Moriscos - as the descendants of Spanish Muslims were known after their forced conversion to Christianity - looked like everybody else in early modern Iberia. As far as we can tell without photographic records, their range of hair and skin color were similar to that of their neighbors. Unless they were dressed in their traditional garb, physical appearance alone did not distinguish them. Yet state policy toward the minority combined genealogy with ethno-religious difference to form them into a racial group. Belonging to this legal category assigned one a distinct set of privileges and restrictions. Still absent was any discernible visible sign of their belonging to a distinct “race.” But racial thinking supplies such signs even where they are lacking, imagining that darker skin, particular facial features, or even a naturally shorter foreskin can serve as indicators of exclusion from the dominant Old Christian majority, which increasingly came to define the Spanish nation. Thus racial formation existed prior to biologically-based theories associating genotype with phenotype; the pseudo-scientific theory of race arose subsequently, in order to justify racist political and social structures.
Dr. William Childers is Associate Professor of Spanish at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Transnational Cervantes (University of Toronto Press, 2006), which won the MLA’s Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize, awarded annually to one book in Spanish and Latin American literature and culture. He has published numerous articles on Cervantes and other aspects of early modern Spanish literature and culture. His current book project is Morisco Questions: State Power and Cultural Identity in Castile, 1570-1610.