Latinos and the “Passing for White” Myth. Why them and not Anglos and Creoles?

Latinos: The Indian Escape Hatch By William Javier Nelson

June 14, 2010 at 1:21am

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The Indian Escape Hatch
By William Javier Nelson

Although discussion of “racial” classifications among Latinos in the U.S. would seem to be out of the realm of the overall theme of whiteness, the concepts found in the sociology of social change provide another vantage point. Social change sociologists often point to conflict between two rival parties and show how that conflict can affect a third, seemingly unrelated one. Thus, the conflict between the United States and Mexico over territory in the Southwest resulted in large scale European settlement in that region — with significant consequences for the Native Americans already there.

The conflict between persons in the U.S. labeled as “black” and “white” has been well documented. It is my contention that the conflict between these two groups also affects a third group (Latinos) in the United States.

Whites have attempted to maintain an acceptable physical type by controlling the entry into their ranks of various people of color, such as Asians, but their overriding desire for exclusion has focused on the avoidance of sub-Saharan African (“black”) ancestry. Marvin Harris and Conrad Kottak have described the “hypodescent” rule, which has historically been applied to the offspring of Europeans and Africans in this country.(1) Under the hypodescent rule, any offspring between a parent of a higher caste (“white”) and a parent of a lower caste (“black”) is relegated to the social status of the lower caste parent. Thus an “interracial” marriage of a black and a white automatically produces a black.(2) Moreover, in most of the U.S., anyone suspected of having any African ancestry is liable to be labeled as black. Among other things, this practice has had the purpose of eliminating African ancestry from the white population.(3)

One rarely hears North American whites claiming African ancestry. However, many of them have admitted having American Indian ancestry without jeopardizing their membership in the “white race.” North Americans of note claiming Indian ancestry while self-identifying (and being classified by U.S. society) as white include Will Rogers, Cher, Dan Rather and James Garner. This reticence on the part of whites (who control most cultural, economic and political resources in this country) to embrace African ancestry is not lost on Latinos. The dynamics of discord and rejection which have been on-going between U.S. whites and blacks have put Latinos in a position where their African ancestry must be dealt with — and African ancestry has always been a part of the fabric of Latin American life.

Esteva-Fabregat’s excellent book on the race-mixing process, which began in Ibero-America over five hundred years ago, was careful to include Africans, as well as Indians and Spaniards.(4) Nor are Esteva-Fabregat’s impressions in any way novel. A variety of historians, sociologists and anthropologists, ranging from Pierre van den Berghe to Magnus Morner to Carl Degler to Charles Wagley have in the past chronicled the process of Latin American race mixing and the African contribution to it.(5) The heaviest concentration of African ancestry in Latin America has historically been in the coastal areas of South American and the Caribbean. Countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, as well as the territory of Puerto Rico, have not only histories of African presence but visible vestiges of African presence in the physical appearance of many of the people.(6) Moreover, African presence was not limited to the aforementioned areas. Mexico also had a sizable African input. According to Aguirre Beltran, in 1810 there were almost as many Afro-mestizos as Indo-mestizos.(7) In “white” Argentina, Leslie Rout has detailed the large percentages of persons of African origin (who were later absorbed into the population of Indians, creoles and later European immigrants).(8) Clearly then, African ancestry exists among Latinos. It has, however, been minimized in mass U.S. culture. When one moves away from specialists like Aguirre Beltran and Esteva-Fabregat and into the realm of “popular scholarship” geared for mass consumption by a U.S. audience, African ancestry seems to fade from importance and the Indian genetic contribution (which is more acceptable to North Americans) is emphasized. According to Richard Schaefer, writing in a college survey text on race relations, “The Chicano people trace their ancestry back to the merging of Spanish settlers with the Native Americans of Central America.”(9)

The popular mass-oriented magazine Hispanic is careful to emphasize the Indian and Spanish antecedents of Latinos. When an occasional person appears who deviates from this ideal, the editors of Hispanic are quick to disclaim that the person is a “black Hispanic” (implying that other Hispanics have few, if any, African origins).

Ironically, Latinos provide one example in which the hypodescent rule does not operate in the U.S. Many Latinos, particularly from localities like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela have African ancestry but (because of the overall brown-skinned nature of the population of Latinos in general) this African ancestry does not necessarily make someone significantly deviate physically from another person who may be a brown-skinned descendant of Indians and Spaniards. Moreover, since the holders of this African ancestry are not appreciably cordoned off into a separate world, as are North American blacks, they are liable to act and feel like other Latinos.(10)

Esteva-Fabregat’s description of race-mixing in Latin America chronicled a process whereby African ancestry became interwoven in a complex matrix.(11) Aguirre Beltran’s analysis of African ancestry in Mexico is noteworthy not so much because of the extent of African ancestry depicted but the way in which that ancestry became woven (along with the Indian and the Spanish) into the fabric of the Mexican population.(12) An anonymous painting of colonial Mexico gives 16 different racial possibilities resulting from Indian, African and Spanish mixture. The majority of the 16 cells contained persons with African ancestry.(13) It is important to note at this point that the hair texture of a person with 33% African ancestry may be the same as a person with no African ancestry at all. One of my English-as-a-Second-Language students once told me that his grandmother was very dark with kinky hair –the student himself, a man with heavy, wavy hair, was indistinguishable from his fellow Mexican classmates (and, significantly, he was not rejected outright because of that ancestry).

When a man from the Dominican Republic (for whom African ancestry has possible cultural significance but little political significance) enters the U.S., a decision must be made concerning his African ancestry. If his hair is straight, he has an excellent chance at passing off his dark complexion as that of “Indian” (even though the Spaniards destroyed most of the Indian population seventy-five years after the Discovery). If his hair is kinky, his African ancestry, more apparent, will become a significant part of his life in this country. In both cases, the Latino is forced to “pick a side.” Not surprisingly, given the white track record on African ancestry, many Latinos ignobly negate a significant portion of their heritage.(14) At present (possibly because I am Latino), I tend to place the blame for this not on the Latino who is trying to cope with life in a new culture but on the white-dominated U.S. society which is bent on cordoning off blacks into their own, private world.

In many Latin American countries, African ancestry is far more interwoven (both culturally and genetically) in the fabric of everyday life. In the U.S., on the other hand, “black” and “white” terms are meant (as the names suggest) to be absolute, connoting total placement in one (but never both at the same time) of two conflict groups. I have not run across many mulatto North Americans confiding in me, “I’m really half white.” Nor have I encountered many North Americans labeled as white who have confessed to having African ancestry, although R.P. Stuckert has estimated that a sizable percentage of them do have it.(15) In the U.S., African ancestry is not treated simply as an indication of a point of origin — rather, it is something that converts the holder (of whatever percentage of African ancestry) into a person who is 100% black, and therefore 100% in a “genetically-defined” out-group. Latinos with African ancestry, highly cognizant of this dictum, will be so treated — unless they can use the Indian escape hatch.(16)


1. Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (New York: Walker, 1964). See also Conrad Kottak, Anthropology: the Exploration of Human Diversity (New York: Random House,1978), 50-60.

2. Ibid. See also William Javier Nelson, Racial Definition Handbook (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company, 1982), 32-35. Also Nelson, “Racial Definition: Back-ground for Divergence,” Phylon 47, no. 4 (December, 1986): 318-326.

3. Nelson, Racial Definition Handbook, 32-35.

4. Claudio Esteva-Fabregat, Mestizaje in Ibero-America, translated by John Wheat (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995). See the earlier chapters with descriptions of the formation of mestizo (Indian/Spanish) sexual unions, mulatto (African/Spanish) unions and zambo (African/Indian) unions. According to Esteva-Fabregat, it was the absence of Spanish women (as opposed to a lower degree of inherent racism), which spurred the massive amounts of mixing in Ibero-America when compared with Anglo-America.

5. Magnus Morner, Race Mixture in the History of Latin America (Boston: Little Brown, 1967). Carl Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York: MacMillan, 1971). Pierre van den Berghe, Race and Racism: a Comparative Perspective (New York: Wiley, 1967). Charles Wagley, Race and Class in Rural Brazil (Paris: UNESCO, 1952).

6. Esteva-Fabregat, Mestizaje.

7. Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, La Poblacion Negra de Mexico, 1519-1810 (Mexico D.F.: Ediciones Fuente Cultural, 1946), 237.

8. Leslie B. Rout, Jr. The African Experience in Spanish America, 1502 to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

9. Richard T. Schaefer, Racial and Ethnic Groups, 5th edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 274. Even some excellent monographs fall prey to limiting their scope of Mexican ethnicity to Indian — even when they are talking about the poor and the powerless. See John A. Britton, Revolution and Ideology: Images of the Mexican Revolution in the United States (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1995).

10. Because of the color gradient, Latinos are less likely to experience the kinds of different realities based upon membership in the white or black groups, as is common in the U.S. See William Megenney, “The Black Puerto Rican: an Analysis of Racial Attitude,” Phylon 35, no. 1 (January 1974): 83-93. Because of exposure to the North American black/white dichotomy, many Puerto Ricans are succumbing to the practice of racial dichotomizing into “black” and “non-black” groups on the island before even getting to the U.S. mainland. See Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, Puerto Rican Americans, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987), 100, 105-106. I have purchased a recent packet of computer software describing Puerto Rico in which the population is divided into “black” (20%) and “white” (80%) groups.

11. Esteva-Fabregat, Mestizaje. In reading Esteva-Fabregat, one comes to see that part of the reason for this is the greater complexity and variations of encounters between and among groups, as compared to Anglo-America.

12. Aguirre Beltran, La Poblacion Negra. See also van den Berghe, Race and Racism, chapter on Mexico.

13. The painting depicts persons from various “racial” groups cohabiting with each other and the resulting offspring. The following “racial” designations are given, where African ancestry is present: Mulatto, Morisco, Chino, Salta Atras, Lobo, Gibaro, Albarozado, Canbujo, Sanbaigo, Calpamulato, Tente en el Aire, Noteentiendo, Torna Atras. I did computations of percentages of African, Spanish and Indian ancestry of all 16 categories and, for some of the categories, the percentages needed nine or ten decimal places. This painting only depicts 16 categories — a much higher number of combinations is possible.

14. During 22 years of interviewing experience with Latinos in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, the only ones who have admitted African ancestry to me have been those with kinky hair — and one light-skinned/straight-haired gentleman: Ramon “Chino” Casiano, who is a well-known percussionist. On the other hand, I have heard many references to Indian ancestry among Latinos in this area. Local Spanish teachers are highly prone to highlight this Indian background in their classes. I am a member of a local language teacher collaborative which meets monthly during the school year, and have been for a number of years. When I told a local Spanish teacher of the information on the African presence in Mexico compiled by Aguirre Beltran, she vehemently denied any such presence in Mexico.

15. R.P. Stuckert, “African Ancestry in the White Population,” Ohio Journal of Science 58 (1958): 155-160.

16. Many Latinos are not even satisfied with being of partial Indian origin, since even Indians are non-white: they want pure whiteness, much like North Americans. See Roberto Rodriguez, “Latinos Explore and Grapple with Black Identity,” Black Issues in Higher Education 7, no. 26 (February 23, 1995): 22-24.

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