “sistema de castas,” but clarifies why Martínez uses that term rather than an equivalent term Latin American historians have often used to draw attentions to the social dimensions of race: “sociedad de castas.” In an article entitled “Colonial Identities and the Sociedad de Castas,” Stuart Schwartz makes a case that the term race should not be used to describe identities and practices during the early modern era. More importantly, however, he also asserts that due to the convention of social categories, subjects (especially people of color living between categories) intent on manipulating identity constructs could. [8] According to Martínez, “the phrase sistema de castas is preferred [inGenealogical Fictions] because, although the system was fluid, it was constituted by underlying principles that gave colonial Mexican racial ideology a measure of coherency.”[9] Furthermore, in describing how classification occurred in the operation of the sistema de castas, she notes that while it “tended to be anything but systematic, [it] was nonetheless a system, an ideological complex constituted by a set of underlying principles about generation, regeneration, and degradation.”[10] Martínez negates characterizations of the sistema de castas and limpieza de sangre as “fluidic.” Race is an appropriate term because while the early modern era did not employ racial discourses informed by biology, its connection to religion still provided an essentializing element which resisted fluidity. Sistema de castas and the religious concept embedded in it can be discussed in terms of racialization because while particular moments of identification were challenged, the principles organizing the entire system remained strict and quite definite.
Genealogical Fictions treats terms related to Spanish colonial languages of race like “raza” and “casta” with equal particularity because their use reflected and reinforced a specific cultural production of race. Martínez explains that these terms, while similar in use and connotation (especially in their relation to blood), were not identical. Raza, because of its connection to raça (a Castillian term for defected), became associated with individuals descended from Jews and Muslims. That association gave it a negative connotation that casta did not carry. In this way, race operated as a marked identity—a marking that indicated impurity and infidelity. This marking was not biological but religious. Because casta referred primarily to Old Christians, it remained a neutral term, while sometimes indicating good breeding. In the colonies, casta started to apply to people of mixed ancestry; at which point it began to take on negative connotations. Cases of mixed ancestry developed new social categories like castizo and morisco. Morisco, a term which had been related to Islamic converts to Christianity, came to describe the children of Spaniards and mulattos. The impurity of an unfaithful religious identity marked black slaves seen as a race not based on biology but on a grid of knowledge informed by a religious discourse that explained their connection to Ham and Canaan.
The transatlantic process that brought Spaniards, Indians, and blacks together resulted in a number of social categories and a systematic hierarchy. While there were cases of people challenging their classification into particular categories, Martínez evidences that neither the identities nor the system was fluidic. The castas in colonial Spanish America can be discussed as part of a colonial racial discourse because while not every casta was a race, a number of the castas were racialized. In the specific historical moment and space of colonial Spanish America, race operated on knowledge informed by religious discourses that marked particular identities as impure and unfaithful. Some castas like the moriscos mentioned above were more like a raza because they were marked. Genealogical Fictions does not open the floodgates of an untenable conclusion that all premodern societies were organized along racial lines. Nor does it employ the use of race in a way that is either anachronistic or sidestepping how American peoples understood exclusion in their own time. María Elena Martínez’s work demonstrates how the Iberian beliefs and practices surrounding limpieza de sangre shaped the colonial sistema de castas. More importantly, however, she exhibits how racial discourses in periods prior to the nineteenth-century can be examined and discussed.

[1] María Elena Martínez, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 11.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] Stuart B. Schwartz, “Colonial Identities and the Sociedad de Castas,” Colonial Latin American Review 4, no. 1 (1995), 185–201; Stuart B. Schwartz and Frank Salomon, “New Peoples and new Kinds of People: Adaptation, Readjustment, and Ethnogenesis in South American Indigenous Societies (colonial era),” The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas III (2): South America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 443–501.
[4] Verena Stolcke, “A New World Engendered: The Making of the Iberian Transatlantic Empires,” A Companion to Gender History, ed. Teresa A Meade and Merry E. Weisner-Hanks (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 378.
[5] Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996), 411–440.
[6] Martínez, Genealogical Fictions, 13.
[7] Ibid., 12.
[8] Start B. Schwartz, “Colonial Identities and the Sociedad de Castas,” Colonial Latin American Review 4, no. 1 (1995), 188.
[9] Ibid., 287.
[10] Ibid., 166.


  1. Kinda makes me think about how terms like racism are applied nowadays. We tend to use the word to describe different things: I can say that most Jackson-era Americans held racist beliefs, but explaining their beliefs in terms of modern American racial discourse doesn't really explain where they were coming from - it can't explain, for example, the resistance that German and Irish immigrants met. So any kind of historical discourse involving race risks the danger of reading the history backwards.
    Even today, racism does not mean the same thing everywhere - in Spain and Italy, as I understand, there's far less a social stigma associated with the concept, and it may have more to do with ideas of purity (via blood, religion, or whatever) than of arbitrary biological divisions. In soccer, for example, there's an ongoing movement to "kick out racism" and outside of elite circles it's gained much more traction in England and Germany than Span, Italy, and Eastern Europe. While I'm tempted to proclaim it as a victory of some monolithic anglo-saxon culture (U-S-A! U-S-A!), it more likely just highlights the kind of history that book gets more into...Hmm, we need a sociologist or anthropologist or someone who knows more than I do about Latin America and Europe :)

  2. Good post. I'd never really considered the whole "racism is a lens through which we view the seemingly racially charged past" thing, but it makes a lot of sense. I like it when my worldview is shaken up a bit...especially when I still agree with everything post-shake up. Does that make me a bad person? Whatever, that would be, like, #157 on the list of things that so do if it did.

    On a semi-related note, here's an interesting video about having characters typically of a certain race portrayed in movies by actors of a different race. My favorite part? When the narrator answers the question, "Why is it okay to make Nick Fury black, but bad to make the Last Airbender cast white?" with something along the lines of, "Normally I'd give a patient, academic and long-winded answer, but for the sake of brevity, this. [shows diagram of slave ship]. This is why."

  3. I think that video is the best succinct explanation of structural prejudice I've ever heard, in spite of its POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. Kinda funny when you think about it, given how often Hollywood is excoriated for being so liberal and PC, that the entire list of mainstream black lead actors basically starts and ends with Will Smith.

  4. The funny thing about the critiques of color blind casting is that they are still generally discussed in terms of the dominant consumer culture. In other words, white consumers complaining about a double standard ignoring their place of privilege that allows them to voice the complaint. They had money to see both film and then they had means to comment about it on the Internet. Their voice ignores another criticism of color blind casting which says to cast black actors in the roles of certain traditionally white characters does a disservice to the distinctiveness of racial identity and experience.

    For example, August Wilson expressed huge dissatisfaction with an all-black production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" because while the idea is something like "hey see this is what being part of the failure of the American Dream, being an American is all about, it applies to all of us," for Wilson that production validated the normalization and ubiquity of the white middle class American experience as the quintessential. No black families in the 1950s would be in Willie Loman's position. To cast it as if it were does a disservice not only to history but effectively diverse communities. The politics are assimiliationist. And to cast those characters as black ignores the economic historical past and distinctive experience(s) of minorities in America.

    In other words, people might do Tyler Perry movies not just because those are the only roles, but because Tyler Perry does attempt to write characters with a "black aesthetic" in mind. And their being read as terrible, may just be a dominant consumer culture's assessment--a culture and assessment which are both markedly white.

    But don't get me wrong, I loved the video and I want Movie Bob to tell me more.

  5. So you're saying that my idea for an all-white production of Roots is probably not the best idea...

  6. Well, who are you going to get who has the caliber to replace LeVar Burton? I'd say go with some with ample PBS or ST:TNG street cred but Wesley Crusher's too old now and Mister Rogers is dead.

  7. Justin Bieber IS: Kunta Kinte!

    ROOTS 2012