León y Gama’s Treatise on Skin Color and the Enlightened Creole “Science” of Race in Eighteenth Century New Spain
Part of a larger project on transformations in racial thinking that took place in Spanish America in the last third of the eighteenth century, this talk focuses on works of the enlightened Mexican creole and antiquarian Antonio de León y Gama. Best known for studying the pre-Hispanic past in order to vindicate native history and especially the cultural and scientific achievements of the Aztecs, León y Gama used writings on experiments with optics, color, and metals by authors such as Newton and Boyle to explain how native people and blacks had acquired dark pigmentation given their presumed descent from the same (white) ancestors as Europeans. His work on skin color, which attributed differences among human populations to environmental factors and stressed that those distinctions were insignificant, reflected the creole patriotic effort to defend the physical and mental characteristics of the indigenous people as writings by northwestern Europeans describing native and black populations as inherently inferior to “whites” proliferated. But León y Gama’s theories also illustrate the growing influence of scientific thinking on late-colonial Mexican cultural elites and the incipient secularization of the concept of race.
Professor María Elena Martínez is an Associate Professor of Latin American History and was Co-Director of the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas for 2008-2009. Her work focuses on colonial Mexico, the cultural connections between Spain and the Americas, and more generally the formation of the Iberian Atlantic world. She teaches courses on Latin American history, slavery in the Atlantic world, early modern religion and race, and gender and sexuality in Spanish America.