Now & Then: Casta Paintings and Michael Menchaca’s La Raza Cosmica 20XX

Michael Menchaca, LA RAZA COSMICA 20XX
A suite of 16 screenprints
21” x 22 1/2”
Edition of 10
Printed by Julia Samuels at Overpass Projects

Today is el Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, and it seems like a good day to highlight Michael Menchaca’s “LA RAZA COSMICA 20XX” suite of prints.

Of the inspiration behind these prints, Michael Menchaca writes, “La Raza Cósmica 20XX presents a mythical re-interpretation of Jose Vasconcelos’ mestizo identity theory, La Raza Cósmica, using animal stand-ins to depict the intermixing between Latinx bodies. In his theory, Vasconcelos states that the Latin American intermixing of European DNA with Amerindian, Asian, and African DNA, created an ethnic fusion, a mestizáje, which he characterizes as the cosmic race. Pairing this theory with the Spanish Casta paintings, popular in 18th century Spanish colonial Mexico and instrumental in constructing racial identity through a visual index, I envision a new set of Castas where Silicon Valley technology has been integrated to intercommunicate between Latinx families.”

But what were casta paintings?

Rebecca Earle describes them this way: “Casta paintings show family groupings consisting of a man, a woman, and their child (or, occasionally, children), all helpfully labeled with their “castes.” Most were produced in Mexico in the eighteenth century. Individual paintings usually formed part of a set encompassing up to sixteen paintings by the same artist. These sets depicted families comprising—so their painted captions tell us—a “Spaniard,” an “Indian,” and their child; a “Spaniard,” a “black person,” and their child; and an “Indian,” a “black person,” and their child. They then generally traced the outcome of liaisons between the diverse offspring of these couples as well as between these offspring and more Spaniards, Indians, and black people. Casta paintings cataloged the human heterogeneity of Spain’s New World empire by organizing its inhabitants into families and these families into larger series.”

Casta paintings illustrate what Earle calls “the socioracial hierarchies” that organized and structured colonial Spanish society.

They were usually produced in sets of sixteen, depicting the sixteen possible ‘mixtures,’ and they almost always depict a trio of figures: the mother, the father, and the child, the offspring of the union.

Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo, attributed to Juan Rodríguez Juárez, c. 1715.
Oil on canvas
Breamore House, Hampshire, UK
Anonymous, Las castas. Casta painting showing 16 racial groupings. 18th century.
Oil on canvas, 148×104 cm,
Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.
Ignacio Maria Barreda, Casta painting, 1777.
Real Academia Española de la Lengua, Madrid.

Many, many examples of these paintings survive. They can be quite beautiful, in aesthetic terms, but I find them quite hard to behold.

Menchaca’s prints offer an acid and irreverent take on the casta genre. Ludic and playful, they draw on Mexico’s deep printmaking tradition–especially the language of Mexican woodblock prints, often called Posada prints ( in homage to José-Guadalupe Posada), as well as the more recent tradition of American Chicano prints. (Menchaca’s work was included in the Smithsonian’s recent exhibition, ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics,1965 to Now).

Further reading:

Rebecca Earle, The Pleasures of Taxonomy: Casta Paintings, Classification, and Colonialism (The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 3 (July 2016), pp. 427-466)

Dana Leibsohn and Meha Priyadarshini, Indigenous Portraits and Casta Paintings in the Spanish Americas. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History.

Diana DiPaolo Loren, Corporeal Concerns: Eighteenth-Century Casta Paintings and Colonial Bodies in Spanish Texas (Historical ArchaeologyVol. 41, No. 1, Between Art & Artifact (2007), pp. 23-36)

Ilona Katzew, Casta Paintings: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico, New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2004

Magali M. Carrera, Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in
Portraiture and Casta Paintings
, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Mark McDonald, Printmaking in Mexico, 1900–1950

Jose Vasconcelos, The Cosmic Race

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