Writer: Natalie Chevrel
“Mejorar la raza.” In Latino culture, different phrases are still used today which diminish and continue to marginalize the Black community. As an 18-year-old Venezuelan, I am surprised that I heard this particular phrase for the first time a few weeks ago.
This phrase translates into “to improve the race.” It is a phrase used by Latinos that implies that you should marry or have children with a lighter skinned person so that your offspring will “look better” (Maria Alejandra Casale-Hardin, Huff Post). This phrase is a product of colorism because it discriminates against darker skinned individuals.
The term colorism is defined in the U.S. as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” However, the application of colorism does not only exist in the United States. In Latin American countries, there is a real stigma towards darker skinned folks. In fact, in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, for example, lighter skinned individuals describe black people as “negrito” or “moreno”, because saying the actual word, “negro” seems somehow wrong or too harsh. The suffix “ito” is used in Spanish to make something sound smaller or less harsh. For example, instead of saying “tigre” to describe a small tiger, you would say “tigrito”. Thus in this case, saying “negrito” is trying to reduce the harshness of saying “negro”, as if being black is something naturally harsh. The word “moreno” means “tan”; here too, Latinos shy away from saying “the black person” and instead say “the tan person.” Another common prejudiced phrase people say is “pelo malo”, which translates into “bad hair.” This phrase is used to describe black people’s hair, as if it is inferior to white people’s hair. All of these phrases, whether they are said subconsciously or intentionally, are constant reminders in the Latino community that Blacks are seen as inferior.
In her essay for Hip Latino, writer Giselle Castro suggests that the term colorism may have developed because it is incorrect to say that people of color are racist because they are part of an oppressed group (Giselle Castro, IMDiversity). In fact, having attended a school where most students were of Cuban origin, I often heard them say they could never be racist, because they are part of a minority group themselves. However, as a Venezuelan myself, I believe this to be false. Prejudiced phrases like those described above are said every day without questioning their origin or motive.
Racism is not only prevalent in the way Latinos talk. Throughout history, Latin American countries implemented “blanqueamiento”, or “whitening” policies. In Brazil, for instance, the government established public measures to increase European immigration so as to eventually “eliminate” black blood. Brazil’s state and federal governments funded and subsidized European immigrant travels, granted them automatic naturalization, funded their housing where food and hospital care would be supplied, and provided them with a cash grant. As a result, more than 1 million Europeans arrived in São Paulo between 1890 and 1914. In 1890, a Brazilian President’s provisional decree excluded all members of the indigenous populations of Asia and Africa from immigrating to Brazil. Moreover, in 1921, the Brazilian Congress passed a law which specifically prohibited Black immigrants from entering the country (Tanya Katerí Hernández, Colorism and the Law in Latin America—Global Perspectives on Colorism Conference Remarks).
In addition, in Cuba, the same efforts were carried out by which the government created immigration laws that invested more than $1 million into recruiting Europeans into Cuba to whiten the country. This was done by the white elite to further subjugate Black Cubans from advancing independence efforts. Although their whitening project effectively failed because most European immigrants did not stay, the social and economic marginalization of Afro Cubans was solidified as Cuba’s demographics shifted (Moore, Atlanta Black Star).
I know many people who will say these institutionalized practices are in the past, that they have been reversed, and thus they no longer affect Black Latinos today. The same is said for slavery in the United States, because it ended more than 155 years ago, and thus people think it has no implications in society now. However, current practices and events prove this to be false. For instance, today, skin color still determines how far people get ahead in Mexico and how they are perceived overall. In fact, a study conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography determined that in Mexico skin color still matters and influences the level of education and employment opportunities available to Mexican citizens (Daniel Zizumbo-Colunga and Iván Flores Martínez, Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, CIDE).
Interviewee for magazine Hip Latina, Zelina Bennett, explained that Honduras is experiencing the same problem: “In some towns, white people are coming in and investing to build businesses to only hire Spaniards that are also moving in from other countries to look for work in Honduras,” she says. While towns like these have Black Latino natives who are perfectly capable of doing the work, investors prefer to hire Spaniards instead (Zelina Bennett, IMDiversity).
These are a few examples of how colorism does not escape the Latin community, given that darker skinned Latinos still face prejudice today as a result of centuries of racist practices and policies.
It’s evident then, that as a result of this prejudice, Black Latinos would not want to be described as Black. In fact, another phrase you will casually hear in Venezuela is, “el es negro, pero es un negro fino.” In other words, “he’s black, but he’s an elegant black.” This shows that Latinos see blacks in general as people who have little elegance. I am not surprised then, when I see Black Latinos that go to the extent of trying to whiten their skin color, just to feel more accepted.
Sammy Sosa is a Dominican American and former professional baseball player. He played in Major League Baseball, primarily with the Chicago Cubs. Over the years, his skin tone has become much lighter, due to whitening creams that he uses every night.
The skin whitening industry is vast not just in Latin America, but everywhere around the world, and especially in Asia. This industry profits from colorism and narrowing beauty standards to enforce the harmful idea that the lighter your skin, the better looking you are.
Having a Venezuelan mother and a French dad who grew up in Venezuela, I understand that for a lot of people, these phrases or ways of thinking do not come from a place of hatred nor are they said with the intention to hurt the Black community. Instead, such uses of these phrases are so deeply embedded in Latino language and culture that they are part of everyday language, and as a result play a role in supporting colorism. The very sad reason the phrase “mejorar la raza” exists is because mothers and fathers want to produce children who will face less prejudice. They know that if their children or grandchildren are born Black, their lives will be more difficult.
Although I have focused on the Black Latino community in this essay, this phrase also applies to Indigenous peoples. In the past, and still today, looking more European and less indigenous is an important social distinction in Latin American countries.
Thus, for most parents, wanting their children to marry lighter skinned folks is a prejudice in itself, yet they want this for their children because they know Blacks or Indigenous peoples face more hardship just because of the way they look.
Even if for some the intentions may be good, phrases and actions like these are still harmful to those receiving the prejudice. Why do we continue to divide people based on the color of their skin or their phenotypic features? The truth is that, as City College Professor of Latin American and Latino studies Iris Lopez explains, “race is a social construct invented by Europeans intended to divide people and holds no scientific merit” (Iris Lopez, IMDiversity). Why, then, must a made-up idea determine in many Latin American countries which social/economic class a person belongs to?
Thinking back on why this may be the first time I have heard the phrase “mejorar la raza”, I realize that growing up, I never shared school classes, ballet classes, nor religious classes with Black peers. Therefore, I never came across the reality that is prejudice. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and privileges I have been given in Venezuela and now in the United States, but why can only a much smaller percentage of Black Latino girls and boys say the same?
Although we have made progress in diminishing the economic and social gap between races, there is still much more we need to act on as a result of our disgraceful past of colonization, slavery, and subjugation.
The first step is to acknowledge that prejudice towards one group of people is harmful and is real. We as individuals can then begin to have conversations with our families and friends about why these phrases or ways of thinking are wrong and hurtful. Although we cannot ask for generations of thinking to disappear from one day to the next, we can encourage consciousness, awareness, and make an effort to change mindsets as we move forward. Another way to eliminate racial stigmas is by learning the history of Black Latinos and Indigenous Latinos, and understanding how and why our past has greatly affected our present.
Some good news is that children are not born racist or prejudiced. Thus, although past generations have very unfortunately grown up with prejudices, future ones can heal from these. We can teach our children to love and accept people for who they are, not for what they look like nor for where they’re from.
And I’ll say one more thing:
It all starts with Love.
Casale-Hardin, Maria Alejandra. 'Mejorar La Raza': An Example of Racism in Latino Culture. 7 Dec. 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/mejorar-la-raza-an-exampl_b_7558892?guccounter=1.
Daniel Zizumbo-Colunga and Iván Flores Martínez, Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, CIDE, https://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/insights/ITB031en.pdf
Moore, A. 5 Nations That Imported Europeans to Whiten The Population. 23 Feb. 2019, atlantablackstar.com/2014/03/10/5-black-nations-that-imported-europeans-to-whiten-the-population/3/.
Tanya Katerí Hernández, Colorism and the Law in Latin America—Global Perspectives on Colorism Conference Remarks, 14 WASH. U. GLOBAL STUD. L. REV. 683 (2015), https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol14/iss4/12
“Why Understanding Colorism Within the Latino Community Is So Important.” IMDiversity, imdiversity.com/villages/hispanic/why-understanding-colorism-within-the-latino-community-is-so-important/.