Race in Early California

Identifying Afro-descendants in the colonial Spanish context, even in the colonial center, can be difficult. The language used to describe different racial groups reflected in many ways the complicated relationship colonial Spanish society had with race. While this is not to say that a racial hierarchy did not exist, racial categories could be more fluid, reflecting the chaotic formation of colonial Latin America itself. As three racial groups came together, European, Native, and African, identifying one’s race became almost impossible. By the late eighteen century, Spanish intellectuals had drawn up complicated lists of how certain racial categories were created, such as specifying that the union of a Mestizo and a Spaniard begat a castizo (someone who is one quarter indigenous and three-fourths Spaniard). While such terms were used in colonial documents, such a care to determine the exact racial makeup were rarely taken. Race, as a social construct, was determined by appearance both physical and social. Race, therefore, could change depending on the perception of one’s social standing. For example, even a person’s style of dress or clear Spanish diction could allow them to pass as a supposedly superior racial category, or casta.

In referring to people of African descent, several words were commonly used. While English generally uses Black to describe someone of mostly or completely African descent and mulatto to describe any one of mixed African ancestry, colonial Spanish used several words. Documents used Negro to describe Blacks and Mulato to describe mulattos, but also used interchangeably Moreno and Pardo, respectfully, to mean the same thing. Afro-descendants seemed to have preferred the latter terms rather than the former in referring to themselves and they seem to have had a more positive connotation particularly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Though less common, however, terms like color quebrado (broken color) and morizco (Moor) were used to describe people of African descent. In California, no fewer than eleven designations are used to describe race in the historical record. To further complicate the matter, at least in California’s colonial documents, there is no category for a person of mixed mestizo and mulatto heritage. Generally, they are just called mestizos, further downplaying the African influence in early California.

In California’s historical documents, not surprisingly, the description of people’s race changed over time. The reasons for this could be multiple: from the social standing of an individual affecting how their race was perceived by the community to simply the judgement of the census taker on the color of their skin. William Marvin Mason in his study of the 1790 California census has identified dozens of examples of people’s race changing over time. José María Pico, for example, is listed in 1790 as being a Spaniard, even though his four brothers and mother, María Jacinta de la Bastida, are listed as being mulattos. Pico was from a large family who later gained prominence in California and generally the family is acknowledged to be of African descent. Máximo Alanís had no less than four racial designations over his lifetime including mulatto, Indian, mestizo, and Spaniard.

So in this cite we are using historical records (as opposed to looking at phenotype from pictures or genetic records). This based of the idea championed by Critical Race Theory that race is a social construction and therefore how people were perceived by their communities as manifested by records is their race. Below are the Spanish casta catagories that we have included in our data:







color quebrado

color quebrada





Some scholars believe that because of the changing nature of racial identity that quantifying and listing people of African descent is impossible. Given the lack of records on Africans and people of color in general throughout the historical record in the Americas, we are trying to use what data we have in new and creative way to tell the history of the Africans and their decedents in the Americas.