‘Passing’ in colonial Colombia

Posted in Anthropology, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-10-15 20:58Z by Steven

‘Passing’ in colonial Colombia

Havard University Gazette

Corydon Ireland, Harvard News Office

Racial categories today are self-evident — part of what social scientists might call “socially constructed discourse.” Contemporary people of one race are aware of what other races look like, as well as where they themselves belong in the racial scheme of things.
But racial categories were not so firm or reliable while being created centuries ago, in particular in early colonial Latin America. It’s this historical crucible of racial identities that anthropologist and Radcliffe Fellow Joanne Rappaport has chosen to study.
She gave a glimpse of her work last week (Feb. 4) during a talk at the Radcliffe Gymnasium, where 80 listeners were drawn in by her intriguing title: “Mischievous Lovers, Hidden Moors, and Cross-Dressers: The Meaning of Passing in Colonial Bogotá.”
“Spaniard or a mestizo, mulato, indio, or negro,” said Rappaport to begin. “What did these categories mean?”
Or to put it another way, she added, what did race mean to these early modern people?
For one, it wasn’t a matter of black and white, said Rappaport — that is, it was more subtle than “the genetic metaphor of bounded populations that has characterized the (pseudo) scientific discourse of race since the 19th century.”
The word “white” seldom appears in the 16th and 17th century Latin American and Spanish documents she has pored over, she said. Europeans were instead identified by where they were from — Spain, France, or England, for instance. And in what is now present-day Colombia, people were identified not so much by racial categories but more often as citizens — vecinos — of a particular town or city.
More important than “white” was the designation “noble,” said Rappaport, who teaches at Georgetown University. “It takes us out of a narrowly racial mindset.”…

…Rappaport, a frequent scholarly traveler to old archives in Spain and Latin America, is using many ways to study the emergence of racial identity in early colonial societies. She’s looking at phenotype and physiognomy as they were used in legal documents 400 years ago and more; at how the moral attributes of racially mixed groups were described; and how these attributes were challenged by the literature of the day…

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