The term trigueño is derived from trigo (wheat) and literally means “wheat-colored.” The term seems to have gained currency in twentieth-century Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Spanish-speaking Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela) to describe people with a tan or brown skin tone (piel morena ). However, its meaning and social uses contain the same ambiguities inherent in all so-called race-related concepts as race is not an objective fact of nature but what might be called a social fact, subject to power dynamics and the social hierarchies of racism. Thus, in the Hispanic Caribbean, trigueño is also deployed as a euphemism for Negro (black). This is to avoid the pejorative connotations derived from the association of Negro with slave status. This use of trigueño is similar to the more old-fashioned term de color (colored), which is also used euphemistically to refer to black people. However, trigueño can also be used in Puerto Rico and in Cuba to describe a light-skinned person with a slightly tanned complexion.
The term therefore covers a wide variety of skin-color types: black, lighter than black, or darker than white. Which meaning is ascribed will depend on factors such as who says it, in what context, in what country, and how the person’s skin color is perceived in combination with other phenotypic markers. In Puerto Rico, for example, two individuals might have the same dark-brown skin, but if one has kinky hair and the other has straight hair, the person with straight hair will probably be called Indio (Indian) and the person with coiled hair trigueño.
The application of trigueño also can be influenced by the relationship between the person describing and the one who is being described and by their perception of blackness. For example, if two people do not know each other well, one person might describe a black person as a trigueño(a) for reasons of social etiquette. This “polite” euphemistic use presumes and does not challenge the negative connotations associated with Negro. People who proudly assert a black identity, therefore, might dislike other people using trigueño to describe them or others because it assumes their blackness should be hidden or whitened by this euphemistic expression.
In a different context, a person might use trigueño to describe someone considered neither black nor white. In such cases, applying trigueño is not necessarily informed by the belief that Negro is offensive. Rather, it shows an attempt to make an accurate description in a social context where trigueño is associated with a mixed-race individual and is set apart from other racial types that are understood as less hybrid, such as blanco or Negro.
Depending on who uses it, how, and to whom they apply it, therefore, the use of trigueño can be interpreted as a polite gesture, as the sign of a condescending attitude toward black people, or as a phenotypic marker of racial mixture that lies somewhere between the white and black poles of a racial continuum.
SEE ALSO Blackness; Colorism; Moreno/a; Mulattos; Negro; Pardo; Phenotype; Preference, Color; Race; Racism; Stratification; Whiteness
Stephens, Thomas M. 1999. Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology. 2nd ed. Gainsville: University Press of Florida.
Vargas-Ramos, Carlos. 2005. Black, Trigueño, White …? Shifting Racial Identification among Puerto Ricans. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 2 (2): 267–285.
Isar P. Godreau