On April 23, 2004, I was interviewed by National Public Radio concerning an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibit was entitled “Inventing Race”.
The genre was familiar; 18th century Spanish painting. Each painting featured a man, woman and a small child. The Spanish words painted directly on the canvas described the race of the parents, and the resulting race of the child. These paintings were meant for the eyes of the Spanish living in Mexico, warning them not to breed with Blacks and Indians, their moniker for undesirable indigenous peoples.
Those who did mix the races were depicted in increasingly shabby dwellings, usually in the midst of some form of manual labor. There was a glimmer of hope for those wanting to improve their lineage, however. Potential mates could be chosen to make the lineage more “white”, and these children were referred to as “return-backward” races.
After leaving the exhibit, I was chosen by an interviewer from NPR to discuss what I had seen. I discussed the class and race implications of the paintings, contrasting the fine dwellings and even finer clothing depicted in the “purer” images of the Spanish with the cramped, shabby dwellings of the mixed races, all of whom were poor laborers. Racism often comes in the form of dominant groups removing the economic power from the so called undesirable races, thus making them the dominated. Many years later in Mexico, the famed muralist Diego Rivera would depict indigenous workers in a glorious light. But, in this exhibit, the colonialists view overshadows these later more positive representations and we are reminded again that history is written by the conquerors.