In the states, the term mulatto comes with a lot of negative connotations. If said loudly in public, it would most likely make people cringe. But in Latin America, the term isn’t met with as much backlash. Though the word has the same painful roots no matter where you live, there’s recently been a reclamation of it by young Latinas.
The term originates from the Spanish word “mula” which translates to mule, meaning the offspring of a horse or donkey. During the times of slavery in the United States, the term mulatto was used to describe the offspring or children conceived by both a white (usually a slave master) and a black person (usually a female slave who was raped by her slave master). It’s very easy to understand why people find it so offensive.
There’s one particular episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that really illustrates the discomfort Americans have around the term mulatto. In the episode, Larry David decides to buy a biracial doll (which he refers to as mulatta) for the baby of a surrogate mom.
But among Latinos, the term is used a more frequently and many times as a term of endearment or affection. Before the term Afro-Latino became popular, mulatto was typically the word used to describe Latinos of mixed African (specifically Spanish) descent. In fact, in 2015, Pew Research was still using the term to describe Latinos of mixed race identities. They used it in a report called “Mestizo and ‘mulatto’: Mixed-race identities among U.S. Hispanics.”
We’ve seen it used in popular Latin culture and music for years too. The famous 1966 salsa song “Mujer Divina” by Joe Cuba, romanticizes the term in describing a divine woman.
“Mulatta, mi prieta. Mi cielo, te quiero, te adoro, divina mujer,” is the chorus of the song. It later mentions the term in another lyric: “Esa Mulata sentada en la butaca, pero que piernas tiene mi mulata, caridad caridad cariyuye yemaya.”
Though Latin America has a long legacy of African slavery, a lot of Latinos still identify with the term mulatto and have found ways to use and view it positively. In fact, quite a few young Latinas have made a point to reclaim the word as a way to embrace their roots and empower themselves.
“Growing up, I always knew I looked different. My hair texture made sure I looked unique. Being a girl growing up with an Afro wasn’t the easiest,” says Siriled Hernandez Guzman, a 31-year-old Puerto Rican woman who currently resides in East Hartford, Connecticut. “Both my sisters have straight hair like my mom … people always referred to me as the “negrita con el pelo malo.”
Guzman’s curly hair texture made her curious to learn more about her roots. In high school she started looking into her family’s ancestry. “I wanted to know about my history and I successfully found ancestors from my black/African side,” she says. “Calling myself Mulatta or Afro-Latina makes me very proud. It’s important for me to identify this way because my ancestors didn’t endure everything they went through for us now in 2018, to be ashamed of who we truly are. I believe in order for us to make it past the hatred, we have to believe in ourselves.”
“I grew up in a multicultural home. My mother created this amazing world where we knew exactly who we were and embraced every bit of it. This is why I view the word mulatta as a powerful way of claiming who I am. It’s a rebellion stance,” says Whitley Indigo Robeson, a 24-year-old aspiring professional dancer based in Los Angeles, who’s mixed with a beautiful blend of Puerto Rican, Native American, African American, Filipino, French, and Jewish. “Society has always put pressure on me to make a choice, take a side, or just reject me completely. I have taken a word that was meant to disown me and now I own it and take pride in it.”
The reclaiming of words and transforming them into something positive and empowering is not new. We’ve seen it done many times, especially among marginalized groups. We’ve seen women reclaim the term bitch, we’ve seen the reclamation of the term queer – especially among millennials – and we’ve seen the reclamation of terms like chicana and chonga.
Some might call the reclamation of terms like mulatta, politicized. In some ways that might be true. But there’s also something beautiful about a community of people coming together to transform a word that was once associated with so much pain and transforming it into something uplifting. It’s about making yourself visible and being unapologetic about it. It’s about the refusal and unwillingness to conform to what society has tried to tell us to be.
“Being mixed with multiple races is part of our history as Caribbean people and I think it’s beautiful to embrace all of it, regardless of what society deems as beautiful,” says Milagros Pichardo, a Dominican and Puerto Rican assistant buyer who resides in NYC. “I’ve never taken the term to be offensive. One of my favorite salsa songs is “Mujer Divina” by Joe Cuba, which is a perfect example of how we as Hispanics/Latinos take the term “mulatta” and make it into a positive, beautiful term.”