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Caste Painting No. 13

by Catherine Sasanov

Black + Indian = Cambuja (Women’s Sanctuary of Belén, Mexico City, 1684)

Once on a sacristy wall
I came to my casta: my station in life
hung like a station of the cross.
The one portrait

ever made of my family: Father
holding a knife
to my mother’s throat, her head
jerked back, hair snarled
in his fist. I stand by her side,
arms open wide
as if proudly presenting
our race to the world: de Negro é India

sale Cambuja. To look at that portrait
was to learn what was meant
by artistic license: the dirt on our clothes,
the tear in my dress. The three of us painted
in front of a shack
we never once lived in. Even the blood dripping down
my mother’s terrified face
didn’t come till years later—

another man, another knife, another place.

With a handful of coins,
that painter promised my father
he’d only pose us two hours.
Well, he’s posed us forever,
turned my parents to symbols —
weakness and depravity
for everyone to consider,

and me the end product of both.

Black, Indian, Spaniard—
Lie down in somebody’s arms
and you wake
to a series of paintings
sorting everyone out:
las pinturas de castas,
sixteen mixtures of blood.

All the broken colors
that can make up a body—
a body sold as bed, a black
backdrop. All the times that men paid
to lay their hands on my skin
just to see their flesh made
even whiter.


Catherine Sasanov is the author of Traditions of Bread and Violence (Four Way Books). “Caste Painting No. 13” is from Las Horas de Belén, a theater work commissioned by Mabou Mines theater company in New York. It will premiere in Mexico City’s Festival Centro Histórico in March 1999. (1999)

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