History professor discusses advent of purchasing ‘whiteness’ in Spanish Indies

Estefania Espinosa

A UT history professor discussed the process for mulattoes and pardos purchasing “whiteness” in the Spanish Indies and the methodology of her research in a talk hosted Wednesday by the Institute of Historical Studies.

“Purchasing Whiteness: Pardos, Mulattos, and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies” outlines 40 cases of mulattos and pardos petitioning to buy the rights granted to white people. Their rights included being able to attend university, holding public office and the ability to work in any profession. History professor Ann Twinam, author of the book, spoke about the importance of the vocabulary and language used in the documents she encountered.

“Especially when you’re dealing with issues of race, you have to understand what people at the time were saying,” Twinam said. “Purchasing whiteness to those at the time had nothing to do with race.”

In the Spanish Indies, being mulatto or pardo was considered a “defect” in your “naturaleza,” or nature, but it was something that could be changed, unlike race, according to Twinam. Illegitimacy was also a “defect” in Spanish society, and Spaniards could pay to have this removed from their documents. Twinam said this custom was the precedent for purchasing whiteness in Spanish colonies.

Mulattoes are individuals of mixed black and white ancestry, while pardos are of mixed black, white and American Indian heritage. 

Twinam also said much of the previous writing on this topic — such as the cost, who could and couldn’t purchase “whiteness” and where this was being practiced — was speculative and said she felt a need to correct misunderstandings.

“There was so much wrong about what people were saying,” Twinam said. “I had to clear the air. I really had to revisit what scholars had written.”

In her acknowledgments, Twinam thanked Google and called her book a post-Google book, referring to using Google to find sources for her book.

Melanie White, a graduate student in African and African Diaspora studies, said she enjoyed Twinam’s explanation of her research process and agreed that Google is a useful tool.

“I’ve been able to find a lot of rare and obscure documents and ethnographic material, too, through Google searches,” White said. “That would be really impossible to find through a regular, traditional library search and catalog search.”

Samantha Rubino, a history graduate student and graduate research assistant for the Institute for Historical Studies, said she has taken advantage of presentations like this since enrolling in college.

“[Talks] broaden your intellectual scope and ideas,” Rubino said. “It provides a space for intellectual growth. It also provides a network of scholars.”

Although very few people in the 18th century were questioning the superiority of whiteness or the validity of the caste system, Twinam said the desire to be accepted into society is an important early step
toward equality.

“The pardos and mulattoes who appear here are unheralded civil rights pioneers,” Twinam said, quoting her book.