I have interviewed over 100 people for this docu-series and recently I’ve come across more and more interviewees who ask me about my background. I’ve had a handful of Caribbeans ask me if I were ‘dougla,’ a person of Indian or indigenous and African ancestry and when I was in Honduras I was called a mulatta, which means the same. Usually someone who identifies as a mulatto is of european and african ancestry but that’s not how it was used in Honduras among the people who described me as such. I asked the reasons for these assumptions and people pointed out that my skin wasn’t “very dark” and my hair was curly and my eyes were “different.” I found that interesting because I consider myself a chocolate brown, my hair has gone days without a comb being ran through it because of the wrangling that it calls for and I see my eyes as any other person’s eyes can be. One Garifuna young man said I wasn’t ‘black enough’ and I could remedy that by getting a ‘super black boyfriend,’ he graciously volunteered himself. All courting aside, I thought he and many others were just pointing out the phenotypes that guide perception and categorization of ancestry in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is important to note that the U.S. is the only country that followed the one drop rule of hypo-descent, where you were considered ‘Black’ no matter what other ancestry you had. This did not exist in Latin America so it gave way to many ways to describe someone based on skin tone, hair color, hair texture, size of nose, lips, eyes. These all decide what category you’ll fit into. Your desciptors may also vary just based on individual perception. In Brazil there are 134 color descriptors. In the Dominican Republic ‘javao’ describes someone who is of pale of light complexion with “African features,” the list below shows more.
If you are of pale or light complexion with not too prominent features, one can get away with calling themselves ‘blanco/a’ as I saw many in the Dominican Republic and Honduras do. Self-id had mostly to do with skin tone then your phenotype was taken into consideration. Those with relaxed hair and full lips and nose identified as white because of that. ‘Morena’ and ‘negra’ are defaults for those with dark skin, they also are as descriptors for voluptuous women. Morena can be used to describe someone with dark hair. My grandmother affectionately calls me chomba, a term that can be used derogatorily for people of African ancestry or dark skin. I was called triguena in Honduras which perplexed me because I am far from ‘wheat colored.’ Triguena along with Indio/a claro (light) or indio/a oscuro (dark) is commonly used in the Dominican Republic as well as morena.
Many of the common color descriptors signify ancestry such as zambo, indigenous and african ancestry, mulatto, european and african ancestry. Mestizo was historically used to signify european and african ancestry but is now used to mean any mixed ancestry. I have noticed some foreigners take offense to these descriptors but they are not, under normal circumstances, intended to offend, another phenomena that is converse to norms of the United States. The cultural differences as you move from North to Central and South America will become apparent and the colorful words used to describe the people represents perfectly the diversity of the Americas.
50SHADESOFBLACK.COM explores issues of sexuality, race, skin tone, beauty, and the formation of identity from a global perspective. This is the second of a series of posts to 50SHADESOFBLACK.COM by our featured guest blogger, Dash Harris.
She attended Temple University for broadcast journalism, business & French. Dash is the owner of In.A.Dash.Media, a multi-media & video production company. She is currently working on Negro, a docu-series about Latino identity, the color complex, colonialism & the African Diaspora in Latin America. She is also a travel writer for Examiner.com, founder of Venus Genus, a website that empowers women by examining gender bias and female tropes and the blogger behind Diaspora Dash, a blog about the African Diaspora.
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