This weekend I attended a lecture in Albuquerque sponsored by the New Mexico Genealogical Society. The lecture was on Saturday, February 25, 2012, and was focused on the New Mexico DNA Project. This presentation was delivered by Ángel de Cervantes, who now resides in Albuquerque, but was originally from Las Vegas/Montezuma, New Mexico. Ángel is the New Mexico DNA Project Administrator, and is also part of the Iberian Peninsula DNA Project. Ángel is currently a History Instructor, however, he was once a archivist with the State Archives. Since he was once an archivist, he understands the importance of primary documents relative to research, and encouraged the audience to “take the time to do the research” and not just do “the online thing.” The lecture was Part 1 in a series, and was titled Castas, DNA, and Identity: Who are we? What did our ancestors say about themselves? What does DNA tell us about Identity? Ángel explored “the connection of the Castas system in colonial New Mexico” and discussed how “DNA studies compare to the Spanish Castas system and the ramifications on modern identity.” So following is what I have come away with…
Identity… What is identity? Some online sources define identity as: the condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is; the sameness of essential or generic character in different instances, and all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing; and the distinguishing character or personality of an individual. What does that mean? Well… I think identity is very complex. It is rooted in: psychology; oral, familial, and social history; and of course genetic connections. How do you see yourself? Where do you stand in society- socially, economically, and from a religious perspective? How do others see you? It is all complicated. If it was up to me (and it is not), I would say that none of it really matters. Well maybe how we see the man in the mirror is important? The notion of a “correct analysis of identity over time” is critical according to the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The encyclopedia also mentions a “notion of identity across possible worlds.” But what are “worlds?” Is there more than one world we live in? No, but I think it is referring to the multiple worlds that we can socially and psychologically place ourselves in. Of course our familial ties, and oral histories play a major role in the identity we choose to seize.
I have taken a look at the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society put forth by Hartford Institute for Religion Research. According to this encyclopedia, “identity is a characteristic defining one’s sense of self,” and the term was “popularized by Erik Erikson” through the 1950s and 1960s, “as a central psychoanalytic concept.” Some of this definition, incorporates “a sense of uniqueness” or “completeness” with regard to identity. Ángel de Cervantes opened his lecture with a clip of Jessica Alba. Alba was a special guest on George Lopez Tonight in 2009. For his show, Alba and her father both agreed to take a DNA Test. Alba submitted for an mtDNA (maternal) and her father for both Y-DNA (paternal) and mtDNA. I think it was a great clip to open with because Ángel set the scene for his lecture on the historical and contemporary problems each of us have faced, or face with regard to identity. As an advocate of DNA testing he said that one reason he likes Y-DNA testing is because “it is what it is if you like it or not.” Alba’s test results were returned to her by Lopez with percentages of 87% European and 13% Indigenous or Native American. You can see that even she did not fully understand her “identity” in that moment.
So what does “casta” mean in terms of identity? A caste system is comprised of an intermixture of race and social class (ethnic, economic, religious). My tiny New Webster Dictionary defines caste as “an inherited socioreligious rank.” Really? Rank? Funny… Personally, I feel that this was more of the case in the Colonial caste system, and not in the contemporary. In 1995, Stuart B. Schwartz published a paper titled Colonial Identities and the Sociedad de Castas in Colonial Latin American Review (Volume 4, Issue 1). In his paper, Schwartz “framed” castas “in terms of race and class” for “multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies of colonial Latin America.” This may still be the case today, though I am not sure that caste is always maintained by an individual even if it can be seen as inherited and ranked? Maybe a number 1 on the ranking system would see me as a number 10? But since I don’t care what others think of me, it would be irrelevant. The Spanish doctoral program in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a website with pictures of the historical castas or caste system called Cuadro de Castas. The images provide an interesting look at the system.
Ángel’s study of New Mexico records, as well as the records of the Archivos Enpañoles, allowed him to put together a list of the Spanish Castas he has been able to identify. Some of the castas in Spanish genealogical records include: Chino; Español Criollo; Mestizo; Pardo; Prieto; Negro; Mulato; Tresalvo; Trigueño; and Zambo. Each casta has applicable fractions of race, and may include one, two, or more mixtures. I found it funny when Ángel talked about how his grandmother from Las Vegas called the “dark complected kid in the neighborhood” a “trigueño.” The audience was at odds over that title, and what it means, but that is always the case when dealing with scholars, historians, and genealogists.
So even if I find caste systems irrelevant to my identity today, why should it be important to me as a genealogist and a lover of history? Well of course the main reason is because it is part of history. It is also important because a caste can reveal the status of a person in his or her community at a given point in time. A person in what was a historically higher caste may have: been more educated; could have owned more land; may have traveled more; or may have had royal blood. I think a down side to this is that some of those individuals from a higher caste likely married only those in the same caste, or of a higher caste to stay elite. So much for real connection!? Maybe poor folk married for the right reasons ha?
To sum it all up, I guess I learned that identity really can’t be defined or bottled. I believe identity can be explained to a certain extent, but will always remain a perplexing concept. Since we are humans, we are constantly changing, evolving, growing, learning, and so our identity changes. Identity changes or morphs with time. Personally, I do not wish to be pegged by caste systems. In the end, I know that others will likely classify me with no regard for those complexities which truly define my identity whether I like it or not.