Racial classifications in Latin American and Caribbean countries are complex and inevitably reflect relations to skin color, or colorism, which were established and are maintained as a result of structured racial hierarchies. Throughout the Americas there are variations in racial terminology and a certain amount of fluidity in the identification of racial categories. The variations in racial identifiers in these societies are a product of colonialism and the relations among persons of white European, African, and indigenous ancestries. One commonly used racial term in Latin American and Caribbean societies is moreno/a.
Moreno, and morena, the grammatical feminine form of the term, is frequently used in colloquial speech throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The term denotes skin color and literally means brown or brunette. Moreno/a’s connotation to skin color unavoidably designates placement in recognized racial hierarchies within societies that were established as a result of colonization by white Europeans. The term’s bond to African ancestry, and its close association to the term negro, or black, also points to this relationship. The term has a historical connection to whiteness and white supremacy in societies throughout the Americas, which reflects its use by some people as a racial identifier. Some people, for instance, use moreno/a as a form of whitening if they are “on the dark end of the racial continuum” (Telles 2004, p. 98). Edward Telles notes in Race in Another America that in Brazil, “The ambiguity with the term moreno allows persons who might not have the option of calling themselves white to escape the more stigmatized nonwhite categories” (2004, p. 98).
Moreno/a is used to indicate connections to whiteness and blackness, as well as relations to indigenous ancestry. The term is used in several ways to denote non-white racial categories throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. For instance, moreno/a often denotes brown-skinned or black-skinned individuals as well as dark-haired individuals (Twine 1998; Stephens 1999). Several studies indicate that differences in the use of the term occur according to locality (Stephens 1999). Historically, the term referred to a subcaste of free blacks, for example, in Puerto Rico (Kinsbruner 1996). In addition, moreno/a has been used in recognizing persons of mixed ancestry. This is reflected in the use of the term in identifying people of mestizo origin in Mexico (Stephens 1999). Moreno/a has also identified the progeny of mulatto and white European or white Spanish individuals (Stephens 1999). In addition, the term’s racial ambiguity is further evidenced by its use for identifying white individuals. Moreno/a is used in Brazil in identifying sunburned Europeans. Likewise, white individuals use the term for referencing brunettes of predominate European and/or indigenous descent (Twine 1998). The term is also often coupled with adjectives that identify hair texture (Stephens 1999). This is the case in the use of morena alisada, which translates into “smooth brunette” and is used in identifying women who use straightening agents in their hair (Stephens 1999).
There remains particular ambiguity in the use of the term as a racial identifier because people use the term fluidly, and identification often depends on individual observers (Telles 1995). Overall, the term’s racial evasiveness reflects racial consciousness and issues of racial hierarchy influenced by colonialism and white supremacy. People may make distinctions in their use of moreno/a by using a light-to-dark continuum. For example, within the racial continuum are light or fair, medium, and dark qualifiers used with the term in referencing varying degrees of pigmentation. This is the case with morena/o clara/o for light brown, morena/o oscura/o for dark brown, or morena/a escura/o for dark brown, which is used in Brazil.
Furthermore, augmentative and diminutive forms of the term are frequently used in everyday discourse. The augmentative form is morenote, meaning “big, dark one.” The common use of the diminutive suffixes - ito or - ita may also be used for affective purposes. The terms morenito and morenita refer to people as “little” or “small, dark one.” The all-encompassing use of the term is also reflected in its use as a euphemism. Since the term Negro, in reference to black, is recognized as demeaning in some Latin American countries, moreno/a offers individuals what would be considered a polite substitution for dark-skinned or black as a racial identifier (Kany 1960; Telles 2004). Moreover, the historic use of moreno/a esclavo/a for black slave and moreno/a libre for free black or mulatto (Stephens 1999) reference the subjugation of enslaved blacks by whites in the Americas. This historic association to the enslavement of blacks by whites may, in some instances, facilitate the use of the term as a pejorative.
The use of racially stigmatized terms may challenge established racial ideologies and assist in the efforts toward reclaiming blackness, or negritude, in the Americas. For instance, this is illustrated by the actions of black social movements in Brazil that have sought to reclaim the long-stigmatized term negro (Telles 2004). As a result, in some cases the use of moreno/a may challenge the established history of white supremacy in societies throughout the Americas because it embraces diverse ancestries. However, moreno/a may also prove symbolic of the traditional views of racial democracy, which fail to defy established racial ideologies and colorism in Latin America and the Caribbean (Telles 2004).
Moreno/a demonstrates the complexity of racial identification and categorization in Latin American and Caribbean societies. Its many uses provide evidence of the association between racial categorization and skin color, or colorism, within these societies. Likewise, the permanence and evasiveness in racial terminology, whether state sanctioned or informal, reflects an established legacy of colonialism throughout these societies.
SEE ALSO Blackness; Colorism; Hierarchy; Identification, Racial; Latinos; Mulattos; Negro; Pardo; Race; Racial Classification; Stratification; Whiteness
Kinsbruner, Jay. 1996. Not of Pure Blood: The Free People of Color and Racial Prejudice in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Stephens, Thomas M. 1999. Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology, 2nd ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Telles, Edward E. 2001. Racial Ambiguity among the Brazilian Population. California Center for Population Research On-line Working Paper Series, 1-46. http://www.ccpr.ucla.edu/ccprwpseries/ccpr_012_01.pdf.
Telles, Edward E. 2004. Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Aurelia Lorena Murga