Journal of Latin American Studies


Colour by Numbers: Racial and Ethnic Categories in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1532–1824*

David Cahilla1

a1 David cahill is Visiting Fellow in the School of Spanish and Latin American Studies, University of New South Wales.


The distinction between ethnic and racial categories in social analysis is finely drawn, and rarely clear. In the case of Latin American societies, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are sometimes synonymous, and far more often deployed as if they were. Researchers are familiar with the ways in which processes of deracination, acculturation and miscegenation iron out the cultural edges that demarcate social groups, one from another; perhaps the classic example is the gradual loss of indigenous characteristics attendant upon native American migration to cities. Yet, even in the complete absence of rural-to-urban migration, such processes have been at work moulding present-day indigenous communities, which once recognised numerous ethnic distinctions within ‘Indian’ society, distinctions that were progressively diluted – though not wholly extinguished – during some three centuries of colonial rule. To draw attention to the protean nature of ethnicity in Latin American societies, however, is not to say that researchers are necessarily unaware of the problem, but rather that they often follow research agendas that may be inconvenienced by attention to such nuances. Thus, for example, a number of broad-brush racial cum ethnic classifications provided the basis for the fiscal demands of Crown and Church alike during the colonial period, and as such provide the essential pillars for much of the quantitative fiscal and demographic database that we possess.