On the surface, Twinam’s Purchasing Whiteness is an archival exploration into the notorious—and to historians, highly symbolic—practice in the Spanish Indies by which some free men and women of partial African ancestry attained the legal status and privileges of whites (for a fee). Yet holistically the work achieves much more; it will be received both as a landmark in Latin American historiography as well as a model of historical methodology more generally. In addition to a detailed examination of social mobility within the Spanish American caste system, it also dispels myths and highlights the ways by which archives might mislead scholars.

The practice of “whitening” gracias al sacar—the royal dispensation of the privileges of whiteness for a fee—has for many Anglophone historians tidily symbolized Latin America’s comparatively open and fluid regimes of racial differentiation. Yet by exploring the experiences of those who petitioned for such privileges, as well as...

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