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Casta Paintings: Inventing Race Through Art

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting the first-ever major exhibition paintings that reflect what many upper-class Spaniards thought about race, class and skin color during the 1700s, when Mexico was a colony of Spain. NPR producer Nova Safo reports on the controversial exhibit.

The genre of art, called casta, reveals more about prejudices in Spain at the time than the reality in Mexico. One portrait of a family, used as the centerpiece of the LACMA exhibit, is typical of the genre: A mother with snow-white skin, a dark-skinned father and a daughter with skin tone in between the two appear as prosperous and well-dressed.

But the title of the portrait is curious: "De Espaniol y Albina, Torna Atras" -- literally, "From a Spaniard and Albino, return backwards." The prevailing theory at the time was that albinos were thought to be part African. So the union of an albino with a Spaniard was actually seen as a step backward, towards African heritage.

In an idealized Mexico where people of African, European and indigenous heritage were intermingling in seeming harmony, the paintings were a reminder to Spaniards that there was still a strong hierarchy of racial purity -- with Europeans on top.

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