Purchasing Whiteness
Pardos, Mulattos, and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies
Ann Twinam




A Century of Historiography

For the dispensation of the quality of Pardo . . . 500 [reales].

For the dispensation of the quality of Quinterón . . . 800 [reales].

ROYAL CÉDULA . . . of the pecuniary charges of the gracias al sacar1

In 1912, Brazilian historian Manoel de Oliveira Lima delivered a speech at Stanford University on a controversial theme. Referring to the “ever burning question of race feeling,” he pointedly observed that “it is a sentiment which among you has reached a degree of intensity which has never been equaled among Americans of Iberian descent.”2 He suggested that perhaps one reason that “scruples of blood” might not be as divisive in Latin America was that mixing was “silently solving” the “color problem.” He used as one historic example of such Hispanic “liberalism” the “famous cédulas de gracias al sacar” in which the Spanish state sold “certificates of white blood.”3

It must have taken a certain courage for Oliveira Lima to raise such a provocative subject: he was lecturing to a U.S. audience that lived in a world that institutionalized separation, prohibited mixing, and legitimized racism. Nor is there any doubt that he—as many authors who would write about gracias al sacar—fundamentally underestimated the presence of both racial consciousness and discrimination in Latin America. Still, these comments, which introduced the concept of purchasing whiteness to an English-speaking audience, would initiate a trend. Scholars would consider the option to purchase whiteness as providing insight not only to a comparative Anglo-Latin American past but also as speaking to the issues of their present. Through charged silences or pointed comments they would link the whitening gracias al sacar to contemporary events, as the United States moved from the apartheid of Oliveira Lima’s day, through the struggles of the civil rights movement, to the identity politics of today.4

Although the concept of purchasing whiteness has continually fascinated researchers, unanswered questions and inaccuracies riddle much of the existing historiography. This chapter explores some first “conclusions.” It traces how scholars searched for whitening documents, seizing on the gracias al sacar as a provocative marker as they explored key themes, including comparative slavery and citizenship in the Americas, the significance of caste versus class, the salience of identity, and the benefits and problematics of comparison. It also reveals how historians missed provocative clues suggesting that they needed to rethink why the whitening gracias al sacar appeared and what it meant. Even as they wrote incessantly about the purchase of whiteness, interpretations began to veer from the documentary record. Only the “reverse engineering” of known documents, the breaking of an archival code, and the systematic collection of whitening petitions have produced some first answers. It has also raised new questions.

A central goal of what follows is to focus on what Ben Vinson called the “lens of success”—to explore those variables that might combine to permit successive generations of Africans and their descendants to achieve mobility in the Americas.5 Those who appear in the following pages formed a unique cohort. Never should their struggles for whiteness obscure recognition of the unknown thousands who were born or died in slavery or who lived at the margins even if free. Yet, it is also evident that successful transitions from slave to free person and from vassal to citizen formed essential progressions that linked the complex histories of Africans and their descendants in the Indies.


Any review of existing literature on the purchase of whiteness has become far more complicated, albeit more revealing, as historians enter the digital age. As this work goes to press, an internet search reveals that the exact words “gracias al sacar” appear in 39,700 monographs and 630 articles. While previously a brief mention would be unlikely to appear in an index and tend to be overlooked, now search engines relentlessly reveal each occurrence and permit a more nuanced evaluation. The new challenge is to find a methodology to contextualize such an immense historiography.

Digital searches reveal a provocative divide in scholarly writing about the whitening gracias al sacar. English-speaking, primarily U.S. authors have either implicitly or explicitly presented the purchase of whiteness as a conceptual lightening rod. The very fact of its presence exists as an immediate shorthand, a dramatic illustration of the different ways that the Anglo and Hispanic worlds have conceptualized and lived differences of race. A number have suggested that the purchase of whiteness provides insight not only to the past but also to contemporary issues of race relations in both Americas.

In contrast, scholars, whether from Spain or Latin America, do not consider the purchase of whiteness to be a particularly novel concept. While some do not ignore the comparative American focus, their primary concern is to contextualize gracias al sacar within imperial or local themes. These include conflict over social and ethnic hierarchy or the subsequent impact of the whitening controversy on independence. Venezuelan historians and historians of Venezuela have played a particular role, given that much of this debate took place in Caracas. Only recently has the gracias al sacar appeared in this literature as providing insight into race relations or identity in the Hispanic world. Tracking these diverse approaches illustrates those ways that contemporary preoccupations shaped a scholarly agenda and a century of publications.


Although Manoel de Oliveira Lima’s comments concerning the purchase of whiteness to a Stanford audience in 1912 were provocative, they proved mostly to be a dead end. Since he did not footnote his remarks, he did not provide any documentary trail for U.S. historians to research, nor did they evidence much interest in doing so. Confirmation of rising awareness of the whitening option became manifest in the 1930s as, with interest in Latin America increasing, U.S. historians who wrote textbooks began to refer to it, if only in passing. In his 1933 edition of Colonial Hispanic America, Charles E. Chapman initiated what would become a somewhat amusing trend: attempts to translate gracias al sacar for an English-reading audience. The problem was that the literal translation—“thanks to take”—does not convey the subtlety of the Spanish meaning.

Since Chapman did not know that gracias al sacar included numerous purchasable favors, he shaped his translation solely around the acquisition of whiteness. He rendered gracias al sacar as “royal decrees of thanks for getting out of it, i.e. out of the colored ranks into those of white men.”6 When John Crow wrote his Epic of Latin America in 1946, he somewhat more elegantly, although equally mistakenly, translated gracias al sacar as a “decree of thanks for getting out of . . . the colored ranks.”7

Since then scholars have struggled to translate gracias al sacar—some with greater and others with lesser success—by combining the concept of thanks, gracias, with that of movement, al sacar, of being taken from one state to another. Later versions have included: “concession of exemptions” (1951), “removal thanks” (1967), “thanks for the exclusion” (1978), “thanks for getting out of it” (1979), “grateful for deliverance” (1980), “permission to pass” (1983), “document of thanksgiving for being pulled up” (1989), “thanks to be taken out, removed or freed” (1996), “document of grace upon receipt” (1997), “thanks for rescuing me” (2003), “proceeding to change legal status” (2004), “conceded grace” (2007), “thank you for removing” (2008), and “thanks for taking that background out” (2008).8 The more elegant solution seems less to translate gracias literally as “thanks,” but rather to consider it more reflective of the medieval concept of a “leave” granted by the monarch to a deserving vassal.9 It then becomes a “leave to take” or, more colloquially, a “permission to take” from one condition, for example, the state of pardo-ness and to move to another such as whiteness.

Whether mentioned by Chapman or Crow in their textbooks in the 1930s and 1940s or by more recent scholars, allusions to gracias al sacar are significant less for their translations than for their proliferation. Almost every history on Spanish colonial America written for an English-language audience included a mention of the whitening option, including textbooks by Snow (1967), Davis (1968), Worcester and Schaeffer (1970), Burkholder and Johnson (1994), Keen (1996), Beezley and MacLachlan (1999), and Chasteen (2001) as well as the Cambridge History of Latin America.10 Nor were historians alone in considering the question. Anthropologists (Wauchope and Nash, 1967; Willems, 1975; Flora and Torres-Rivas, 1989b) and political scientists (Friedman, 1984) also referred to whitening.11 Gracias al sacar also figured in compendiums concerning slavery (Finkelman and Miller, 1998; Heuman and Burnard, 2011), race (Levine, 1980; Appiah and Gates, 1999), and diaspora (Davies, 2008).12 Even with so many references to whitening, serious research on the topic had stalled, for historians could not find the relevant sources. The result was that historians literally went in pursuit of these elusive documents.

A look back suggests four stages in a hunt that not only discovered whitening petitions but also tantalizing clues as to what had occurred and what it signified. First were the initial publications in 1944 and 1951—by John Tate Lanning and James F. King, respectively—of a few pages from a whitening decree. In 1962, when Richard Konetzke issued his monumental five volumes of documents on Spanish American social history, he included a few additional cases. Next were two volumes, one of analysis and another of documents, published by historian Santos Rodulfo Cortés in 1978, the first systematically to research whitening petitions, in this case, for Venezuela. The last contribution was my own, involving a methodology of reverse engineering in the Archive of the Indies (AGI) to locate gracias al sacar applications throughout the empire. Understanding how historians searched for documents, what information they had, what they lacked, and how they wandered provides insight into the changing historiography on whitening.


Even though Oliveira Lima had mentioned whitening in a lecture in 1912, and historians subsequently referred to it in textbooks, it was not until 1944 that scholars found any documentary trail leading to the gracias al sacar. In the midst of World War II, John Tate Lanning, then editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review (henceforth HAHR), decided to publish a special edition dedicated to the “Negro on the Spanish-American Mainland.” He printed a document in Spanish that dealt with the case of Joseph Ponciano de Ayarza, a mulatto student who attended but then found himself unable to graduate from the University of Santa Fe in Bogotá, given that Indies legislation reserved university degrees for whites.13 The sixteen-page document contained his petition to the crown, local testimony in his favor, and included the royal decree that removed his mulatto-ness, made him white, and permitted him to graduate.14

Although Lanning penned a short introduction in English to the untranslated document, he did not acknowledge that he was the author, perhaps due to the nature of the publication. After all, he was teaching at a southern university (Duke) and writing in a wartime period where U.S. troops remained segregated, as did most venues. This included universities, many of which would never have admitted a mulatto such as Joseph Ponciano as a student, much less accepted his transformation to the status of white. Given the climate of race relations in the United States in the 1940s, the whitening gracias al sacar was a challenging document.

It is important to underline the context in which Lanning found this first document on whitening, for he almost certainly discovered it by accident. Since he was researching the history of universities, he found a copy in the colonial education section of the National Archive in Bogotá. His introduction to the document treated it as a strange curiosity. He decided that Joseph Ponciano’s plight resulted from a rise in prejudice in late eighteenth-century universities. Lanning did not know that the petition was part of the gracias al sacar. Nor did he understand that Joseph Ponciano might not be alone—that there might be an official procedure permitting pardos to purchase whiteness, and therefore other cases and other petitions.

Since Lanning published the whitening document in Spanish in a scholarly journal, it did not receive much circulation beyond specialists. The next mention would have far more lasting influence. In 1947, Frank Tannenbaum issued the first of what would be many editions of his classic if controversial comparison of slaves and freedmen in the United States and in Latin America, Slave and Citizen. Although he neither provided a footnote nor mentioned gracias al sacar, Tannenbaum nonetheless noted that it was possible in Spanish America for the free “Negro” to purchase whiteness “for a specific price.”15 Such an option buttressed his thesis that Iberian slavery proved more humane than its Anglo counterpart given that Spanish Americans recognized the slave as a fellow Catholic with a soul, deserving of legal protections from the state.

Tannenbaum concluded that this acknowledgment of “legal personality and moral status” had facilitated the movement from slave to citizen.16 Once free from bondage, the “Negro” might even purchase whiteness, a path patently impossible for any U.S. counterpart. His mention continued the trend of referencing the whitening gracias al sacar as a marker highlighting Ibero and Anglo American differences.

Slave and Citizen closed with the influential “Tannenbaum thesis.” He suggested that the customs and laws of Anglo and Latin American slave regimes had not only impeded or facilitated the movement from bondage to citizenship. They also formed part of the core of the deeply conflicted U.S. or more harmonious Latin American race relations characteristic of the twentieth century.17 While later scholars would challenge many aspects of Tannenbaum’s conclusion, a topic to be considered in the next chapter, there was an immediate problem concerning his reference to the purchase of whiteness. So far, historians had only found one case.

It was left to John Tate Lanning’s co-editor of that HAHR publication on “Negros” in South America, James F. King, to discover the next clues. In 1950, while researching at the Archive of the Indies in Seville, he uncovered in a volume (legajo) of documents, another version of Joseph Ponciano’s whitening decree.18 However, this copy contained some bureaucratic scribbling that provided additional information. It revealed that after Joseph Ponciano had received permission to become white, he had paid for that privilege in the General Accounting House (Contaduría) according to a fixed price list (arancel). King followed this lead, searched imperial legislation, and discovered that the crown had issued three gracias al sacar schedules detailing a number of purchasable dispensations. There was a 1773 version for Spain, which did not contain whitening clauses, a 1795 counterpart for America, which listed seventy-one categories of favors sold by the crown—including the last two, which were the whitening clauses—and an 1801 revision that raised the prices for the favors.

King suggested that Lanning had been mistaken in portraying Joseph Ponciano’s whitening as “a rare and isolated episode, which perhaps could take place only in academic halls.”19 Rather, he concluded that the case “involves a rather typical example of the granting of a cédula de gracias al sacar” that permitted “selected upper-class persons of part-Negro blood” to obtain “the legal rights and privileges of whites through the payment of a standard fee to the Crown.” His seven-page article became a foundational document of whitening literature, as later authors both constantly referenced and frequently misrepresented it.

King introduced key themes that would dominate the historiography. He wondered who received it, pondered the number granted, questioned concerning the expense, speculated why the crown permitted it, and considered resulting consequences. He understood that the process was not limited to the purchase of whiteness but was a much more comprehensive one of multiple exemptions available for purchase. Nonetheless, his subsequent analysis raised as many questions as it answered.

King immediately noticed two puzzling clues concerning categories and cost. He questioned why the whitening exemptions officially covered only two classifications: those who were pardos, or of darker-skinned mix, and those who were quinterones, or one-fifth African descent. He wondered why the price list specifically singled out only these two mixed ethnic (casta) designations and not others. Why not mulattos (African/white), castizos (whitish), zambos (African/Native), mestizos (Native/white), or myriad other designations?

The differential in cost was also inconsistent, given that pardos, generally considered darker, paid less according to the price list (500 reales) than quinterones (800 reales) who tended to be physically lighter.20 Concluding that he was “at a loss” to understand this discrepancy, King ingeniously (if wrongly) speculated that “a quinterón, being practically white and probably already engaged in the process of ‘passing’ might be willing and able to pay more for assurance in his status.”21 These two provocative leads—why the gracias al sacar had only two categories and why the variation in cost—would later prove fundamental in understanding its origin.

Another theme introduced by King was to question why the crown had issued the whitening legislation in the first place. The existence of a fee schedule suggested that such action was “partly, no doubt, because of the revenue.”22 However—in a paragraph quoted and re-quoted by later scholars—King provided a laundry list of somewhat conflicting policy considerations that might have produced the gracias al sacar. Included among these were “the desire to reward individual merit among colored subjects, to drain off potential leadership from the colored masses, and to create grateful new supporters of the Crown.” While the newly whitened would add to “the ranks of the white minority” they might simultaneously “undermine the pretensions of the creole aristocracy.”

Even though King identified substantive issues surrounding whitening, he did not conclude that it was a widespread process permitting many pardos and quinterones to transform their status. He doubted that “any numerically important portion of the colored element” became white, given that “men of color” would have “lack[ed] the fees required.” From the start, speculation over the cost and the numbers whitened would remain another of the debated aspects of gracias al sacar. While King’s discovery was fundamental, he based his conclusions on minimal evidence. He cited only two cases: the original documents concerning Joseph Ponciano de Ayarza discovered by Lanning in Bogotá as well as his finding of the additional pages in Seville. He had also found a second petition, a decree from Venezuela that whitened Angela Inés Rodríguez, the wife of a royal official in Trinidad. His reading of the two cases suggested that there existed “a rather careful sifting process” whereby “only individuals who by occupation, social position or blood had already reached the periphery of white status,” received the transformative decrees.

King also discovered at least one indication that local elites would not be receptive to whitening. He cited documents published by Venezuelan historians José Félix Blanco and Ramón Azupurú that reproduced Caracas city council records from 1796 in which city officials had vigorously protested against whitening and the gracias al sacar.23 Left unknown were the responses of others throughout the Indies.

In later publications, James F. King and John Tate Lanning continued to speculate about gracias al sacar, attempting to locate it within broader historical contexts. King noted the absence of any mention of the whitening option in the 1810s, when, with Spain invaded by Napoleon and the king in exile, the Cortes (parliament) of Cádiz had struggled to draw up a governing constitution for the empire. Even though debate raged over whether to count the casta population equally with whites, he observed that “not a word was said” of gracias al sacar.24 He concluded that this was “evidence of its relative unimportance” as a mechanism for upward mobility.

In contrast, Lanning seemed more sanguine. His research on the Enlightenment and colonial universities convinced him that whitening might be more common. Citing the case of Joseph Ponciano de Ayarza as an example, Lanning suggested that even if someone questioned the legality of pardo attendance at the university, and “attention was called to him, the Negro student could enlist the support of professors and fellow-students and graduate by royal dispensation.”25

Given that historians could still only locate two whitening cases, the debate about cost took on additional importance. It was one way to speculate if the price limited whitening to a few affluent pardos or—if the sum were modest—it might have provided potential mobility to a wider population. In 1956, Lanning questioned King’s conclusion that whitening was expensive and therefore prohibitive but for the wealthiest of pardos and mulattos.

Lanning perceptively noted that the fees charged for whitening seemed strangely inexpensive. While the price list demanded 4000 reales for the purchase of another gracias al sacar favor, legitimation, it only charged pardos and quinterones 500 or 800 reales, respectively, to become white. Lanning described the cost as “a figure so low among the others in the schedule of rates as to be almost nominal.”26 He proved right: this differential pricing would remain another provocative clue in the eventual unraveling of the origins of the whitening option. Why would the purchase of whiteness, presumably a much greater status transformation than legitimation, prove to be so much less expensive?


Interest in the gracias al sacar was not limited to English-language publications: Spanish and Venezuelan historians were also writing about whitening. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, they did not find the concept that pardos could purchase whiteness to be particularly remarkable. Rather, they explored the impact of gracias al sacar on imperial or local trends.27

Spanish historians saw problems. In 1945, Salvador de Madariaga suggested the whitening decrees represented dissonance within the empire, given that slaves and free blacks were “without any natural tie with the Spanish regime.” This was one reason, he concluded, why the Venezuelan elite protested the upward mobility inherent in the whitening clauses, as they feared that pardos and mulattos were not loyal to the crown.28 When José María Ots Capdequi commented on the gracias al sacar price list in 1968, he considered the selling of such favors as evidence of “a juridical system in frank decadence.”29

Not surprisingly, Venezuelans scholars, many who were not historians, concentrated on local responses to the whitening gracias al sacar. They viewed the late eighteenth-century controversy over whitening as marking deep divisions.30 In a 1960 review of how sociologists interpreted Venezuelan history, José Rafael Mendoza depicted local fights over whitening decrees as preshadowing the future “caste war” of independence as well as later nineteenth-century conflicts.31

To sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz (1961) the existence of gracias al sacar posed a provocative question: Who were the oppressors of the Venezuelan masses? Was it the Spanish empire, whose promulgation of the whitening decree opened the way for “democratic evolution” and “for the equaling of the castas”? Or was it local elites, who in the 1790s had opposed the gracias al sacar and who had “fought until the last minutes of the revolution to conserve deep social inequalities”?32

Even when Venezuelan elites had later reversed direction and proclaimed the “rights of man” in 1810 and “the democratic republic” in 1811, pardos and mulattos had not forgotten their opposition to whitening. The not surprising result, Vallenilla Lanz concluded, was the novel alignment of coalitions that supported and opposed independence. In the early phases, that “great majority of the plebeians and people of color” initially backed the Spanish monarchy, rather than Simón Bolívar. Yet, for all Vallenilla Lanz’s speculation, it remained unknown how many pardos in Venezuela had taken advantage of the whitening decrees.


While U.S., Spanish, and Venezuelan scholars continued to speculate, without additional documents it remained difficult to answer the questions posed by gracias al sacar. It was not until 1962, when Richard Konetzke published five volumes on the social history of colonial Spanish America that historians found further sources. Konetzke had not only scoured published collections, but he had spent years in the Archive of the Indies collecting documents. He printed hundreds of imperial decrees and ordinances concerning slaves, free blacks, pardos, and mulattos from conquest through independence. Konetzke was clearly searching for whitening cases, for he republished the Ayarza petition that had appeared in the HAHR in 1944 and he added new finds: a one-page decree that whitened Julián Valenzuela in 1796 in Antioquia, Colombia, and a three-page royal confirmation of the whitening of a Diego Mexias Bejarano. The latter was petitioning in 1805 so that his son Diego Lorenzo might attend the University of Caracas.33

Two other groups of sources published by Konetzke turned out to include important clues that would later permit a systematic recovery of gracias al sacar documents. There were five precursor cases from the 1760s that provided intriguing hints that prior to 1795 pardos and mulattos had applied for royal decrees that did not fully whiten but that had relieved discrimination sufficiently so that they might practice the occupation of surgeon, legally reserved for whites.34 Konetzke also found a request in 1783 by Guatemalan Bernardo Ramírez asking for total whiteness.35 He printed examples of other gracias al sacar favors, including legitimations (six) and the grant of noble status (five).36 Unfortunately, just as in the cases of Lanning and King, these discoveries seemed to be random finds. There was still no systematic way to track the numbers of petitioners or to determine who received the coveted decrees.

By the mid-1960s, the concept of whitening had spread beyond historical inquiries to emerge in popular, indeed, otherworldly imaginings. In one of its more bizarre iterations, gracias al sacar figured in a 1965 science fiction story by noted author Frank Herbert. In “Greenslaves,” at a dramatic moment, as the alien neared the “checkpoints . . . with an almost human gesture, he fingered the cédula de gracias al sacar, the certificate of white blood.”37 Meanwhile, back on earth, as scholars continued their search for the elusive documents, they began to incorporate Konetzke’s findings into subsequent analysis.


Among the first to contextualize the new whitening cases was Swedish historian Magnus Mörner. He foreshadowed a series of publications concerning whitening in the late 1960s and 1970s.38 In his influential Race Mixture in the History of Latin America (1967), he suggested that whitening was consistent with an increased intervention of the Bourbon monarchy in American affairs. He considered that the end of the eighteenth century had marked rising prejudice against pardos and mulattos and that in response the crown had “launched a new policy” that permitted the purchase of whiteness to promote mobility.

Using the documents from Konetzke, Mörner observed that while in 1783 a Bernardo Ramírez had applied for whiteness unsuccessfully, in 1796 a Julián Valenzuela had easily received a whitening decree. However, a look back reveals that Mörner had missed a critical hint. There was yet another gracias al sacar mystery: Why, in 1783, would a mulatto apply for whitening when the option to purchase whiteness only appeared officially in 1795?

Even though Mörner considered that whitening might provide mobility, he had doubts concerning its effectiveness. He noted that even though pardo Diego Mexias Bejarano had purchased whiteness, the University of Caracas in 1805 had still refused to permit his son Diego Lorenzo to attend classes. In a comment that revealed how the concept of whitening remained compelling not only to past but more current issues, Mörner compared this standoff in Caracas to one that had occurred in his recent past—just five years before the publication of Race Mixture in 1967. He remembered 1962, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to call out federal troops resulting in a violent confrontation that eventually led to the admission of James Meredith and the forced integration of the University of Mississippi.

Wondering if Diego Lorenzo had ever graduated, Mörner speculated that “more than words would probably have been needed in this Spanish American ‘Ole Miss.’”39 He remained dubious that the University of Caracas would have admitted pardos, even if officially whitened. Yet, the evidence also suggested that even while the crown, pardos and mulattos, and local elites had been debating and arguing, they had also been dealing openly and peacefully concerning the issue in 1805, rather than in 1962.

Another historian who doubted the efficacy of the whitening gracias al sacar, and who also pointedly compared U.S. and Latin America practice was Edgar Love. In a 1967 article, he relied on legislation and secondary sources to explore “Negro Resistance to Spanish Rule.” Love not only described informal processes of mulatto passing but also noted that the gracias al sacar provided “legal whitewashing.”40 He doubted, given their “economic circumstances and inferior social status,” that many could have purchased such dispensations. He concluded with a comparison: while the “lot of the Negro of colonial Mexico was not a happy one,” it was also evident that he had “greater social mobility” and that he “was in a better position to defy the white man than his counterpart, the American Negro.”41

Writing the next year, in 1968, Spanish historian Juan Bautista Oleachea Labayen was also struck by Hispanic and Anglo contrasts.42 He doubted whether the crown had issued the whitening gracias al sacar as a means to produce revenue. Rather, taking his cue from Lanning, he compared the “relatively small” sum charged for that favor with the much higher costs of other dispensations such as legitimations.43 He suggested that the crown might have had “other ends” including the “promotion of blacks in particular cases.” Oleachea Labayen’s discovery of many instances of informal mulatto mobility led him to speculate, contrary to Love, that the king might have issued “not a few” of the official whitening dispensations.44

As Mörner’s consideration of the whitening gracias al sacar had led him to evoke the forced integration of the University of Mississippi; as Love had pointedly contrasted the plight of the Mexican and American “Negro”; so Oleachea Labayen concluded his essay with “a present note.”45 He quoted a New York Times editorial from May 10, 1963. Titled “The Meaning of Birmingham,” it considered the tensions and the future implications of the standoff over integration of that city’s lunch counters and retail establishments.

In an attempt to provide readers with some context, the editorial had cited Frank Tannenbaum’s analysis in Slave and Citizen of the “striking differences” between U.S. and Latin American histories and their contrasting attitudes toward slaves and free blacks. The New York Times had concluded:

The Latin carrying on the tradition inherited from Spain and Portugal, treated the Negro slaves less as domestic animals and more as human beings whose inferiorities were legal and economic rather than moral . . . emancipation occurred peacefully in every Latin American nation, and the social adjustments, while far from perfect, have been made fairly smoothly and tolerantly.

What Oleachea Labayen did not quote is also worth a mention, for the 1963 editorial had ominously concluded: “A tidal wave hit the United States in 1860, and then subsided. Another one, a century later, is gathering force.”46 Throughout the next decades, as the United States grappled more openly with its racist demons, historians would follow the examples of Mörner, Love, and Oleachea Labayen. They would look south and they would find the whitening gracias al sacar. It would become a historical epithet, a comparison to summon as immediate and spectacular evidence of the historic differences between Anglo and Latin practices of race.

While the concept of purchasing whiteness remained riveting, historians were still engaged in a fruitless search for actual cases: so far, they had found four, two by King (Ayarza, Rodríguez) and two by Konetzke (Mexias Bejarano, Valenzuela). When Magnus Mörner reviewed the historiography surrounding the “History of Race Relations” in the Latin American Research Review in 1966, he somewhat plaintively commented that “a systematic investigation of this matter would be of great interest.”47 In 1972, when Frederick P. Bowser explored current publications on “The African in Colonial Spanish America” in the same journal, he repeated Mörner’s call, noting that a “systematic investigation of the subject has yet to evoke scholarly response.”48 Bowser remained skeptical that a whitening decree would be effective, suggesting that the “practical value of such documents is open to dispute.” As historians before him, he evoked the importance of research into such themes: “In the last four decades, forces and events too obvious and too menacing for restatement here, have prompted a dramatic increase in scholarly investigation of all facets of the African experience in the Western Hemisphere.”49

When David W. Cohen and Jack P. Greene published an edited collection that same year (Neither Slave nor Free, 1972), comparing the experience of freedmen in Spanish, Portuguese, Anglo, French, and Dutch colonies, they also admitted that the “renewed urgency of racial issues in the Americas” had provided an “initial stimulus.”50 In Frederick P. Bowser’s essay in this collection, he again revisited the issue of the whitening gracias al sacar and seemed more optimistic concerning its impact. Still basing his conclusions on the four known cases, he observed that the crown “implemented” whitening “cautiously, even haphazardly,” given that the price list was “not issued until 1795” and there seemed little rationale in who received positive or negative decisions.51 Nonetheless, when Bowser presented a summation of variables that he considered key in facilitating mobility to “free persons of color” he included “wealth, influence, distinguished service, relatively light skin and gracias al sacar.”52 The presence of the option continued to have a powerful influence on interpretation.

Not only historians but also anthropologists meditated on the ways that gracias al sacar provided insight into Anglo and Iberian differences. In Latin American Culture (1975), Emilio Willems suggested that “racial prejudice as we understand it” was different in colonial Spanish America, given that it was based on legislative discrimination against those defined as lacking “clean blood” (limpieza de sangre), which included Jews, Moors, or those of African ancestry.53 This contrasted to racism based on the concept of “biological inferiority,” which “cannot be altered.” Willems concluded that while “genuine racial prejudice” was “uncompromising,” in Latin America “the fabric of colonial society was shot through with compromises and glaring inconsistencies concerning race.”54 He questioned if “genuine” racism was prevalent in Latin America and cited as one proof the whitening gracias al sacar, given that “biological inferiority cannot be removed by legal processes.”55

Leslie B. Rout was another historian who linked the whitening gracias al sacar to the present and past in The African Experience in Spanish America (1976). In a section provocatively titled “Black ‘White Men,’” Rout cited the document published by Konetzke in which the Council of the Indies in 1805 had ordered that the University of Caracas admit Diego Lorenzo Mexias Bejarano, given that his father had purchased whiteness.56 Rout concluded that “for a change, it seemed that justice had triumphed over bigotry.”57

Rout then went on to question if Diego Lorenzo had ever matriculated and to suggest potential negative effects of the whitening option. Its central purpose, he concluded, was to divide “blacks, mulattos and zambos into contentious groups” given that only mulattos might purchase whitening. Using a baseball analogy, he proposed that gracias al sacar “may be characterized not as a pass to the reserved seats, but a ticket into the bleachers from where the black or mulatto bearer could sneer disdainfully at other Negroids unable to enter the stadium.”58 For Rout, the effects of the gracias al sacar were pernicious: it functioned to separate “potential leaders . . . from the Negroid masses” and to allow mulattos “a rationale for lording it over the blacks.”59 Even while Rout theorized, he also admitted that the “program was not in effect long enough” to judge if it provoked that divisive outcome given that “no figures are available citing how many of these documents were purchased.”60


Note: I have established the following procedures for citations, notes, spellings, geographical references, and italics. The references provide abbreviations to archival collections and cited materials. Complete references to the forty partial or full petitions for whitening appear in Appendix A. To expedite citation, these cases appear in chronological order with a case number, name, and date. If there is more than one reference, the case also cites other dates. If the dates are the same, the reference additionally cites the sources, either the Archivo General de Indias (AGI) or Rodulfo Cortés (RC). Such citations only apply to the forty cases. While a few of these documents also appear in Konetzke, he rarely reproduces the full file; therefore archival references provide the best information. Other archival references appear in regular form.

In the text, I will provide a citation on first mention in an analysis and will not re-cite again if there are immediate following materials or quotations from the same archival document or from the same printed page. I will re-cite if there are different pages or intervening footnotes.

I have also simplified spellings and locations. For example, José, can appear, even in the same document, as Josef and Joseph. I decided to use José when it appears and convert the rest to Joseph and Josepha; with a similar spelling for Raphaela (Rafaela). I have also eased Indies terminology for readers unfamiliar with New Spain (Mexico), New Granada (Colombia and Venezuela), and Santa Fe de Bogotá (Bogotá) using the more familiar contemporary designations. I only use italics for the first use of a foreign word; on repetition it appears in Roman.

1. RC, Doc. 7, 1795.

2. Oliveira Lima, “Evolution,” 22.

3. For discussion concerning the terms “pardo,” “mulatto,” and “casta,” see Chapter 2. Oliveira Lima, Evolution (1914) has recently been reprinted as Oliveira Lima, Evolution (2009).

4. Other intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s who promoted Latin America as a racial democracy include Gilberto Freyre, José Vasconcelos, and Fernando Ortiz. For a recent positive interpretation of this “myth of racial democracy,” see Bailey, 108–13.

5. Vinson, “From,” 99.

6. Chapman, 118.

7. Crow, 260.

8. King, “Case,” 641; Wauchope and Nash, 14; Shafer, 154; Fiehrer, 53; Domínguez, 37; Liss, 163; Flora and Torres-Rivas, “Central America,” 23; Haas, 31; Foster and Altamiranda, 287; Herzog, Defining, 263; Mirow, 292; Morrison, “Creating,” 61; López, 169; Reales, 20.

9. Bermejo Cabrero, 369.

10. Snow, 58; Davis, History, 142; Worcester and Schaeffer, 154; Burkholder and Johnson, 196; Keen, History, 154; Beezley and MacLachlan, 3; Chasteen, 86; Lynch, “Origins,” 30.

11. Wauchope and Nash, 14; Willems, 42; Flora and Torres-Rivas, “Central America,” 23; Friedman, 81.

12. Finkelman and Miller, 706; Heuman and Burnard, 235, 239; Levine, 31; Appiah and Gates, 657; Davies, 676.

13. Lanning, “Case,” 432–51. There are a number of spellings of Ponseano (Ponceano); the most used at the time was Ponciano.

14. As Asunción Lavrin perceptively notes, “The terminology” that Lanning used at that time was also “evidence of the lack of understanding of the nuances of race since a mulatto is not a Negro.” However, such confluences were not uncommon, especially when U.S. authors wrote in English, given, as Lavrin notes, the propensity for “mistranslation due to American mental refusal to see the difference in shades” (personal communication, 2013).

15. Tannenbaum, Slave, 93.

16. Tannenbaum, “Slavery,” 5.

17. Winn, 111, puts this succinctly.

18. Case 22, Ayarza, 1797.

19. King, “Case,” 641.

20. Oliveira Lima, “Evolution,” 22; Crow, 260; Blanco-Fombona and Gabaldón Márquez, 314, figure among a number of authors who assumed that those who were darker paid more.

21. King, “Case,” 642.

22. Ibid., 644.

23. Ibid.; Blanco and Azupurú, 263–75.

24. King, “Colored,” 57.

25. Lanning, “Church,” 337.

26. Lanning, Eighteenth, 10.

27. Vallenilla Lanz, 45, did note that the gracias al sacar list was “extremely curious.”

28. Madariaga, 541.

29. Ots Capdequi, “Sobre,” 12.

30. Blanco-Fombona and Gabaldón Márquez, 314, criticized the Spanish monarchy as being “hurried [to collect] money and therefore ‘little scrupulous’ in selling the gracias al sacar,” thereby alienating white elites who acted against both the “inferior ethnic classes” and the “king” with “people of color” not being able to obtain any “social or political preponderance” during the colony.

31. Mendoza, 382.

32. Vallenilla Lanz, 62, 63. For analysis of his influence and views on race in Venezuela, see Von Vacaro, 91–100.

33. Konetzke, T. 3, Doc. 349, 1797; Doc. 347, 1796; Doc. 367, 1805.

34. Ibid., T. 3, Doc. 177, 1760; Doc. 178, 1760; Doc. 189, 1763; Doc. 191, 1764; Doc. 192, 1764.

35. Ibid., T. 3, Doc. 272, 1783.

36. Ibid., T. 3 (legitimations Doc. 222, 1771; Doc. 254, 1780; Doc. 257, 1780; Doc. 258, 1781; Doc. 324, 1791; Doc. 343, 1795) (nobility Doc. 228, 1774; Doc. 266, 1783; Doc. 287, 1785; Doc. 299, 1787; Doc. 295, 1786).

37. Herbert, 695.

38. Mörner, Race, 45.

39. Ibid., 64.

40. Love, 93.

41. Ibid., 103.

42. In Slavery, 247, Elkins built on Frank Tannenbaum’s comparisons to note that a freedman in the Spanish Indies might “purchase a ‘certificate of whiteness’ that allowed him access to the highest social and political circles.”

43. Oleachea Labayen, 231.

44. Ibid., 240. Unfortunately, his research was not widely available to an English-reading audience.

45. Ibid., 247.

46. New York Times, May 10, 1963.

47. Mörner, “History,” 26.

48. Bowser, “African,” 86.

49. Ibid., 77.

50. Cohen and Greene, 1.

51. Bowser, “Colonial,” 46.

52. Ibid., 47.

53. Willems, 40.

54. Ibid., 41.

55. Ibid., 42.

56. Rout, 156.

57. Ibid., 158.

58. Ibid., 159.

59. Ibid., 319.

60. Ibid., 159.