Latinos Have Different Skin Tones. Privilege Included.
Understanding colorism within the Latino culture is critical because despite our best efforts to deny it, it really does exist.
“But you don’t look Puerto Rican…” should be the title of my memoir - if I ever get there - as it is a common opening line to most of my conversations with people who are looking to break down my cultural roots and ancestral timeline because the ambiguity is too much for them to leave it alone.
You see, to be Puerto Rican from the island, you must be light-skinned with long straight hair, holding a pot of arroz con habichueles and singing “que bonita bandera,” as your long traditional dress flows in the wind OR to be a Puerto Rican from New York means you must be dark skinned with curly hair, hoop earrings, with the signature flag displayed on your car while waving a tattoo of the coqui on your wrist as you speak.
I am neither and that confuses everyone.
Despite stereotypes, Latins are a melting pot of colors; Puerto Ricans, especially. We are a mixture of our Spaniard, African and Taino origins, and we range in skin tones from dark (moreno) to light (blanco) and everything in between. I live in the in-between on the color wheel of Latinos, often described as triqueno or Indio aka “brown.”
Although, no one has officially put it on a billboard yet, your skin tone as a Latino determines the perception of who you are, where you belong in the hierarchy of social class and whether you can use the label of Latin or not. It is the underlying divider in the Latin community - separating us like America separates Black Americans: the dark-skinned Latins on one side and the light-skinned Latins on the other.
The perceived impact of skin colors in the lives of U.S. Latinos is broad and can be identified as “impacting their ability to get ahead in the country to shaping their daily life experiences to dealing with discrimination, skin color is seen by Latinos as an important factor affecting their lives and life chances.”
While a recent study by the Pew Research Center states, 62% of Hispanic adults say having darker skin color hurts Hispanics’ ability to get ahead in the United States and 50% say having a lighter skin color helps Hispanics get ahead, the truth of the matter is that this form of discrimination is not only acted upon by races outside of our own but also within our cultures.
Don’t get me wrong. Latinos are disenfranchised and oppressed by Western society at high rates. That is a fact. But what is more troubling is the level of discrimination between Latinos themselves.
Among Latinos with darker skin, about 41% said they were discriminated or treated unfairly by another Latino and 42% said they had been discriminated against by non-Latinos, the survey found.
Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, said the report highlights an aspect of the discrimination that Latinos in America face that has not been widely studied in the past.
"The experiences of Latinos being discriminated against from within the group is not talked about as much," Gonzalez-Barrera said. "There's not a lot of research, at least not something that you can point to."
Gonzalez-Barrera is not wrong. There is not a lot of research and mostly because if you ask a Latino about colorism, they will say its a myth. Colorism is a prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. To Latinos, its a concept that only happens in Western culture or “just a joke…loosen up.”
Lorgia García Peña, an associate professor of race, colonialism and diaspora studies at Tufts University, said that colonialism had a significant impact on how race and ethnicity are understood across Latin America.
“What you have is sort of this stratification of levels of humanities where White Spaniards were deemed as the real humans, as the only humans,” García Peña said. “And then below that were Indigenous people and then below that were African people who were brought into the country.”
This notion is evident in the 8 billion-dollar skin bleaching industry, where the practice of blanqueamiento (whitening) to achieve a better standing in society is deeply rooted in the Latin culture. Colorism runs deep in the Latin cultures and it reiterates the idea that in order to achieve upward mobility, you’re skin tone must be aligned with the right color. (Google: Sammy Sosa - a MLB great)
After the George Floyd killing, top Latino leaders spoke out about the need for us to analyze and overcome our internal colorism.
"We have remained silent when our tias have encouraged us to partner with people who have lighter skin than we do so we can mejorar la raza (improve the race). We have hated ourselves for our skin color, hair texture, our curves and our accents," the leaders of prominent organizations wrote in a letter published in The Miami Herald.
About 48% of Hispanics say they hear racist or racially insensitive comments or jokes often (13%) or sometimes (35%) from Hispanic friends and family about other Hispanics. From sayings like “All Dominicans look the same” to “Mira ese moreno” (look at that Black guy) to “get married to a white-skinned person because you don’t want to struggle in life” the hate on dark skinned Latinos is something taught to us through colonization and carried on generation after generation.
But through it all, there is hope to unite our people as we are becoming more attached to the importance of our cultural identities and including ourselves in the conversation about racism and colorism to help educate each other and our families. In the 2020 Census, Latinos made up 17 million of the nearly 25 million more people who identified as multiracial. The number of Latinos who identified as multiracial increased from 3 million in 2010 to more than 20 million in 2020, according to the census. About a quarter of Latinos identify as Afro-Latinos.
“The Afro-Latina movement is the renaissance of our ancestors not wanting their stories to go untold,” Galván-Rodríguez said. “Our ancestors are like: ‘We didn’t go anywhere. … Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are finally claiming us.’”
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As a Cuban native, I can attest that this is also an issue in Cuba and by extension, Miami. There's definitely a lot of work to be done in this area.
As deep-seated as this issue is, I find the statistic you cite toward the end of the piece to be encouraging: "The number of Latinos who identified as multiracial increased from 3 million in 2010 to more than 20 million in 2020."