Racial Identity in the New World: Spanish Conquest and Mestizaje

Ecuadorean school children

Spanish colonialism depended on a stratification of races to exploit its new territories. The Crown identified two racial categories: Spaniards and Indians, or the “Republic of Spaniards” and the “Republic of Indians,” referring not to the modern-day meaning of “republic,” but to a social entity under the supreme rule of the Crown, each community subjected to a different set of laws and form of governance.

Scholar Jenny Londoño states that officially Indians were free subjects of the King, but “in practice they formed part of the ‘conquered race’ and were subjected to the servitude of the conquerors.” This differentiation was an integral concept because it defined those who had to work and pay tribute, those in charge of collecting it, and the Spanish empire as tribute’s ultimate recipient.

Latin American Mestizaje

During the beginning of the conquest, the indigenous nobility received special treatment from the Crown. As many scholars have argued, the conquest of Peru would have been impossible without the help of indigenous tribes in disaccord with the policies of the Inca state. Londoño further states that the native aristocracy received benefits, such as education and important positions in the “Republic of Indians.” The daughters of native nobility were often given to marriage and these unions were celebrated, as well as serving strategic purposes: they fortified alliances, appeased the native populations, provided Spaniards with access to land and thereby furthered the motives of the Spanish empire.

From these unions, came the first mestizos: the children of whites and natives. The Inca Garcilasso de la Vega is perhaps the most famous mestizo. Son of a conquistador, who helped him chronicle the past from the eyes of the colonists, and an Inca princess, who taught him Quechua and the history of her people, he wrote the Commentarios Reales, the most comprehensive historical work of ancient Peru and the Spanish conquest.

In Inés of My Soul, Isabel Allende writes of Juan Gómez, an officer that will help lead the trek to conquer Chile, confess his love for an Inca princess pregnant with his child. He beckons the help of the novel’s protagonist, Inés Suarez, to have his princess— from whom “he cannot be apart”—go with them on the journey.

Racial Stratification in Colonial Ecuador

In A Voyage to South America, Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa noted that the citizenry of Quito was divided into four classes: Spaniards or Whites, Mestizos, Indians or Natives, and Negroes.

Whites were further divided into white Creoles, persons born in the Americas of pure Iberian lineage, or the Spaniard from the peninsula, imports that were called chapetones. What these two groups shared was Spanish origin and the whiteness of their skin (often a figurative concept, however, because persons in this category were not necessarily light skinned.) Mestizos were the children of Whites and Natives, and Negroes were brought to the Americas as slaves.

Las Castas: The Caste System

The four classes Juan and Ulloa mention were the basis of a strict caste system, which grew to include additional groups as miscegenation became more complex over the generations. There existed the Mulatto, Zambo, Cuarteron, Cholo, Chino, all the product of racial intermixing. For example, Cholo was the child of Mestizo and Native; Zambo the child of Negro and Native or Negro and Mestizo.

Each degree of miscegenation was categorized. As Londoño explains, there was the white mulatto, the dark-skinned mulatto, and the morisco mulatto, the mix of white and white mulatto, often so light they might pass for a Creole or Spaniard. Whites were always at the top of this pyramid, and at the same time that power and wealth was concentrated in this group, it was also plagued by indolence and poverty. Juan and Ulloa wrote that “they refuse to apply themselves to any mechanic business, considering it as a disgrace to that quality they so highly value themselves upon, which consists in not being black, brown, or of a copper-colour.”

Caste and Profession

Race determined profession, drawing clear limits. Whites could aspire to the uppermost rank, as land and mill owners and colonial bureaucrats. Mestizos were generally barred from colonial administration, and as Juan and Ulloa reported, they “apply themselves to arts and trades, but choose those of the greatest repute, as painting, sculpture, and the like, leaving the meaner sort to the Indians.” Indians were employed in menial trades, such as construction and weaving, and were labourers in the mines, fields, and mills. However, there did exist a category of wealthy Indians, such as the caciques or chiefs and the highly-skilled barber-surgeons, who took great effort through dress and manner to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Indian population. Negroes, both slaves and free Negroes, were also relegated to menial labour and domestic duties; slaves having no rights at all, but often valued above the Indian because their ownership demanded a price.

Miscegenation and Racial Diversity in Ecuador

Though the Spanish conquest was marked by social division, it was also the fusion of three races that created the diversity of today’s Ecuador, one the country is working hard to recognize in the writing of a new constitution. To be an Ecuadorean is for most the affirmation of being a “mixed blood,” currents of each race running through a genealogy of almost five-hundred years.


  1. Allende, Isabel (2006). Inés of My Soul, New York, HarperCollins Publishers.
  2. Juan, Jorge; de Ulloa, Antonio (1964). A Voyage to South America, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
  3. Londoño, Jenny (1997). Entre la Sumision y la Resistencia, Las Mujeres en la Real Audiencia, Quito, Abya-Yala.