Analysis of “The Case of Doña Margarita” and Vicente Albán’s “Indian Woman in Special Attire”

            “The Case of Doña Margarita” and Vicente Albán’s “Indian Woman in Special Attire” are two sources of different media that illustrate the social class structure in 18th century Latin America. “The Case of Doña Margarita” includes written testimonies from witnesses along with a plea from Doña Margarita’s husband to change her seemingly incorrect status as a casta (mixed-blood) to the status of a Spaniard. Albán’s work is a casta painting, which was a genre of painting in the 18th century that mainly depicted racial mixture[i]. Through the examination of the content and intent of both sources, it becomes clear that these sources are the result of the Spanish elite desperately attempting to rigidify a fluid and mobile Spanish American society.

            The Council of the Indies issued the gracias al sacar in 1795, which was a procedure that exempted people who were mixed from being castas and instead allowed them to legally become “white”[ii]. The content in the first source underscores Doña Margarita’s fear of being classified as a casta, which is directly related to the rise of the new form of social mobility demonstrated by the gracias al sacar. Margarita’s husband, Cristóbal Ramon Bivian, uses words such as “defect” and “impure” when describing the castas to affirm his disdain towards the lower calidad, or status[iii]. Bivian also mentions how a “baptismal record” had wrongly categorized his wife as a casta instead of a Spaniard[iv]. Modifications of baptismal records were commonplace and often allowed for a mestizo to become reclassified as white[v]. Thus, the content of Doña Margarita’s case portrays an attempt to raise social status within a seemingly rigid society. Furthermore, within the turmoil of social classification and hierarchy, gender hierarchy also becomes evident as the husband is the one asking for the status change for his wife. This is where the intent of the source becomes important. Since the husband is a Spaniard, he would have the incentive to ask the viceroy to fix his wife’s status not only for the sake of his wife but for the sake of his own reputation, honor, and status. Therefore, whether Doña Margarita was a Spaniard or not does not matter as much as the fact that she could potentially change her status. In fact, much of the reasoning for changing status and the witnesses in the source used to verify status largely depended on honor and reputation. Honor was present in marriages and relations and was carefully monitored to solidify status by marrying into other powerful families[vi]. The casta population did not have any claim to honor, which is why Bivian’s attempt to change his wife’s status would be equally, if not more, beneficial for himself. Furthermore, the source mainly presents priests as witnesses due to their higher reputation to testify that Doña Margarita’s parents were Spanish, although like any seemingly rigid hierarchy there is room for social mobility, meaning the priests could have just as easily removed Doña Margarita’s “stains on reputation” for a price[vii]. This is evident with the second witness who claimed to have known Doña Margarita for fourteen years yet declined to comment on her parents’ ancestry[viii]. Thus, honor was a method of classification for class, gender, and race and eventually would evolve and become physically adopted into the casta paintings[ix].

            The casta paintings were the result of an ever-expanding casta population and the continuous increase in social mobility[x]. During this time, there was the possibility of upward and downward changes in social status. In addition, race and class no longer represented the same social marker[xi]. In fact, race became a factor of social position that is considered alongside occupation, honor, and wealth[xii]. Albán’s casta painting reflects this change in social structure. The content of the painting highlights the importance of attire during this time period as the caption reads “Indian Woman in Special Attire”. The emphasis on the clothing and on the ethnicity of the woman accentuates the importance of material goods, as opposed to race, in determining social class. Since the woman is an Indian, it also reveals how indigenous women could find spaces in social mobility to advance themselves. The painting shows the Indian woman next to a basket full of a plethora of fruit and cacao seed, meaning that the woman has earned her wealth because she has married “up” in the social ladder or because she has earned a successful living for herself by selling these goods in the market, like many indigenous women did in Potosi. In this mining center, indigenous women did not have to pay the alcabala, or sales tax, on native goods and thus sold clothing, coca, and other goods[xiii]. It was also possible for native women to network with elite members of the native community and use their own skills to sell goods and make deals with others[xiv]. On the other hand, it is also possible that the Indian woman married a Spaniard to improve status or that a Spaniard married the woman because of her native nobility[xv]. Regardless, the fact that the woman is depicted wearing special attire usually only worn by peninsulares, or Spaniards born in Spain, reveals the painter’s intent to depict the native woman as a threat to the rigidity of the social structure in New Spain especially considering that even castas were not allowed to dress like Spaniards[xvi].

            Both sources highlight different aspects of the anxiety felt by the Spanish elite in the 18th century. Both sources also focus on individuals attempting to elevate their social status, with the first source focusing on being wrongly “accused” of not being Spanish and the second source focusing on wearing special attire to elevate social status without having to be Spanish. The intent of both sources is to emphasize the threat of the growing casta population on the rigid social structure and the attempt of the Spanish elite to make things go back to “the way they were.”



[i] Lecture 11/17/16

[ii] Earle, Rebecca. The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 167.

[iii] “The Case of Doña Margarita”

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Earle, Rebecca. The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700, 170.

[vi] Burkholder, Mark A., and Lyman L. Johnson. Colonial Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 235.

[vii] Ibid, 236.

[viii] “The Case of Doña Margarita”

[ix] Burkholder, Mark A., and Lyman L. Johnson. Colonial Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 234.


[x] Lecture 11/17/16

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Manga, Jane e. Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosi. Durham: Duke University Pres, 2005, 139.

[xiv] Ibid, 159.

[xv] Kellogg, Susan. Weaving the Past: A History of Latin America’s Indigenous Women From the Prehispanic Period to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2005, 57.

[xvi] Twinam, Ann. Purchasing Whiteness: Pardos, Mulattos, and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2015, 102.