The paintings were largely invented “to impose order on what was perceived to be mostly a hybrid and therefore unruly society,” Katzew has explained
. At the time, Europeans believed that people living in the Americas, regardless of ethnicity, “were degraded hybrids, which called into question the purity of blood of Spaniards and their ability to control their subjects,” Katzew has written. So, painting pictures of family units—ranked by purity of blood, with Spaniards at the top—was a means of quelling anxieties over not just miscegenation, but colonization more broadly.
The casta works behold a tension “between the lushness of the paintings and the story they charted,” which is what led Katzew to study them initially, she told Artsy
. While they portray racial mixing as “degenerative,” at the same time, they “presented the New World as a place of boundless natural wonder and emphasized the colonists’ pride in the diversity and prosperity of the land,” she has written
, nodding to the finely wrought, nature-filled backgrounds that many of the families are painted into.
In the time since Katzew first encountered casta paintings in 1990—at an exhibition in Mexico City—they’ve become relatively well-known in the U.S. because of their focus on race and identity, she explained. (Katzew has written several books and essays and curated multiple shows on the subject.)
While stressing that casta paintings should be valued for their artistic merits, Katzew said, “they are compelling documents that explain, in part, the origin of racial thought in the early modern world, which still impacts society today,” she told Artsy. Indeed, in light of widespread racial profiling and discrimination against refugees from Central and South America trying to pass through the U.S.-Mexico border, these works are sadly still relevant.
It’s key, Katzew noted, to remember that casta paintings are essentially fictional depictions. Still, she said, opinions and notions surrounding race are important, since they have “continued to shape society today and the allocation of opportunities,” she explained. “Casta paintings can help us understand the historical underpinning of many notions that persist to this day. In this sense, it is essential to view them within the specificity of their own historical and artistic context, keeping in mind their contradictions and complexity.”